What is Pascal’s Wager?


January 21, 2013 by mattfradd

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician and philosopher who lived in the 17th century. In his Pensees (paragraph 233) he writes what has come to be known as “Pascals Wager.”

Blaise Pascal, 1623 - 1662

Blaise Pascal, 1623 – 1662

Though it’s often viewed as crass, I love it! Below is my pastiche:

Sometimes, after reflection and study, people feel that they can’t decide between atheism and belief in God. Where they are at that moment, the evidence seems to evenly weighted or too difficult to evaluate.

What then?

If these are the two belief systems that you feel torn between then there are two basic choices: You could choose to go ahead and belief in God or you could refrain from doing so.

If it seems impossible to decide between these options based on the evidence then one can legitimately consider the advantages of choosing one course of action over the other.

4 Possible Scenarios

What would the results be of your choice, depending on whether God really exists? There are four possible scenarios:

A. You choose to live as if God exists and you are correct:

God does exist.

B. You choose to live as if God does not exist, and

you are incorrect: God does exist.

C. You choose to live as if God exists, and you are incorrect:

God does not exist.

D. You choose to live as if God does not exist, and you are correct:

God does not exist.

If A is the case then you stand to receive the infinite good of everlasting life!

If B is the case then you risk missing out on this infinite good.

If C is the case then what awaits you after this life is not heaven but non-existence. During life you would have had a bit of inconvenience due to living as a believer and having to deny yourself certain things, but that is not as much of a problem as it might seem, since studies show believers tend to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

If D is the case then you would have a bit more freedom to indulge your lower passions in this life, but that is not as much a gain as it might seem, since you would also miss out on the benefits that religion brings to people’s lives, including a sense of purpose and meaning that there is no rational basis for if we are just walking bags of chemicals.

Comparing these four options, A would result in you achieving infinite gain, B would result in you missing this gain, and C and D would both involve small, finite gains or losses determined by the limitations involved in living as a believer and the benefits gained in this life by doing so.

That being the case, if you feel torn between atheism and belief in God, and if you feel that you can’t decide based on objective evidence, then your rational choice would be to go with belief in God. You stand to achieve an infinite good (if you are right) but only a finite loss at most (if you are wrong). By contrast, if you choose not to believe in God then you risk an infinite loss (if you are wrong) at at most a finite good (if you are right).

Rational self-interest, which is certainly part of human nature whether you believe God built it into us or not, clearly points toward believing in God.

Not an Argument for God’s Existence

Bear in mind that this is not an argument for Gods existence but rather an argument for belief in God’s existence. It doesn’t argue directly that he exists but that, in certain circmstances, it is rational for us to choose to believe in him.

It also is not an argument designed for every possible situation. It is designed for those who feel torn between atheism and belief in the kind of God that Christianity proposes, but who aren’t at a point where they feel that they can settle the question by objective evidence. If you are in that situation, then this argument can help you.

Some might have a concern that they would be doing something morally wrong if they were to choose belief in God without objective proof, but this argument can be turned on its head.

If atheism were true then there would be no objective moral values, and thus by definition your choosing to believe in God would not be morally wrong. You would be completely innocent in believing. There couldn’t be anything wrong with believing if there were no such thing as right and wrong to begin with.

Make Your Move

There are many times in life when we must make decisions about what we will believe without having conclusive proof. Such proof is a luxury that we often do not have.

If you waited, for example, to have conclusive proof that a prospective spouse will always be faithful to you and never betray you then you will never get married. In fact, in trying to obtain conclusive proof, you would likely crush the relationship between you before you were even engaged.

At some point, you must decide that you have “enough” to make the commitment and choose to embark on a life together, even without total proof. Given the fears and anxiety that often accompany the act of getting married, many people find themselves in a situation where, at least at the moment, they don’t know how to evaluate the evidence anymore and they must take a leap of faith to marry.

Something very similar applies to the decision to believe in God. Like marriage, it is a momentous, life-changing choice, and that can interfere with our ability to rationally evaluate evidence. When that happens, deciding based on self-interest is rational.

God understands that. In fact in the gospels Jesus appeals to our rational self-interest, asking, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV).

Now go and read Pascals Wager.

17 thoughts on “What is Pascal’s Wager?

  1. Lino says:

    B needs to be corrected to “God DOES exists”. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

  2. Chris says:

    Hey Matt, was (B) You choose to live as if God does not exist, and
    you are incorrect: God does not exist…. is that supposed to read “God does exist” ?

  3. Just a little detail: Pascal’s wager has many weak points, most notable the one, that if you decide, for example, to live your life as a Mormon, you could still loose everything if god turns out to be Odin. For others, see Wikipedia.

    • mattfradd says:

      Obviously; that is why I wrote, “It also is not an argument designed for every possible situation. It is designed for those who feel torn between atheism and belief in the kind of God that Christianity proposes, but who aren’t at a point where they feel that they can settle the question by objective evidence. If you are in that situation, then this argument can help you.”

  4. […] Christianity or Atheism: What If I Can’t Decide?. […]

  5. I’m really careful with this topic because I spent many years anxious about what “faith in Christ” meant – that it was not and never would be anything more than a wager – and spent years since then hearing such fears, both spoken and unspoken, from students I have encountered. Pascal’s Wager is a great reason for people to really give God a chance, maybe even stick with it when they are impatient. But ultimately we need to communicate especially to the doubtful that “faith” is, according to the Catechism “man’s response to God”, implying that the activity begins and ends with Him. WE can choose to follow the evidence and the wager to where they seem to be leading, we can choose to begin praying and asking God to make himself known to us, but “faith” is our “yes” to God’s invitation to come into relationship with Him.

    When Christ walked up to the various disciples and said “follow Me” – they didn’t do so because of a) conclusive evidence and reason they should do so or b) a random, blind obedience on off the off chance that this stranger was actually God. No. They followed Jesus Christ because they were offered and accepted the gift of faith, something internal, a stirring of their soul that can only be initiated by God Himself.

    I really like that you used a human relationship of marriage as an analogy. Getting into this relationship takes a “leap of faith” as we might call it, but we are leaping into a very real relationship. We are not merely choosing to make the mental act of belief in a proposition, but rather putting trust in a person.

    For the sake of the many people confused about what exactly we are proposing when we exhort them to put their “faith in Jesus Christ”, emphasizing this relationship is essential. It reminds (or perhaps reassures) people that the wagers or proofs are merely the beginning – the reasons to consider the relationship. If Christianity is what we say it is, they can come into a relationship with Christ, something our great saints tell us is the rule rather than the exception of Christian vocation.

  6. Miah Idema says:

    I am uncomfortable that Pascal’s wager encourages a belief in God based solely on the grounds of self-interest. Would God be pleased with one’s belief if it had been attained by a rational self-assurance conjured by mind tricks? This seems to be what the wager amounts to. For one who is sincerely trying to determine whether or not it is true that God exists it seems inappropriate to appeal to an even more complicated doctrine of eternal life and punishment. One must first decide if he believes in God before he is to be concerned about life after death. It is entirely possible he might affirm the first and deny the second as the entire Jewish religion does.

    • mattfradd says:

      I sympathise with your concern. The wager appeals to self-interest. Responding to Divine Revelation based solely on what you can get out of it (Heaven) and what you want to avoid (Hell) can be an immature response. Though it is an inadequate response, I think God stoops to conquer, and can lead one from a selfish to a selfless love.

      I disagree with your assertion that this is a mind trick though. These are simply the four possible outcomes if Christianity and Atheism are the religions/world views in question.

      I grant your point that certain religions may believe in God without believing in the afterlife, but this misses the point. I made it as clear as I could that:

      “It is…not an argument designed for every possible situation. It is designed for those who feel torn between atheism and belief in the kind of God that Christianity proposes.”

      So yes, if one is deciding between 10 religions or 100 religions then the argument fails.

      Thanks for your thoughts Miah!

  7. Louis says:

    My comment is the following:
    Matthew 9: 27-29

    And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.”
    When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.”
    Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.”

    Note: Now imagine the same words for two men one with faith, one Atheist.

  8. camostar says:

    What I love about Pascal’s Wager, and perhaps to the scorn of the traditional philosophy, is that it puts our focus in the right place. Traditionally we want to find out what is objectively true but Pascal, in line with prophetic tradition, somehow says it’s not so much what is true that matters but what we do with that truth. Agreed!

  9. Hitchslap says:

    No completely ignore the problem with Pascal’s wager. Belief is not a matter of choice. Moreover, if belief is not required to receive the “everlasting life” then what is required?

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