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Pascal's Wager

In the seventeenth century the mathematician Blaise Pascal formulated his infamous pragmatic argument for belief in God in Pensées. The argument runs as follows:

If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

How should you bet? Regardless of any evidence for or against the existence of God, Pascal argued that failure to accept God's existence risks losing everything with no payoff on any count. The best bet, then, is to accept the existence of God. There have been several objections to the wager: that a person cannot simply will himself to believe something that is evidently false to him; that the wager would apply as much to belief in the wrong God as it would to disbelief in all gods, leaving the the believer in any particular god in the same situation as the atheist or agnostic; that God would not reward belief in him based solely on hedging one's bets; and so on.

-- Keith Augustine

In addition to the articles below, see also related Debates, Reviews, and Links. To purchase related reading, go to the Secular Web Book Store.

Blaise Pascal: An Apologist for Our Times (1998) (Off Site) by Rick Wade

Lauding Pascal as a modern-day apologist with a "rare ... understanding of the human condition," the author suggests that Pascal was not "interested in defending Christianity as a system of belief; his interest was evangelistic." Article from Probe Ministries, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to "reclaim the primacy of Christian thought and values in Western culture through media, education, and literature."

The End of Pascal's Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven (2003) by Richard Carrier

A successful rebuttal to any form of Pascal's Wager, a rebuttal which requires theists to abandon several of their cherished beliefs about god and/or heaven if they are to escape its logic, demonstrating in the process that unbelief may be the safest bet after all.

The End of Pascal's Wager? (2006) by Richard C. Carrier

In her critique of Richard Carrier's "The End of Pascal's Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven", Amy Sayers offers several objections to Carrier's conclusion that belief in God is not the best bet on any form of Pascal's wager. However, as Richard Carrier proceeds to show in this rebuttal, Sayers only demonstrates that she does not understand either the logic of Pascal's Wager or Carrier's actual argument.

On Rescher On Pascal's Wager (1990) by Graham Oppy

In response to Nicholas Rescher's Pascal's Wager: A Study Of Practical Reasoning In Philosophical Theology, I propose to defend the traditional view that Pascal's Wager argument is almost entirely worthless--at least from the theological standpoint. (No doubt, it has historical significance from the standpoint of decision theory; but that's a separate matter.)

Pascal's Wager (1995) by Paul O'Brien

From Part Eight of O'Brien's Gentle Godlessness: A Compassionate Introduction to Atheism.

Pascal's Wager (from Review of Ravi Zacharias Can Man Live Without God?) (2000) by Jeffery Jay Lowder

Lowder responds to Zacharias's charge that atheists will have "absolutely no recourse" if atheism turns out to be false.

Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet) (1997) by Jeffery Jay Lowder

An overview of the argument and its fallacies. From the "Common Arguments" section of The Atheism Web.

Pascal's Wager Is A Possible Bet (But Not A Very Good One): Reply To Harmon Holcomb III (1996) by Graham Oppy

In "To Bet The Impossible Bet," Harmon Holcomb III argues that Pascal's wager is structurally incoherent, that it would otherwise succeed, and that Oppy's critique of the wager in "On Rescher On Pascal's Wager" is vitiated by relying on "logicist" presuppositions. But only its invocation of infinite utilities could make the wager "incoherent," and if these are admissible, the wager is still defeated by the "many gods" and "many wagers" objections. "Logicist" presuppositions are irrelevant: atheists and agnostics typically hold that they have no more reason to believe in the traditional Christian God than in countless alternative deities.

Pascal's Wager Refuted (2000) by Theodore M. Drange

The author schematizes the infamous argument for belief called "Pascal's Wager," after the seventeenth century French philosopher who first posed it. This argument is then critically analyzed.

Playing the Odds (1991) by Farrell Till

"'If I am right and you are wrong....' How many times have bibliolaters said this to skeptics after all rational efforts to defend the Bible have failed?" Farrell Till responds to this oft-given inerrantist argument.

A Refutation of Pascal's Wager and Why Skeptics Should be Nontheists (1999) (Off Site) by Massimo Pigliucci

"One of the most popular arguments of people who believe in a God and would like to make an 'irrefutable' argument for their beliefs is the (in)famous 'Pascal wager.' Within the skeptic and humanist communities, one of the most delicate, politically wide-ranging, and emotionally charged debates concerns the question: should a coherent skeptic also be an atheist (or at least agnostic)? This essay attempts to discuss a fundamental link between the two issues, while making use of an essential component of the scientific method to solve both.

Review of Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism (2006) by Theodore M. Drange

Jordan Howard Sobel's Logic and Theism is long, abstruse, and technical, but valuable for those who have an interest in its topics. Those looking for arguments based on empirical phenomena said to be best explained by the God hypothesis should look elsewhere. Sobel's focus is, rather, issues of definition and logical structure. He addresses everything from the ontological argument to the fine-tuning argument, demolishing all of the main arguments for God's existence. Moreover, he argues that the kind of omnipotence and omniscience that theists ascribe to God is incoherent, and defends both evidential and logical arguments from evil against the existence of God. Finally, he turns to a discussion of practical reasons for belief in God, such as those invoked by Pascal's wager. No cutting-edge research on these topics should omit Sobel's work.

The Rivalry Between Religions (2007) by Raymond D. Bradley

In this highly original and challenging essay, Raymond Bradley develops an argument that all religions are probably false inspired by David Hume's famous discussion of the 'contrary miracles' of rival religions. According to Bradley's argument from contrariety, any one of the vast numbers of religions ever conceived (or to be conceived) makes factual claims contradicted by the claims of all of the other religions. Moreover, the claims of any particular religion are generally as well-attested as the claims of all of the others. Consequently, given the "weight" of the "evidence" of all of the other religions, the probability that the claims of any one religion are true is exceedingly low. From this it follows that all religions are probably false.

Theistic Belief and Religious Uncertainty (Great Debate) (2008) by Jeffrey Jordan

In what he calls his "Jamesian wager," Jeffrey Jordan argues that accepting the proposition "God exists" provides certain this-worldly benefits to the believer, regardless of whether there are any good reasons to think that the proposition is true, and thus we ought to believe that God exists in order to receive those benefits. The wager is premised on what Jordan calls the "Next Best Thing Principle," which applies when one is forced to decide in the absence of tipping evidence. The Principle maintains that if an action produces no outcome worse than the worst outcomes of its alternatives, and produces an outcome as good as the best outcomes of its alternatives, and finally has other outcomes better than that of its alternatives, then we ought to choose that action. Unlike Pascal's famous wager, on the Jamesian wager the benefits of belief in God are realized even if "God exists" turns out to be false. Turning to the evidence from social science, Jordan concludes that believing in God is probably better for the individual than not believing with regard to happiness and mortality, and moreover that disbelief does not seem to produce any greater benefits which overcome the advantages enjoyed by belief.

Jordan's Jamesian Wager (Great Debate) (2008) by John Schellenberg

Jeffrey Jordan contends that there are good prudential reasons to believe that theism is true even if the evidence for or against it is indecisive. But his "Jamesian wager" fails because it is unduly dismissive of various nontheistic religious possibilities, while the pragmatic benefits of religious belief he appeals to suggest that any form of religious belief can be life-enhancing. The community support and psychological integration grounded in a cosmic optimism found in all religions surely generate the various this-worldly benefits Jordan emphasizes rather than theism per se. Moreover, no one fully cognizant that the evidence for theism is no better than the evidence against it can believe theism without fooling herself about what the evidence shows. Belief in the absence of tipping evidence amounts to belief that the evidence on one side is stronger than the evidence on the other, contrary to the facts, and thus is dishonest self-deception. The benefits of faith or hope without belief are at least as great as those of self-deception, but without retaining what is detrimental about self-deception. Thus, all things considered, it is irrational to take steps to self-deceptively induce theistic belief on pragmatic grounds when superior alternatives are available.

On Joining the Ranks of the Faithful (Great Debate) (2008) by Jeffrey Jordan

John Schellenberg suggests that faith (not belief) that there is some ultimate reality in relation to which an ultimate good can be attained is preferable to old-fashioned theistic belief, as theistic belief in the absence of tipping evidence amounts to self-deception. However, self-deception only arises when inculcating a belief which one takes to be false, not a belief for which there is no tipping evidence or an indeterminate probability. A belief that a proposition is probably the case is not the same as a belief that a proposition is probably the case based on the evidence at hand. Because one can generate a belief on the basis of a pragmatic reason without self-deception, Schellenberg's objection fails. Contra Schellenberg, the opportunity for hope and optimism is far greater with theism than with naturalism; and the expected benefits associated with a religious commitment swamp those of naturalism, even if religious uncertainty obtains. It would be irresponsible to forego theism's established this-worldly benefits in favor of a nontheistic religion for which there is little or no evidence of comparable this-worldly benefits. And even if non-Western religions produce comparable benefits to Western ones, it is hard to see how this would comfort the naturalist.