One of the arguments which has in the past popularly been used by Theists, but is today largely abandoned by Theists, is Pascal’s Wager, which is a pragmatic argument for belief in God rather than an argument whose conclusion states that God does exist. This argument can be found in section 233 of Blaise Pascal’s unfinished work of Christian Apologetics called Les Pensées.
This kind of argument appeals to the person who claims that we cannot know whether or not God does exist. Blaise Pascal presumed that we do have the choice to make for ourselves, whether we will believe in God or not. He argued that if we believe in God and we’re right, then we reap the benefits (including, presumably, everlasting life). If we believe in God and we’re wrong, then we have sacrificed finite goods. However, if we don’t believe in God and we’re right, then it seems our only gain is some set of finite goods available in the season of this lifetime, but if we don’t believe in God and we’re wrong then we have incurred the loss of an infinite good (namely, knowing God for ever in eternity). This outline of options is supposed to obviate why reason dictates that one ought to believe in God even if reason cannot establish with certainty by demonstration that God does exist.
As Philosopher Alan Hájek explains it, in his article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
- Either God exists or God does not exist, and you can either wager for God or wager against God. The utilities of the relevant possible outcomes are as follows, where f1, f2, andf3 are numbers whose values are not specified beyond the requirement that they be finite:
God exists God does not exist Wager for God ∞ f1 Wager against God f2 f3
- Rationality requires the probability that you assign to God existing to be positive, and not infinitesimal.
- Rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility (when there is one).
- Conclusion 1. Rationality requires you to wager for God.
- Conclusion 2. You should wager for God.
This argument has met with innumerable, if somewhat facile and naive, objections from New Atheists. For instance, some New Atheists have proposed that we should adopt a principle of indifference and allot Christian Theism no higher probability than an alternative like Islamic Theism. Some have gone further and suggested that we should adopt the same probability for some deities which are not semantically equivalent to ‘God’ in the generic sense, but are gods in a classical polytheistic sense, such as Thor or Zeus. Thus, eventually, one has shown that there are so many different deities, belief in any one of whom would mutually exclude belief in any other, that one cannot demonstrate by such wager-style reasoning that one ought to believe in (the Christian) God. Some, like Dan Barker, have also proposed that, possibly, God will only give everlasting life to those who had the intellectual honesty and courage to be Atheists because they recognize that there is no evidence that God exists. Thus, Dan Barker’s answer to Pascal’s wager is to propose an Atheistic parody which argues that we have no more reason to suspect that belief in God will bring with it the benefits it promises than we have for suspecting that disbelief in God will bring with it those same benefits.
Moreover, some people have argued that we need not make a choice either way until we know for sure, to which Pascal himself answers: “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?” In other words Pascal highlights the impossibility of not living according to one or the other of these two practical assumptions, that either God exists or he does not (i.e., the agnostic is ‘practically’ an atheist). Some have objected that Pascal presumed that we actually have the ability to choose to believe in God, whereas that choice is not possible for all of us because either it must be made possible by his Grace, or perhaps because some of us simply can’t by any means convince ourselves that God exists anymore than I can now convince myself that I am not writing (or you reading). In response to these Pascal would say that we ought at least to strive to believe (even if we can’t), for he explains:
Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.
I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation.
~Pensées, section 194
What is interesting is that recently there has been a resurgence of arguments whose basic form is Pascalian. For example, the excellent Atheist philosopher Jordan Howard Sobel, in his masterful tome on arguments for and against Theism called Logic and Theism: Arguments for and Against Beliefs in God has, according to William Lane Craig’s review, argued “for the viability of at least some Pascalian wagers in favor of Theistic belief.” Moreover, David Jean Robert has recently developed and finally published what he calls a “A Prudential Argument for Faith in the Christian God” which represents a wager-style argument for belief in the Christian God. Philosopher George N. Schlesinger has proposed an impressive new version of Pascal’s wager calling it a ‘Central Theistic argument.’ Peter Kreeft has also defended Pascal’s wager, and though Kyle Deming hasn’t defended it he has expressed that there is something about it which he feels makes it a good argument.
As William Lane Craig notes, the answers to the common objection about multiple-deities being possibly extant to Pascal’s wager can be of two kinds:
There are two possible responses to this objection. First, in a decision-theoretic context we are justified in ignoring states which have a remotely small probability of obtaining. Thus, I need not concern myself with the possibility that, say, Zeus or Odin might exist. If the odds of these other deities’ existing are negligible, then I would be justified in setting up a payoff matrix according to which the odds of the existence of the Christian God are taken to be roughly 50/50. The choice is effectively between Christianity and atheism.
Second, we could try to limit the live options to the two at hand or to a tractable number of alternatives. This may have been Pascal’s own strategy. The Wager is a fragment of a larger, unfinished Apology for Christian theism cut short by Pascal’s untimely death. As we look at other fragments of this work, we find that although Pascal disdained philosophical arguments for God’s existence, he embraced enthusiastically Christian evidences, such as the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. It may be that he thought that on the basis of such evidence the live options could be narrowed down to Christian theism or naturalism. If the alternatives can be narrowed down in this way, then Pascal’s Wager goes through successfully.
~Question of the Week #298
I would add to this that somebody who is taking the wager seriously, ought to adopt a sophisticated version of religious pluralism and believe in God before they ever adopt Naturalism. By a sophisticated version of religious pluralism I mean roughly believing in ‘God’ while trying to marry as many different belief systems as possible (even if they’d be reduced to saying that religious linguistic frameworks we call ‘Theologies’ are ultimately in-commensurable). In other words, one tries to affirm as many different belief systems as possible by arguing for a nuanced assent which will not involve mutual exclusion with a maximal number of others. That could place one ideologically shoulder to shoulder with some Theologians like Jacques Dupuis, an influential Catholic priest and adamant advocate of sophisticated religious pluralism.
Also, concerning the principle of indifference being applied when considering something like the polytheistic henotheism of Zeus worship on the one hand, and Christian Theism on the other, it seems ridiculous in point of fact to suggest that these are equally probable. Indeed, by any standard of judging their respective probabilities (personal probability assessments, philosophical, strictly logical, evidential, sociological, assessments from authority, etc.) Christianity stands a better chance of being true than any single other religious worldview, and plausibly stands a better chance of being true than Naturalism (thus it stands a better chance of being true than not – though, I suppose this may not necessarily follow from being the most probable).
In response to Dan Barker we can point out the very same: that the application of the principle of indifference to his parody simply betrays a poor assessment of the probability that belief in God will yield the benefits of knowing God eternally compared with the probability of disbelieving in God yielding the same benefits.
However, the probability matrices are certainly more complex than Pascal’s matrix of four possibilities if we’re to be exhaustively pedantic, but we can argue successfully that Pascal’s four possibilities are the only relevantly probable possibilities, such that we can justify ‘properly ignoring’ such possibilities for the sake of a wager. Thus we can still run a Pascalian wager-style argument along the very same lines as Pascal has provided.
I myself have also been working on developing and publishing my own pragmatic argument for belief in God’s existence which, though it doesn’t follow the Pascalian wager at all, was still in some sense inspired by Pascal’s style of pragmatic argumentation. Mine will basically argue that an assessment of the value of truth on Atheism, given the concerns of thinkers like Nietzsche and William Clifford, will obviate that one can argue that in almost all logically possible worlds, and certainly in all the nearest possible worlds, one ought to believe that Theism is true on pragmatic grounds alone.
All this to say that I think pragmatic arguments for belief in God’s existence are experiencing a revitalization which has dovetailed on the resurrection of Natural Theology in general (though, obviously, Pascal’s wager and arguments like it are not part of Natural Theology).