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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Pascal's Wager Redux

It seems like Pascal's Wager is coming up again, as apparently many people are discovering it anew and using it as if it makes some kind of sense (or perhaps, never stopped using it and are oblivious of the counterargument).

The Wager claims that there is a probabilistic benefit from belief in God, since there may be a benefit from that belief, but a lack of belief would either incur a penalty or do nothing. The claim is essentially, that you should believe in God, "just in case," because the odds favor it.

Pascal's Wager is not a proof of God, it is merely an argument for believing in God, whether or not one actually exists. And showing the argument to be fallacious, does also not constitute a proof that God does not exist. In either case, the actual truth of the existance or non-existance of God is essentially irrelevant, with regards to the Wager.

It even attempts to address the fact that you can't just choose to believe that God exists any more than you can that the moon is made of green cheese. It does this essentially by claiming that since the odds are better for believers, it is best to act as if you do anyway and hope that you might eventually become convinced. So this additional argument hinges on the validity of the original claim.

But since it's possible for a God or even a godless universe to exist that somehow rewards the unbeliever for NOT believing in unsubstantiated claims, even the unbeliever could end up deriving a benefit. And of course, there are many religions, not just one, so it's not even as simple as belief vs non-belief-- what if you decided to believe "just in case," but picked the wrong one to believe in and lost out on the reward because of it? The odds favoring belief argument breaks down at this point.

The real problem with Pascal's Wager I would say, is as Einstein put it, "If people are good only because they fear punishment, or hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." Likewise if they believe in nonsense, even if it's nonsense that could coincidentally be true.