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#298 Pascal’s Wager

December 28, 2012

Hello Dr. Craig,

I am a college senior studying molecular biology at the University of Maine at Augusta. I am a Roman Catholic who enormously enjoys watching your video debates with atheists -- I admire your eloquence and argumentative abilities. That I know of, you have never invoked Pascal's Wager as an argument for believing in God, but I have heard it used by other Christians who apparently believe it is a knock-out blow to atheism. I personally hold a more skeptical view, and wonder if you could comment on the following points:

First, how do we know which God to believe in? Thousands of Gods have been claimed to exist and it seems that the probability of picking the right one is minute. Furthermore, if, as I've heard suggested, God -- which ever one is the right one -- understands our mistake and, though we picked the "wrong" God, judges us not on our mistaken belief but on our honest effort to discover the truth, why would God not understand an atheist who, after honest inquiry, concludes that God does not exist. It seems to me that no meaningful distinction exists between getting the God wrong but believing in something and getting the God wrong but not believing in anything.

Second, the argument is commonly stated as though the price of believing in God and turning out to be wrong (that no God, in fact, exists) is nothing: that the error has not cost you anything in life. But surely, the time spent in needless prayer, in going out of one's way to do good, in abstaining from pleasurable activities that are considered sinful, in financially contributing to religious organizations, etc. is a considerable price to pay. Thus, is there not a probabilistic calculation to be made in weighing the chances of not believing and getting it wrong (that God in fact exists) and the price one pays for aligning one's behavior with "God's Will" if he doesn't exist? And, if such a calculation is necessary, then arguments for God's existence must be considered to determine the probability of the former; and thus, Pascal's Wager could not function as a stand-alone argument but would require other theistic arguments.

Thank you very much for responding to my question and for the excellent work you do. God bless.


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Dr. craig’s response


Liam, I discuss Pascal’s Wager in the chapter on “Religious Epistemology” in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. For those who are not familiar with Pascal’s argument, let me summarize briefly. Pascal argued, in effect, that belief in God is pragmatically justified because we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from holding that belief.

Although Pascal’s Wager can be formulated in a number of ways, one way to understand it is by constructing a pay-off matrix exhibiting the expected benefits of one’s choices relative to the truth of the belief that God exists:



In Pascal’s Wager the odds of states (I) and (II) are assumed to be even (the evidence for and against God’s existence is of exactly the same weight). So the decision to believe or not to believe has to be made pragmatically. Pascal reasons that if I believe that God exists and it turns out that He does, then I have gained heaven at the small sacrifice of foregoing the pleasures of sin for a season. If I believe and it turns out that God does not exist, then I gain nothing and have suffered the finite loss of the pleasures of sin I have foregone. On the other hand, if I do not believe and it turns out that God does, in fact, exist, then I have gained the pleasures of sin for a season at the expense of losing eternal life. If I do not believe and it turns out that there is no God, then I have the finite gain of the pleasures afforded by my libertine lifestyle. So belief in God is pragmatically the preferred choice.


Now I think you can see that Pascal has formulated the argument in such a way as to meet the concerns of your second objection. He concedes that if God does not exist, there is some finite loss to be had as a result of belief. He also assumes that the evidence for and against the existence of God is equal. Pascal is assuming that there are no good arguments for God's existence, but by the same token no good arguments against God's existence. So the odds of God’s existence are assumed to be 50/50. I suspect Pascal would also say that those who wager against God do so out of hardness of heart and disinterest in spiritual things and so have no excuse for their unbelief.

Rather the serious objection to Pascal’s Wager is the first one you mention: the so-called “many gods” objection. A Muslim could set up a similar pay-off matrix for belief in Allah. A Mormon could do the same thing for his god. In other words, state (II) God does not exist is actually an indefinitely complex disjunction of various deities who might exist if the Christian God does not. Thus, the choice is not so simple, for if I believe that the Christian God exists and it turns out that Allah exists instead, then I shall suffer infinite loss in hell for my sin of associating something (Christ) with God.

There are two possible responses to this objection. First, in a decision-theoretic context we are justified in ignoring states which have a remotely small probability of obtaining. Thus, I need not concern myself with the possibility that, say, Zeus or Odin might exist. If the odds of these other deities’ existing are negligible, then I would be justified in setting up a payoff matrix according to which the odds of the existence of the Christian God are taken to be roughly 50/50. The choice is effectively between Christianity and atheism.

Second, we could try to limit the live options to the two at hand or to a tractable number of alternatives. This may have been Pascal’s own strategy. The Wager is a fragment of a larger, unfinished Apology for Christian theism cut short by Pascal’s untimely death. As we look at other fragments of this work, we find that although Pascal disdained philosophical arguments for God’s existence, he embraced enthusiastically Christian evidences, such as the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. It may be that he thought that on the basis of such evidence the live options could be narrowed down to Christian theism or naturalism. If the alternatives can be narrowed down in this way, then Pascal’s Wager goes through successfully.

- William Lane Craig