Monday, May 21, 2012

Pascal’s Assumption

The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal’s Wager):
  1. Either God exists or God doesn’t exist.
  2. A person can either believe that God exists or believe that God doesn’t exist (from 1).
  3. If God exists and you believe, you receive eternal salvation.
  4. If God exists and you don’t believe, you receive eternal damnation.
  5. If God doesn’t exist and you believe, you’ve been duped, have wasted time in religious observance, and have missed out on decadent enjoyments.
  6. If God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe, then you have avoided a false belief.
  7. You have much more to gain by believing in God than by not believing in him, and much more to lose by not believing in God than by believing in him (from, 3, 4, 5, and 6).
  8. It is more rational to believe that God exists than to believe that he doesn’t exist (from 7).
There was a time when I thought this argument made logical sense. I first heard Pascal’s Wager from my favorite high school teacher. He taught algebra, coached football, and, not surprisingly, was highly involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Back then, the only skeptical thought I had on the wager was that belief brought on by a safe bet, isn’t the faith needed for entry into heaven. It is merely smart gambling. As an atheist, I now know this is one of the flaws with the Argument from Decision Theory, but not the only one.

The second flaw in regards to Pascal’s Wager is that it does nothing to explore the probabilities of God’s existence. For example, if God’s existence is infinitesimal, then even if the cost of not believing in him is high, the overall expectation may not make it worthwhile to believe. You can see how this invalidates Pascal’s Wager by considering similar wagers. Say I told you that a vampire moved in as your neighbor, and that unless you draw a vile of your blood to leave outside every night he will break in and suck you dry. According to Pascal’s Wager, you should break out the needle and tourniquet...but you don’t. The probability of the neighboring vamp is so low that the risk of death is negligible.

The final flaw is the most damning. The wager relies on some huge-ass assumptions. It assumes that God is the Christian God, that there is a heaven and a hell, and that said Christian God will send believers to heaven and unbelievers to hell. For this argument for God to possibly work, we’d need a separate argument that shows that these assumptions are true. Since this is the supernatural we’re talking about, meaning that all bets are off, it could be that believers go to hell and nonbelievers go to heaven. Following the wager would then mean eternal torment. The possibilities are endless and therefore the probability of any one supernatural scenario (back to flaw #2) is infinitely small.

Before any vamp nerds point this out, I realize my analogy for flaw #2 is itself flawed. Vampires can’t enter your home without an invitation, so “breaking-in” is off the table. If this bothers you, please substitute “vampire” with “velociraptor” and “blood” with “chew-toy.”)


  1. This 'what have you got to lose’ argument it totally disingenuous and taps into the human psyche, the ‘what if’……coupled with the nudge that most people need……that being the driver of FEAR to comply! If you don’t comply then you forfeit the right to be protected by a sky daddy!!

    It’s a wager for the weak minded! I need to live forever……there must be a purpose????

    What’s that AC/DC lyric………….”hell, ain’t a bad place to be……”

  2. Ah but Grundy Vampires are clever he doesn't need to walk in his count chocula outfit and ask, "I vant a vial of vour Bloog ah ah ah!' they can get invited in via trickery! For example, see the movie the Lost Boys...

    And no doubt your vampiric neighbor could track you to a semi-public area and waylay you there!

    1. And here I thought I was pre-empting vamp nerds. You out vamped me! ;-)

  3. The argument is basically a false dichotomy. I believed this one once as well, embarrassingly enough. But the great thing about being a skeptic and/or atheist is that its okay to be wrong. We can change our minds as more information presents itself. I think that people are too afraid to be wrong but I find it liberating. Sometimes the road to the truth starts off wih being wrong. Religion doesn't have such freedom in my opinion.