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Pascal's Wager: The Epitome of Irrational Rationality

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consutlant
posted Monday Oct 31, 2011 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consutlant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

You can read my full bio at http://www.BoBennett.com.

Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest minds of the rational revolution, is a perfect example of how one can be blinded by faith, causing oneself to form irrational conclusions even though he or she may be using valid reasoning.  Pascal, perhaps most well know for his work in mathematical probabilities, used probability in an argument he developed to evangelize his own religious beliefs.  In short, his argument states that it is a more reasonable bet, to wager that God does exists, than to risk being wrong (Hell implied).  Now although no serious theistic debater uses this argument (due to it's many problems) it remains one of the most common arguments used on those not skilled in philosophy, probability, or critical thinking.  The purpose of this article is not necessarily refute Pascal's argument, since it has been already refuted ad nauseam; the purpose is to show how rational thinking, when limited by a predetermined conclusion (in this case, that the Christian God exists), can easily lead to irrationality.  And Pascal's wager just happens to be a perfect example.

The quotes used in this article are from Pascal's Pensées, which has been publicly released under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License, and come from note 233 in the document, titled "Infinite -- nothing".

Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature, necessity, and can believe nothing else.

Immediately we need to recognize that the foundation of this argument is not a mathematical one, where Pascal is an recognized expert; it is one build on his faith, coming from the compartment where reason has no place. 

Unity joined to infinity adds nothing to it, no more than one foot to an infinite measure. The finite is annihilated in the presence of the infinite, and becomes a pure nothing.

Actually, it is the finite that make up the infinite.  In abstract mathematical terms, which is the only infinity we know, although any single number or point in an infinite series is not required for the series to be infinite, the infinite could not exist without numbers or points in the series. By Pascal's logic, if you remove the number 100 from an infinite series, then 100=0, or stated another way, because there is an infinite number of points between any two points, the distance between any two points must be zero.

We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is... So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is.

The fact that we don't know the nature of something, is not evidence for the existence of anything else of which we do not know the nature. This is like saying we know that a cow exists although we don't know who her father is, so we may "well know" that a unicorn exists, because we don't know its father is either.

Now, I have already shown that we may well know the existence of a thing, without knowing its nature.

Pascal has not defined what exactly "knowing its nature" means, so we cannot agree that we don't know the nature of the infinite any more than we can agree that we do know the nature of the finite.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.

Ironically, Pascal is not speaking of the Christian God of the Bible about whom we know a tremendous amount; he is speaking of an incomprehensible God -- at least here he is.  And of course, it is perfectly reasonable, although pointless, to say we cannot comprehend and incomprehensible being.

Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason?

All they can be accused of is not using reason, logic, or critical thinking to form this belief.  Beliefs based on "intuition", "gut feelings", "i just know", or "personal revelation" are suspect, to say the least, based on the extreme subjectivity involved, lack of empirical verification, and conflicting beliefs held by multiple people all claiming to use these sources of knowledge.

'God is, or He is not.' But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here... According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Once again, we need to point out that this only holds true based on the incomprehensible God Pascal defined above, not on a God who wrote a book telling us he does not want us to eat shellfish.

...you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.

A Pascalean caution to all those "agnostics" out there.  But actually, if God is, then Pascal is right in saying that this wager is not optional, and our "freewill" does have limitations, including the freedom not to make a choice.  But if God isn't, then it doesn't matter if we choose or not -- it would be optional. So to insist that it is not optional, rather than correctly stating that the accepting the wager itself is wager of equal probability, is an error.

You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery.

Here Pascal is conflating the God of philosophy (the unknowable, incomprehensible, undefinable God) with the God of the Catholic Church (the God who definitely doesn't want you to use condoms). If we do or do not bet on an incomprehensible God, that which we have to gain, lose, risk or shun, is -- simply incomprehensible.

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.

Once again, conflation of the gods.  To say that "we gain all" requires a comprehension of God, and what God has to offer.  Remember how Pascal defined (or didn't define) God:

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.

So how can we logically say that believing "God is" will result in "gaining all"? (referring to the Christian concept of everlasting life and happiness, as he soon explains). Once we can define God, not only does he become no longer incomprehensible, but we can then use reason in choosing a side of the wager. This also assumes very specific knowledge of a very specific God -- the Christian God whose son is Jesus Christ (who is actually himself... and his own father).  If the Jewish God exists, and we start worshiping a false god (Jesus) -- we are screwed.  Likewise, if Allah exists, the Koran is very clear that those who think Jesus is God will burn in Hell.  So the idea that "we gain all" is an idea based on Pascal's own faith, and one that could be terribly wrong.

Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss...

There is only equal risk if God is left undefined.  The moment we define God in any way, the chances of his existence decrease.  For example, if there is a nutshell, and we have no way of knowing if anything is under it, we can say that the probability of something being under the nutshell is .5 or 50/50.  Now if we ask what the probability is that there is something under the nutshell that will send you to Hell to suffer for eternity if you don't believe that the something is actually under there, we are no longer talking 50/50.

Pascal expands on his "what if" scenario working under the assumption that betting "God is" comes with an eternity of happiness.  His reasoning, based on that assumption, is spot on.  Again, the problem is in the assumption, not the reasoning. What Pascal also ignores is the possible eternity of suffering and misery if one of the infinite number of other possible gods are as jealous and vindictive as the Christian God, and would sentence non-believers to an eternity of suffering for worshiping the wrong god.  He also ignores the possibility of an infinite number of other gods existing that could reward eternal life and happiness to those who don't accept the idea of the Christian God. Pascal's major error is setting up this wager based on a false dichotomy.  This is like being forced to bet on red or black, when the outcome could possibly be any color along the infinite spectrum.

Now Pascal plays devil's advocate and asks,

"Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?"

His answer, in modern terms, "fake it 'till you make it". Suspend critical thinking in this area, or compartmentalize this belief and do not hold it to the same standards as your other beliefs.  If you allow yourself to do this, you will eventually "beLIEeve" (emphasis mine).  What Pascal was not aware of in his time, is the power of cognitive dissonance, or the minds natural defense against irrationality, and the differences in neural activity among individuals. For those whom this strategy might work are very likely to already have religious/supernatural tendencies.

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side?

If Pascal was being intellectually honest and asking this question like a scientist or mathematician, and not an apologist, being the probabilistic genius that he was, he might volunteer all the possible harms along with an estimated probability of each. Instead, he leaves the reader under the false impression that no harm will come from devoting your life to a god that might not exist.

You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful.

This is an inaccurate characterization of people who believe in God -- at least in today's world.  If not by observation alone, there is no credible evidence that suggests those who believe in God are more likely to possess and demonstrate all these values.  Regardless, not all of us require the promise of Heaven or the threat of Hell as the carrot and stick of morality.

Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury... for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory

Why would we want to poison God with glory?! Perhaps the poison will make this omniscient God forget that the reason we believe in him is to cover our own ass by making a safe bet.

Pascal's writing is an interesting mix of reason and nonsense.  His wager, specifically, is the epitome of irrational rationality.


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Bo Bennett, PhD
Founder and Developer of http://www.YourWebEmpire.com — A modular, web-based platform designed to quickly and easily create multiple attractive and highly-functional web properties.

The Dr. Bo Show > http://www.TheDrBoShow.com
About Me > http://www.bobennett.com
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