Philosophy of Religion – Pascal’s Wager
The question of existence of God has been a bone of contention among many philosophers ever since philosophy existed. Earlier the arguments in favor of God dominated, but later, close to the time of modernity, it appears as if arguments against God’s existence have dominated, irrespective of the validity and plausibility of the arguments. However, even in the modern times, many philosophers tried to defend the existence of God. Among those Blaise Pascal was also one whose argument became famous with the name of Pascal’s wager. The main idea of the argument was that one must wager for the existence of God because it is in our best interests as it, if true, brings infinite utility and if false, does not take away anything (Hájek n.p).
However, the question is whether wagering for God, i.e., believing in His existence, a matter of interests and utility? In this paper, Pascal’s wager’s fundamental assumption of believing because of ‘interests’ is questioned and it is argued that believing in God, a matter of salvation, done through ‘interests,’ reflecting selfishness, is ironic and therefore, God implausible. A person’s selfish desires cannot direct what s/he ought to believe in and hence, believing or not believing in God ought to be done through duty, not through desires.
Pascal understands that God’s existence or inexistence cannot be known, but one must believe one way or the other. Pascal like many other famous philosophers accepted that human reasoning is limited in the sense that it cannot lead us to know what is beyond time and space. And since, God being something beyond time and space cannot be known through reasoning (Hájek n.p). Pascal, thus, did not fall for the idea of proving the existence of God, but focused on asserting out of believing or not believing in God, which choice a human ought to go for and why (Hájek n.p). Therefore, his approach was quite different than the approach of other philosophers who tried to argue for (not) believing in God by giving proofs for God’s (in)existence. However, it should be noted that Pascal knowing that the existence of God cannot be proved, also comprehends that as long as humanity exists, one ought to believe in either God’s existence or inexistence (Hájek). And for that, the basic question is about the criteria that might objectively decide which option to wager for.
Pascal basis the idea of believing on the interests or utility obtained from that particular belief. Hájek explains the reasoning of Pascal in which he argues that Pascal uses the principle of decision under risk in which rationality leads a person to opt for a choice that has maximum expected utility attached with it (n.p). Thus, Pascal is basically looking for a personalized or subjective approach in deciding whether to believe in God. However, his idea of believing the way a person’s maximized interests or utility lies is flawed and misled. There are two problems with his reasoning: first, the assumption that beliefs especially that have to do with divinity are based on selfish and desire is fallacious, and second, since utility maximization is a subjective problem, thus, everybody would not see equal level of utility in believing in God, therefore, Pascal’s premises are flawed and hence, the conclusion does not necessarily follows from the premises.
Believing in God is primarily based on the idea of salvation. That is, one considers Him to be the Truth and submits all his will and desires to Him. In other words, a person gives up on personal preferences and puts God’s commands or orders as his or her preferences. Thus, sacrificing the selfish self is the way to believe in God because that is what brings salvation. When the above mentioned premises stands true, which it does, Pascal’s wager for God becomes ironic because it seems Pascal is saying go for salvation, i.e., submit or sacrifice everything to God, because it brings you maximum utility (Hájek n.p) i.e., sacrificing for personal interests which is not a sacrifice at all. A closer look of Pascal’s wager tells us that Pascal is not really arguing for believing in God. Rather, he is simply following the desires which say that follow the way that ‘gives more’, increases utility, brings more of what interests a person. In other words, the idea for Pascal is not to go for salvation by believing in God, but simply make a corporate decision of choosing what gives more return. There is selfishness in Pascal’s wager. Thus, this wager does not make a person believe in God as the Truth, but simply put his or her stakes on Him because expected utility from that is higher than from other options. In short, Pascal belief through Pascal’s wager is still in maximizing utility, the process has no importance in it.
For simplicity, consider a case where wagering against God had more utility than wagering for God. In such a case, what would Pascal do? He would recommend wagering against God because that is what maximizes utility. This is because Pascal is following personal subjective preferences based on people’s desires and wills (Hájek n.p). Thus, there could be people who may have preferences for wagering against God, i.e., their rationality might dictate them to wager against God because wagering that way brings more utility to them. In such a case, again, Pascal’s wager would be helpless but to allow a person to wager against God. Hence, Pascal’s wager cannot suggest believing in God because it is primarily based on desires and personal will which is misleading in the sense that it may be subjective and even may change time to time.
On the other hand, the beliefs are based on duty, not desires. A person can do an act either out of desire or duty. But since we have noticed in Pascal’s wager that believing is not an act that is done by desire because desires are misleading and unreliable. Therefore, beliefs are set and followed by reasoning as a duty. That means, an expected outcome may or may not come from a belief based action, does not matter. Because actions performed by duty do not necessarily require the expected outcome. They are done because they ought to be done irrespective of the consequences. This is what believing in God is about. Belief is God is based on a duty that does not demand or changes based on the consequences. If a person believes in God, s/he does it no matter what expected utility is and vice versa. In short, (dis)believing in God is not a choice of desire and hence, cannot be based on utility maximization, whichever choice a person may choose, it ought to be a duty, not a desire, i.e., not based on the utility.
For example, consider the case of a poor little girl dying on a roadside and there is nobody to take her to the hospital. A man going in his car somewhere happens to pass by that area and see the girl. What should he do? A quick response would be he ought to take her to the hospital.
But, why? He may either take her to the hospital because this is what would give him happiness or utility or because this is what he ought to do no matter if he gets happiness or not. Now since the future is uncertain one cannot know the expected utility. But what if we add that the person is actually going to Airport, where his girlfriend is waiting for him. From the airport, they would leave for a romantic place where they would live the happiest life one may ever imagine.
But, if the man stops the car and tries to save the poor little girl from dying, he would be late for his flight; his girlfriend would leave without him and he would have to live a miserable life. Also, the girl whom he saves, when saved, might not even thank or see him or even if she sees, she says something offending and harmful which adds to the misery of the man rather than giving him any good.
Therefore, in such a case, what should the man do? He still has two ways to go about it: maximize utility or do an action that he ought to do irrespective of the results. If he goes for utility maximization now, he would be ignoring the dying girl and going for his girlfriend. But reasoning tells that no matter what, the person ought to save the dying girl whether it gives him utility or not, does not matter. This is where Pascal’s wager is misleading. Basing his argument on desires and utility maximization opens up room for not wagering for God when utility maximization is on the other option. And since the preferences are subjective, it might actually make people wager against God. However, if the wager, whether for or against God, is based on the idea of duty, it would not have changed based on the outcomes.
The idea that desires are misleading and hence, cannot form beliefs is also supported by various scholars. Swinburne argues that since desires based approach is based on personal preferences and it is quite possible that salvation may appeal more to some and less to other. In other words, there would be people who would find more utility in not wagering for salvation (Swinburne). And that would lead them to not wager for God because this is what Pascal’s rationality teaches us; choose the option that has more utility in it.
Moreover, Kant and Pascal’s belief that rationality and reasoning cannot lead humans for deciding whether God exists, are the same (Hájek n.p; Kant n.p). But Kant is more duty-based approach for performing an action or having a belief. In his book, Groundwork for Metaphysics, he argues for two things: a) no action should be performed only as a means towards an end, but as an end in itself i.e., there should be respect and dignity for the action or belief that a person performs or holds, and b) every action ought to be performed by internal moral duty, not by desires, which dictates that actions should be performed based on Golden principle that could be made universal laws (Kant). Therefore, support may also be found in Kant for the argument mentioned above that beliefs cannot be based on desires and outcomes, rather they should be based on internal moral duty.
However, one may object to the argument saying that the idea that desires may mislead and outcomes based focus is fallacious is not valid in forming divine beliefs. It may work in worldly matters, but in forming divine beliefs desires cannot mislead, leaving no conflict between desires and duties, and outcomes being known do become useful in making decision.
Thus, there are two things on which objections could be raised: 1) when the outcomes of wagering for God and not wagering for God are known and it is clear that wagering for God does provide infinitely more utility than not wagering for God, if God exists and even if God does not exist things do not change, then whether a person makes decision for the utility or not, the known outcomes do influence the choice. Hence, in such a case, wagering for God would not be for the outcomes but for influencing the belief. 2) When the outcomes are known and no matter what, wagering for God is better than not wagering for God, then there remains no divide between desires and duties, hence, being a one-off game, it does not matter whether a person plays with desires or with duties.
For the first argument, Pascal has talked about Heavens and Hell being the expected outcomes (Hájek). And that is why it influences his belief that a rational person would opt for wagering for God because it brings infinitely more expected utility (Hájek). Thus, a support for this objection could be found in Pascal and his supporters and it apparently does make the objection stronger.
Similarly, in case of the game being one-off and desire or duty based motivation making no difference because of the results being known is also found in Pascal’s wager (Hájek). And it apparently makes intuitive sense too that if a game is being played once only then whether a person plays it with a desire to win or with a duty to play the game with integrity and honesty, both bring similar results then talking about the duty versus desire conflict is useless. Therefore, it seems like a valid objection that when the outcomes are known, the argument gets shaped in a particular way which again supports the Pascal’s wager.
However, the problem with the objection to the argument is that it is once again based on fallacious assumptions. The basic assumption in this objection is that the outcomes at least to the wager that God exists, when He actually does, is known and it is infinitely better than any other outcome (Hájek). Pascal thinks that heavens are no comparison with the worldly utility, hence, is superior to whatever one may imagine (Hájek). But the problem here is if the existence of God cannot be known, according to Pascal (Hájek), how come the outcome related to God’s existence be known?
Even if God exists, He is still beyond time and space and whether he has a reward or punishment at the end of the world’s time, is yet another assumption based question. Thus, even if God exists that does not necessarily mean that He is going to reward or punish humans when the world ends. It is yet another assumption that he would have a day of judgment in which He would reward those who believed in him and punish those who did not.
Therefore, just the way the existence of God is not known, the expected outcome related to the existence of God also remains unknown. Hence, Pascal’s argument and the objections to the above mentioned argument may also remain invalid. This counter argument to the objection raised can also be analyzed through example and supported by scholars as given below.
It makes intuitive sense that if one cannot know that a particular thing exists, one can only hypothesize the outcomes that may occur, if the thing actually exists. Take the example of a house and humans living in it. If a question is raised that at a particular whether there is a house, the answer to it could be positive or negative. However, if the answer is positive, the next question could be whether people live in the house? Here, only a hasty conclusion could lead people to say that yes, if there is a house, people live there. However, it is a known fact that there are many houses in the world in which people do not live, they are empty.
This means that even if a house exists, that does not mean people live in there. The answer to the question that whether people live in the house is still unknown and can only be hypothesized, but not known without experiencing. It is quite possible that there are no people living in the house. However, whatever the answer is, it can only be known by experience, i.e., going to the house and eye witnessing whether people live in the house.
But imagine the question of the house to be at a place where humans cannot go. In such a case, one cannot even go there and experience. Hence, in this case, just like whether the house exists remains unknown, it further remains unknown whether people live in the house, given the fact that the house exists.
Similarly, since God lives, if He does, beyond time and space, it cannot be known whether there is a day of judgment, heavens and hell. Thus, the idea that there is a heaven and hell is a compounded assumption. In other words, it is an assumption based on an assumption.
The same idea could be supported from Kant’s argument. Kant argues that humans in this world are like wearing glasses because of which they cannot see beyond time and space. And what exists beyond time and space would remain unknown to them. One can only speculate and form beliefs about it. However, there is nothing for sure whether a particular thing exists beyond time or space or not (Kant n.p).
Even Pascal, as mentioned before, agrees that God’s existence cannot be proven then how come it be proven what God has to offer has (Hájek). Just like God, God’s actions may also remain unknown for humans and hence, nothing can be taken for sure here.
Therefore, it has been analyzed in this paper that Pascal’s wager has some fundamental flaws in it. These flaws basically can be comprehended in a way that Pascal basis his argument on desires and outcomes. Both of these things are not useful in forming beliefs. First because desires are based on personal preference and that can vary from person to person.
Similarly, desires have a misleading nature that they do not necessarily lead a person to what is in his best interest. However, Pascal deals with the second flaw by including the outcomes in his argument. But that makes his argument more flawed because beliefs especially belief in God’s existence is a move towards salvation.
It cannot be based on expected outcomes because those doing something for outcomes mean having a selfish motivation. But in truth, salvation is about killing the selfish motive and submitting one’s self to God. Therefore, either the wager is defective.
However, an objection could be raised to the argument that since the outcomes are known it means desires cannot be misleading and that the outcome would further influence the motivation for choosing the better option. However, the assumption that outcomes are known is false here.
In fact, just the way, God’s existence cannot be known, the outcomes related to God also remain unknown. One can only assume things and assumptions do not necessarily make the argument sound.
However, Pascal’s wager must be appreciated for making a strong contribution in the philosophy of religion. It does give many thought provoking ideas. However, it should also be noticed that God, if He is, is beyond time and space. Hence, even though knowing the unknown is a human quest, but it should also be accepted that finite eyes cannot see the infinite.
Moreover, the beliefs are not based on mathematical proofs, it is always something that touches the hearts and minds of the people and hence, people follow it as a duty without any rational sense.
Hájek, Alan. “Pascal’s Wager.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 02 May 1998. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Yale University Press, 2002.
Swinburne, R. G. “The Christian Wager.” Religious Studies 4.02 (1969): 217-228.
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