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apologetics, arguments for God, Pragmatic Arguments

Pascal’s Wager: The Utility Argument Explained

pw-jj…I realized that Pascal’s Wager is a much stronger argument than I had thought.

Let’s get it out of the way: Pascal’s Wager does not have much “street cred.” It’s much-maligned as nothing more than rolling the dice, and doing so for no good reason. After all, on which deity should one wager?

Here, I’ll take a look at one formulation of Pascal’s Wager, then very briefly offer a way to perhaps circumvent the “many gods” objection. I’ll be relying heavily upon Jeff Jordan’s book, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God, in what follows.

One way to lay out the Wager may be as follows (quoted from Jordan, 23, cited below):

1. for any person S, and alternatives, a and b, available to S, if the expected utility of a exceeds that of b, S should choose a
2. believing in God carries more expected utility than does not believing
3. Therefore, one should believe in God

Now, this is a pretty straightforward argument. 3, the conclusion, follows via modus ponens. Thus, it is up to the one who wants to deny 3 to deny one of the premises. Let’s examine each in turn.

Premise 1 seems to be logical, but it has actually garnered just as many objections as the second premise. Some have argued that one should not reduce belief in God to a “gamble” or some pragmatic choice. Others have argued that one cannot simply choose to believe and argued that the Wager results in Doxastic Voluntarism–the notion that one may simply change beliefs at will. In order to combat each objection in turn, one would have to show that it may be permissible to choose pragmatically even in religion. Jordan argues to this effect at length, but for the sake of argument I think it may be enough to just say that generally, we do make choices which we think will benefit us, and this is not an objectionable path of reasoning. Moreover, the Wager does not reduce to doxastic voluntarism, for one may indeed change one’s disposition toward something, but not at will. This is a complex argument, and I think we may set it aside for now because there is nothing in Premise 1 which would demand doxastic voluntarism.

Premise 2, of course, is highly contentious as well. Some allege that belief in God prevents the joys of hedonistic living; others allege that one would not know which deity to choose; still others would argue that there could exist deities that would reward unbelief.

Again, dealing with each in turn would take quite some time, so I’ll simply offer a few comments. First, hedonistic living in one life would not outweigh the benefits of eternity with a benevolent deity. Second, the Wager may simply be used to prefer theism generally–after all, if one does not wager on any deity, there would be no possibility of infinite (or nearly limitless) expected utility from one’s wager. Third, inventing fictions to attempt to rival established religious traditions which have, presumably, been believed by our epistemic peers (to use the term of Jordan, 80-81) does not put them on par.

Now, it should be fairly clear that even an incredibly low probability for God’s existence may have much higher expected utility than unbelief, for the overall possible gain is much higher. Jordan elaborates on this and answers many objections (such as the notion that “betting” on something which is highly improbable is necessarily irrational). For now, I simply leave this statement hanging because it helps my purpose, which is to demonstrate to those interested that the Wager is worth investigating further.

Because of the above, another of the strengths of the argument may be found in its usefulness to the apologist. Pascal’s Wager, Jordan argued, may be viewed as a kind of “last ditch” argument for apologists and theism (24). After all, suppose one were to come up with an argument which convinced you that the truth of theism is quite unlikely indeed. In that case, Pascal’s Wager provides a rational reason to continue to believe in God. For, even if it is unlikely that God exists, the utility of believing that God exists has a potentially infinite reward and thus trumps the utility of not believing that God exists.

Remember, though, that this functions for any possibility of God existing that is greater than zero. It was at this point in the book that I realized that Pascal’s Wager is a much stronger argument than I had thought. Not only may it be adequate to ground theistic belief, but it also may serve as a kind of bulwark against anti-theistic arguments as well.

I have argued that Pascal’s Wager may be formulated in such a way that one should believe in God. Now there is, of course, much more nuance and many more objections to each premise. Interested readers should check out Jeff Jordan’s Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God.

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Question of the Week: Wagering Much?– In this post, I asked the question of apologists about whether or not they used Pascal’s Wager. The feedback I got was diverse and interesting. Check out the post, and let me know your own thoughts.

Source

Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (New York: Oxford, 2006).

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager: The Utility Argument Explained

  1. Very interesting. I’ve been looking a little further into Pascal’s Wager lately (among too many other things) and was struck by it’s pragmatic (or possibly existential) appeal, but there was always something a little off about it.

    I think putting into a logical formulation and discussing doxastic voluntarism is where I was getting stuck. And, like you, I don’t see anything obvious about the wager that entails d. voluntarism.

    I do think it’s intriguing that the wager can be used somewhat as a backup plan when presented with an argument that seems to shatter theistic belief. Almost like it gives you permission to continue to believe in God while assessing the opposing argument’s merits.

    Ultimately, i think the wager is unconvincing alone because it relies heavily on pragmatic reasoning, and while some people may seem like pragmatists, they feel uncomfortable fully embracing it when it comes to the God question. I do like the strength you’ve added to the wager here, and I’ll have to add this book to my ever-growing-towards-an-actual-infinite amazon wish list 😉

    Posted by ElijiahT | July 28, 2014, 7:37 AM
  2. I’m a little confused – could I ask what you mean by “…this functions for any possibility of God existing that is greater than one.”? I take ‘possibility’ to refer probability in the mathematical sense, in which case it should be ‘greater than zero’ rather than one – or does it means something else here?

    On a side note, I never paid much attention to Pascal’s Wager prior to reading your posts – it’s beginning to look pretty interesting though, so I was wondering if you have any other resources on it to recommend since the book is pretty expensive and I’m on a bit of a limited budget, as a student. Thank you 🙂

    Posted by zann | July 28, 2014, 9:48 AM
    • Yes, that was a crossing of thinking in my head. You’re right RE the sentence, and I’ll change the terminology to actually say what I meant it to.

      As far as the budget- I’d recommend finding a seminary library nearby and seeing if they have books like this. You’d be surprised what you can find! I know that Douglas Groothuis defends the argument (briefly, but competently) also in his “Christian Apologetics” book which is less expensive and also huge. I wish I had a better answer, but these things just are expensive. I do really recommend a library though–depending where you live you may even be able to find the book in a public library system. Or a university if one is nearby.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 28, 2014, 10:28 AM
      • The public libraries are pretty sparse on such topics and I’m not sure if the seminaries where I live are open to the public, but I might be able to get access to the local university libraries. Groothius’ book does look like a great resource though, and I’m planning to get it once my exams are over:) Thanks for the suggestions!

        Posted by zann | July 31, 2014, 10:18 AM
    • Hi Zann ~

      I thought I’d say that the last 3 public library systems I’ve used (Portland, OR, Vancouver, WA and Logan, UT) have all made inter-library loans very easy for the borrower. And all 3 have access to various seminary and Bible college libraries. The only downside is that instead of being able to renew your book, you only have one checkout period (3 weeks here) to read. And with the kind of stuff Wartick recommends, it’s usually a rush to get through them in time. I recently returned “In The Beginning God” by Winfried Corduan (recommended here) but had to return it before I could really wrap my head around it. So there’s a possibility you could check some of these books out, but you may have to set aside the next 3 weeks in daily study.

      Posted by Tim Henderson | July 30, 2014, 12:00 AM
      • Hello Tim!

        Haha, I happen to live in Singapore so buying the book would be considerably cheaper than borrowing it from any of the places that you mentioned! Moreover, it’s a mad rush to meet deadlines and to prep for exams right now so three weeks does sound a bit tight, as things stand. Thank you for the information though – I really appreciate it!

        Posted by zann | July 31, 2014, 10:27 AM
  3. – “Pascal’s Wager does not have much “street cred.””

    I’ve found quite the opposite in my life! Most abstract arguments seem to not fully connect with “the man on the street”, no matter how sound the argument may be. The Wager seems to address something we can all understand on a simple level, and most people I talk to are on that level. For example, my 10-year old has read a lot of “entry-level apologetics” but always appeals to Pascal, not the other “big 3” arguments b/c he believes it to be more convincing!

    – “1. for any person S, and alternatives, a and b, available to S, if the expected utility of a exceeds that of b, S should choose a”

    If we’re measuring rewards using only perceived utility, wouldn’t there be better religious systems to pick from than Christianity? Islam could possibly be a better choice (with 72 virgins as a reward) or any number of other religions that YOU PERSONALLY believe is the kind of utility that sounds best to you. After all, many have pointed out that close proximity to a perfect being for eternity would be unbearable for one who isn’t attracted to that sort of situation, so why would they pick it? So there may be better versions of A for various people, at least from their current perspective (which is what they’re using to decide if they believe this argument). Utility seems to me an inadequate indicator of the best possible version of eternity.

    – “the Wager does not reduce to doxastic voluntarism, for one may indeed change one’s disposition toward something, but not at will.”

    Changing one’s disposition toward something, but not at will, is simply indirect voluntary control, which is a feature of Doxastic Voluntarism, so I am not sure that one can say that it does not reduce to DV. Indirect voluntary control simply explains how one might arrive at new beliefs by making choices over time that lead to the desired belief, but again, that is entailed in DV via indirect voluntary control. Correct me if I’m wrong about this. I very well may be.

    Good post – love thinking about this stuff. Thanks!

    Posted by Tim Henderson | July 29, 2014, 11:43 PM
    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments!\

      Regarding the first premise and expected utility, the point is that theism has higher expected utility than atheism. Making the Wager more particularly oriented towards a specific theistic tradition is difficulty, but doable as Jordan attempts to do so later in the book.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 1, 2014, 11:11 AM
      • I would make the observation that theism alone does not lead to expected utility. It could be that God would be like an overbearing parent – perfectly just but just tooooo hard to live with! Kids growing up in those kinds of homes find it unbearable. A really, REALLY strict parent might be wanting to keep things always in the right in every way, but that kind of standard is far too much for most. I don’t think this would diminish any basic attribute of God or create any logical contradictions (such as “hates us one second, loves us the next”) but it would make living with such a being miserable.

        But my main observation would be that in REALITY, practically everyone using the Wager is a Christian, as was Pascal. Nearly everyone using it has the Christian God in mind. It seems a bit disingenuous to play it as “oh, we’re just talking about any old god at this point…” b/c they’re all thinking about Christianity. Pascal even addresses this when he says if you want to know this God but don’t know how, just imitate other Christians by going to church and doing what they do.

        If you have time, could you comment on indirect voluntary control (what I wrote about above)? Is there something I’m not getting about that?

        Thanks!

        Posted by Tim Henderson | August 1, 2014, 4:14 PM

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