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Pascal’s Wager

June 16, 2011

Blaise PascalOver at Wheat & Tares, shenpa warrior has provocatively asked about the difference between the experience of the Holy Ghost and that of mere good feelings. Most of the comments are as you would expect (with believers offering descriptions of something more than just a feeling in order to elevate the spiritual experience from an emotional one…and with nonbelievers playing out arguments about the subjectivity, the nonreplicability, the variability, blah blah blah, of religious experience.)

I’m not really amused, if you couldn’t tell.

Jared, of LDS Alive in Christ, started posting to the topic relatively early on. As an aside, I will say that I feel that Jared has come miles in his internet commenting. He seems genuinely willing to try to consider other perspectives and try to fit them into his faith — even if every so often, he slips into an easy, yet false “gotcha” assertion or stereotype (then again, I know believing Mormon bloggers who expect the same of many exMormon commenters). But then again, that’s more than I can say for most internet commenters…believer or non.

That being said, he usually says something that makes me cringe. After asserting the weaknesses in human logic (which, to be honest, I don’t have problem with…but with Jared, I was skeptical of what his aim was), he then pointed out that he believes religion and logic should both be privileged. And then, to make the case for religion from a logical view point, he invoked Pascal’s Wager.

For those who question faith but who have it in there blood should follow the logic found in Pascal’s wager:

“If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing — but if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist.” Paraphrase of Pascal’s Wager.

Oh no. he. didn’t.

As you could expect, this invocation did not go unanswered. I mean…Pascal’s Wager is just one of many things that someone like Jared could raise as a convenient “gotcha” that, because of his lack of awareness of the nonbelieving world, he wouldn’t know that such an argument doesn’t actually “get” many people at all.

But when the hordes come to eviscerate the wager — as they always do — I am usually disappointed by the responses. I guess it’s because I feel that when most people invoke the Wager (as Jared does), they do so with a weak, facile approach, and so the counters are just as superficial.

I mean, I guess a good response is to point out that Pascal’s Wager ignores sectarianism. To say either God exists or he doesn’t glosses over the fact that there are quite a few god concepts to deal with. Some of these god concepts may not have eternal punishment, so perhaps can be taken less seriously in our probability calculation, but some of these god concepts may not even reward people for belief in that god concept. (So, a popular counter to the argument I often here is, “What if God rewards those who were honest thinkers, even if they did not believe?”)

But I feel these are low tier counterarguments.

A slightly better counter is the argument that wagering as if God is real has negative consequences — whereas the most common formulation of Pascal would argue that there’s nothing to lose from wagering God exists when he doesn’t), one can point out that one has effectively lived one’s life deprived of a great many things, all because one believed God did not approve of those things. Mathematically, however, this life (and whatever misery one may probably encounter from engaging the wager) doesn’t match against an eternal afterlife (where whatever reward — even if highly improbable — nets to a larger net positive).

An argument that I like even more (maybe because I write tons of posts about it) is that belief may not be consciously chosen. In such a case, does God reward inauthentic belief as he does authentic belief?

Here is where the facile versions of the argument clearly diverge from the more complicated ones. Often, people invoking the argument simply assume that belief can be chosen (and for someone like Jared, why not? Mormonism’s free will model is heavily slanted toward theological voluntarism.)

But of course, Pascal addressed such criticisms way back when:

Explicitly addressing the question of inability to believe, Pascal argues that if the wager is valid, the inability to believe is irrational, and therefore must be caused by feelings: “your inability to believe, because reason compels you to [believe] and yet you cannot, [comes] from your passions.” This inability, therefore, can be overcome by diminishing these irrational sentiments: “Learn from those who were bound like you. . . . Follow the way by which they began: that is by doing everything as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having Masses said, etc. Naturally, even this will make you believe and will dull you. -‘But this is what I am afraid of.’- And why? What have you to lose?”

Of course, this poses another issue: now Pascal is simply asserting that “fake it ’till you make it” is a valid way to induce belief. And sure, sure, confirmation bias and all sorts of biases do suggest something of this sort (especially if one becomes more invested in the thing they are trying to believe)…but the lived experiences of many ex-Mormons (not to mention those disaffected from other religions, and maybe those who are still in churches) suggests a few other things.

1) Things don’t always work as planned.

2) Not only may doing all the actions fail to induce belief, but sometimes it can make you miserable.

To wrap up this topic by relating it back to the Wheat and Tares post, the thing about Pascal’s Wager is that nowhere does it imply an experience of the Holy Ghost. So, even if one has “dulled” his reason in order to believe — through sheer actions — this doesn’t imply that he or she has had any sort of transformative, authentic experience with the spirit. In fact,  one’s pseudoreligious husk that knows nothing of the spirit and only of religious legalism may be antithetical to faith. Pascal was worried about apatheism — for he believed this matter to be one of the most critical for people to approach — but perhaps someone truly religious ought be more worried about the kinds of “believers” that will be produced only through this “hypocrisy upward.”


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  1. I’ve never been particularly persuaded by the wager either — from a believing perspective. Perhaps because my faith has always been strongly experiential. Precisely because I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life in a very powerful and distinct way, my faith has always felt more like a kind of companionship or friendship. The “wager” just seemed a silly analogy to me… Not relevant.

    I think the wager analogy was probably designed specifically for folks who didn’t or couldn’t feel it, but who wanted to feel it… To give an excuse to those who wanted to believe, but had difficulty believing. “Lord, help thou my unbelief!’

    By the way, my experience of the Spirit is so overwhelmingly different and so much more powerful when I am at Church, among the Saints, for me there is no question of “which church is true.” I say this full well knowing that other religions “work” for other people. Intellectually, the relativist position is so much easier for me to maintain. But practically speaking, I just don’t feel the Spirit the same way in a Catholic church (or even a Pentecostal church!) as I do in the LDS Church. So for me there’s no question where I need to be. I try to rationalize that in different ways (e.g., maybe the LDS Church is there the Lord needs ME to be, but he needs other folks to be in other churches, etc.). Still, that isn’t how I experience it. I experience it as the Spirit telling me in clear, unqualified terms that the LDS Church is the only true and living church on the face of the earth that possesses the authority to act in the name of Christ. So at some level, I just have to accept it on those terms.

    Intellectually, I accept this as a mystery. I don’t have any problem with people staying committed to their respective faiths. In fact, I love that they are. To me it is wonderful and delightful that they seem to find as deep a connection to God through their faith as I find through mine. To me it is a demonstration of the beauty and the richness and the wonders of the spiritual dimension. I don’t, for that matter, have any problem with atheists. I don’t feel any compunction to persuade them of the error of their ways, nor do I particularly worry about their salvation. I’m convinced that the Lord will deal as gracefully with them as he has with me — that if he needs them to know something, he will pour his Spirit out on them as he has on me. I am more interested in building the bonds of love and friendship among all people, which I believe is God’s first and greatest commandment. At some fundamental level, I feel that if my faith isn’t driving me toward universal love, there’s something wrong with my faith.

  2. John G-W,

    I try to rationalize that in different ways (e.g., maybe the LDS Church is there the Lord needs ME to be, but he needs other folks to be in other churches, etc.). Still, that isn’t how I experience it. I experience it as the Spirit telling me in clear, unqualified terms that the LDS Church is the only true and living church on the face of the earth that possesses the authority to act in the name of Christ. So at some level, I just have to accept it on those terms.

    Do you suppose that people from other religions/churches don’t have similar experiences which are just as clear and unqualified to them? When you said earlier that you know fully well that other religions “work” for other people, is this to say that “working” is some sort of lesser achievement to what you have experienced?

    • My working assumption is that people could and do have experiences leading them to believe their church is the “only true” that is every bit as clear and unqualified as the experiences I have had. That’s why I said… I essentially have to accept this as a mystery. My obligation is to live the gospel as best I understand it and can live it, which includes an obligation to love everyone unconditionally. My job is not to tell other folks that their spiritual experiences are invalid. I don’t really have any basis for doing so.

      That having been said… I don’t in practice know of other Christians claiming to have received a specific spiritual witness similar to the witness commonly received by Mormons about the truth of their church or the authority of their priesthood. I’ve heard many other Christians describe spiritual experiences on a par with what I’ve had in relation to the reality of God, the efficacy of the Atonement, etc. I’ve heard folks describe experiences that to me indicate that the Spirit is at work in their church. That’s very clear to me.

      Protestants don’t as a general rule make “only true Church” type claims. I won’t discuss at length why that is, but suffice it to say it’s part of their belief system, going back to Luther’s theology about the “invisible” Church, etc., etc.

      Catholics do make this type of claim, but it is grounded in an historical argument, not grounded in the principle of modern day revelation. The Catholic argument is built on the whole apostolic succession claim, and is bolstered by certain scriptures and traditions emphasizing that God wouldn’t allow his true church to be “lost” or taken away.

      So for me it’s sort of an open question… I’m interested to hear if other people have had spiritual experiences telling them they belong to the one, only, true. I don’t rule it out. In fact, i assume it as a distinct possibility. All I’m saying is, it doesn’t change the nature of the spiritual and moral obligations that flow from my own testimony. I have to go with what I know, just as I have to make room for others to do the same.

      • I have two issues here.

        First, by emphasizing “one, true, only”, you may be biasing things to a particular conclusion. Is the heart of your spiritual experiences the revelation of the only one true church? I wonder.

        I am reminded of arguments where people say that I must secretly know I’m wrong because I am cautious with my words (I say things like “it seems to me…” and “for me…”), whereas those other people “know”. Maybe emphasizing the exclusive, the most self-assured claims is missing the point. (Or, to put it another way: maybe it makes as little sense to argue in terms of one true church via prophetic revelation as it does to argue it via apostolic succession and tradition — it wouldn’t be a very persuasive argument for a Catholic to say, “Other Christians as a general rule don’t make direct apostolic succession claims” Right…they don’t…because they are playing at a different game.”

        Secondly, it could be that one is looking from the wrong vantage point of exclusivity. For example, what if talking about the one, true church is like talking about the best state? Sure, one could do it, but more productive would be thinking of the United States.

        In this case, many other Christians, even if they don’t typically bear testimony that their particular denomination is the one true church, still assert that the Christian community is the one true church.

        The biggest reason this matters for many Mormons is because many of these Christians won’t consider us as part of the Christian community.

        • I think I’ve already granted all your main points here… I don’t disagree that an apostolic succession argument isn’t necessarily inferior to a modern-day revelation argument. I understand that different communities of faith operate under different rules. That’s what I mean when I say it “works” for other people. I also, by the way, say that Mormonism “works” for me… So when I say that about other people of faith I’m not putting them in a class that is inferior to my own brand of faith. That’s simply not how i think about this in any way shape or form.

          As for my experiences that the LDS is “the true Church,” I have had two classes of experience. One class of experience is those experiences where I just experience the presence of the Spirit at Church with a depth and a power I simply don’t experience it anywhere else. That, to me, says, The Spirit resides here. This is the Lord’s house. As far as I can tell, other Christians have similar experiences at their churches. So these kinds of experiences signal to me that the LDS is at least “a” true church.

          The second class of experience is experiences when what the Spirit communicates to me is not just a sense of warmth and presence, but when there is actual content, a message, and where the message is: This is the Church upon which Christ has bestowed his true priesthood and authority. This is the place. I’m not aware of other Christians having these kinds of experiences.

          But AGAIN, let me stress, I understand that different religions function as different kinds of systems with different epistemologies, and I’m not prepared to say that somebody else’s faith based epistemology is invalid. In fact, I’ll say it again for I think the third time, I assume that it is valid. I understand that their system works for them just as my system works for me. Furthermore, I would consider it a sin to treat anybody with any less charity because they are part of a different religious community or have a different kind of faith than I do. I am bound, obligated by my own faith system to treat them with the same respect and love I would hope for myself…

  3. Seth R. permalink

    There’s a reason I don’t ever use the wager in my own arguments from the faithful perspective.

    If you really follow the logic of Pascal’s Wager, you’d have to go and locate the religion with the absolutely worst and harshest set of consequences for not believing in it, and then pick that one.

    And basing your faith on who has the worst version of hell seems like a pretty unappetizing approach to picking a god.

    • Seth,


      I have often been amazed to see this approach elsewhere: this argument from negative consequences. In my mind, if a god concept seems unjust enough, I feel like even if I became convinced of it’s existence, I’d be in rebellion.

    • I once heard a conservative Lutheran minister use Pascal’s wager-like reasoning to explain why no one should ever convert to Mormonism. If Mormons are right, he explained, Christians will all still go to a “degree of glory.” But if Christians are right, they’d all go to hell for converting to Mormonism!!

  4. Andrew – the thread over there is driving me crazy with this “illogical” business. Am I wrong? I keep asserting that some comments are incorrect to say the wager is “illogical” and they keep countering with a moral judgment of the wager itself. I’m starting to go a little nuts. Do people not know what “logical” means?

    “nor do I particularly worry about their salvation. I’m convinced that the Lord will deal as gracefully with them as he has with me — that if he needs them to know something, he will pour his Spirit out on them as he has on me. I am more interested in building the bonds of love and friendship among all people, which I believe is God’s first and greatest commandment. At some fundamental level, I feel that if my faith isn’t driving me toward universal love, there’s something wrong with my faith.”

    Great comment, thanks John.

    • shenpa warrior,

      For whatever it’s worth, I think many people *don’t* know what logical means. So people make it far too broad and powerful a concept. As happened in the discussion. As far as logical validity goes, the wager doesn’t make overt fallacies. So, it’s not illogical. What everyone wants to challenge are the soundness of its premises. Which, to be frank, there is a lot to challenge here.

      Interestingly, this is what shows the limits of logic. One can make an infinite number of logically valid statements…yet all of them may nevertheless be false in reality, because logic is just about going from premises to conclusion…there is no factcheck on premises.

  5. Andrew S., your thoughts on this “wager” as it has been called, are well stated and provoke a deeper and more nuanced consideration than is often put forward. I remain skeptical that “belief can be chosen”.

    Granted, the “fake it ’till you make it” approach will likely contribute to a person’s increasing belief in and commitment to the proposition that a god matching their particular point of view exists. When that approach is engaged in for many decades, disconfirming data will feel and seem wrong. A person might induce belief and be genuinely happy and even may become a manifestation of “hypocrisy upward” yet this would not necessitate their particular god belief is accurate. My experience with this “fake it” strategy gives evidence that it works. While the approach can be powerful it may not confirm what is perceived.

    • Well, Pascal’s Wager isn’t supposed to prove god. So, the god belief need not be accurate.

      I’m just saying thst nothwithstanding people for whom the approach works, there are others for whom it (painfully) does not. So people aren’t all carbon copies of their cultural environments

  6. Hi Andrew

    Many in the bloggernacle enjoy deconstructing faith. At Wheat & Tares Mike S has posted many thought provoking essays on the power of human logic. I’ve enjoyed reading them.

    I decided to introduce a few thoughts on deconstructing human logic just to keep things in perspective. I make no pretense of being able to carry this pursuit very far.

    As always, I enjoy your post and clever conversations. 🙂

    • I think Pascal’s Wager gives a good example of how human logic may be deconstructed. I’m in agreement that logic isn’t some end-all be-all. But that doesn’t alone make any case for faith.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    “Fake it till you make it” can be a bit misleading.

    The phrase implies that you are “merely” acting like a believer for ulterior motives – like snagging that nice Mormon girlfriend, or making daddy proud, or avoiding societal embarrassment (if you live in Utah), and so forth.

    In all cases, the subject is merely participating to gain some benefits that are tangential to the actual main thrust of the religious belief. This can very well be a dishonest way of living.

    But this needs to be distinguished from genuine discipleship. No one really understands their faith. The religion is always far too complex and deep to be completely understood by anyone. All of us are operating in the dark to some extent. In that sense, all religious believers are “faking it” – acting out commitments when they don’t have all the information.

    But the motives matter here. You can be operating in the dark, but truly committed to playing out each piece of religious light you encounter. Seeing where it leads you, and then hoping for more. There’s nothing dishonest about this. It’s merely being an explorer, a bit of a spiritual entrepreneur.

    • I suppose I feel that doing all of these things to try to engineer a testimony is *also* an ulterior motive, no lesser or greater than the others you mentioned. Since I think the approach often doesn’t produce spiritual experiences, it still is tangential to the main pt of belief.

      As to distinguish from genuine discipleship, I’d say you don’t need to understand your faith to be aware if you have or do not have it. Religious believers may be faking it to some extend, but NEVER would we say the genuine religious believer is faking in order to gain belief. To call someone a religious believer presumes they already have some belief.

      A religious nonbeliever, even if he’s pursuing belief, is a different matter.

  8. Another home run hit. Very well written.

    • Thanks, James!

  9. philomytha permalink

    Ah yes, Pascal’s Wager. I tried it! Choose to believe. Fake it til you make it. I learned that in my Book of Mormon class my freshman year at BYU, and I decided to do it. I desperately wanted to believe. Friends told me they knew I had a testimony because it showed in my actions, even if I didn’t feel like I had one. When I was asked the question in temple recommend interviews I felt I could say yes, I had a testimony because my roommate told me I did and she’s very spiritual so she probably knew better than I did.

    But after 20 years and a whole lot of prayer and study and temple attendance and callings I finally realized that I had two sets of beliefs — the ones I chose and consciously told myself I believed, and the ones that I truly believed deep down in my heart.

    Turns out, it’s a lot easier to be happy when you’re living truthfully. Which I’m sure any member of the church would agree with! But for me that means not trying to force myself to believe LDS teachings or pretend that I do.

  10. Chris permalink

    If I were a trickster god and created all the religions and gave believers spiritual experiences to confirm the religion they were born into, I would delight in revealing somebody this wager.

  11. Not only is Pascal’s Wager not compelling because of the plethora of gods that one could choose from, but the idea that any god would be fooled by believing in order to obtain reward or seek punishment, isn’t a god worth worshiping

    In all of human history, there’s the same evidence for any deity – which is to say, none at all.

    So, the balance of probably would conclude, be the best person you can and live your life as best as you can and don’t live like it’s a dress rehearsal for the afterlife, because chances are, there isn’t one – and if there is, it’s a natural process that what you believed isn’t going to be as meaningful as how you were.

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