Pascal’s Wager Redux

I’ve just read a short piece from Sam Harris which was published in the Washington Post’s religious discussion site, On Faith, titled Religion as a Black Market for Irrationality. If you haven’t seen it yet, go back and read it quickly. It’s short, and I can wait…

…Finished? OK. In his usual concise and to-the-point manner, Harris presents the idea that religious belief is irrational. He asks how one can possibly talk oneself into believing something one doesn’t find reasonable.

Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:

“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”

This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true. While lapses in rationality can often be detected in retrospect, they always occur in the dark, outside of consciousness. In every present moment, a belief entails the concurrent conviction that we are not just fooling ourselves.

He then suggests that only faith allows one to fool oneself “into thinking that he is maintaining his standards of reasonableness, while forsaking them.”

This has always been my primary reason for finding Pascal’s Wager to be, if I can put it politely, somewhat unhelpful. You remember PW? Blaise Pascal presented the question of believing in god in the form of a wager, a bet:

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).

The problem with this is that it assumes belief to be a conscious choice on the part of the wagerer. It pretends that the person making the bet is weighing his options – believe or not believe – and having weighed the potential consequences, either chooses one of the other. But as Harris points out, belief is not something you choose; belief chooses you. Part and parcel of the belief process is the belief that your belief is true. You cannot concurrently believe something is true, and that it is false. That would be a paradox. If you choose to believe in god, but are not convinced god exists, you do not believe in god, within any definition of the word belief. You are just going through the motions, in the hopes that the god you choose to believe in doesn’t notice that you are lying to yourself, and will reward your choice.

If you believe in an omniscient god, he has to know you don’t really believe, correct? So exactly how does Pascal’s Wager get you anywhere, if, as Harris contends, “reason is a compulsion, not a choice”.

The obvious answer is it doesn’t. It’s a useless, fruitless wager.

If faith is the only way you can talk yourself into believing in something for which there is no evidence, and faith continues to work only if it is reinforced by others who use it to validate their beliefs, is faith really a virtue?

Or a means of self delusion?

For me, truth is it’s own reward. I refuse to believe in god under threat of having chosen unwisely, to my eternal shame.

5 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager Redux

  1. While you’re right, there is another way that Pascal’s Wager could work. Live a lie long enough and there’s a chance that you will end up believing it yourself.

    If there’s a god, Pascal’s wager wouldn’t help you right away, but once you’ve thoroughly brainwashed yourself, you could conceivably believe.

  2. @King

    I think that may be why PW is such a persuasive argument for believers. They actually already believe, so for them, they not only believe in god, but they believe that their belief is true, so PW is a logical tour de’ force, for them.

    Dennett hits on this a little in his book, Breaking the Spell where he describes the phenomenon as “the belief in belief”.


    Thanks. Enjoy!

  3. It’s hard to imagine why anyone even mentions Pascal’s wager any more. Since Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, including in the area of gambling and odds-making, I’ve always believed that his “wager” was intended as a joke. Of course, the church has never been famous for its sense of humor, so they took it literally.

    Unfortunately, no one gave this alternative wager, which I’ve invented:

    If you believe in the Sno-ball goddess, you’ll have all the Hostess Sno-balls you want, plus anything else you like to eat, at every communal meal when you die. If you don’t believe in the Sno-ball goddess, you’ll have nothing but Kraft macaroni and cheese and cauliflower, for breakfast and lunch and dinner and snacktime and high tea and low tea, meal after meal after meal, into eternity.

    So: If you erroneously believe in the Sno-ball goddess, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in the Sno-ball goddess, you gain an infinite number of goodies. But if you correctly disbelieve in the Sno-ball goddess, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in the Sno-ball goddess, you’re stuck with a boring diet forever and ever.

  4. I equate Pascal’s Wager to the modern “Please just give Jesus a try. Just try praying and asking Him to come in to your heart and save you. What do you have to lose”?

    What indeed? Nothing. But the problem is exactly what you point out. If you seriously think of life from a rational viewpoint, you CAN NOT equally seriously “give it a try”. If you DO “give it a try” (with the serious intent of “finding out”, then you were not looking at life from a totally rational viewpoint!

    Of course you will be susceptible to finding Jesus during the course of your prayers. You were susceptible the moment you dropped reason while dropping to your knees.

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