If you were Christian, chances are at some point you will have heard someone say that it is better to believe in God and be right, than it is to not believe in God and be wrong, least you suffer eternal Hellfire. What they’re doing is paraphrasing Pascal’s Wager, which I will briefly explain.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th century Catholic mathematician. He argued that logical reasoning couldn’t be used to prove or disprove a God, and that belief in a God doesn’t depend on rational evidence. Because we can’t prove/disprove a God, we are betting with our lives whether he exists or not. The wager can be summarised as follows:
- If God exists and we believe in them, we get infinite gain (eternal life in Heaven).
- If God exists and we don’t believe in them, we get infinite loss (eternal Hellfire).
- If God doesn’t exist and we believe in them, we get a finite loss (wasted time, devotion etc).
- If God doesn’t exist and we don’t believe in them, we get a finite gain.
If we looked at this at surface level, many would say that it’s better to live as if God were real, because if we’re wrong, we have only wasted our time. But if we lived as God WASN’T real and were wrong, we would suffer infinite punishment. It is important to note that Pascal didn’t use this wager as a proof of God’s existence, like what many Christians claim. Now Blaise Pascal was obviously a very intelligent person in his day, but if we start trying to apply his wager to our own lives, we will encounter several problems, some of which I will mention below.
Problems with Pascal’s Wager.
Problem one: assuming that each outcome is equally likely.
Many assume that because there are two possible outcomes on the existence of God, each outcome must be equally likely. If we were able to come up with probabilities for each outcome that weren’t equal, we might consider an option that has worse consequences if the probabilities for said outcome are low enough. In case you’re confused let me give you an example:
Let’s say that I told you there was a chest in a forest with a million dollars in it. There are two different paths to the chest, if you make it there safely then you will win the money. As a heads up, I tell you that on the first path there are venomous snakes who could kill you in one bite, while on the other path there are grizzly bears who could tear you to shreds and eat you. Both paths sound pretty scary right? But what if I also told you that the snakes weren’t interested in humans so there was only a 5% chance of getting bit, while there was an 80% chance of being attacked by the bears, would that influence your decision? It would certainly influence mine.
But wait, doesn’t Pascal’s Wager have INFINITE consequences? Wouldn’t that mean if there was ANY non-zero chance Hell were real, you should believe in God? Ah, that brings me to my next point.
Problem two: which God?
OK firstly, there would have to be a non-zero chance of God being real for the wager to be applicable to our lives, otherwise the consequences of not believing don’t matter. There has to be actual proof that said God might exist otherwise we aren’t really wagering on anything. Otherwise I could just replace God with Superman or the Loch Ness monster in said wager. Secondly, which God do we believe in? There are many different religions out there such as Christians and Muslims who all believe in conflicting God’s and teachings, they can’t all be right.
While I don’t think that the existence of a God in general can be proven/disproved, the existence of the particular Christian God can be, since their existence depends on the Bible being true.
Problem three: Can I force myself to believe in God?
I find it interesting that Christianity posits we believe in Jesus for us to be saved. But is belief really a choice though? As I see it, we all have our own lenses with which we critically analyse information sent to us to decide what we believe. Some peoples lenses are more refined than others. If I don’t believe in a God, I can’t force myself to change my mind unless I’m convinced somehow. In Pascal’s Wager, I could therefore pretend to believe in God because I don’t want to be wrong, but then wouldn’t said God being all knowing see through my deceit?
Pascal’s Wager is an interesting exercise in probabilities and outcomes, but it would be silly to apply this wager to our own lives if we don’t know whether God exists or not. I’m not going to tell you what to believe about God, I just want to get you thinking.