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How come atheists do not consider Pascal's Wager to be a rational and reasonable basis for belief in God?

Pascal was a renowned scientist. Why isn’t his wager respected by atheists who in general strongly respect science?

Pascal presented two possibilities; live as though god exists, or don’t live as though god exists. He suggested that whether or not god really exists it makes sense to act as though he does.

If you live as though God exists.

  • If God exists, you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • If God does not exist, your loss is nothing.

If you do not live as though God exists.

  • If God exists, you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
  • If God does not exist, you gain nothing & lose nothing.

Posted: June 1st 2007

SmartLX www

I love game theory.

Pascal presented two possibilities for behaviour; there are thousands. I’ll reduce them to three: live as though a given god exists, live as though no god exists or live as though any of the roughly 20,000 other invented gods exists.

I’m assuming for now that if there’s a god, all believers in the right god go to heaven, and all atheists and believers in the wrong god go to hell.

If you live as though your god exists…

  • If your god exists, you go to heaven; your gain is infinite.
  • If another god exists, you go to that god’s version of hell; your loss is infinite.
  • If no god exists, your loss is nothing.

If you live as though a different god exists…

  • If that god exists, you go to its version of heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • If your god or any third god exists, you go to some kind of hell; your loss is infinite.
  • If no god exists, your loss is nothing.

If you live as though no god exists…

  • If any god exists, you go to some kind of hell; your loss is infinite.
  • If no god exists, you gain nothing & lose nothing.

Under my assumptions, atheism still isn’t looking too smart, but belief in a god is now far from a safe bet. You’re not flipping a coin anymore, you’re throwing a 20,000-sided die and hoping it will come up, say, 16,742. Even if it comes up 16,743, it’s not your god and you’re toast. That’s not even counting the infinite number of potential gods no one has ever imagined – if God exists and isn’t manmade, how do we know anyone has the right idea?

Where my initial assumptions break down is that with many imagined gods, you’d do a lot better as an atheist than as a believer in a rival god. You might qualify for limbo or something, or be judged only on your merits as a person.

If I hadn’t read otherwise, I’d think Pascal used his Wager to demonstrate a mathematical point, not a philosophical one. That’s the only reason I can imagine why such a brilliant scholar would be satisfied with such a crippling oversimplification as to assume there is only one possible god. This isn’t the case however. He simply had to mangle the Wager that much to make it come out all right for believers.

Posted: November 13th 2007

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Russell Blackford www

Belief is not volitional. No matter how hard I try to will it, I cannot get myself to “just believe” that there is a boa constrictor coiled up under the desk, as I type this in my study.

That’s not to deny that you can sometimes trick yourself, using indirect methods, into believing something for which you have no evidence. For instance, you may be able to get yourself to believe in God if you do the following: go to church frequently; surround yourself with religious people; enjoy the singing and the rituals, and the general mystique of participation in an emotionally-engaged group of people; immerse yourself in religious literature; stop thinking critically about religion and religious morality. There’s a good chance – though far from a guarantee – that you’ll eventually feel comfortable with belief in God, and “take on” that belief.

But do you really want to live that kind of lie? Do you really want to acquire beliefs in such an intellectually dishonest way? How desperate do you have to be to do something like this? How could you justify imposing beliefs on others if they are acquired in that way, rather than through evidence? And how, at this stage, can you even feel confident that any deity which actually exists will reward people for that kind of dishonest exercise, rather than for a life lived honestly?

Posted: June 11th 2007

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bitbutter www

For me the most obvious problem with the strategy Pascal suggests is that it ignores the possibility that the god you will end up face-to-face with may not be the Christian god. In this case you may be punished anyway despite having lived your life as though the Christian god exists.

For a more thorough examination of the problems with pascals wager check the “rebuttals section of the wikipedia entry”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal’s_Wager#Atheist.27s_Wager .

Posted: June 3rd 2007

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