Pascal's wager


B. Pascal's wager.

But, let us move on to the basic question: How is Christianity (the basic meme, "God exists"), attractive when it seems so wrought with substantial theoretical problems (e.g., the problem of evil; the problem of the Trinity; the problem of the creation of the world as being a distinct substance from God) which defy rational solution? Why should, in light of these problems, rational persons believe that God exists? Pascal dealt with this problem and came up with his famous "wager" argument as both an answer and a persuasive explanation or apology. Let me reiterate his argument for us.

Pascal's first step is to grant to the skeptic that reason cannot decide or ever have enough evidence to show that either God exists or that God does not exist. It is perpetually true that "Either God exists or He does not exist." The disjunction can never be resolved through evidence gathered or conjured by reason. Second step. However, Pascal goes on to say that these alternatives are important in that the decision we make on the issue is one which will affect our lives in the world; choosing one option over another will make a difference in our behavior and ultimately our livelihood. We MUST choose one alternative over the other. The disjunction is not one that we can ignore, for each alternative involves a different lifestyle. Moreover, not choosing is in fact opting for atheism, not agnosticism. In terms of behavior, agnosticism and atheism entail the same kind of behavior in contrast to that demanded by theism. In terms of belief, they are extensionally equivalent. Third step. Since we cannot give reasons or arguments that God exists (or does not exist), we may give apologies for having a belief in one alternative over the other. That is to say, since God cannot be proved to exist, let us simply give justifications for having the belief that "God exists." Pascal will allow reason to support an affirmation of a belief IN God when it cannot supply evidence for a belief THAT God exists. Again, Pascal's method is not to prove THAT God exists, only to show that we are justified in having reasons for having the belief IN God. (Proving THAT (something) involves giving reasons which involve truth or falsity; giving reasons for believing IN something involves giving affirmations for that belief.) These constitute the basic premises of his argument. What is left to do is to show what are the justifications for having a belief in God.

A brief excursus is in order here. This tactic of Pascal's is very much like initiating a "self-fulfilling prophecy" behavior modification procedure. We do such things all the time. Although I am a terrible musician, if I think of myself as a professional artist and try to play as if I were a professional artist, I play better. It remains a fact that I am a poor musician. However, when I think of myself as a professional, I either do play better as a fact or my experience of playing is more satisfactory to me. Setting a goal, sometimes even an unrealistic goal, can change one's behavior enough to either achieve the goal or come closer to it than otherwise. And even if the desired behavior (being a better musician) is never achieved, the experience of believing that one is playing better may suffice for having a better day than otherwise. The subjective experience may be more important than the objective fact.

What Pascal does is to show that it is pragmatically wise (it is a good bet) to choose the alternative "God exists" and act as if the alternative were true. We are justified in putting our "life-chips," our happiness, on God rather than atheism. Choosing does not mean that we have to actually (at first) think that God exists, only that we act as if He does. Why? Here is where the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect enters. Remember, with self-fulfilling prophecies, the objective fact of the matter may be ignored in favor of the subjective benefits gained from the desired goal. Enter the religious sub-memes. With Pascal's wager, basically, there are two subjective benefits wrapped up in one sub-meme which I mentioned in the introductory list of religious sub-memes: "Things will get better sooner or later." According to the way we should think about the outcomes of wagering our happiness, by betting on God, things will get better BOTH sooner and later. How so?

With respect to sooner, Pascal asks us what we would stand to lose were we not to believe? His answers can be boiled down to the following. On the "sooner" side of the outcome board, we would lose the Christian way of life with all its benefits. More precisely, we would have to give up our desires to do wrong things and the presumed benefits associated with wrong actions. But, if we are rational and moral persons, giving up wrong practices is truly desirable; what good reasons could we give for wanting to do harm to others and produce a bad world to live in? What better good could be imagined than to live in a moral world? So, betting on God and acting morally, on a prima facie basis, should lead to happiness sooner.

On the other hand (with respect to later), there is everything to gain: the rewards of Heaven and an eternal blissful afterlife, which would include, as Morris notes in his paper, the satisfaction of knowing that the right choice was made. If a good gambler's rule is to minimize losses (pain and suffering) while maximizing gains (happiness) in a gambling situation, then ,clearly says Pascal, betting on God is the correct alternative. So, even if we do not believe that God exists, acting as if He did will produce benefits sooner. Even though, objectively, God's existence is in question, subjectively, acting as if God exists produces a better life style.

Of course, a better life style does not mean that the pains and torments of life will go away. Far from that. But, it does mean that a believer will be in a better position to understand his misery and know that being courageous through these trials will enable him to appreciate the great gains later. Further, the mere support of the belief in God will make the pains and torments more tolerable. Which situation would you rather be in? The first is one in which you are in pain and torment with no internal psychological support to endure that misery, with no hope that things will get better. Or, a second situation in which there is the same pain and torment, but you have an added measure of courage and acceptance that in the long run, you will be all right. The second is the preferred choice. A belief in God provides this beneficial psychological disposition.

Why is Pascal's wager so attractive? How exactly do the religious sub-memes operate in Pascal's argument to skew the decision towards God?

Let's look again at the sub-meme, "Things will get better sooner or later." From a pragmatic perspective, what this proposition means is expressed in the conditional, "If I do the right religious acts and have the correct belief (in God), then I will be better off now and later." The sub-meme promises immediate and future goods for doing certain types of actions (acting in a Christian way) through entertaining beliefs about God.

Why does this sub-meme have such efficacy, survival value and ease of inoculation; why is it attractive? Again, the sub-meme requests that we do actions which are very reasonable; the actions required are those which persons on a prima facie basis consider to be right or moral. Basically, it is an affirmation of the obligation to care about other persons even at personal expense. A rational person would think that such a requirement is proper on both utilitarian and deontological grounds. On utilitarian grounds, doing right actions has the goal of producing overall good; what other reason would there be for doing the action? As a general rule of thumb, rationally determined actions which aim at maximizing the overall good are usually successful. On deontological grounds, it makes sense to treat other persons as ends not as mere means, especially when oneself could be on the receiving end of proposed actions. Or with respect to just deserts, one should get a reward for doing something right, or at least, bad persons should be punished. In fact, if a person believed that his good actions would be rewarded SOMETIME, he may be able to suffer terrible tragedy throughout his life without complaint, given the belief that he will be deservedly rewarded for his right efforts "later." If a person's primary desire is to be happy now and later, then a belief in God is worth having. So, the sub-meme has strong reinforcers.

Let's hold this sub-meme expressed as a conditional in mind and turn to the crux of the situation, the conflict between reason and religion. In the next section, we'll take a look at how the sub-meme we just examined combines with other religious sub-memes to overpower the judgments of reason, even reason supported by notions of what is good.

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