Two Bad Objections to Pascal’s Wager

In a series of lectures entitled Agnosticism and Hope (2010), I argued that Pascal’s Wager should be reformulated in response to the objection that agnostics who choose God are (1) acting selfishly or (2) shirking their duty to believe in proportion to the evidence they have. This reformulation goes as follows:

First, the wager should not be understood as a “bet” but as a commitment by agnostics who choose God for morally appropriate reasons. It is prudent for an agnostic to choose God if she appropriately desires the intrinsic and extrinsic goods of God’s existence and a relationship to Him – goods such as love, justice, and human flourishing. By contrast, it is imprudent for an agnostic to choose God primarily for selfish reasons, such as “betting” to avoid punishment, secure eternal bliss, or appear respectable to one’s peers. Such reasons are inappropriate because they fail to value God for his own sake and they ignore the morally serious transformation that He lovingly desires for all his creatures. Indeed, those who use God for their selfish aims actually choose against God, not for Him.

A hopeful stance is permissible in a 50/50 situation, whereas belief is not.

Second, the wager should be viewed as a decision to hope that God exists, not a choice to believe without good evidence.[1] Hope is more fitting for Pascal’s Wager than belief is because it is generally wrong (both morally and epistemically) to will beliefs into existence in the absence of adequate grounds for doing so. Agnostics lack sufficient evidence for belief because they take the existence of God to have a probability lower than 0.5, whereas a probability greater than 0.5 is rationally required for belief. Therefore, it would be wrong for an agnostic to cultivate belief in God, even if that belief was greatly desired.[2] By contrast, it is permissible to cultivate hope when belief is lacking. A farmer hopes for good crops even when the weather looks bad. A mother hopes for the wellbeing of her children during the aftermath of a divorce even though the situation looks bleak. Likewise, an agnostic can profoundly hope that God exists even if the evidence for and against theism is on an epistemic par. A hopeful stance is permissible in a 50/50 situation, whereas belief is not.

To sum up then: when Pascal’s wager is reformulated as moral commitment to hope (rather than to believe) that God exists, the objection that hopeful agnostics are acting selfishly or shirking their epistemic duties simply falls away. So why are critics still unconvinced?

One reason is that critics of Pascal’s Wager are fond of the many-gods objection. This objection states that there are a plethora of worldviews out there. Because some worldviews is equally probable and equally consequential (in terms of their benefits and drawbacks), the agnostic should refrain from deciding instead of commit to hope. This objection comes in two main forms, which I examine below.

Should an agnostic remain undecided in the face of multiple worldviews?
Should we take the Homer Simpson approach to multiple worldviews?

1. The Theism-Among-Other-Hypotheses Objection

According to the first objection, it only appears to the agnostic that she has only two options to consider – namely, Theism or Naturalism. But this is an oversimplification of the situation. Other alternatives suggest themselves: e.g. Monism [all-is-one], Pantheism [all-is-God], Panentheism [all-in-God], Polytheism [many-gods], Deism [God the uninvolved Designer], etc. Pascal’s famous image of the Wager being a coin toss is therefore misleading because coins only have two sides, but we know there are more than two worldviews out there! A more accurate image would be a multi-sided dice where each side represents a viewpoint that is on par with theism. With each role, the agnostic should refrain from committing because each alternative is equally weighted.

But this objection is flawed on several counts. First, the coin analogy is accurate because agnosticism (as I have defined it) is the view that theism is just as likely as not. It’s a 50/50 shot. So all the alternatives to the theistic God actually belong on one side of the coin [under the category of ‘no God’] because all of them disagree with theism.

So all the alternatives to the theistic God actually belong on one side of the coin [under the category of ‘no God’] because all of them disagree with theism
All the alternatives to theism belong on one side of the coin under the category ‘no God’
Second, indecision about worldviews might be warranted if two or more options were equally preferable in terms of probability and consequences, but that remains to be seen.[3] I would argue that Theism is more probable than Polytheism or Monism; I would also contend that there are fewer costs for disregarding Naturalism than there are for disregarding the God of Theism, especially if God is worthy of worship; finally, I have made the case elsewhere that hoping for God is more desirable (morally, practically, and existentially) than a life that gradually closes itself off to the possibility of God by remaining indifferent or hostile toward Theism. Therefore, the objector has not shown that multiple alternatives to theism stifle hope.

2. The Multiple-Hypotheses-Within-Theism Objection

According to this second objection, an agnostic should remain undecided because there are many incompatible options within theism – namely, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and even theistic versions of Hinduism. These options are equally probable and consequential.

But again, the fact of multiple options need not be so paralyzing. First, the agnostic may discover through diligent study that her options are not equally weighted after all. The best way to find out is to assess the evidence for yourself, weigh the intrinsic and extrinsic goods as well as the costs, and then use your best judgment. In this case (as in others), there is no substitute for doing your own research and keeping your motives in check.

Second, even if diligent study fails to yield a preferable option, the agnostic can still hope for a generic theism which is common to each religion. This generic approach would include reflection on the concept of God and what a life of profound hope in such a Being would look like. I have provided a brief sketch of what such a life would be like here.

[1] I define “hope” as the desire for a possible object accompanied a disposition to bring about what is desired, if it is within one’s power to do so. I define “belief” as a disposition to think, feel, and act as if something is true. For more information on the distinction between belief and hope, read here.

[2] There are exceptional cases in which willing to believe without evidence is morally permissible, but these do not concern us here.

[3] This gets us into the murky waters of decision theory, according to which a less probable hypothesis with greater benefits and fewer drawbacks might be preferable to a more probable hypothesis with fewer benefits and greater drawbacks/costs. The best decision is calculated based on the product of the probability and its benefit, minus the cost– not the probability alone.

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