Saturday, March 11, 2006

Pascal or Babinski?

Ed Babinski has posted a critique of Pascal’s Wager over at the Debunkers. He doesn’t cite any objections that haven’t been raised before, or better expressed.

As long as we’re quoting folks, here’s quote from William James:

“Go, then, and take holy water, and have masses said: belief will come and stupefy your scruples. Why should you not? At bottom, what have you to lose?

You probably feel that when religious faith expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trumps. Surely Pascal’s own personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart. WE fee that a faith in masses and holy water adopted willfully after such a mechanical calculation would lack the inner soul of faith’s reality; and it we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this patter from their infinite reward. It is evident that unless there is some preexisting tendency to believe in masses and holy water, the opinion offered to the will by Pascal is not a living option,” Essays on Faith & Morals (Meridian 1962), 37.

I cite this, in part, because it summarizes, in more compact and colorful form, some of the central objections raised by Babinski.

I also cite it to take issue with it. It represents a popular misinterpretation of what I think Pascal is getting at.

i) To begin with, fear of a perfectly rational motive, and the fear of hell is a biblical motive. There are many things we have good reason to fear, and ought, on that account, to avoid them. This is simple prudence. There is nothing inherently impious in having spiritual incentives and disincentives for what we do or refrain from doing.

ii) Remember that Pascal, as a Roman Catholic, believed in sacramental grace. So this is not, for him, a case of initially believing in the sacraments, but in the power of the sacraments to engender faith. James has the causal order exactly backwards.

For Pascal you needn’t come to the sacraments with a prior faith in their efficacy; rather, their efficacy is able to create faith in the sacraments themselves. That’s what makes them a means of grace. So James completely misses the point.

iii) Pascal is not presenting the Wager as a reason to believe in God. Rather, his aim is twofold:

a) He is presenting the Wager as a way to make the religiously indifferent take the issues seriously.

b) He is also presenting the Wager as an inducement for the unbeliever to gain a genuine religious experience by participating in the sacramental life of the church.

This is not an unbeliever playing the role of a believer, but an unbeliever placing himself within a spiritual environment conducive to the cultivation of faith.

iv) This also affords an implicit answer to another stock objection. For one criticism of the Wager is that Pascal fallaciously reduces the options to either unbelief or Christian belief.

But this objection also misses the force of the Wager. For the Wager is, among other things, a short-cut. If attendance at church does, indeed, foster faith, then the hypothetical alternatives are moot.

If the sacraments claim to be a means of grace, and if, as a result of sharing in the sacramental life of the church, and unbeliever becomes a believer, then the claim is self-validating.

So it seems to me that Pascal’s Wager has an inner logical which the conventional criticisms pass by within even nicking the surface.

Beyond that I’d make a few more points:

To say that Pascal’s Wager fails because it doesn’t address competing religious claims, but only the choice between belief and unbelief, is off the mark.

i) To begin with, the Wager is not the sum of Pascal’s apologetic. He does have other arguments for the faith, as well as counterarguments regarding rival religions like Islam.

ii) Secular critics of the Wager act as if they agree with him, even when they say they disagree with him.

They may pay lip-service to the hypothetical alternatives, but if you see where they spend their time, they concentrate their fire on Christianity, not Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or Swedenborg.

They themselves treat Christianity as the only live option, the creed to beat.

iii) Very few religions even pretend to offer personal immortality. This really comes down to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The only reason that “other” religions like Islam and Mormonism have a doctrine of personal survival is because these are Christian heresies.

iv) I, as a Protestant in the sacramental tradition of Zwingli and Bullinger, do not share Pascal’s sacramental theology.

But while I reject the specific underpinnings of his argument, I think the core argument can be salvaged.

For according to Calvinism, God ordinarily coordinates saving grace with the means of grace—especially the word of God as the object of saving faith.

God doesn’t regenerate for the sake of regeneration, but in order to ingenerate faith, a faith which reaches out for a suitable object supplied by the word of God.

Going to church doesn’t save you. It isn’t a sufficient condition to save you. But it is a necessary condition to the extent that God dispenses the grace of faith to make you a Christian believer and disciple, and you can find the gospel in the church.

This is not limited to the visible, institutional church. That’s the core. But there are other sources for the knowledge of the gospel. Books. The media. The Internet. Parachurch ministry.

So Pascal’s Wager remains essentially sound. Avoiding the company of Christians is a poor way to become one.

If you’re religiously indifferent, or even a hard-boiled atheist, stop to count the cost.

And a natural way of coming to faith is by coming to the faithful, by immersing yourself in a gracious bath of prayer and preaching, confession and song.


  1. I’m not sure where you got that William James quote but I would insist on a the source. For my quote of William James is thus: “Surely Pascal's own personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart. We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted willfully after such a mechanical calculation would lack the inner soul of faith's reality; and if we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern from their infinite reward.” This quote is from William James’ “The Will to believe.” Essentially he is saying that the wager is fraudulent and that to “believe” for such reasons as the wager would have is also fraudulent.

    “The wager may also be criticized for requiring one to choose one's beliefs. Advocates of Calvinism would claim that beliefs are not something that we can choose. A person who accepted the tenets of the wager might act in a pious and believing way throughout their life; however, they do not have the option to choose to believe in God, as Calvinism believes that God alone makes the choice to accept some and reject others, regardless of what the person does.” –

    “The decision-theoretic approach to Pascal's Wager appears explicitly in the 6th Century BCE Buddhist Kalama Sutta, in which the Buddha argues that regardless of whether the difficult concepts of rebirth and kamma are valid, acting as if they are brings tangible rewards here and now.” –

    “The wager assumes that God is possible, and hence there is a non-zero probability of him existing. But this does not work all the time. For instance, in a measure theory conception of probability, one can have infinitely (uncountably) many possibilities, all of which have probability zero. (E.g., choosing a random real number between 0 and 1, all numbers cannot have positive probability or the probabilities sum to more than 1.)It is not clear what is meant when "probability" or "chance" is said in the context of something possibly existing, but probability cannot be used as defined in mathematics to justify the wager as is, since God being possible does not mean that God's existence has positive probability.” –
    “The wager fails to mention any costs relating to belief. It is argued that there may be both direct costs (time, health, wealth) and opportunity costs. Most modern religions require their followers to spend time attending religious services at temples and to donate money to these temples when possible so that they can be maintained. As a result, if a person believes in a God that does not exist, then that person has lost time and money that could have been used for some other purpose. There may be opportunity costs for those who choose to believe: for example, scientific theories such as evolution that appear to some to contradict scripture could theoretically enable a non-believer to discover things and accomplish things the creationist could not. It is also argued that belief incurs a cost by not allowing the believing person to participate in and enjoy actions forbidden by dogma. Many devout people make more noticeable sacrifices for their religious beliefs. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions. If a Jehovah's Witness' death could have been prevented by a blood transfusion, and there is no God, then the Jehovah's Witness has lost his or her life needlessly.
    The wager assumes a non-zero chance that God exists. This makes it ineffective on strong atheism which assigns the chance that God exists to zero, making choosing to believe or not believe provide an equal reward (0). Others have argued that the utility of salvation cannot be infinite, either via strict finitists or belief that an infinite utility could only be finitely enjoyed by finite humans.” –

  2. as usual, never rely on any canned squib from the IIDB library! pure baloney! first, the default values for all other competing religions is really not equal/zero. There is quite a bit of good , credible circumstantial,textual, historical, philosophical, and experiential,etc evidence tending to support the judeo-christian theist position. Moreover, via Lorenz Risk Averse analysis, P's wager is mathematically valid if tightened up, which it can be. And do you really think that Anthony Flew, as he nears his death , is not, in the back of his mind, reweighing P's wager and its inputs as we speak/type? I bet you he is!

  3. If attendance at church does, indeed, foster faith, then the hypothetical alternatives are moot.

    So if Pascal's wager had instead been one in support of Islam, you'd continue to support it?

    Is there some practical divining principle (pun intended) for determining the order in which one should approach the different competing religions with respect to the wager?

    The false dichotomy Pascal introduces holds as false, and your arguments in support of it hold as special pleading. The wager fails.


  4. In reply to stan, yes, as narrowly structured the original wager is incomplete and does not obtain, but under Lorenz Risk Averse analysis the wager can be "tightened up" so that it is logically valid. If you have studied game theory or operations research as we used to call it in the old days, you will see that Lorenz analysis can obtain here. Lorenz Risk Averse analysis looks not necessarily to achieve the greatest likelihood of good but rather to avoid the greatest risk. Greatly truncated: In Islam "righteous infidels" can avoid hell if they defend islamic women and children and islamic Holy Places. Charity and alms are sufficient. In Judaism, similar dispensations apply for "righteous gentiles". Christianity(all brands) require either salvation by beleiving in Jesus Christ and some also require absence of mortal sin and some good works. All of the Eastern religions require some degree of gradual enlightenment or good works, and of course the reincarnative faiths, do likewise. Other than obscure and "outland" religions such as ancient Egyptian worship of the sun god Ra , for example, they(remaining religions) all seem to be good works based. Keeping it simple, applying Lorenz, the smartest bet is to believe in Jesus and to do as much good works as you can to as many different cultures and people as you can and refrain from abject evil and mortal sin. If you are really truly worried about "ra" and you think there is some good historical,circumstantial, cause and effect,experiential, miraculous,epiphanous,oral tradition/written textual evidence for "Ra" and his influence over arabs and jews in history, then by all means earn his dispensations as best as you can! But then if you really were worried about Ra existing you wouldnt be spending all your time and intellectual energies arguing against just and only just the judeo-christian God. Now would you?