Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pascal’s Wager

There is an argument used by some theists against atheism that since there is nothing to lose by believing in God and much to lose by not believing, it is better to believe than to disbelieve.  This is called Pascal’s Wager after the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal who formulated that conclusion in some notes that were assembled and published after his death in 1662.

Though as a child that argument frightened me, as it was intended to do, I have come to regard it as little more than a mostly  pointless intellectual exercise at best or a harmful bit of nonsense at worse.  It is a flawed argument that relies on unfounded assumptions that leads irreconcilable conclusions.  In short, it has no practical function and despite being dressed up as logic, it is merely an appeal to fear.

The biggest assumption at work here is that there is a God, but since the Wager it is commonly used as an argument in favor of belief in that God, I’ll just let that one go so that we can proceed to the next assumption, the afterlife.  The big penalty for disbelief is an eternity of suffering in Hell after death and the reward for belief is an afterlife in Heaven.  Actually that is really three unfounded assumptions: that we possess a soul that continues on after our deaths, that there is a Hell with a specific set of entrance prerequisites, and a Heaven with another set.

Given the utter lack of any verifiable evidence for those assumptions we are left to simply accept them on faith.  No, near death experiences are not evidence of a soul, they are evidence of the brain’s effect on the mind.  The only support for those assumptions comes from the theology making the claims and that does not constitute evidence anymore than the argument that says, “My religion is true because my holy book says it is true and my holy book is true because my religion says it is true.”  That kind of circular thinking gets us nowhere.

And since I’ve brushed upon the idea of a true religion let’s address that issue as it pertains to Pascal’s Wager.  If it is a valid application of risk assessment to the matter of choosing to believe in the Christian God, then why doesn’t it apply in the same way to all the other gods that humans have worshiped over the millennia?  Not all of those other gods supposedly provided a reward after death for belief or punished disbelief, but ruling out those who didn’t, one is still left with a substantial list of potentially angry deities to avoid offending with disbelief.  The logic ought to work in otherwise identical applications should it not?

If one takes the Wager to heart, then the only reasonable course of action is to believe in all of those deities.  Which is fraught with impossibilities, not the least of which is compiling the list.  Surely there were deities worshipped by tribes that have long since gone extinct, whose religion we now have no record of or ability to reproduce.  Then there is the problem of deities that demand to be worshipped singly or religions that have beliefs that would be taboos in another.  It is not possible to believe them all nor is it possible to use the logic of the Wager to choose among them.

To me that is where Pascal’s Wager falls on its face, it’s logic leads to untenable conclusions.  So long as there is a reward for belief and a punishment for disbelief, the Wager demands that to be on the safe side we ought to believe.  If I sit here and dream up some vindictive absurdity, you’d better be prepared to believe it, just in case I was divinely inspired.  What manner of scams and injustices could be, I dare say have been, perpetrated upon the gullible when credulity is treated as a virtue?

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