Pascal’s Wager

There is no news in this post. I just thought I would bulk up the counter-apologetics here since I maybe haven’t been doing my share lately as a member of the atheist blogroll. And a good way to do that would be to start with something pretty simple and then work my way through to more complicated shit later. So if you’re looking for the usual making fun of the news thing or something you don’t already know about Pascal’s Wager, then it’s probably best to skip this one.

Blaise Pascal was a religious apologist, mathematician, and philosopher in 17th century France. The way that he wrote it out, at least as I read it, his famous wager is more of a pep talk for people who are already Christians and might be starting to doubt. He didn’t mean for it to be an actual reason to believe for someone who’s starting from a position of doubt. You have to already be a believer in a specific religion for it to have an effect.

Here is how the guy himself put it:

Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect…

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

There’s a very good reason why this doesn’t work for convincing skeptics, but it does for wavering believers. The believers don’t consider any of the world’s other religions and their promises of similar certainties of gain and risks of nothingness. So it’s necessary for this to work to already have a bias towards one faith over all others.

It’s actually even worse than Dawkins here makes it seem. If you’re just conducting a theological cost/benefit analysis, then other some other religions promise even greater potential harm for unbelief and greater rewards for devotion than Pascal’s own Catholicism.

So for example if you’re worried about going to the Pascal’s Catholic hell and the threat of it is enough to convince you to believe, then you should be even more influenced by the threat of Islamic hell:

“Verily Allah has cursed the Unbelievers and prepared for them a Blazing Fire,- To dwell therein for ever: no protector will they find, nor helper.”
Qu’ran, 33:64-5

So we’ll get blazing fire,

“Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”
Qu’ran, 4:56

BUT we get to exchange our skins so we don’t get roasted over and over and over again forever,

“Nay they deny the hour (of the judgment to come): but We have prepared a blazing fire for such as deny the hour: When it sees them from a place fAr off, they will hear its fury and its ranging sigh. And when they are cast, bound together into a constricted place therein, they will pLead for destruction there and then! This day plead not for a single destruction: plead for destruction oft-repeated!”
Qu’ran, 25:11-14

“With Us are Fetters (to bind them), and a Fire (to burn them)”
Qu’ran, 73:12

binding chains and binding yokes,

“The Companions of the Left Hand,- what will be the Companions of the Left Hand? (They will be) in the midst of a Fierce Blast of Fire and in Boiling Water”
Qu’ran, 56:41-2

boiling water,

“Hell!- they will burn therein, – an evil bed (indeed, to lie on)!- Yea, such! – then shall they taste it,- a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold!- And other Penalties of a similar kind, to match them!”
Qu’ran, 38:56-8

dark boiling liquid,

“But those who deny (their Lord),- for them will be cut out a garment of Fire: over their heads will be poured out boiling water. With it will be scalded what is within their bodies, as well as (their) skins. In addition there will be maces of iron (to punish) them. Every time they wish to get away therefrom, from anguish, they will be forced back therein, and (it will be said), ‘Taste ye the Penalty of Burning!'”
Qu’ran, 22:19-22

iron maces,

“The while they enter the Blazing Fire, the while they are given, to drink, of a boiling hot spring, No food will there be for them but a bitter Dhari’ which will neither nourish nor satisfy hunger.”
Qu’ran, 88:4-7

painful food and boiling water,

Narrated An-Nu’man:
I heard the Prophet saying, “The person who will have the least punishment from amongst the Hell Fire people on the Day of Resurrection, will be a man under whose arch of the feet a smoldering ember will be placed so that his brain will boil because of it.”
Sahih Bukhari 8:76:566

BUT if you’re LUCKY you’ll only be scorched from the arch of your foot to your head,

Narrated Abu Wail:
Somebody said to Usama, “Will you go to so-and-so (i.e. ‘Uthman) and talk to him (i.e. advise him regarding ruling the country)?” He said, “You see that I don’t talk to him. Really I talk to (advise) him secretly without opening a gate (of affliction), for neither do I want to be the first to open it (i.e. rebellion), nor will I say to a man who is my ruler that he is the best of all the people after I have heard something from Allah s Apostle .” They said, What have you heard him saying? He said, “I have heard him saying, “A man will be brought on the Day of Resurrection and thrown in the (Hell) Fire, so that his intestines will come out, and he will go around like a donkey goes around a millstone. The people of (Hell) Fire will gather around him and say: O so-and-so! What is wrong with you? Didn’t you use to order us to do good deeds and forbid us to do bad deeds? He will reply: Yes, I used to order you to do good deeds, but I did not do them myself, and I used to forbid you to do bad deeds, yet I used to do them myself.”
Sahih Bukhari 4:54:489

and oh yeah, some of us end up getting eviscerated. I’ll be a little more merciful here and spare the reader from having to look at a picture of that.

Dante seems like a total pussy by comparison. And pretty much all the Bible tells us about Hell is that it’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire is never quenched. So if your motivating factor in deciding on a religion is to avoid the worst possible pain, it’s much better to believe in Islam and possibly avoid the worst kind of hell even if you’re wrong. And if Christianity is true, you still end up taking less of a risk of going to Christian hell rather than the Islamic one.

The other side of this bet-hedging is to believe in a religion that promises the best afterlife for believers. A desirable heaven is the carrot to a painful hell’s stick. And one of the best afterlifes you can get is in Mormon theology.

The Church of Latter-Day Saints believe in something called Degrees of glory. You’ve basically got four possibilities for what happens after you die: Outer Darkness, the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Telestial Kingdom.

Outer Darkness sounds a lot like Billy Graham’s concept of hell – one where you just die and are separated from God instead of the fiery one preached about during the Middle Ages and by people like the Westboro Baptist Church today. That’s for people with no degree of glory at all. The worst possible punishment for Mormons turns out to be… nothing. Even non-Christians can have some degree of glory and get one of the other three kingdoms.

The next step up from the Outer Darkness is the Telestial Kingdom (the terminology here really sounds like it’s for LARPers, doesn’t it? Not that I’d know anything about that, of course). Nonbelievers and heathens and “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie,” according to Doctrine and Covenants, 76:103.  However, those of us in the Telestial Kingdom – and let’s face it, if you’re reading this it applies to you – will have to go to hell for 1000 years during the millennial reign of Christ prophesied in Revelation 20:1-6.

But on an eternal time scale, a thousand years in hell isn’t really that bad when you get an immortal physical body afterwards, along with all your other friends and without all those holier-than-thou assholes fucking up your kingdom. Not too bad for the lowest of the kingdoms, really.

The next kingdom up is the Terrestrial Kingdom, and you can get there by becoming a Mormon posthumously (D&C, 76:74) or by being a  Christian who is not “valiant” enough (D&C, 76:9). Basically these are half-assed Christians whose only inconvenience is in knowing that there’s a slightly better kingdom out there somewhere.

That brings us to the Celestial Kingdom, which is the SHIT. This is the best of the best heavens, and you even get your very own seer stone. The downside is that in order to get there you need to have either followed all of the LDS church’s rules throughout your first life or have died before turning 8 years old. So this is pretty much out for those of you who might still be reading this.

To get back to the point of all this Mormon stuff; if you’re using Pascal’s Wager in terms of analyzing potential benefits in a particular religion, this is clearly the way to go especially considering the information conveyed in the video above. You get to be a deity. Is a better pick up line even possible?

So if you’re a risk-taking, glass-half-full type, you’ll hear Pascal’s Wager and convert to the LDS church. If you’re a risk-averse, glass-half-empty type, you’ll hear Pascal’s Wager and convert to Islam. I could go on and on pointing out how different religions can exploit various hopes and fears of different types of people, but for now it’s enough to leave it here where it’s clear that Pascal’s Wager can be used to proselytize for pretty much all religions, most of which are completely contradictory.

You can't go to both.

Up to this point, I hope I’ve established two things. One is that Pascal’s Wager isn’t a way to know anything. It’s only a way to reassure those who already believe. And secondly, when modern apologists and laypersons unsuccessfully misuse Pascal’s Wager in attempts to convince skeptics, they are using an inherent bias in that their particular religion is correct even though the same approach can be used just as easily to persuade skeptics to adhere to completely different religions.

Now after being faced with all this, someone advocating Pascal’s Wager can take a step back and claim that it applies to belief in a deistic god. That way they can use the wager as a wedge strategy and later take baby steps to their own belief system, much like the strategy used by some creationists who want their bullshit to count as science.

When I was a kid, maybe around 9 years old, I had thought of this. Obviously it wasn’t in the same terms I’m using now. I thought I had invented it and that I was some kind of genius. I would sneak by The System and be able to pass for a believer just by my own say-so! But then a few minutes later I had an experience similar to one I later read about described by Bertrand Russell:

“I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when I suddenly threw it up in the air and exclaimed: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!””

But later, Russell had this to say about the same argument – which is one I hope to have time to deal with at some point in the future:

“The [ontological] argument [for the existence of God] does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

That’s kind of what I felt like. Pretending to believe seemed like too easy of a fix. Even as a kid, I was already a crotchety old man thinking that if something seems too good to be true it probably is.

Pascal’s Wager doesn’t even make sense when dealing with a nondescript deity because a god by definition would know the difference between professing to believe something and actually believing it. Even as a dumb little kid I could tell the difference. It just all seemed too easy. Even if I could fool every Buddhist monk or Christian preacher or whatever else, I would still be able to tell that I was lying about my belief. And since a god is supposed to be much more intelligent than a human, it would immediately see through my plan and probably punish me for my heresy even more severely than the typical honest doubter.

I’m going to have to leave it there for now because this has already gone on way longer than I expected. Maybe I’ll have to do a part ii of this later on.


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One Response to “Pascal’s Wager”

  1. jack ralph Says:

    pascal’s wager arguments rarely address the flip side(as i’m sure you must have done, i’m just high & at work & dammit you left the comments open!). i.e. how much your life (the only one you have) is improved by not believing in a father figure type deity. it’s always assumed that you’re better off believing, in case of punishment.

    i’ve always reckoned you’re punishing yourself by believing. or at least you end up beating yourself up over (self)percieved slights to your creator.

    if you’re the only one watching, you might as well act like it!

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