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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Pascal's Wager"...

has made an appearance in some of my reading material recently. It’s a famous and controversial argument in favor of the existence of God often used by Christian apologetics. It has been called the potentially weakest or strongest argument available when debating with an atheist. Basically, it runs as follows:

    If a skeptical person were to lay a bet on whether or not God exists, it would smarter to bet on God existing, since if this is the correct position it will make all the difference for him when the time comes to “meet his maker”. If the position is incorrect, nothing from nothing is still nothing, and when you die and fade into nothing you will not be bothered by your ill calculations in the least!
    The whole style of this is meant to be wryly humorous, with a touch of dramatic hyperbole for effect. It’s best described as “parliament humor”, a witty jab with a purpose to make the opponent get red in the face. And quite a few atheists do get very indignant when confronted with it, saying that it is below their intelligence and integrity. It is asking them to be opportunists, and hedging bets on the nature of reality for all the wrong reasons. Some even make a direct of point of saying that it’s “morally wrong”, although I’m a bit confused how morality comes into this, especially from people who advocate the position that human morals are nothing more than evolutionary habits or social norms without any real authority beyond an illusionary sense of meaning.
    First of all, I would probably suggest that these atheists learn to lighten up a little bit and take it on the chin, and then consider some of their own arguments, claiming that belief in God is as groundless as a Flying Spaghetti Monster or a Mystical Teapot, and ask themselves whether perhaps they might embrace a bit of hyperbole themselves. Second, I think they should come to realize that “Pascal’s Wager” was never meant to be a “stand alone” argument, but as a part of a greater whole which they might do good to explore with an open mind before saying that Pascal is asking them to abandon “truth”. Thirdly, I would encourage them to swallow their initial distaste for his quip and consider the deeper meaning within the “Wager”.

    But before any of this, it would probably be a good idea to make sure everyone is on the same page with regards to the nature of debating for and against the existence of God. Sadly, many such debates quickly devolve into an 8th Grade schoolyard squabble along these lines: “You can’t scientifically prove God exists!” “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t scientifically prove he doesn’t exist!” This process repeats itself until we meet with the Spaghetti Monsters and Mystical Teapots. It’s kind of dumb.

     There are two points that need to be clarified to avoid this sort of cycle. One is to realize that philosophical debates are not conducted by producing scientific evidence, but rather rational arguments. After all, if there is a reality beyond the purely physical one, we would be unable to measure it with scientific instruments. This brings us to the second point. The whole premise of God is not some obtuse invisible object floating around in the atmosphere, or a celestial tyrant perched on some cloud or other. Instead, He would be the very Essence of Being, Transcendence, and Goodness. He would be the single Eternal Entity with no beginning and no end.

    There are rational, coherent, and well-thought-out arguments for believing in this Origin of All Things. If you don’t necessarily agree with them, at least try and respect them as mature analytical conclusions. Equivocating arguments for this Ultimate Being with something as silly as Spaghetti Monsters and Mystical Teapots woefully misses the whole point, and just reveals serious philosophical shallowness. After all, these debates about the existence of God are really are the existence of any meaning in life at all, making the job of an atheist apologist pretty self-defeating.

    As I mentioned above, while Pascal’s Wager needs a strong basis of rational arguments to undergird it, it still has a profound point to make about human nature and the way we live. Basically, is atheism really livable, or is it ultimately a “lost cause” in the practical flow of daily life? Looking at existence from an atheist worldview, is there any true meaning to anything, ever? I certainly know atheists who point out that they don’t need a god to have a meaningful life. But I do wonder what meaning actually means to them. All the things commonly associated with meaning are actually illusions if their belief  that nothingness is the ultimate reality.

     If we are just a combination of brain cells, our sense of identity and the ability to say “I”, is really just an illusion. Likewise, altruistic love is an illusion, because any good we do is either a herd instinct left over from an evolutionary process that helps our species survive, or we have been affected by social norms and psychologically “programmed” to behave a certain way. Hence, free will is actually an illusion as well, and some atheists are quite comfortable with admitting it. Some have even postulated that some people’s brains are wired for love, and some are not. Lovelessness is just the way that blind forces set them up; with this view in mind, it is not right or wrong. It just is. But I wonder…do they also believe that bad behavior can be explained by programming? Were Hitler and Stalin just born to behave the way they were? Do we really have a right to called them “evil”?

     Without believing in the transcendent meaning of identity, love, and free will, what meaning is left in life? Only embracing these illusions of meaning can give us even a taste of happiness. Or perhaps happiness is the wrong word…I am thinking more of joy. It is that inner wonder when struck with the majestic grandeur of nature, or the resonant beauty of music, or the extraordinary skill of dance, or the rhythmic weave or poetry, or the rousing heartbeat of a heroic story. We take it all in, and for that moment, we believe unquestioningly that it has meaning, that it is real, that its taps into some essence of transcendence that will never diminish. But if we are atheists, we must inevitably “check our brains at the door”…this is all just an illusion. Even our own thoughts are illusions.

    So even if “Pascal’s Wager” was used strictly in the perspective of our own earthly lives and not in reference to a possible Judgment Day, I think he’d still be making a very good point. Basically, if atheists follow their own logical conclusions, they basically wipe out all sense of meaning from their lives. The worldview grows so dark it melts into a realm beyond despair. Who the heck could bear to live like that? Of course, the majority of atheists do not. Most of the atheists I know are caring, sensitive, passionate people who act just like they believed in a transcendent truth and beauty within the world and every human being. But according to their worldview, that must be embracing a sense of “illusion”. How tragic.

   Ironically, this sort of takes the atheist objection to the wager full circle. Atheists will say that Pascal is asking them to abandon the truth in exchange for a safe conduct pass to Paradise. Actually, the wager could just as well be pointing out the sheer senselessness of living as if there is meaning in life, when your worldview claims asserts that there is none. As creatures of hope, we must embrace some sense of meaning and transcendence, or we would be unable to survive in any meaningful way. Even our demand for truth infers meaning. So yes…if you were to take a gamble, would it not make sense to cast it on the side of hope instead of despair, something instead of nothing? As a character in the 1978 movie The Nativity aptly said: “If you cannot least hope!”

Blaise Paschal,


  1. Thank you!

    Pascal is fascinating. He sails close to Jansenism, but wisely avoids it. A variation on Pascal's Wager can be found in Dostoyevsky's THE POSSESSED: if there is no God, then all is permitted. And that would be horror indeed.

  2. Paschal is a fascinating character, and obviously one with a sense of humor and a dramatic flare! It's amazing how many arguments in favor the existence of God branch out of his wager...including the arguement from conscience, meaning, and morals. It's a philosophical quandary that atheists cannot do away with; basically, living a life without any meaning is a recipe for self-destruction. Not to mention horrifying, since everything goes, as you pointed out.

  3. I have just come across this post while browsing your blog, and felt the need to comment although it's a bit old now. This is an excellently written commentary, but the greatest flaw of Pascal's Wager, I think, isn't really mentioned, and that is that one cannot simply choose to believe something. For example- I am fascinated with ancient Egypt and love its mythology, but I couldn't simply decide one day that from that day forth, I would believe in and sincerely worship Ra and the other Egyptian gods and then do so for the rest of my life. Likewise, atheists cannot simply chose to believe in God. Pascal's Wager is a clever argument and it is a strong one for the motion that it is better to be religious than irreligious; however, it will not change the mind of the sincere atheist.

    Thank you for giving me something to think about, and for effectively expressing some of my own thoughts on the value of religious belief.

  4. Greetings, King's Man!

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

    I would agree cannot simply decide to believe something out of the blue. That's why I made a point of saying that "Paschal's Wager" should not be used alone, but bolstered by philosophical arguments to show that belief in God and transcendence is at least as reasonable as (if not more so than) atheism and materialism.

    Basically, at a certain point, there is some degree of choice involved in taking "a step of faith." I think many agnostics simply refuse to make that choice. In other words, since we will never have conclusive proof one way or the other, many simply will not believe anything. Yet perhaps a lot of things in life depend on a choice rather than a feeling.

    If someone came to me and said "I can't believe", my first thought would first be to ask them, "Do you at least hope?" On given days, I honestly don't feel full of belief and faith, but I do fall back on hope, say, "God, I want to believe; help me with my unbelief." Basically, it is from this undying sense of hope that makes us human -- the hope that we are more than mere scientific accidents -- that keeps us going.

    In that sense, I think it is quite instinctive is us to believe in something. Even most atheists believe in the spiritual qualities of man, and show it by the way they act. In a sense, all of these impossibilities of believing in nothing make believing in something the only livable option. And somehow I think most of us would find it extremely hard to swallow that the Truth with a capital T could possibly be so empty.


  5. I just saw a video of a bunch of male chicks being fed, alive, into a macerator (high-speed grinder)- because they're not USEFUL!! Flapping and tweeting one second- the next, GONE!! The 'spark' of life put out just like that. They can't lay eggs, and we bred them, so they don't deserve to live- apparently! And this happens ALL THE TIME.

    You're worried that life would be so 'empty' and 'meaningless' without some powerful being giving us a purpose. I recommend just being glad you have one, regardless of whether it was put there by a god, because in this world, life is so easily snuffed out- and, as the evidence suggests, this is probably all there is. Which makes is SO, SO, SO TRAGIC when it's senselessly taken away from creatures, including, of course, but not exclusively, people.

    Pascal's Wager, as you present it, softens the blow- life isn't for really living, it's a test! It about connecting with God and it's meaningless if you don't! The real living comes later with Him! But that's bad- sometimes we need the full force of the blow if we're really going to be motivated to make things better. And it's important to make things better on earth, because this is the only life that we *know* that we have.

    The problem is that we don't really value life and never really have. Not all life. With the Christian viewpoint that life is just a test for us that we hope to move on from and is somewhat irrelevant in any other regard, what reason do we have to see the value in anything other than our *own*, human lives? What reason do we have to really focus on life on this planet for *all* who live here? If we instead believe that we are of equal worth as all other animals, as scientific study suggests, because we were not made in the image of a god, and that this world was not made *for* us, but we are just lucky to be part of it- then we can truly see the value of life- not just human, but *all* life- and justify doing something about it to make it fairer for all creatures who live here.

    This is a rant that takes the discussion on a bit of a tangent, I know- but I feel like Pascal's Wager doesn't cut it for me. It suggests taking the 'nicer' answer to make us feel better. In some circumstances that may be ok, but when it comes to life itself- that's just not good enough. It's too important. I'd rather feel miserable and afraid and understand the bad things of the world and try to do something about them than feel better with *this* idea of reality- that life only matters if it was made in the image of a supernatural being and if it's got 'meaning'- which can be part of the problem I've described.

    Religion doesn't help anything but humans, and often doesn't even help them... There is A LOT of suffering in the world.