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An Earthly Version of Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)—the brilliant French physicist, mathematician, and theologian—understood how people of good conscience might be unconvinced by the arguments (or so-called proofs) for the existence of the Christian God. He worried that if finite human beings could not find sufficient evidence to definitively answer the question of God’s existence, the benefits of a better life on earth and eternal life after death might be denied to people of good conscience through no fault of their own.

To address this concern, Pascal did not attempt to devise a new argument for the existence of the Christian God, but chose instead to argue for belief in His existence, regardless of whether there were good reasons to believe in God.

Pascal devised a simple wager, left to us in his posthumous notes. He proposed that a rational person would reason that if God does not exist, then either believing or not believing that He does exist would cost nothing. But a rational person would also reason that if God does in fact exist, then failing to believe that He does would cost personal salvation from the travails of this life and everlasting life in the hereafter. They are what I call “The Prize.” In Pascal’s words, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing” (Pensées 233). Some Christians would add the incentive of avoiding eternal damnation, a consequence of unwisely choosing not to believe in a Christian God that does in fact exist.

Pascal’s proposal is predicated upon the notion that God grants the benefits of personal salvation and everlasting life to those who believe in Him. In other words, it is not just the existence of God at issue, but the existence of a Christian God capable of granting such a prize (or, in the case of damnation, of imposing such a punishment) on the basis of one’s belief.

Now, if this sounds kind of circular as a proof for the existence of the Christian God, it certainly is. But Pascal is not trying to prove God’s existence. He is only trying to justify one’s belief in His existence on purely subjective (yet rational) grounds in the absence of objective evidence or compelling reason for the Christian God’s existence.

To Pascal’s way of thinking, if one wagers correctly, one wins the greatest possible reward; but if one wagers incorrectly, one loses the opportunity for the greatest possible reward. Precisely because Pascal believed that the stakes were so high, he thought that such a wager was an unavoidable imperative. Every human being must actually place a bet in favor of believing, or one against believing, in the Christian God. The bet, however, is not on whether everyone should believe, just the person making the bet.

Some Christian apologists have claimed that Pascal’s wager is decisive. Christian evangelicals find in it a useful weapon in their efforts to convert the world to a Christian point of view. But does Pascal’s wager really work? Is it “rational” to use it for the purpose for which it was intended?

In order to evaluate it fairly, some time ago I began to think about what it would be like to bring Pascal’s wager down to earth, so to speak. In that context, I offer the following hypothetical “earthly” translation of Pascal’s wager as a thought exercise, if you will. I have chosen to call it “Philo’s benefactor.”

Philo’s Benefactor

Out of the blue, Philo, an acquaintance of yours, invites you to lunch claiming to have some “good news” to share with you. After the normal small talk over lunch, Philo announces that, unbeknownst to you, there is a wealthy, powerful benefactor that has opened a bank account in your name. He then explains that the funds in the account are virtually unlimited and are available immediately. When you, just a bit incredulous, ask how you got so lucky, Philo explains that the benefactor knows you very well and, knowing that you are a good person, has decided to reward you.

Of course, all of this sounds too good to be true, but because your curiosity is piqued, you inquire as to the name of this mystery benefactor. Philo provides a name, but it is not one with which you are familiar. When you tell him that you do not recognize the name, Philo continues to insist that the benefactor knows you very well and that you really do know him. You ask for a description of the benefactor. Philo provides a lengthy profile including instances in which you and the benefactor surely came in contact. Your curiosity remains unsatisfied. Neither the description nor the instances he cites ring a bell.

When you inform him of this, Philo continues unfazed, “There are a couple of things you need to know before I share the requirements for access to the funds. First, the person giving you this money is also my benefactor. So, I have personal experience with what you are going through. Second, as I indicated earlier, the benefactor is extremely powerful and would be greatly disappointed if you were to refuse this opportunity, or failed in any way to comply with the requirements.

Now, of course, you are wondering what kind of “good news” this really is. But before you can ask another question, Philo further explains: “In order to gain access to the funds, you will be required to file a notarized affidavit affirming that your answers to two questions are accurate, and pass a polygraph examination on the truth of those answers. The first question is, “Do you believe that the benefactor exists?” The second question is, “Do you believe the bank account with unlimited funds exists?”

You ask Philo if he is serious, because this sounds like some kind of a joke.

“Yes, I am very serious,” Philo states matter-of-factly, and then adds, “And now that I have presented this opportunity to you, I am obligated to inform you that you have no choice but to answer the two questions, because if you refuse, the benefactor will assume that you are answering “No,” the funds will be withdrawn, and the account will be closed.”

Based upon what you have been told, you naturally conclude that there is no good reason to believe in either the existence of the benefactor or the bank account. So you propose to Philo that you need more to go on, such as evidence of said bank account, maybe meet said benefactor in person, etc., before making a decision.

Philo rejects your proposal, insisting that, per instructions from the benefactor, you have been provided with all of the information that you need to make your decision.

Under such circumstances what would you, a rational person, do? Would you say “Yes” to the questions, just in case? After all, there seems to be a lot at stake. Would you flip a coin? With heads you answer the questions in the affirmative, with tails you don’t? Or would you just pay for your lunch, indicate a lack of interest in pursuing the opportunity further, and walk away thinking that something too good to be true most likely is too good to be true?

Both Pascal’s wager and Philo’s benefactor are deliberate contrivances. Pascal presents an argument intended to persuade someone to believe that something is the case in the absence of any good reason or factual evidence to do so. Philo presents a petition to believe something is the case without good reason. Here are my thoughts on how the two correspond analogously:

First, we can imagine Philo’s proposition having great appeal to someone under financial stress, but having less appeal—maybe none at all—to a person already in possession of significant wealth. In a similar fashion, Pascal’s yarn is more likely to appeal to someone in personal travail, someone predisposed to the idea that their sins are responsible for their earthly problems and that the prospect of everlasting life is desirable. But to someone that gives no credence to the notion of sin or the concept of everlasting life, Pascal’s appeal will more likely fall on deaf ears. So both the argument presented by Pascal and the opportunity presented by Philo are persuasive when the target concedes a pre-existing need conjoined with presumptive belief. Absent that need and presumptive belief, their proposals will have less effect, if any.

Second, we can question whether either story actually describes “wagering” in any intelligible sense. Begin by asking what of value is actually being wagered. What of value is at risk? The answer in both cases is “nothing.” Nothing, that is, unless it is also argued that what a person believes has some intrinsic value in and of itself.

Both stories are built on a “nothing lost, nothing gained” proposition in the event that God or the benefactor do not exist. This is equivalent to proposing that you buy a raffle ticket, for example. The ticket represents your bet that the raffle and a prize exist in the first place, and if they don’t, you get your money back.

Would someone really place a wager without first knowing that there is something on which to wager? Who, for example, would place a bet on the outcome of a lottery in which there is no evidence that there even is a lottery? Who would place a bet on the outcome of a race unless they were also convinced that there was a race to be run (on which to wager)? Wagering itself must assume the existence of something upon which to wager. Pascal and Philo appear to be suggesting that it is rational to place a wager on whether there exists the very thing on which the wager is placed.

Third, while we grant that a person cannot win a lottery without purchasing a lottery ticket, one’s personal belief about whether his ticket is a winning or losing one is irrelevant to whether it is in fact a winner or a loser. In the case of Pascal and Philo, however, personal belief turns out to be not just relevant to obtaining a favorable result, but determinative of it. In both cases, what is “believed” is more than just an influencing factor toward a favorable outcome—it is the singular deciding factor. Positive belief is required to produce this outcome, without which the outcome is unfavorable! This amounts to saying that it is rational for a legitimate wagering opportunity to exist such that if you believe that you have the winning bet, you will in fact have the winning bet precisely because you believed that it was the winning bet when you placed it!

Fourth, in Pensées 233, Pascal—an early correspondent on probability theory—states: “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?” This has led some evangelical Christians to suggest that the “choice” with respect to the existence of the Christian God is simple. It is as simple as a single flip of a coin, of which you are fully capable of predicting the result. They insist that the only thing preventing you from making the correct call of heads or tails while the coin is in the air is your personal stubbornness. But can this be true with respect to what is alleged to be the most important decision that you will ever make? What is rational about making a decision on the basis of a coin-flip? Perhaps it is rational to flip a coin when trying to choose between what appears to be two intellectually or morally equivalent positions. In the case of Pascal or Philo, however, one might imagine not just a single coin to be flipped, but several. Perhaps an unpredictable number of coins would need to be flipped to approximate a rational decision in this regard. Flip a coin on whether you believe that the Christian God exists, sure. But have you flipped another on whether sin exists, another on whether you are sinful and in need of salvation, another on the possibility of everlasting life, another on whether everlasting life would be good or bad, and so forth? Does the order in which the coins are flipped matter? Must you flip the “sin” coin first, then the “everlasting” coin, etc.? What if a coin is flipped in the wrong place within the sequence of flips? If you start with whether you believe—heads you do, tails you don’t—then you might hope that the first flip ends up tails because then you would be done. There would be no need to flip any more. Apply the same thinking to Philo’s story regarding your financial condition, how much you actually trust Philo, and so forth, and you have analogous issues.

Finally, the very idea of wagering one’s personal belief is problematic for both Pascal and Philo because our thoughts are not permanent. Our beliefs, mental dispositions, and states of mind can and do change. Sometimes they change moment to moment. Human beings also have the capacity to believe that something is true while also harboring doubts. This raises the question of how much doubt, if any, the Christian God tolerates. Pascal doesn’t say.

In the hypothetical scenario of Philo’s benefactor, if one fails the polygraph exam, even if they signed the affidavit, they lose. In Pascal’s wager, could a similar situation occur if God senses that the “believer” harbors even the slightest doubt? What happens if God “believes” or otherwise senses that the “believer” really does not believe? What happens if the believer mentally vacillates at the moment of death? One might think that a rational person would consider whether they are even able to maintain a steadfast confidence before the bet is placed.

We are skeptical of things that are too good to be true precisely because they might lead to harmful action. What is the harm in betting on the Christian God, as Pascal would have us do? Is there really nothing to lose, but everything to gain? The answer depends upon how much value we assign to intellectual integrity. Pascal’s wager appears to endorse abject intellectual laziness. Just forget about finding good reasons for believing in the Christian God and believe anyway! At the very least, Pascal’s wager posits a Christian God that would have us deny or at least abandon the efficacy of the human intellect to figure things out.

Is Pascal’s wager an intellectual ruse, or misdirection? Well, here is what I think Pascal is saying in a nutshell:

“Even though we have no good reason to believe that something is the case, if that something sounds supremely wonderful or desirable, then we ought to believe it to be true on the off-chance that it is.”

If this thinking were a directive for action, it would direct us to suspend all judgment or method by which we ordinarily come to believe that something is true, and just believe that it is true anyway. There are examples of people adopting such thinking often to their great dismay.

People are duped by Internet solicitations promising great wealth. On the off-chance that the opportunity is true, they hope to gain something of great value, willingly risking less than the promised value to be obtained, only to end up delivering their life savings to a scammer. If all that is at stake is “belief,” how much easier does it appear to win a prize if all that you have to do is believe something to be true, and where the only thing at risk is that very belief? The only penalty is the realization that your belief was without merit.

Curiously, a common element in the thinking of stalkers appears to be the existence of a “prize” so highly valued that they are willing to do anything to acquire it. In some cases it is the love or affection of another person. In the worst of cases it is the power to control or end a life. For John Hinckley, Jr., the prize was the affection of actress Jodie Foster. In his fantasy, there existed a mutual special connection with Foster. During therapy, Hinckley admitted (and this is the kicker) that he had no good reason to believe that Foster, whom he stalked on the Yale University campus, could ever come to love him. When hindered by the fact that she was unaware of him, his fantasy prompted him to begin taking specific actions. He followed her around campus, and then sent love notes to her. When these acts did not produce the desired result, his fantasy had to be reimagined. Hinckley thought that it was not enough for her to just be aware of his existence and proximity, and so the next step was for him to become as famous as she was—perhaps even notorious. And what better way to gain notoriety than to assassinate the President of the United States, who at the time was Ronald Reagan? So, he tried that. Fortunately, he failed.

To my point, even though Hinckley had no good reason to believe that his notoriety would cause Foster to love him, the proposition of gain was so wonderful and desirable that he came to believe it was true merely on the off-chance that it was true. Hinckley and his lawyers successfully plead insanity.

By this analysis, Pascal’s wager is neither decisive nor representative of how a rational person would think.

A rational person is not going to flip a coin, or even several coins, to decide what’s true. A rational person is going to insist on factual evidence coupled with cogent argument in order to believe that anything of consequence is true. A rational person is going to place a greater value on the exercise of intellectual rigor than on a questionable promise of wealth or happiness or longer life.

A rational person would respond to Philo along these lines:

“If this person that you claim to represent is truly my benefactor, by now you would have already given me the name of the bank, the account number, and the password to access the funds. Until I make a successful withdrawal, I will not believe that anything that you have said is true, nor will I act as if it were.”

A rational person would respond to Pascal in similar fashion:

“If this Christian God exists, for all I know, the promises of salvation and everlasting life may have already been granted to me even though I do not believe in this God. This position is no less credible than the position such promises are contingent upon my believing that this Christian God does exist. My choice is to assign a greater value to my intellectual integrity than I would to any promise of gain or benefit from any god, the existence of which lacks sufficient factual evidence or convincing argument.”