Pascal's Wager: This is an argument proposed by Pascal in his
'Pensées' in favor of God's existence, which he construes as if it
concerns a case similar to a simple bet on heads or tails, as follows:
|God does not exist
||God does exist
|God does not exist
These are then the four possibilities for one's bets, and according
to Pascal one has the following pay-offs for these cases - and I will
discuss these supposed pay-offs below:
(1) In fact God does not
exist, and one bets God does not exist:
One gains a finite sum of happiness
a, in one's finite life.
(2) In fact God does not exist, and one bets God does exist:
One is mistaken and one looses nothing.
(3) In fact God does exist, and one bets God does not exist:
One is mistaken and the reward or punishment depends on God, if He
(4) In fact God does exist, and one bets God does exist:
Heavenly jackpot: Infinite bliss, blessings, and rewards -
infinite pie in the sky.
Pascal's argument is, then, that one should bet God exists, and live
accordingly, because if He does one will be rewarded with infinite
bliss, and if He doesn't exist, one looses nothing (or, more
realistically: one leads a miserable life keeping ones religious vows
while gaining nothing after one dies, except happiness for the worms that
eat one's dead body), whereas if one bets that God does not exist, at
best one gains the finite pleasures of not living a boring life
according to religious vows, while one risks God's possibly infinite displeasure if He turns out
to be there after all.
And one can see this in the table: There is more to gain if only one
bets God does exist, for a+0 < ?+∞
There is much one can object here, such as that this kind of wager
does not do honour to God, as it seems it all is to be decided by
self-interest, or that it would have been nicer of God if He had
provided better evidence for His
existence, so that one needed not to
bet or act on faith, on the line 'credo quia absurdum' (I believe it
because it is absurd - Tertullian).
My own basic objections are three, a minor and technical one, a major
logical one, and a major epistemological one.
The first, minor and technical objection is that one can not reckon
with infinities in this way, and that it is even quite possible that
there are no infinities other than
So suppose that this is waived, and that, instead, one takes it
that the pay-off if one is right is large, but finite, which
avoids the objection just made, apart from the possible incredibility of
pie in the sky as promised by religions.
Thus Pascal's case - in fact: his promise, or belief - comes down to
the statement that, whatever is the case, the outcomes of the possible
bets are such that the possible gains and losses if God does not exist
are (much) smaller than if He does Exist.
The second objection is that one has to live or at least believe
according to some religion if one bets that God exists, and that there
are many religions, all of which oppose and contradict
What if one decides to bet on Catholicism, and God exists but is a
Calvinist, or a Mohammedan, or a congregation of Hinduistic Gods, or
something quite unimaginable but divine that looks down with severe
contempt on humans who bet on His existence, instead of following their
own finite capacities for reasoning?
In any of these cases - God exists, but not quite as you think, and
with quite different rewards and punishments than those you or Pascal
attributed to him, and indeed possibly precisely the opposites of those you imagine, just
like many sincere Catholics have believed
Calvinists were bound for hell, and many sincere Calvinists believed the
same about Catholics - the losses may very well more than
balance the possible gains of betting on His existence and living or
believing according to a false teaching about Him.
And please note the opinions of a Catholic saint and a Protestant
leading theologian on the subject of rewards and punishments:
"That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God
more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned
in hell." (St.
Thomas Aquino, Summa Theologica)
"The sight of hell's torments will exalt the happiness of the
saints forever." (Jonathan
Thus, any promises Pascal's God may offer if He exists may be
balanced or offset by any threats any other God may have in store for
those who believe in Pascal's God (or indeed for betting in this way
about divine existence).
So one can not rationally reckon in terms of this sort of
based on nothing but arbitrary assumptions or groundless
faith - or
indeed, if one wishes to believe according to Tertullian ('credo
quia absurdum') it is better to do so directly, and without specious
arguments, and also without moving oneself by hopes for great and
The third objection, which is epistemological, is in
line with the previous objection, but objects to the pay-offs, also
apart from God's existence: One should not consider whatever pay-offs
one can imagine to justify one's bets, if what one is concerned with is
the truth of something, for such pay-offs may make the less probable
seem better, whereas what matters cognitively is not the rewards one may
get if one is right, but the probability that one is right.
All of this is not to say probability theory is completely
useless, but it is to say it should be used well, and the least that
should be done is to reformulate the possibilities not in the form 'God
exists' but in the form 'my God exists' - which immediately draws
attention to the fact that there may be your God as well, and there may
be different schemes of rewards and punishments for either, and this
invites questions about evidence, both for your God, my God, and the
diverse imagined rewards and punishments, and so on.
As I indicate in
Religion my own hypothesis about God is that
He does not exist, and as I indicated in my third objection, I hold that
it is immaterial and confusing to consider the promises of pie in the
sky as relevant for the probability of the truth of His existence, just
as one should not consider it logically relevant for the probability of
the truth of the possibility that one has cancer that one would
be so very happy if this possibility were false.