Pascal’s Wager is a lie

Pascal’s Wager is a lie. Here’s the issue: the wager is essentially a gambling matrix, with two options in reality and two options that you can believe in. The two possible realities are Christianity or Atheism (if you’re a Muslim, the options are Islam and Atheism ― continue to substitute your own God in as you go). The belief options are then the same, and so you get a matrix of possible outcomes. (See figure 1.)

Figure 1. The naive Pascal’s wager

You believe God exists

You do not believe God exists

God exists

✓ You are right

𐄂 You are wrong

God does not exist

𐄂 You are wrong

✓ You are right

It’s not quite this simple. The crux of the argument rests in the scale of the reward or punishment. Specifically, it rests on the size of the reward if Christianity is true: if you were wrong about this theological question, your punishment is infinite; if you are right, the reward is infinite. If it turns out atheism is ‘true’ (not a truth claim yadda yadda yadda) then no size of reward or punishment is sufficient to counter the issues if Christianity is true ― so long as it is ‘possible’.

There’s a long conversation to be had about possibility. Is it possible that a God exists? I don’t know. Is it impossible? I also don’t know. The implied meaning of ‘possible’ in this argument is that your best knowledge has not wholly ruled out any conception of a God. This isn’t just an interesting aside, this has theological implications on Pascal’s Wager, which we will return to. But for now, turn to figure 2 and consider where you would place a bet of $1 with the following returns:

Figure 2. Naive Pascal’s wager, with analogous rewards

You bet on God existing

You bet against God existing

God exists

$∞, infinite money

You lose your $1 and end up infinitely in debt in indentured servitude

God does not exist

Lose $1

Win $20

Presented with this, it would be difficult to justify betting on God does not exist. The payoffs simply aren’t worth it. And so, the reasonable thing to do is to bet on God existing. But, as I don’t place my intellectual wager on God existing, I think it’s clear that what we’re about to explore is an incomplete set of reasons why the Wager is a lie.

It is worth taking just a moment to expand on the fact I am saying “Christian” and not ‘Theist’, while acknowledging that your own religion can very often be substituted in without making any other adjustments to the argument. The problem is that ‘theism’ is too broad; it is not sufficient to be Christianity if Islam is true. Where figure 1 says “God”, it means ‘the arguer’s specific God’. The matrix is wholly incomplete. As mentioned before, there are more possible Gods, and They won’t reward you for believing in other Gods. So, err… figure 3…

Figure 3. Pascal’s Wager, acknowledging more than 1 religion

You believe in your God

You don’t believe in God

Your God exists

✓ Infinite reward

𐄂 Infinite punishment

A different God exists

𐄂 Infinite punishment

𐄂 Infinite punishment

No God exists

𐄂 Minor inconveniences

✓ Avoid inconveniences

On balance, if this were the $1 bet, you’d still bet on ‘your’ God, as that has the fewest ‘Infinite punishment’ options and includes an ‘Infinite reward’ option. But, this time, you haven’t avoided infinite punishment. You can’t bet on ‘A different God’, because whatever God you bet on (in this analogy) is your God. But, you may be wondering why you’re being forced to place this bet ― and that’s an interesting moral dilemma to pose as an argument against a morally perfect God.

There’s another common objection, that we didn’t go into ― because it is that common ― that you can’t feign belief in such a way as to trick a God into treating you as if you believed. Pascal himself offered ‘Fake it until you make it’ as his advice. But, the objection goes a little deeper: is the offer of reward and punishment really dependent on belief? That is a theological claim, and it might not be true. For one, to be rewarded under the harsher interpretations of Christianity, you have to do more than just believe: you have to worship. But, under the ‘loving’ and moral interpretations of some Gods, you are judged for your moral deeds; all of theology is entirely irrelevant, so long as your actions are ‘good’.

So, now we have ‘Your loving God’, ‘Your harsh God’, ‘A different Loving God’, ‘A different harsh God’ and ‘No God’. And now it’s not just your belief but also your actions. Pascal’s simple 2×2 matrix is being shown up as ― at best ― having not been well-thought-about. We start to explore this in figure 4, but we’re having to be a little loose in terms. “Decent” and “Indecent” refer to your behaviour and whether it comports with the preferences of the God in question. A harsh God is only really interested in your belief in them (the narcissist); a loving God is interested in the totality of your actions on balance. Ticks and crosses here aren’t about whether you were right, but about whether you get the reward.

Figure 4. Pascal’s Wager, acknowledging other Gods, other theologies and moral behaviour

Believe in Your God & are decent

Believe in Your God & are indecent

Believe in No God & are decent

Believe in No God & are indecent

Your Loving God

✓ Infinite reward

𐄂 Proportionate punishment

✓ Infinite reward

𐄂 Proportionate punishment

Your Harsh God

✓ Infinite reward

✓ Infinite reward

𐄂 Infinite punishment

𐄂 Infinite punishment

A Different Loving God

✓ Infinite reward

𐄂 Proportionate punishment

✓ Infinite reward

𐄂 Proportionate punishment

A Different Harsh God

𐄂 Infinite punishment

𐄂 Infinite punishment

𐄂 Infinite punishment

𐄂 Infinite punishment

No God

𐄂 Minor inconveniences

𐄂 Minor inconveniences

✓ Avoid inconveniences

✓ Avoid inconveniences

There is another theological claim in Figure 4: that a loving God would not offer infinite punishment for finite crimes. But, as we start to unpack the theological claims implicit in the Wager, more starts to unravel. We’ve already unpacked the implication that belief is the singular criteria by which one is rewarded, and started to denude away at the idea that the bad afterlife ― at least ― is infinite. Indeed, the Good Place could also be finite, doing something akin to what Mark 10:30 says, promising a one hunfredfold repayment of your good deeds and suffering. (One assumes there’s an anti-cynicism clause implied, that those who seek out suffering or do good deeds only because of the promise of a reward are excluded…)

But there’s another genre of God being excluded here: one that honours and cherishes intellectual rigour and honesty. That God would, for sure, punish anyone whose belief is based solely in the perception of a reward and not in the evidence. Such a God would know the evidence they’ve left behind and know how reason works and know how well your brain can replicate reason. They’d know if you could identify and reject bad reasoning in general and thus would judge whether your faith is an exception. Such a God would reward some atheists.

I won’t bother you with a figure 5, as I think you can figure it out. It is conceptually possible that an atheist can be wrong and still receive infinite reward, where even a theist who behaves ‘decently’ would receive infinite punishment.

Figure 5 (not provided) would be a 7×6 matrix where each belief (Your God, No God), each behaviour (Decent, Indecent) and each combination thereof would have at least 1 infinte reward and at least one infinite punishment.

For example, if you believe, there is a chance you’re right and receive infinite reward. But there’s also a chance that the God who does exist will punish you for your credulity.

The Wager plays out very differently if you conclude that a God cannot exist. If you are convinced that the correct conception of a God is the Philosophers’ God, one of Infinite Power and Infinite Knowledge and Infinite Goodness ― the Omni-God ― then you may also be convinced that this conception is impossible, for all the inherent paradoxes that raises. This is one way of addressing the question of whether God could possibly exist: have compelling reason to think specifically that it cannot. As such, the promise of Infinite Reward if God does exist is a vacuous promise, for you have concluded that it is impossible.

You may seek to resolve those paradoxes by explicitly limiting those Infinite traits, where they start to contradict each other. That does do away with the reason you believe a God’s existence is impossible. But it doesn’t actually give you reason to believe a God is possible. In fact, the implied part of the argument that asks you to accept that it is possible for a God to exist is almost an argument from ignorance: because you can’t demonstrate it either way, you should treat it as the positive.

1 thought on “Pascal’s Wager is a lie”

  1. Amazing how this ‘argument’ has survived. I guess the theist is comfortable with threats, and can’t quite understand people who aren’t moved in the same way.

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