BlaisePascal (1632-1662) The Wager
Metaphysics v. Epistemology The question of the existence of God is a metaphysical question. It is concerned with the way the universe is: is it a place that was created by a supernatural being, (i.e., God)? Or is the universe eternal and uncreated?
Is the Belief in God a Rational Belief? Here we want to treat a different issue. We want to examine whether the belief in the existence of God is rational non-rational or irrational. This is not a metaphysical question but rather an epistemological question.
Rational, Irrational and Non-rational Rational means that the belief has good evidence (or justification) that supports its truth. Irrational means that the belief has good evidence (or justification) that supportsthe negation of the belief or a contrary belief. Non-rational means the belief has no evidence (justification) for or against, or there is just as much evidence for or against as there is for the contrary belief.
Examples The theory of evolution is a rational belief because there is a lot of evidence that supports its truth. The theory that planet earth is flat is an irrational belief because there is a lot of evidence that contradicts this belief. The theory that there are extraterrestrials is non-rational belief because there is no good evidence that supports it and no good evidence that contradicts it.
Why are rational beliefs important? Rational beliefs are important because we know that the more evidence (or justification) one has for the truth of a belief the more likely that the belief is true. Therefore, we strive to be rational because we want to believe the truth of the matter.
What about the belief in God? Pascal asks us to imagine that the belief in God is a non-rational belief. In other words, it is a belief that lacks the evidence necessary to make it a rational belief. On the other hand, it is also a belief that cannot be proven false and so it is a non-rational belief (and not an irrational belief).
Belief in God is Non-Rational Either God is or God is not. Some people believe, despite the lack of evidence, because they have the gift of FAITH, which is a kind of trust in God. Faith entails a commitment and believe in God rather than a believe that God exists.
Pascal’s Wager Pascal argues that the rational thing to do when confronted with the dilemma over God’s existence is to believe in God, even though we have no evidence for the existence of God. Why?
Pascal’s Argument Pascal’s reasons that if you decide to believe in God, and God does exist you win out infinitely, because you will be rewarded with an infinite, eternal, and happy after-life. If you decide to believe in God and God does not exist, then you lose out very little, only the finite things you give up in this life. If you decide not to believe in God and God does exist, then you will gain a finite amount, only a few pleasure of this world, but you will lose infinitely, because you will lose an infinite, eternal, and happy after-life. If you decide not to believe in God and God does not exist, then you win very little, only the finite pleasure you enjoyed in this life.
Pascal’s Wager Given that we do not know if God exists and there is a 50-50 chance, and if it turns out that God exists I will win infinitely (and if I bet against God I will lose infinitely) the most reasonable thing to do is not to bet against God but rather to bet in God’s favor.
Pascal on Inauthentic Belief Pascal realizes that, to believe in something because you will receive personal gain from it, takes away from the idea of believing in something. This we might say is NOT an authentic belief. However, he claims that this is ONLY an argument of last resort for the stubborn atheists who will not be persuaded by any other arguments. Moreover, Pascal claims that once one begins to believe and go through the motion little by little their belief will become an authentic belief.
Objections Nevertheless, it is questionable that someone who does not truly believe something is true can make themselves believe it is true. Can I make you believe that this year is 2010? You might pretend to believe that this year is 2010, but I doubt that I can make you truly believe it. If this is the case then beliefs are not completely voluntary; that is, they are not the kind of thing that we can control at will.
Objections Even if you are persuaded that some beliefs can be voluntary and the belief in God is one of them, there is still something to be said about the sincerity and integrity about a belief that is acquired solely because it will produce the better result for me. Believing in God is usually associated with a sincere attitude of trust, faith and love, and not greed or ambition. This might be a problem for Pascal’s wager argument