Pascal’s Wager Stated – A Beneficial Argument for God’s Existence

Michael Martin (1990) contrasts between two forms of arguments in respect to establishing God’s existence: (1) Epistemic Reasons  – which thence can take the structure of an Epistemic Argument; and (2) Beneficial Reasons – which can also take the structure of a Beneficial Argument. The latter establishment can differ in respect to being moral or prudential arguments for God’s existence. As Martin writes,

…the intellect cannot decide the question of whether God exists, but that nevertheless it is extremely important to decide it. [William James and Blaise Pascal] both conclude that we should believe that God exists since there are good practical reasons to do so. In our terms they are maintaining that although there are no epistemic reasons to believe that God exists, there are good beneficial reasons. [1]

Pascal believed that God’s existence couldn’t necessarily be proved, simply because God’s nature and existence alludes our limited and finite capacities. As he writes in hisPensees, “We know the existence of the infinite without knowing its nature, because it too has extension but unlike us no limits. But we do not know either the existence or the nature of God, because he has neither extension nor limits. But by faith we know his existence, through glory we shall know his nature” [2].

He further suggests that “[i]f there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being indivisible and without limits, he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is” [3]. It is thence why where Pascal says “reason cannot decide this question”, his argument is intended for skeptics particularly. Interestingly is what Pascal says about his argument: “This is conclusive and if men are capable of any truth this is it.”

He thus begins:

“Either God is or he is not.” But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?

Of course, before we begin Pascal addresses the agnostic position in respect to making a decision. His ghost-interlocutor makes the objection that “although the one who calls heads and the other one are equally at fault, the fact is that they are both at fault: the right thing is not to wager at all.” However, Peter Kreeft I think nicely addresses this challenge to simply sit idly and not make a decision:

We are not observers of life, but participants. We are like ships that need to go home, sailing past a port that has signs on it proclaiming that it is your true home and our true happiness. The ships are our own lives and the signs on the port say “God.” [4]

However, the agnostic respectively says that he wishes not to pull into that port (believe) or turn away from it (disbelieve), but rather stay anchored at a reasonable distance. Why is his attitude thence unreasonable? To quote Kreeft, “Because we are moving.”

This simply means that the at-bottom function of Pascal’s Wager is the reality of death: happiness being the theoretical formula that he uses in order to demonstrate his wager; although justice, for example, could also be a substitute. Pascal simply uses happiness as his motivator since we desire it all of the time.

 

II. 

Pascal thence weighs the consequences of answering affirmatively on the question of God’s existence:

Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does not exist. “That is wonderful. Yes, I must wager, but perhaps I am wagering too much.” Let us see: since there is an equal chance of gain and loss, if you stood to win only two lives for one you could still wager, but supposing you stood to win three?

You would have to play [ … ] and it would be unwise of you, once you are obliged to play, not to risk your life in order to win three lives at a game in which there is an equal chance of losing and winning. But there is an eternity of life and happiness.

That being so, even though there were an infinite number of chances, of which only one were in your favor, you would still be right to wager one in order to win two; and you would be acting wrongly, being obliged to play, in refusing to stake one life against three in a game, where out of an infinite number of chances there is one in your favor, if there were an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won.

But here there is an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won, once chances of winning against a finite number of chances of losing, and what you are staking is finite. [5]

Further down the chain of reasoning, Pascal finishes, “Thus our argument carries infinite weight, when the stakes are finite in a game where there are chances of winning and losing and an infinite prize to be won.” It is interesting to see Martin’s (1990) comments that “it is important to have a clear understanding of the status of Pascal’s argument. It purports to give a good reason for believing that God exists; in particular it purports to provide a good reason for changing ones belief from agnosticism or atheism to Christian theism” [6].

However, clarification as to why Pascal’s argument is considered “beneficial” is important:

[T]he reason that the argument purports to give is not the usual sort. This reason does not make the existence of God any more likely or probable. Thus Pascal’s is not an epistemic argument in the sense of this expression introduced earlier. Purporting to show that because it is beneficial to believe in God one should believe in Him is a beneficial argument. [7]

However, one given interpretation of Pascal’s argument can be stated under a framework of Decision Theory. Consider X and Y to be finite values:

  • Believe in God – God exists (+∞) or God does not exist (-X)
  • Do not believe in God – God exists (-∞) or God does not exist (+Y)

Observing the above configuration, one has infinite gain if one believes in God and God exists. However, the loss of belief in God and his non-existence is only a finite loss. Similarly, the unbelief in God’s existence entails infinite loss if God does exist. In contrast, a disbelief in God and his non-existence would only result in a finite gain.

_____________

Notes:

  • [1] Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press: 1990) p. 229
  • [2] Quoted from Reason and Responsibility, ed. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau (Thomson and Wadsworth: 2005) p. 115
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Peter Kreeft, The Argument from Pascal’s Wager (Calvin.edu) p. 2 (PDF available)
  • [5] Feinberg and Shafer-Landau (2005), p. 116
  • [6] Michael Martin (1990), p. 230
  • [7] Ibid.
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