Thursday, October 09, 2014

Pascal's Wager: Betcha Can't!

Blaise Pascal
Portrait by Jean Domat, around 1677-1681,
After a Portrait by Francois II Quesnel

In "Can Wanting to Believe Make Us Believers?" (NYT, October 5, 2014; hat-tip to Pete Hale), Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, discusses the will to believe in God with Daniel Garber, professor of philosophy at Princeton who specializes in philosophy and science of the 16th and 17th centuries, and they touch on Pascal's famous wager (which I myself refer to in my novella):
Gary Gutting: Wanting to believe in God suggests Pascal's wager argument, which remains for many the most appealing case for religious belief. What do you think about it?

Daniel Garber: Formally, the argument has many well-known flaws, though it also has its friends. Even knowing the flaws, I do find myself somewhat moved by it. The reason is that at the core of the argument there are some very compelling intuitions. Basically, the argument turns on the idea that if there is a God, and we believe in him, we then have a shot at eternal happiness. If God doesn't exist, then we are stuck in this very finite and imperfect life, whether we believe in him or not. So, it would seem, for all sorts of reasons, we should want to believe in him. The problem (perhaps insuperable) is taking these plausible considerations and turning them into a genuine argument.

But the real worry about the argument comes at a later moment, I think. It is important to remember that Pascal's wager it isn't an argument for the truth of the proposition that God exists, but an argument for why we should want to believe that God exists: It only tells us that it is to our advantage to believe, and in this way makes us want to believe, but it doesn't give us any reasons to think that God actually exists. In a way, I'm already convinced that I should want to believe. But there is a step from there to actual belief, and that's a step I cannot personally negotiate. Pascal tells us, roughly, that we should adopt the life of the believer and eventually the belief will come. And maybe it will. But that seems too much like self-deception to me.

Gary Gutting: You seem to be ignoring what is often taken as the heart of Pascal's argument: a cost-benefit calculation that you should believe in God because the likely benefits of belief are greater than the likely benefits of nonbelief. Put that way, the argument seems morally dubious, leading to William James's comment that God would likely exclude from heaven precisely the sorts of people who believe because of such an argument. Is this a misreading of Pascal?
Readers interested in Garber's response can go to the article. I have my own problem with Pascal's Wager, a problem that goes unmentioned in the article, namely, that Pascal doesn't tell us which God we should believe in. Christianity's God? Or Islam's Allah? Or Hinduism's Brahma? Or some other differently conceived divinity? What happens if we back the wrong horse? Allah, for instance, seems unwilling to forgive Christians for their Trinitarianism.

One doesn't, therefore, make a single decision on where to put one's chips with this wager, but hedging one's bets presents the same problem.

And what if God doesn't like betting, anyway?

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At 11:20 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Your expression of skepticism reminds me of one of the more famous refutations of the rationale behind the wager: posit an omnipotent demon instead of a loving God at the heart of all existence. This demon, being a demon, sends the virtuous to an eternity in hell while elevating murderers, thieves, adulterers, betrayers, and their ilk to an eternity of bliss. Such a scenario flips the probability/outcomes chart and totally reverses one's cost-benefit analysis, thus upending the wager.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I recall that demon scenario in the context of Cartesian doubt - back when I was reading Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

Jeffery Hodges

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