Michael Rota’s Taking Pascal’s Wager is an introduction to the defense of Pascal’s Wager, one of the most maligned arguments for the truth of Christianity.
One of the things that makes Pascal’s Wager most intriguing is the fact that, unlike many theistic arguments, the Wager seems uniquely suited for reasoning with the skeptic. That is, it is intentionally put forward in such a way as to convince the skeptic that Christianity is a good idea. Rota highlights this aspect of the Wager, particularly in two places: first, where he analyzes the probability behind the argument to demonstrate that, on the whole, the Wager is more beneficial taken than not, and second, in the last section of the book which shows practical outcomes of taking the Wager.
The sections on the probability behind the Wager are excellent. Rota condenses down a lot of probability theory and philosophical reasoning based on probability in ways that are easy to understand. This alone makes the book worth a read because it will allow those interested to explain and defend the Wager much better than they may otherwise. Rota also addresses some of the most common objections to the Wager, noting that things like the many gods challenge fail to make a convincing case against the Wager.
The last part of the book utilizes people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to highlight the practical consequences of the wager. Bonhoeffer lost his life in the pursuit of Christian faith. Was it worth it? Rota’s examples give insights into lives that readers might not otherwise know about, and show that even lives that are full of sorrow are worth it, supposing God does exist.
I did think that the book somewhat seemed to get off track in the middle section, as Rota proceeded from speaking of Pascal’s Wager into discussion of various reasons to think Christianity is more likely true than not. I understand that this was part of his project, but given the amount of works that have been offered with a general introduction to things like the moral, cosmological, and other arguments, I think the space would have better been filled with a deeper look at Pascal’s Wager and the probability theory behind it. Further, more space dedicated to objections to the wager would be helpful.
Taking Pascal’s Wager is a worthy read. It introduces readers to the strength of Pascal’s Wager while also providing–uniquely, I think–a look at the practical outcomes of taking that wager. Although it could be improved by a deeper discussion of the probability behind the Wager and various objections to it, I believe this is an important book for anyone who wants to become more acquainted with one of the most unique arguments for Christianity. Readers interested in Pascal’s Wager ought also check out Jeff Jordan’s phenomenal Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God.
+Real-life examples of the cost of discipleship highlight message
+Solid analysis of probability theory behind the argument
+Provides broad-spectrum defense of the Wager
-Uses endnotes instead of footnotes
-Not quite as focused as one might like
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
Michael Rota, Taking Pascal’s Wager (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).
Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!
Sorry for the late posting of this week’s Really Recommended Posts. I’ve been very busy. That said, I still managed to draw together some great posts from around the web. I hope you enjoy them!
Unexplained Allusions: The sons of thunder– There are so many lines of evidence for the truthfulness of the Bible that it can be hard to even learn about all of them. Here’s a post that explains yet another one of these lines of evidence: unexplained allusions.
7 Places Where Gender Inclusive Bible Translation Really Matters– From the article: “I have often made the point that the King James Version and the pre-2011 New International Versions each include more than 1,000 occurrences of the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ which are not found in the Greek New Testament… gender-inclusive translations such as the NRSV, NLT, NIV 2011, and CEB are taking steps toward the character of the Greek New Testament, not away from it.”
The Unraveling of Starlight and Time– An in-depth analysis of a Young Earth Creationist proposal for explaining distant starlight. The analysis is of the prominent work, Starlight and Time by D. Russell Humphreys, as well as a later revision of his theory.
Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Blaise Pascal– Pascal is most often known for his (in)famous Pascal’s Wager (I defend this argument here). Yet there is a lot more to this thinker than you may know. Read on for an introduction to the thought of this historic thinker.
For some time, I’d been wanting to put some effort into studying Pascal’s Wager. I picked up Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God by Jeff Jordan in order to familiarize myself more with the philosophical grounding behind the argument. Jordan approaches the Wager through a lens of analytic philosophy and, I think, demonstrates that the argument has some force to it.
Jordan’s work has great scope. Several aspects of the Wager are brought to light. He analyzes several different formulations of the argument, while also noting where the argument has been changed or modernized. For example, the notion that Pascal’s Wager was infinite bad vs. infinite good is a more recent innovation than Pascal’s original argument.
He studies the argument contextually to determine whether the Wager was intended as a generalized theistic proof or an argument for Christianity. Numerous objections from leading critics of the Wager are put to the test. Ultimately, a version of the Wager developed by William James is put forward as an argument that passes the philosophical muster. Jordan analyzes this argument from many angles, ultimately demonstrating that it overcomes the challenge of the “many gods” objection and provides grounds for Christian faith.
The value of Pascal’s Wager may is increased by the fact that many aspects of Jordan’s work are applicable to other arguments or areas of interest for philosophers of religion and apologists. For example, Jordan raises significant challenges to the notion that philosopher’s fictional deities may actually be counted as evidence for a “many gods” objection (75-76; 80-81). Another example is a rather interesting argument he derives from the work of James Beattie (1735-1803- Jordan notes Beattie is at times rightly accused of misrepresenting Hume’s arguments) about whether attempts to deconvert might bring about pragmatic wrongs (190-194). These and other tantalizing topics command even more interest than the book might otherwise have had.
Simply put, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God is a phenomenal, thought-provoking work that will have readers rethinking their evaluation not only of the (in)famous Wager but also of a number of related topics. Even at its steep price tag, the book is a bargain.
Pascal’s Wager: The Utility Argument Examined– I outline and defend one of the versions of Pascal’s Wager which Jordan brings up in this work. I find it to be a very interesting argument and a great addition to the apologist’s toolkit.
Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (New York: Oxford, 2006).
I have set up another round of great posts for your reading pleasure, dear readers! Check out posts on eschatology, egalitarianism, apologetics, creationism, and more! Let me know if you liked a post in the comments below, and if you liked theirs, be sure to let them know! Comments keep us going! This edition is an “owl post” because I’m watching Harry Potter while I write this.
The Mark of the Beast Demystified; or, “I’ve got 666 problems but the rapture ain’t one of them”– A post which discusses the various interpretations of the “Mark of the Beast” among various eschatological views. A very good read!
Different but Equal? Giving Words their Real Meaning– What is entailed by a position which suggests that men and women have different but equal roles in marriage and the church (and society)? Check out this evaluation of the position.
Why I’m a Christian Evidentialist– J. Warner Wallace explains the benefits of an apologetic method like evidentialism and the reasons he chose this method over any other. It’s a fascinating post with some solid insights. While you’re at it, why not answer the “Question of the Week” about your own favorite apologetic method?
Ken Ham’s Ark Adventure to Usher in a Modern Reformation?– Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis was recently in the news for his views on aliens, but he’s also been working to build Noah’s Ark, kind of. Check out this post which analyzes Ham’s comments about this project and the history of creationism.
Betting on Pascal’s Wager, Kind of– Pastor Matt Rawlings explains Pascal’s Wager in a brief, basic way. I recently also outlined and defended a version of the Wager, which I think has more credence than many people grant it.
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.
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.
Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (New York: Oxford, 2006).
Each Week on Saturday, I’ll be asking a “Question of the Week.” I’d love your input and discussion! Ask a good question in the comments and it may show up as the next week’s question! I may answer the questions in the comments myself.
Okay, the title may be a little deceptive. I’m talking about Pascal’s Wager! I recently finished Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God by Jeff Jordan (and loved it- posts coming… eventually). That got me thinking quite a bit on Pascal’s Wager, of course! It also made me wonder why I haven’t really heard much about it in apologetic circles. Thus, the question:
What do you think of Pascal’s Wager as an argument for Christian theism (or bare theism)? Why? How much have you studied it?
I am, of course, a bit biased having just read a book I thought was phenomenal arguing that the argument is sound. Let’s hear what you have to think in the comments! I might chime in as well!
Question of the Week– Check out other questions and give me some answers!
Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
A Disconnect Between Parchment and Pew?
I just started reading Jeff Jordan’s Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God, which I admit I have high hopes for. Right at the beginning I came upon a brief tidbit I thought was interesting to consider:
A disconnect exists between the arguments that philosophers find interesting and the arguments actually employed by Christians and other theists as reasons in support of their religious commitments. (vii, cited below)
I wonder sometimes about this very disconnect. The average person in the pew is unfamiliar with and unaffected by things like the Kalam Cosmological Argument or the subtle distinctions required to discuss the problem of evil. Rather, they are more concerned with the practical aspects of faith and the amount of work needed to explain these arguments is neither required nor desired. There does exist this disconnect between parchment–the philosophical theories–and the pew–the average Christian. What can we do to bridge this gap? What does this say about the epistemic validity of faith generally? Is this even an area for concern at all? I don’t think there are easy answers to these questions.
Interestingly, Jordan went on to suggest that one way to bridge the disconnect was with pragmatic arguments, such as Pascal’s Wager. It will be interesting to see how he develops that thesis, and how he defends such arguments. I eagerly look forward to continuing my read of the book.
Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (New York: Oxford, 2006).
When I first started to get into apologetics, one of the first sites I stumbled upon was Iron Chariots, a counter-apologetics site.
This site’s mission statement is “Iron Chariots is intended to provide information on apologetics and counter-apologetics. We’ll be collecting common arguments and providing responses, information and resources to help counter the glut of misinformation and poor arguments which masquerade as “evidence” for religious claims. ”
Note especially the scare quotes they use around evidence. This is a tactic atheists are very prone to using. Anything they disagree with, they put quotes around to make it look less true. Atheists are “right.” See? Fun, isn’t it? Does it do anything of value? No.
Anyway, it was sort of disturbing to see that there are those who are trying any means necessary to get around theism. I left the site a little scared, wondering if Christian Apologetics was all it is said to be. Well it is. After much more studying and forgetting completely about this site, I stumbled back upon it the other day, and decided to see what the anti-theists are saying about apologetics. Not much of value, in my opinion. And because I feel like it, I’m going to start countering their counter apologetics in a series of posts that will happen randomly interspersed with my others. These posts won’t just include arguments from this site, but will also include things like my counter for the “Argument from Atheism” (AKA “One Step Further Argument”).
This article will focus on Pascal’s Wager. Before I proceed, I should note that I absolutely do not think Pascal’s Wager is a good tool for witnessing, nor is it all that great as an argument. But it is, I think valid, and while it should not be used as a reason to believe, it does provide what, in logic, is called a dilemma for the atheists.
Pascal’s Wager is essentially as follows: God exists or He does not exist. If He does exist, there is infinite reward for believing in Him, but infinite loss for not believing in Him. If He does not exist, there is nothing to lose. “Nothing to lose, everything to gain,” is often the summing-up of this dilemma.
Iron Chariots accurately, in my opinion, points out that there isn’t nothing to lose by disbelieving. If there is no God then,
“For one thing, if you go through life believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more to being a believer than just saying “Okay, I believe now” and getting on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church, and contribute a lot of money as well. There’s a reason why some towns have very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate cathedrals are possible: they’re funded by folks who donate a tenth of their income throughout their lives to tithing. This is surely quite a waste if the object of worship isn’t real.”
The article then goes on a rant about property taxes, persecution, etc., things which will not be discussed here because, frankly, I find these arguments ineffably dull, though I may be forced to talk about them in the future.
So yes, I concede that there is a reward for not believing if there is no God. They also accurately show that there can be finite rewards for believing in God even if He doesn’t exist, because of psychological benefits, society, etc. Unfortunately, they plug these positives into a table of good life vs. bad life instead of actually in Pascal’s Wager. So I’ll just do the work for them.
God Exists | God Doesn’t Exist
Belief ∞ + | Finite +
Disbelief | ∞ – | Finite +
Okay so the table isn’t working so well. I think it can be figured out. Anyway, the main argument is that there is after all, a reward for not believing if there is no God. The problem is that even if that reward outweighs the finite reward of believing in a non-existant God, that still must be weighed against the infinite negative of not believing if there is a God. The argument that there is a reward for not believing, so it is logical to not believe breaks down when you weigh the infinite negative of disbelief if God exists verses the finite positive of disbelief if God does not.
There is one final point I’d like to make. That is, that the same site continues to argue that another problem is which god to believe in. I’d like to counter that by saying that isn’t the point of Pascal’s Wager. Belief in a god is better than belief in no god, because the probability for infinite reward still increases (in that it will be 1/however many gods to choose from) verses the probability for infinite negative (which would be certain if there is a God). So Pascal’s Wager still stands. I grant that the probability increase would be very low, so some may then argue that it’s not worth giving up the finite reward of not believing in a god. The response could then be that there is still a granted finite reward in believing in a god if god doesn’t exist, and any increase in probability for infinite gain verses infinite loss would outweigh the any loss of finite reward that could be gained from disbelief. In other words, the increased probability plus the finite reward of believing in a god would outweigh the definite probability of infinite negative if there is a God combined with the finite reward of not believing in a God.
Sorry for the drawn out post, but I wanted to respond thoroughly. There is more I’d like to say, but that’s where I’ll end for now.