Pascal's Wager Revisited

To people who are familiar with Pascal's Wager I won't repeat it. Those who are unfamiliar with it can read up about it here. I want to share three of the main criticisms of it in what follows.

There is the evidential objection, the many gods objection, and the gambler’s objection.

The evidential objection concerns how much evidence Christianity should have before I must take seriously the claims of Christianity. Keep in mind that the only brands of Christianity that make the wager a strong argument are the ones that promise an everlasting conscious torment in a fiery hell. Other brands of Christianity don't even apply, those affirming annihilation, or universal salvation, since there is not much to fear if one is wrong. In any case, I judge that conservative Christianity has about a .00001% probability of being correct, or 1 in 100,000. This is something I think one can conclude from the arguments in my book. Given that I might be wrong in this judgment, since I've been wrong before, I'll up it to a .0001% probability, or 1 in 10,000. This probability has nothing to do with how many other religions and gods there are. It's a probability based solely on the merits of the evidence and arguments themselves.

Keep in mind what this means. It means unless there is a religion with a greater amount of probability then there is a .0001% chance this life is all there is. It means that there is a 99.999% probability that Christianity is delusional and that Pascal’s Wager is an argument akin to someone crying "wolf," or someone else yelling "the sky is falling." Why should I place that bet even if the payout is an infinite amount? If the bet was some money, wouldn't I be throwing money away? Sure, people are not being unreasonable by placing a bet on these odds, but what reason would we say that a non-gambler should bet based on these odds?

And what are we to bet? According to the Christian faith I must bet it all, my whole life. I must die daily. I must take up my cross and follow Jesus. I must be totally committed and have total faith. That’s what I’m called upon to do, daily, even to the point of guarding my very thoughts. I must sacrifice that which I think about and I should not lust, hate, covet, nor entertain any doubts.

I can understand betting a few dollars to win the lottery even though there is a 1 in 80 million chance to win. But I would never consider betting everything I own based on those odds, even if the payout was 800 trillion dollars, nor would I want to bet my whole life on a 1 to 10,000 chance of eternal bliss.

Still, I'll admit Pascal's wager has a good deal of force, the evidential objection alone notwithstanding, since the payout is an infinite amount with an eternal bliss if correct.

The many gods objection almost eliminates the force of Pascal's wager, I think, since now we have many religions and many gods all clamoring for our obedience; Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on, and so forth. One religion claims that if you don't follow its god you will fry in hell, while another one makes the same claim. Since many gods are threatening us with hell if we don't believe, then Pascal's Wager cannot help us to decide between them. All of them offer an infinite payout, too. All of them demand belief and obedience. Whom should we believe? Whom should we obey? Pascal’s Wager does not answer this objection on its own terms. We still must judge which religious viewpoint has the most probability and such judgments are based on the accidents of birth, as I’ve argued.

The third objection is what I call the the gambler’s objection. Anyone who plays the very popular poker game called Texas Hold'em , for instance, knows what I’m talking about when I say there is a distinction to be made between the actual odds and the pot odds. Actual odds are the mathematical odds of our hand winning the pot. Pot odds concern the relationship of the money in the pot to the actual odds of our having the winning hand. If, say, in order to bet on our hand we only need to bet $5 more to win a pot of $200 (or a ratio of 1:40, which is known as the pot odds), then that’s a good bet even if the actual mathematical odds of winning the hand are not that great. If, on the other hand, we must place a bet of $50 to win the same pot of $200 (or a ratio of 1:4 pot odds) the bet is a bad one unless the actual odds of winning the hand are much greater.

Let’s say you need a particular winning card to be drawn, which could be a spade (for a flush), or an Ace, or a King, and you calculate the odds of one of those cards being drawn are about 1 in 3. Let’s say there are five players and you must decide whether or not to bet $4 on a pot that has $36 in it. That’s 36 divided by 4 equals 9; or 9 to 1 pot odds. At that point you must ask yourself whether you should place that $4 bet. The actual odds are against you 1 to 3, but the pot odds are in your favor 9 to 1. Because of the pot odds you should bet the $4, and here’s why: If you faced this same situation seventy-five times and bet $4 each time for a total of $300, and you won one time out of three bets (the actual odds), your gain would be about $900 because of the pot odds.

Now let’s consider the actual odds and the pot odds when it comes to Pascal’s Wager. The actual odds for the Christian faith, as I calculate them, are 1 in 10,000, being generous. The payout is an infinite amount; an eternal bliss (the pot odds). With the pot odds so extremely high I should always make the bet, it’s argued. But here’s the problem. Pot odds only come into play if the gambler plays a certain number of hands. If the actual odds for a winning hand in Texas Hold’em are 1 in 3, it does not matter what the pot odds are if he must bet everything he has, and if this is his last hand! Pot odds only matter when the gambler can play a number of hands and when he’s not betting it all. It’s the number of hands along with the size of the bet that make the pot odds what they are.

How many times can a gambling religious seeker go “all in” on a bet that has a chance of winning the eternal bliss pot, when the odds are 1 in 10,000? He can only do this one time! There are no second chances. The poker game will be over for him no matter what the result is. The actual odds are extremely low for his bet. With those odds he will undoubtedly lose everything he has on this one bet! It’s only if this religious gambler can make 10,000 lifetime wagers and that he has something leftover to bet each time that would make the pot odds worth the bet!

Given the actual odds as I calculate them, I would have to sacrifice 10,000 lifetimes for the pot odds of an infinite bliss in heaven to be worth the bet. Not just one life. 10,000 lifetimes. But I will not have 10,000 lifetimes to make that bet worth it! So I must bet on the actual odds, and I do.

For this reason gamblers who play Texas Hold’em do not bet everything they’ve got unless they are pretty sure they have a winning hand, with the actual odds being over 50% or more, preferably 60% to 90%, depending on several other factors. Since I calculate the odds at much less than this and because I must bet on the actual odds, going "all in" on a bet like this is simply a bad bet.

Hence Pascal’s wager fails…badly.

27 comments:

J.L. Hinman said...

off topic. I have a post on my blog called:

Open letter to John Loftus and the DC crowd

Evan said...

Pascal's wager fails most spectacularly when you realize that the wager doesn't even work for Christians.

There are thousands of denominations each with unique soteriologies and eschatologies. So that your choice is much less than 1 in 10000, it's 1 in 10000 times the number of denominations or ... possibly God wants people who are not in any denomination or perhaps his name is Allah.

That an adult human being would find Pascal's wager in any way compelling speaks volumes about that person but little about the validity of the argument.

J.L. Hinman said...

The wager wasn't meant to be a proof. It was only meant to be a tie breaker, or icing on the cake, afer all the arguments in the Pensaces.

I spelled that wrong I realize.

Pascal was obsessed with his new invention of mathematical probability. the wage is an attempt to use that as a tie breaker. To he wanted to find a mathematical argument.

Oliver said...

Excellent post. I like the analogy of wagering a soul as if were cash in a poker game. I'm going to reuse this analogy if the standard rebuttals of Pascal's Wager should be unconvincing.

tigg13 said...

What I've never understood about Pascal"s wager is how you are supposed to turn a gamble into faith. If you don't believe something then you don't believe it. Even if you are straddling the fence a mathematical probability is not what you want to base your whole eternity on.

I mean, what are you going to do when you get to the supposed throne of judgement? Tell god, "Well, to be honest I never actually bought all of that bible stuff. I just said that I did because my preist gave me good odds and I was feeling lucky."

Thranil said...

tigg13, that's similar to my main issue with the wager. If my 'belief' is based on the fact that I fear hell... well isn't that exactly the type of belief that the Bible claims that god despises?

Inqoinf said...

tigg13 - I've never figured out how you turn non-belief into faith. Christians always tell me that I have to "have faith" but I don't know how to develop faith in something I don't have faith in? LOL

j.l. hinman - it doesn't even work good as a tie breaker... it seems more to me as a desperate attempt to make you "turn or burn"

I don't know why Christians still use PW or some form of it. I like asking them "which god and heaven are you talking about?" Then when they say "their religion" I will add Islam, Hinduism, etc. to the wager and watch their face as the argument gets broken down.

Great post! I've broken down the probability of any religion being right before just using the religions I could find with more than 1 million followers and I got a 0.006% chance of being right.

Cole said...

I never really liked the wager because I never saw it as being a 50/50 chance. There's more than just one religion out there and there's more than one religion that teaches if you don't follow that one the you will suffer eternal concious torment forever and ever. I don't see it as flipping a coin and hoping it will land on heads or tails. Rather it's more like rolling a pair of dice and if it lands on the wrong numbers you go straight to hell.

Jake Barnes said...

To all: As a seminary graduate and pastor's son who has been in fundie communities all my life, I simply can't overcome my gutwrenching, overwhelming fear of eternal damnation. I hope Evan won't look down on me too much as I don't find Pascal's wager particularly compelling, but I am still hanging to it by a thread out of abject fear (irrationality admitted so no need to berate me for it).

To anyone who comes from an evangelical/fundie background and is now an atheist: I assume you experienced such fear as well. How did you overcome the fear?

John W. Loftus said...

Jake, thanks for your comment!

For me I first arrived at a different view of hell. This allowed me to pursue my doubts unhindered from a great amount of fear. See here.

Cheers.

Vinny said...

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19.

Apparently Paul did not appreciate Pascal's wager.

J.L. Hinman said...

What I've never understood about Pascal"s wager is how you are supposed to turn a gamble into faith.

you are not that's what I said.


If you don't believe something then you don't believe it. Even if you are straddling the fence a mathematical probability is not what you want to base your whole eternity on.

I mean, what are you going to do when you get to the supposed throne of judgement? Tell god, "Well, to be honest I never actually bought all of that bible stuff. I just said that I did because my preist gave me good odds and I was feeling lucky."


that's why it's only a tie breaker.

J.L. Hinman said...

j.l. hinman - it doesn't even work good as a tie breaker... it seems more to me as a desperate attempt to make you "turn or burn"


what you don't seem to undestand, I'm not insulting you, but you have to understand this to answer what you said, there's a whole book that goes wit it! see? Its' calle The Pancess meaning "the thoguhts." It's about tas think as a phone book.

so this is the final straw and decides it all. you have to read the book to get it.

in keeping with my promise to be nice: O my dear good sir, perhaps you would ejoy this reading this book. Then you cuold ad to the elequance you already posses!

Hows that John?

J.L. Hinman said...

Hey Vinny! Image meeting you here! good to see you man. nice comment.

Evan said...

Joe,

The book is called "Pensees" and from my reading of it, the wager is hardly a tiebreaker, but a central part of his argument. Perhaps you can show me where he uses it as a tiebreaker.

Trou said...

"To anyone who comes from an evangelical/fundie background and is now an atheist: I assume you experienced such fear as well. How did you overcome the fear?"

I came from an A of G background and heard constantly about hell and also the rapture. Frankly, I got freaked out about eternal life. I could not imagine living forever and ever and having that length of time being the very beginning. Now that scared me.
Oblivion, which is what death is, is the same state as before we were born. Was that unpleasant?
Just make an informed decision as to what to believe. You have many gods to consider; do any have merit?
Don't just assume that the god you were raised with is the correct one.
Consider all the religions. Maybe, if there is a god, he prefers one of the ones you aren't familiar with.
Read the Bible with a clear and critical mind. See the errors and the contradictions. See the evil that is attributed to god. Does this book sound like it holds any truth to you?
Study the origin of hell. See how the concept changed and evolved over the centuries.
After doing this you should be able to realize that what the concept of hell is based on are flimsy and unsubstantiated. You may also realize that a god is highly unlikely.
It will take a while for the knee-jerk feelings to wear off but you should be fine.
You can learn a lot on this blog so stick around and read up.

Marc said...

The thing that broke hell for me was the analogy between the idea between coerced love and hell.

If I put a gun to someone's head (which I would never do), and asked them if if they loved me, could I trust their answer? Would their answer mean anything?

In contract law, contracts signed under duress are not binding. Guess our legal systems have been one step ahead of god's law for a while (oh, we dont have slavery anymore; two steps).

If god really wanted to know if people loved him, he could give us eternal life and allow us to live and give or not give him praise based on our own determinations.

I also could not rectify the concept that heaven was a place of eternal bliss and that I had many family members and friends that were going to be in hell. How could I remember them and the fun times we had, without being sad? If I didnt, how was I myself?

I sat on the second issue for a long long time. Other cracks in my christian belief system formed and joined with each other until any form of belief was just untenable.

(Oh and dont give me that argument that god has to put us in hell cause he cant have sin around him. Our current situation makes it clear there can be realms where humans can live in 'sin' without being in hell)

Evan said...

Marc the idea that God can't have sin around him is sheer lunacy. If he existed, he'd have to have sin around since he's omnipresent.

In fact when theists say that sin and hell are just separation from God, they are making a juvenile statement if they believe in a 3O God. Not to mention that by the same logic, heaven is also impossible since of course God can't be localized and be omnipresent.

Pascal just didn't think a lot of things through.

Polytheism makes a bit more sense than monotheism as it allows for localized Gods but hey ... I don't believe in that either.

Trou said...

Another thought. After thinking about hell for a while I thought that it was a very immoral concept. I thought that it must not be real because I (as a mere human) could not bring myself to inflict this kind of torment on another and yet god (as a holy being) is supposedly able to commit this horrific act of eternal murder apparently without any problem because he is so holy. WTF?
After thinking this it occurred to me that if there was a god then he/she/it would not be able to condemn people to this fate either, unless he was evil. In that case, I wouldn't want to be around him anyway because he would be beneath my moral standards. Red would be green, up would be down. No way to live a life.

DingoDave said...

Tigg13 asked:
"What I've never understood about Pascal"s wager is how you are supposed to turn a gamble into faith. If you don't believe something then you don't believe it."

I seem to recall reading that Pascal suggested all non-believers just go through the motions to start off with (attending mass, saying their hail Mary's etc.) and that if they did this for long enough, then they would eventually brainwash themselves into becoming true believers. Pretty lame stuff really.
Someone please correct me if I am wrong about this.

Thranil said...

jake,

I come from a fundie background (southern baptist), and I had the same problem of having to overcome my emotional ties to my old beliefs. As a matter of fact, it was when I noticed how upset I was getting when debating my fundie sister-in-law (after I had left the fold because it was causing me health problems) that I spent the next 6 months obsessing over whether or not christianity was 'the truth' or just something made up. In the end, of course, I found it to be hogwash and I no longer fear any divine retribution.

How did I do it? Well, I spent a lot of time learning about every aspect of christianity that I could. I read Robert M Price, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dale McGowen (parenting mainly), Joseph Campbell, and more. The thing I found that helped me overcome the years of brainwashing the most was to understand what the myth of christianity had in common with all the other myths before, during, and after the gospel time frame. So it is merely a case of special pleading to say that the christian myth is true and all the rest that came out before, during, and after jesus supposedly lived that share copious similarities with the jesus story are false.

Also, FWIW, understanding how myths serve us (Joseph Campbell did amazing work with this) helped me overcome my feelings of anger over being duped. Hope this helps.

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

Jake wrote, "To anyone who comes from an evangelical/fundie background and is now an atheist: I assume you experienced such fear as well. How did you overcome the fear?"

Jake - this is the hardest thing to believe - there is no condemnation in Christ. Now, who are the people I need to forgive so that I won't get infected with the condemnation virus myself?

goprairie said...

The concept of final judgement is inconsistent with a loving all powerful God. If such a God exists, it would not fault a person for using their brain to see the lack of evidence and stop believing. So such a God would guarantee a nice place in the afterlife for the person who never heard of christianity, who heard of it and was not convinced, who was convinced but then came to doubt, and so on. So If the God exists and is loving and all powerful, it will 'forgive' your reliance on logic and there will be no damnation for you. If the God is so nasty as to demand loyalty and service and declaration of faith from you, that God is not the loving all powerful one we would like to be with and cannot be trusted. Perhaps that God will say you get heaven if you have 'faith' but betray you in the end or perhaps that god knows there is not hell but wants your loyalty so it will get to trap you in its domain in the end instead of in a nicer eternity. If there is a God, it is a nice one who doesn't demand beleif or it is a nasty one who does, and so whether you believe or not right now is irrelevant. However, it is more likely there is not God, so you are 'safe' in any case . . .

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

The unseen world is one in which we often project our own human relationship habits on to. It is very revealing when people describe how they think "god" is. But there is a God who does not condone or allow us to justify getting involved with the mistreatment of ourselves or one another but heals and delivers us out of that system - that is good news. As far as Pascal's Wager is concerned, we all approach God as sinners - as people with wrong motives and character traits that are less than faithful and loving. God loves sinners because He recognizes sin as suffering even when we do not yet see it ourselves. No sinner fully knows the love of God but in God's eyes that is a condition for salvation, not punishment.

Evan said...

It is very revealing when people describe how they think "god" is. But there is a God who does not condone or allow us to justify getting involved with the mistreatment of ourselves or one another but heals and delivers us out of that system - that is good news.

In other words ... other people who describe their imaginary friend are projecting. I, on the other hand, know exactly what is going on with my imaginary friend and it's all good.

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

Hi Evan - you wrote "I, on the other hand, know exactly what is going on with my imaginary friend and it's all good."

Do you believe that "it's all good" describes reality??? Perhaps this notion of "it's all good" is truly in keeping and consistant with fantasy and imagination....

Brandon said...

The problem with your argument is that it is too arbitrary, i mean, 800 trillion dollars? Almost pointless to say. Too imprecise, .00001 or .0001? Technically I don't even think religion has a statistical probability it is more or less an absolute truth or absolute fallacy. And lastly, your anger with Christianity is very apparent. I am receptive to many theories, but you need better structure to your argument. Ironically, it sounds like you're using atheism as your religion.