Friday, July 19, 2013

Pascals Wager... a safe bet?

As a non-believer, I have heard this apologetic argument many a time. Surprisingly, each time I hear it the presenter acts as if they are presenting brand new information. Not even close... In fact they are presenting an argument that is tired and thoroughly debunked. But if there are any new heathens among us today, you may be asking what the hell is Pascal's Wager?

Pascal's Wager is an apologetic argument proposed by the French philosopher/mathematician/physicist Blaise Pascal. His argument was specifically meant to be in favor of belief in the Christian god. It has been phrased several ways through the years, but here's the argument...
1) If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven. So you have everything to gain.
2) If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to eternity in Hell. So you have everything to lose.
3) If you believe in God and God does not exist, you lose nothing.
4) If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you have lived your own life. So you received only a slight gain.
It's a 50/50 choice with everything in play. Therefore the Smart bet is on belief in God, over disbelief.
As I said, there are many problems with this argument. The first is the assumption that it's a 50/50 choice where the only outcomes are that the Christian god is real, or there are no gods. But those aren't anywhere close to the only possibilities. Through the centuries, there have been thousands of gods worshiped. Yet Pascal simply ignores them from the equation. But the statistical chance of being correct is central to his wager. He wants it to be a 50% chance so that it sounds like the odds favor Christianity. This is simply dishonest and incorrect. The exact number of deities throughout history is not perfectly known. But including them would give Pascal something like a 1/3,000 chance of being correct , rather than the much more favorable 1/2.

Remember, what he is essentially asking us is, 'What if you're wrong?'. Well, perhaps we should also ask the believer this same question. Say you live your life believing in Christianity. But you find out that after your death that you are greeted by Odin. You disbelieved, so you are now cast into Helheim. What if Zeus is the true god? Perhaps Pascal then needs to consider life in Tartarus. The same goes for the thousands of other possible gods. So the claim that one has nothing to lose if they believe in Christianity and are wrong is flat false.  If another faith is true, they face a fate just as serious as the one they threaten me with.

But lets ignore that first glaring problem with Pascal's Wager and examine it as if it really was a 50/50 choice, and Christianity was the only option on the table. Even then, there are many issues that make Pascal's Wager a poor one.
Let's start with the fact that you can't simply choose belief. It seems that Pascal is suggesting that if you don't believe, you should feign belief. But isn't the Christian god supposed to be all-knowing? If that's the case, he would know that you don't believe. If that is the case, would you still be rewarded? Or is Pascal actually proposing a God that is satisfied with people just faking it? If that is the case, why bother with Christianity at all until the very end and claim that, 'Oh yeah, I totally believe. High-five, Jesus!'

Then there are issues of what you gain or lose depending on if you are right or wrong. It is claimed that the believer loses nothing if they are wrong. But is this really the case? I feel that there are many things belief can steal from you.

•You lose financially if you give money to your church.

•You lose time you could have enjoyed elsewhere rather than going to church.

•You can miss out the wonderment that comes with scientific understanding if you belong to a Biblically literal sect.

•You can lose potential friendships if your sect doesn't take kindly to outsiders.
•If your religion tells you that homosexuality is a sin, you may turn your back on your own child if they come out as gay. The loss will be any relationship you ever could have had with them, and possibly your child's respect and the respect of others. 

•If your brand of Christianity forbids sex before marriage there may be many issues if you follow that command. What if this restriction causes you to lose a relationship? What  that person was the person you could have loved above all others, but your faith never allowed the relationship to blossom? You could lose a lifetime of happiness. What if you observe the prohibition and get married only to find that you aren't 'compatible' in bed? You could lose out on ever having a fulfilling sexual experience, or lead you to divorce. 

•What if your belief tells you abortion is always wrong, and you are faced with your wife having terrible complications that will surly kill her and/or the child about to be born? You could forever lose the love of your life by way of a choice you had to make. I can't even begin to imagine the guilt of your wife's death being the result of your own decision to not terminate the pregnancy.
•What if you're so devout that you pray for those you love to get better, rather than taking them to seek medical care? Your loss could be watching your son or daughter slowly die before your very eyes while you did nothing.

•What if you're a Jehovah's Witness and need a blood transfusion to survive. Your refusal would mean the loss of your very own life.

•Lastly, belief can have a small, but cumulative effect on how someone lives their life. This effect can mean that you lose out on living the life you could have lived if you weren't predisposed with worrying about the 'next life'. If we really only do have this one life, as I believe, isn't a life half-lived really a tragedy in and of itself? I feel that a compromised life is quite a dramatic loss indeed.

But what about the claim that if I'm correct, and there is no God, that I only net a slight gain? I'd say that the gain is much more than slight. Because I'm not satisfied with simply settling for religious explanations, I have instead decided to learn as much as I can about the world. I've learned about the sciences, history, cultures, etc. My seeking of knowledge has taught me much about the world, as well as myself. These learnings and experiences are something that are invaluable to me. 

And not only does atheism allow me to live my own life, but it makes me extraordinarily appreciative of life as well. This is the only life I will ever get, and I'm amazingly lucky to evan get this one. So I should live it to it's fullest, and appreciate this short yet beautiful gift even more. I am also brought wonderment when I realize the natural forces at play when I look at nature. And am filled with amazement when I look toward the stars. Those delicate forces at play, gave us everything, yet it didn't have to turn out as it did.  So I'd say that in the light of that knowledge, life feels even bigger and more special to me. I feel like that is a massive gain in my favor, should I be proven right.

So, you can see that Pascal's Wager fails on many fronts. Sadly, this argument continues to rear it's ugly head, get reworded and passed of as something brand new all over again. I can only hope that reason will eventually prevail and this sad argument can be discarded for good.

-Brain Hulk

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