I’ve never had much affinity for Pascal’s Wager. The whole thing is pretty hard to take seriously with the heap of objections that immediately come to mind after hearing it. However, I do think there is something to be said about it. First of all though, here’s a shortened and condensed version of Pascal’s Wager:
Premise 1: Either God exists or he does not.
Premise 2: Every person must choose whether they believe that he does or does not exist.
Premise 3: If God exists, after death those who believe in him experience eternal life and happiness and those who do not believe experience eternal misery.
Premise 4: If God does not exist, those who believe in him will have wasted some time on earth doing some things they didn’t need to do and those who didn’t believe in him will have avoided this.
Premise 5: It is better to sacrifice some time on earth to do what’s required to appease God than to not believe in him and take the risk of ending up in a place of eternal torment.
CONCLUSION: It is in one’s best interest to wager that God exists.
Now I don’t know if I need to list the reasons why this argument is flawed, but I’ll mention a few:
1. Which God? The wager is assuming some idea of the Christian God, but shouldn’t gods of the other religions and the consequences of not believing in them be factored in? What if you jump through all the hoops to stay out of one hell and then find yourself in another religion’s hell?
2. Does believing in God really make your life worse? Maybe believing in God is not ultimately more of a sacrifice than not believing in him.
3. Here’s the main objection I have: a wager is not the same as belief. To “wager” that God exists is not to meet any of the criterion required for being a Christian, by anyone’s standards. And so what if you believe God exists? “Even the demons believe that–and shudder.” (James 2:19)
I could mention more objections, but my point here isn’t to show how silly Pascal’s Wager is. I believe that there is something else that can be gleaned from the argument he presented. I think Pascal’s Wager brings attention to something that is inherent to belief itself. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to write out my own version of Pascal’s Wager:
Premise 1: There is an afterlife (of some sort) or there is not.
Premise 2: I have beliefs about the nature of the afterlife (or lack thereof).
Premise 3: The particular belief I have about the afterlife (or lack thereof) excludes the possibility of my belief in some other possible truths about the afterlife (e.g., as long as I believe that there is NO afterlife, I cannot at the same time believe that there IS an afterlife, since these are mutually exclusive).
Premise 4: Some of the possibilities about the afterlife that have been excluded have consequences for not believing them.
Premise 5: Due to the contradictory nature of many possibilities of the afterlife, it is not logically possible to believe that all of them are true (in hopes of avoiding all possible negative outcomes).
Premise 6: Choosing to “not choose” still leaves me at risk of many afterlife possibilities.
Premise 7: No matter what I choose, or choose not to choose, I am putting myself in serious risk.
CONCLUSION: We’re all screwed.
So how is one to decide what to believe about the afterlife? My answer to that question is “faith” (or “trust,” if you like). I don’t see there being any sense in running around in circles researching every last possibility about the afterlife to ensure that one has made the correct choice. No amount of research could even do that, because all of it is just speculation. What I think is more sensible is to look around at one’s experiences, what they’ve heard, seen and learned and decide what seems most likely to them. I did that and concluded from my experiences that the possibility of there being an afterlife is highly improbable and I don’t see any good reason to believe there is one at all, so I don’t believe. But that’s just my experience. I could be wrong, in which case I’m probably completely screwed, but I’m willing to take that risk. In my mind, it’s no risk at all.
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