Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Failings of Pascal's Wager: Just Believe

I recently watched the debate between Dinesh D'Souza and Dan Dennett. Dinesh played just about every theist card in the deck. He even used Pascal's Wager, a tactic that has so many flaws, I've decided to write a series about it.

Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century philosopher and mathematician, made contributions to the construction of mechanical calculators, the study of fluids, helped create the studies of projective geometry and probability theory, and strongly influenced the development of modern economics and social science. His namesake is also shared by a programming language.

Then he had a "mystical experience" and he abandoned his scientific work and devoted himself to philosophy and theology. It was during this time that he formulated "the Wager". Based on a probabilistic argument, it goes something like this:

God might or might not exist. It is a gamble whether you believe in him or not. If God does not exist, then you neither gain nor lose anything from belief or disbelief. In either case, you just die and that's the end. However, if you choose to believe in God, and you are right, then the reward is infinite — eternal bliss in heaven. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, and you're right, you gain nothing. But if you are wrong, your payoff is negative infinity — eternal suffering in hell.

A lot of Pascal's contemporaries were happy with this wager -- which Pascal himself used to defend his Catholicism. However, there are numerous flaws with the argument, the first of which I will address here and now.

Read the wager again and pay attention to this predication: "if you choose to believe..."

Can you choose to believe something? I don't think so. The way I see it, we believe something whenever we are convinced of it. I for one can't "just start believing" in Santa Claus. Can you? Can you honestly believe in such a thing, truly and completely? Of course not! You can't make yourself believe anything that you haven't been convinced of - belief isn't subject to the will. Therefore simply "choosing to believe in God" is an impossibility, and the wager can't work.

I know this seems a simple counter-argument, but you'll see in this series that a lot of the flaws in Pascal's Wager are simple to point out.


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