The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, April 9, 2012

Betting on Pascal's Wager

Every few months or so, I will find myself in conversation with someone who is religious, and will eventually bring up some variation of Pascal's Wager.  Sometimes it's very clearly articulated in it's classic form (follow the link above for an example), but most of the time it's done in a less formal way (likely not even intentionally referring to Pascal's idea, but nonetheless echoing it) by saying something along the lines: "but, aren't you afraid of Hell if you don't believe?" or, more common "but doesn't believing that death is the end just make you sad?"

I have described my view regarding death before, and see no reason to go into depth about it now.  Suffice to say, I have the same healthy respect for death that most adults do, but I don't think that I fear it overly-much.  So, no, the thought of death being the end doesn't make me sad, it makes me want to make my life better and make the world around me better.  And as I don't believe that there is any sort of torturous afterlife for the infidels, I don't fear that, either.

However, how I feel about death is, really, rather irrelevant.  I am, as far as I can determine, incapable of consciously making myself believe something that I know to be untrue.  So Pascal's wager simply doesn't work because I can't "wager that there is a god and heaven" because I can't force myself to believe in something without cause or evidence.

But there's another aspect of this that has always sort of bothered me.  It seems to me to be astoundingly sacrilegious and offensive to adopt the mantle of a faith for personal gain, as opposed to because of sincere belief.  The difference between joining a church in hope of eternal rewards and joining a church in hopes of some sort of material gain (say, for example, business contacts) is a difference of degree, not of type.  And it seems insulting to those who do sincerely believe that someone would join in hopes of avoiding punishment or gaining a reward, as opposed to joining because they honestly believe the tenets of the religion. 

As a result, whenever someone brings up Pascal's Wager in some form or another, I find myself wondering whether the person doing so is actually one of the faithful themselves, or if they are someone without severe doubts who professes a stronger belief than they actually possess out of a hope for reward or an avoidance of punishment, and is somehow seeking group absolution in trying to get others to join them.


Evan Davis said...

I'm surprised at how much I agree with things you mentioned in this post.

Anthroslug said...

Given that you feel rather strongly about your own beliefs, I am not surprised that we agree on much concerning the general oddness of Pascal's wager. I have always thought that it was both logically poor, and an insult to honest religious belief.

Gordon said...

I was a believer when I first heard Pascal's Wager, and I actually thought it sounded clever.

It works, so long as you are not part of the target audience. If you already believe the wager ounds great.