Posts from February 1999

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager, put in its most famous form by the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, is one of the most common and one of the most logically flawed arguments used by evangelists to convince atheists to believe. It is properly conceived as an argument for belief in God rather than as an argument for the existence of God. In essence, it goes:

  1. Either God exists or He does not.
  2. If there is no God, whether you believe in God or not, then there is no afterlife.
  3. If there is a God, and you believe in God, you go to Heaven.
  4. If there is a God, but you do not believe in God, you go to Hell.
  5. By statements 2-4, if you approach belief as a wager, betting on God’s existence is a win-draw proposal: either you gain eternal bliss or end up with nothing like all other players.
  6. By statements 2-4, if you approach belief as a wager, betting on God’s nonexistence is a draw-lose proposal: either you end up with nothing like all other players, or you suffer eternal hellfire.
  7. Therefore, belief is the superior choice from a wagering perspective.

The reason why Pascal’s Wager is so flawed should be obvious upon a little examination. There are two ways to look at the argument, each with its own problems: assess statements 1-4 as assumed premises, 5-6 as inferences, and 7 as a conclusion, or else assess 1 as an assumed premise, 2-6 as inferences, and 7 as a conclusion.

In the first approach, it rests entirely upon four assumptions that are highly contestable. Premises 3-4 are essentially a statement of Christian belief, which means the only people that will accept them are Christians. Thus, the argument reduces to “if you are a Christian, then belief in God is superior from a wagering perspective,” a rather useless tautology that results in an argument that only convinces the convinced. Further, premises 2-4 commit the fallacy of bifurcation: they state that there are only two possibilities when there are in fact more. In this case, it posits that either the Christian model is true or the secular humanist one is. However, many other options come to mind. For instance, if Al-Lah is in fact God, then both the believing Christian and the atheist may find themselves doomed to eternal hellfire.

In the second approach, inferences 2-4 derive information from nowhere. All that is assumed is that God either does or does not exist. This says nothing about whether God saves His followers and condemns the infidel, or whether there is a God who rewards the skeptics and punishes the sheep, or whether there is a God who rewards all, or any number of other possibilities. Because of this, inferences 2-4 are not logically connected to premise 1, thus committing a fallacy of non sequitur. It has also been noted that the Christian God, being omniscient would know the difference between true faith and a wagering belief to hedge one’s bets. A valid Christian objection to this, however, is that Pascal’s Wager serves as a method to bring about faith, at which point God reveals Himself to the believer and thus brings about a true faith.

This essay is based on an older version which I had hosted on my website for some time, and is also deeply indebted to the Pascal’s Wager section of the alt.atheism FAQ. –C.J. 2004.