Diagnosing Pascal’s Wager

July 8, 2007 at 6:31 pm 35 comments

The Dream HelmetHewhay (yes, that’s Yahweh spelled backwards) is a jealous god. He absolutely hates the idea of the Christian god taking precedence over him in people’s minds. Hewhay is also an angry god, like the one in the Bible (especially the OT god). Therefore, he’s gonna punish you for believing in Yahweh.

You see, Hewhay is a fan of science fiction. He has constructed two kinds of Virtual Reality helmets. Every time someone dies, he’s gonna strap their souls in one of the two kinds of helmets. One helmet will eternally simulate your worst nightmares. The other will construct a virtual reality wherein all your wildest dreams come true. There’s no mercy: once you’re wearing a helmet, there’s no way it’s coming off for the rest of eternity.

Hewhay will punish Christians by strapping their souls to nightmare helmets. If you believe in any other god or no god at all, he’ll put you in a dream helmet.

It appears that your best move is to not believe in the Christian god. If you don’t and Hewhay exists, he’ll put you in the dream helmet. If you do and Hewhay exists, he’ll punish you with eternal nightmares. If Hewhay doesn’t exist, nothing happens, because we’re only concerned with one god. Here’s a helpful table:

Don’t believe in Yahweh Believe in Yahweh
Hewhay exists +∞ (dream helmet) -∞ (nightmare helmet)
Hewhay doesn’t exist 0 0

The “don’t believe in Yahweh” column adds up to positive infinity, whereas the “believe in Yahweh” column adds up to minus infinity. The choice is easy, right? It’s obviously advantageous to “bet” on Hewhay existing. Therefore, you shouldn’t believe in the Christian god.

Does this sound familiar? It’s a bet in the spirit of Blaise Pascal’s famous wager, which attempts to argue that you’re better off believing in the Christian god than not, regardless of actual existence. Although largely deprecated by philosophers, this kind of reasoning is still in use among lay Christians. Yet I just turned it on its head and got the exact opposite result. What’s wrong here?

Diagnosing Pascal’s Wager

DiceThere’s a multitude of problems with Pascal’s wager. For one, it completely disregards other gods. Remember, the wager attempts to establish an advantage purely with mathematical means. It doesn’t take into account evidential status; instead, it tries to show that no matter what you do, believing at worst gives a neutral result and at best an infinite positive result, whereas disbelieving will at best give a neutral result and at worst result in eternal suffering. The wager fails to take into account the majority of options: it only considers the existence or non-existence of the Christian god, ignoring Hewhay, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, Thor, Zeus and all other gods. Pascal’s wager presents us with a two-dimensional slice of the infinite-dimensional object we’d need to represent all possibilities, including the infinite number of potential gods. Even so, the users of the wager pretend that this tiny subspace is in fact the whole space.

Another thing with Pascal’s wager is that it makes assumptions about life on earth and the afterlife it can’t support. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve read some of my fellow bloggers’ stories, and heard the examples of their lives actually becoming better after they deconverted. Clearly, the one-sided picture the wager presents, where disbelieving always gives a neutral result, is false. Another thing is that, just as there is an infinite space of possible gods, there is an infinite space of possible afterlifes. There could be Heaven and Hell, like in Christian mythology, or you could add in Purgatory, like in some brands of Christianity, or Nightmare VR Helmet and Dreams-Come-True VR Helmet like in Hewhayian mythology, or no afterlife at all, or an infinite number of other possibilities. Since the wager, again, doesn’t consider evidential status, and since it’s per definition impossible for living humans to experience the afterlife anyway, this is an unsupportable assumption and an unforgivable mistake in reasoning.

There are more holes in Pascal’s Wager. It assumes that you, by seeing the statistical advantages of believing, can either make yourself genuinely believe (i.e., you can consciously convince yourself to believe), or fool an omniscient being into believing your belief is genuine. Neither of these things seem to hold true in general. Normal humans cannot by willpower alone convince themselves to believe something they don’t. Instead, they would have to rely on self-delusion and drugs and probably make themselves mentally ill to delude themselves into believing if they were convinced not to. And if they instead of the hard route fake belief, by observing religious rituals without believing them to be true, they’re presuming that an omniscient being who per definition knows everything doesn’t know that they’re faking it. If anything, they’d be more likely to end up in Hell.

Another fault is that the wager without justification assumes the likelihoods of the Christian god existing and not existing are equal, so that we can disregard probabilities of existence when discussing possible outcomes. Once again, we’re presented only part of the picture as if it were all there is to it.

This diagnosis is hard to set, but there’s no doubt that something’s wrong. There’s so much wrong, so many symptoms that no single disease (read: fallacy or catchphrase) covers them all. But one thing is clear: using the wager as a support for your faith is inexcusable from an intellectual viewpoint.

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35 Comments Add your own

  • 1. psipsina  |  July 8, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    You wrote “If you’re a regular reader, you’ve read some of my fellow bloggers’ stories, and heard the examples of their lives actually becoming better after they deconverted.”

    I’m not a regular reader, in fact, I just ran into your blog for the first time. But this reminds me of my big beef with Pascal’s Wager, and immortalism in general.

    Although the wager is explicitly about the existence of God, there are two implicit premises – that there is a single, infinite afterlife of rewards and punishment (i.e., no reincarnation, with its second chances), and that to gain the rewards, one must live one’s life in a certain way. if you wager on an afterlife of infinite reward, and there turns out to be none, you’ve lost everything. I don’t use that word lightly – you’ve lived as though there is something better than life on earth, and if there isn’t, there’s no turning back. You’ve lost your one chance to live and be happy, right here. (I guess it’s some comfort that, if there is no afterlife, I won’t be around to regret my unlived life eternally!)

    It reminds me of the JWs. If you’ve ever read The Watchtower, you’ve probably noticed that at first glance, it looks like they’re really clued into modern problems – drug addiction and financial woes and sickness and all manner of suffering. But if you read further, their answer to suffering is always, “It will all be better after you die.”

    I don’t think of myself as an atheist or an agnostic, but I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I think that any God worth worshipping would want us to live on this earth and be happy. Reincarnation bothers me because I don’t want to gamble that I’ll get another chance to do some good in the world, and the Christian afterlife bothers me because I don’t want to gamble that I’ll get another chance to be happy. On those two counts, I have everything to lose.

  • 2. fontor  |  July 9, 2007 at 2:23 am

    Nicely done.

    I can’t wait to explain it to the next believer who tries out Pascal’s Wager on me, so they can… ignore it and go back to believing whatever they want.

    Oh, well.

  • 3. Simen  |  July 9, 2007 at 7:08 am

    psipsina, correct. If you live your life on the assumption that there is something better and it turns out it’s not there, you have in some sense wasted the only life you’ve got, so you might as well say that you’ve endured an infinite loss.

  • 4. Brad  |  July 9, 2007 at 11:15 am

    But what if that way of life is rewarding in the here and now? What if the fruits are not solely in the afterlife? I think there is an assumption here that believers do not enjoy being believers in the life here and now. While that may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all (or even most).

  • 5. Simen  |  July 9, 2007 at 11:39 am

    No, the assumption is that there are conditions that hold for all people. Some people will find it rewarding to believe in life. Others will find it rewarding to disbelieve in life. These are not, like the wager presumes, absolutes that will hold for all people. So the assumption is wrong.

    Anyway, would you not agree that if you’ve lived your life on a false presumption, you’ve wasted some opportunities?

  • 6. Brad  |  July 9, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    In Re: to this assumption, I am not familiar with Pascal’s Wager, so I seem to be missing some of what you are responding with and will not claim to know otherwise. Based solely on this post alone, however, I it seems very much like false assumptions are being made.

    Hahaha… yes I would, but again, we will not agree on which of us is living the false presumption.

  • 7. Simen  |  July 9, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Perhaps I should have written a more concrete summary of the original argument. You can find one at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Wikipedia, though.

  • 8. Brendan  |  July 9, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Congratulations, Simen, you understand the mythological signficance of the Gnostic “demiurge.” The demiurge is your “Hewhay”, and “God” to those who don’t have power over their own use of language and symbolism.

  • 9. Top Posts « WordPress.com  |  July 9, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    [...] Diagnosing Pascal’s Wager [image]Hewhay (yes, that’s Yahweh spelled backwards) is a jealous god. He absolutely hates the idea of the […] [...]

  • 10. PalMD  |  July 9, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    This is one of the best explications of PW ive ever seen. Thank you.

  • 11. superhappyjen  |  July 9, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Finally a God I can get behind. All hail Hewhay!

  • 12. cragar  |  July 11, 2007 at 12:14 am

    Whenever I think of Pascal’s wager it reminds me of an old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where Calvin is doubting Santa, and wondering if he really has to behave to get his gifts on Christmas. He basically plays the wager for gifts. The last frame goes something like

    Hobbes: I don’t know, isn’t this a religious holiday?
    Calvin: Yeah, but to tell you the truth I have the same feeling about God.

    Bill Watterson makes his comics hard to find and use, I have tried to find that specific cartoon online with no luck.

  • 13. agnosticatheist  |  July 11, 2007 at 12:21 am

    cragar,

    Click Here

    aA

  • 14. cragar  |  July 11, 2007 at 10:33 am

    There it is. I was actually looking for that strip awhile ago and couldn’t find it. Watterson was genius.

  • 15. HeIsSailing  |  July 12, 2007 at 1:46 am

    Simon sez:
    “[Pascal's wager] assumes that you, by seeing the statistical advantages of believing, can either make yourself genuinely believe … or fool an omniscient being into believing your belief is genuine. ”

    Simon, I think you hit on one of the biggest misconceptions that Christians have toward non-believers. Christians seem to think that their belief is obvious to all humanity, and the non-beliver is merely setting up a smokescreen to avoid the truth of Jesus Christ. Since the nonbeliver has only repressed what is obvious, it is only a matter of deciding to take faith in the Gospel to become a Christian.

    Christians, if this describes what you think about non-believers, particularly atheists/agnostics, listen up. Can you believe in and take faith in the physical being and existance of Superman if your life depended on it? Of course not. Why not? When you answer that question, you will understand a little better why we reject Christianity, and why Pascal’s Wager is yet another argument which only works on the already faithful.

  • 16. kramii  |  July 12, 2007 at 7:53 am

    Simen:

    Another great post!

    Simen said:

    and:

    There are more holes in Pascal’s Wager. It assumes that you, by seeing the statistical advantages of believing, can either make yourself genuinely believe (i.e., you can consciously convince yourself to believe), or fool an omniscient being into believing your belief is genuine.

    I cannot argue with Simen’s overall conclusion. However, I am not sure that these count as separate arguments.

    Why?

    Consider this analogy. Imagine I said that there is $1,000,000 waiting for you in an enveloped taped to the bottom of a bench in your local park. Knowing that this is unlikely, you don’t believe me. On the other hand, you are walking in the park anyway. It wouldn’t do any harm to look, would it? So you do. Imagine your surprise when you found the envelope!

    My point is, it is possible to imagine something where (1) you don’t believe it – there is no envelope full of money (2) you act as if you do – you look anyway (3) the results are the same as if you really believed – you get the $.

    Now, suppose we limit the possible range of gods to (A) None, (B) a god who rewards only those who really believe, and (C) a god who rewards people who act as if the believe, but don’t.

    What is your best bet, if you don’t actually believe? According to Pascal’s logic, the answer would be (C). If you choose (A) or (B) then you have no chance of winning. If you choose (C) then you might, despite your inner convictions.

    Please note, I am not trying to justify Pascal here. I am just saying that ‘a god who rewards people who act as if the believe, but don’t’ is just one of the possible gods in the infinite number of possible gods. If we had to bet on a god (as Pascel says we must) then this is the one to go for.

    Incidentally, I did have some ideas about how to address the problem of infinite possible gods. The solution must be to categorise possible gods according to their reward criteria, and then to play them off against each other. gods who reward / punish without reference to earthly faith would be a poor bet, so they would get a low score. gods who reward according to actions rather than inner convictions would get a better score. Unfortunately, I am far from equipped to do this comparison in a statistically valid way.

    In the mean time, Simen’s observations are persuasive.

  • 17. kramii  |  July 12, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Bother! I have dropped a quote above.

    My intention on #16 is say that:

    Pascal’s Wager [...] assumes that you, by seeing the statistical advantages of believing, can either make yourself genuinely believe (i.e., you can consciously convince yourself to believe), or fool an omniscient being into believing your belief is genuine.

    is really just a special (but important) case of:

    Pascal’s wager presents us with a two-dimensional slice of the infinite-dimensional object we’d need to represent all possibilities, including the infinite number of potential gods.

    Regards.

  • 18. Heather  |  July 12, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Kramii,

    **(1) you don’t believe it – there is no envelope full of money (2) you act as if you do – you look anyway (3) the results are the same as if you really believed – you get the $.**

    I see where you’re going with this, if the god of Pascal’s wager is one who rewards the act of believing, rather than the geniune belief itself.

    However, if we’re going with how Christianity presents God, Pascal’s Wager becomes more difficult. For many, it’s asking them to believe against evidence to the contrary. In the comparison above, we’re on more familiar ground. We know what the money looks like, we’re familiar with the nature of people and so on. When concepts such as an omnipotent, omniscient God get thrown in, or Satan, or heaven/hell, we can’t quite find an equal comparison. We can’t point to something and say, “That is omnipotence.” (Indeed, if we can even comprehend omnipotence, given that we’re finite). Rather, it comes a matter of faith. And something like that, to someone who doesn’t believe, can be like trying to believe that 2+2=5.

  • 19. HeIsSailing  |  July 12, 2007 at 11:06 am

    kramii, I know you are not advocating a god which rewards the hypocrite on the same level as the truly faithful, but that is the god that you are describing here. I just see no point in going through life pretending like I believe to hopefully fool a god who may or may not be there.

    After all, if there are infinite possible gods, then we may ultimatally be rewarded by who uses the brains that god gave us to critically examine man-made religions. There are crowns for us in heaven – yippie! All hail HewHay!!

  • 20. kramii  |  July 13, 2007 at 7:44 am

    Heather / HeIsSailing:

    I quite agree: I don’t advocate the kind of god who rewards hypocracy. I don’t think it is worth looking for a god that we can fool. Such a god is no god at all.

    Unless we adjust the Wager, Pascal’s version appears virtually useless in the way that it is often presented, for the reasons that Simen stated. I am not quite conviced that the Wager is beyond resuscitation, but as far as I can see, the prognosis is not good.

    On the other hand, no matter how unreaosonable belief in God might appear to be, I think that the arguments of the Wager might be enough to keep us keeping an eye out for God, just in case.

    We might be quite convinced that there is no money under the bench in the park, but what’s the harm of looking, anyway? We mught be convinced that the god of the church has gone AWOL, but that should not stop us from keeping a look out for the Real Deal.

    Just occasionally, it is worth a quick one-liner to God, to the Universe in general, or even just to ourselves “Truth, whatever you are, whatever it costs, I want to know You.”. This is a small stake to play in a game where the odds are against us, but the rewards are worth everything.

    HeIsSailing, you wrote:

    we may ultimatally be rewarded by who uses the brains that god gave us to critically examine man-made religions

    Not to do so would be quite tragic, I agree.

  • 21. Heather  |  July 13, 2007 at 11:23 am

    Kramii,

    **I think that the arguments of the Wager might be enough to keep us keeping an eye out for God, just in case.**

    This would lead to an interesting scenario, though. In order to search for God, you have to do so based on a certain set of presumptions. Looking for the Christian God would not be the same as looking for the Islam God, or the Mormon God. Now, it might be in terms of characteristics: omnipotent, omniscient, a creator (and determine how one would go about attempting to seek out an omnipotent God based on physical evidence. I’m not talking about religious texts, but evidence in the world, such as atrocities, or compassionate acts). But with that information, you then have to determine how to apply it to find the correct God. IN order to do that, religious texts seem to be necessary, in order to interpret what one has possibly found.

    It also depends on why one would be keeping an eye out for God. Pascal’s Wager is often used in the sense that believe because you can gain heaven, and if you don’t believe, you are risking hell. So in what manner are you using ‘just in case?’ Because it would allow one to potentially escape hell? Then the Wager becomes fear-driven. But if heaven/hell are removed from the equation, and someone lives a pretty great life, what would motivate them to keep an eye out?

  • 22. kramii  |  July 13, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Heather:

    You wrote:

    you have to do so based on a certain set of presumptions….you then have to determine how to apply it to find the correct God…and determine how one would go about attempting to seek …then have to determine how to apply it to find the correct God.

    All valid points, I fear.

    If finding God matters, as Pascal suggests that it does, then our only hope is that God is interested in making himself known. If not, then we could never hope to find him in any case. If so, then I suspect that these problems can be overcome.

    It also depends on why one would be keeping an eye out for God…so in what manner are you using ‘just in case?’

    I mean things like this: Seeking truth above convenience. Using reason, but recognising our falability. Keeping an open mind about differet possibilities, despite the apparent evidence against them. Asking the God we might not believe in to show Himself, even if we don’t believe he is their. Looking within, for some hint of a Maker’s mark or something that could connect us to Him. Taking time out just to be. Or engaging in discussions like this one.

    Because it would allow one to potentially escape hell? Then the Wager becomes fear-driven. But if heaven/hell are removed from the equation, and someone lives a pretty great life, what would motivate them to keep an eye out?

    The motivation is still the possibility of eternal reward / punishment, as Pascal suggested. I agree with Simen and others who have shown that you can’t accept Pascal’s Wager at face value. Nevertheless, the Wager does suggest that we have a great deal riding on our convictions. Clearly, we can’t force ourselves to believe something against reason, gambling that we might still get to heaven – at least avoid hell. But we must keep questioning our convictions. Even if someone is absolutely convinced that there is no God, there is little to loose by asking God to reveal Himself anyway, and a great deal to gain if He does.

    I must say, this is broadly the approach I took when I was a sceptic. I was genuinely surprised when I had a “religious experience” that convinced me that God is real and that He wants to be involved in my life. Of course, I could be delude, but I have to base my own life on the evidence as I have percieved it. That said, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that anyone taking my experiences too seriously. I know me, so I really wouldn’t trust me at all.

    Regards.

  • 23. Tiffany  |  July 19, 2007 at 1:00 am

    There are, in fact, a number of problems with Pascal’s Wager, but your supposed parallel argument in the early part of this post isn’t logically parallel at all, because you’ve entertained the possibility of the existence of two different gods, but charted the consequences based only on one. Pascal’s wager relied on the idea that it was God or nothing; God or nothing or a different God with different standards requires an entirely different kind of risk-benefit analysis and a different and more complex outcomes chart.

  • 24. Simen  |  July 19, 2007 at 7:16 am

    No, if you read closely, you see that the only possibility that is considered is that of a belief in another god. It doesn’t matter whether the Christian god actually exists; in fact, by assuming one omnipotent being, I’ve implicitly rejected the existence of the Christian god. My parallell argument considers, just as the original Wager, only the possibility that one specific god exists or that no god exists. The only thing that differs is the criteria for admission to “heaven”.

  • 25. Simen  |  July 19, 2007 at 7:17 am

    And also, the fact that there are more alternatives is precisely my point. There is an infinite amount of alternatives, but the wager (and my parallell) only consider two.

  • 26. Fear: A justifiable foundation for belief? « de-conversion  |  September 6, 2008 at 11:18 pm

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  • 33. Mong  |  August 30, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    their god wants this behaviour, the Jewish faith says antoher, and then there is the Koran, various Indian beliefs, on and on and on. And of course we shouldn’t neglect the ancient gods either: how do you know that the god of the Incas isn’t the one you should be listening to?You don’t. So in fact, the best course is for you to ignore all that nonsense and just live the best life you can. Being good is obviously important for societal harmony, and that’s enough reason you can find valid reasons for morality without involving any belief systems.So although this argument sounds like it promotes belief, in fact it suggests the opposite: if there are gods at all (a doubtful proposition, of course), you don’t know what they want from you. The thousands of conflicting beliefs in that regard can’t be reconciled so just ignore it all and be a good citizen of planet Earth.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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