Thursday, 29 November 2012

Not again! Pascals' Wager

A number of things can be guaranteed in life. One is that a Christian will employ ‘Pascal’s Wager’ on you if you’re an atheist. 

Pascal's Wager derives from the 17th C French philosopher Blaise Pascal. He proposed an argument for god based on a gamble.  If you believe in god and it tuns out you're wrong, you've lost very little.  If you don't believe in god and it turns out you're wrong, then wow. You are really going to suffer.  The argument covers the general form of argument where you base belief on consequences

This wager acknowledges the lack of evidence for a god, but so turns faith into a gamble instead. If Christianity (whilst premised on Christianity, the argument can be employed more generally and often is, I've had Muslims use it on me too) is right, they avoid an eternity of torture.  On that basis, belief is rational whilst non-belief in god is irrational.

 It doesn’t work for three main reasons
  • There are thousands of gods known in human cultures. The odds Christianity is right as a ‘gamble’ are thousands to one against. On that basis, the odds I’m going to end up in the Maori underworld are pretty much identical to you. So it fails as a ‘good bet’.
  • It’s insufficient to generate belief. This is actually the big one. The wager doesn’t generate any evidence (this formed one of the earliest critiques of Pascal’s wager). It doesn’t matter if hell is true or not. If you don’t have an evidence, then a rational person can’t choose to believe.
    Consider this analogy: Using Alien technology I have mounted giant lasers on the moon. They’re undetectable. I have targeted your family for destruction at a random time in the future. Unless you send me money now, these lasers will destroy everything you hold dear later.
    This is identical to Pascal’s Wager. I provide no evidence, I just promise a horrible fate in the future if you don’t believe me. By the logic of the wager, you should believe me because you can’t afford not to.
    One suspects you don’t believe me for one simple reason. There’s still no evidence to back up the threat. The lack of evidence in Pascal’s wager is why it has no validity.
  • It’s a coward’s argument. I find it repellent because it is based on fear of consequences, not reason or evidence.
There are other objections.  One is that it's based on a pretence.  You're effectively going to Church as a kind of 'fire-insurance'.  The theory is that you can fool god into accepting you're a believer.  Pascal tried to deal with that objection by arguing that you would gradually become a true believer with this immersive process.

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