Taking Pascal’s Wager: why I’m not betting on God’s existence
Let’s get something straight: I don’t believe in God.
I’d put any amount of money on it. If there was some kind of celestial bookmaker who’d take my wager, I’d cash in my life savings and stake the lot without a second thought.
In fact, I’m so confident that I’m chancing the biggest gamble imaginable by putting my soul on the line and challenging Pascal’s Wager.
What is Pascal’s Wager?
In the 17th Century, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal came up with a proposition/logical device that weighed up the pros and cons of believing in the existence of God. It goes something like this…
Assume there are no rational reasons for believing or not believing in God. All you can do is bet on his existence based on gut instinct. The stake? Your immortal soul. Here are the terms…
If you chose not to believe, and God turns out to be real, then you have to spend eternity roasting alive in the flames of Hell, with little dudes in red tights sticking pitchforks in your backside.
Believer or not, if it turns out that God isn’t real, then you just cease to exist. Big deal. It’s just like not being born, right? That wasn’t so bad.
However, if you do believe and God does exist, then your faith will be rewarded with eternal bliss in Heaven, where all casino bonuses have 0% play-through and every live croupier is Cheryl Cole dressed up like a Playboy Bunny.
Seems like an obvious choice, right? Belief in God clearly produces the best set of outcomes, whereas the most a non-believer can hope for is total oblivion.
Awesome! Sign me up for the tenor section of the church choir and take me to the nearest baptismal font.
You see, there are a few serious holes in Pascal’s logic which should set your bullsh*t alarms buzzing. Let’s look at the three most glaring faults…
The ‘many-gods problem’
First up, Pascal basically assumes everyone is a Christian (or at the very least a monotheist – believing in just one God.) But how do you know that the God you pray to is the bone fide big cheese?
People have prayed to thousands of deities across history and most religions contend that you can’t be a choosy Suzie when it comes to picking a lord and saviour.
Your earnest faith in the Christian God won’t do you any favours when you’re explaining to Shiva or Zeus that you always kinda had their backs. So, basically, you might well end up in someone’s fiery pit even if you do believe.
Terms and conditions
Secondly, most faiths do not accept a belief in their God as sufficient grounds for paradise privileges. Oh no, you also have to go to church, pay tribute, confess your sins, steer clear of gay bars, convert the non-believers…pfft, there’s always something in the fine print.
On a more serious note, it could be argued that the rules of subscribing to a religion incur so much hassle that your life is significantly worse for having believed in God in the first place.
This renders Pascal’s terms null and void, because believers have an additional stake to contend with: their mortal existence, which could be made much less enjoyable as a result of their faith. If God turns out to be a fiction, then all of that strife and piety will have been for nothing.
Odds for Gods
Finally, the biggest of Pascal’s stumbling blocks: the probability of God’s existence. This one is a bit more complicated, but I’ll try and break it down for you…
As I said, I assign a probability of 0 to the existence of God. The reasons for this are rational, so don’t really figure into Pascal’s equation, but they nonetheless inform my decision as a bettor. With this probability assignment, betting against the existence of God is mathematically sound.
As a formula, where ‘w’ is a wager for God’s existence, ‘d’ is the outcome of God not existing (i.e. death) ‘p’ is the probability for God’s existence and ‘∞’ is the infinite reward/punishment of heaven/hell, Pascal’s wager looks something like this:
w = ∞ × p + d x (1 − p) = ∞
The product of this equation is the expected utility (i.e. reward) of belief in God, which Pascal concludes is ‘infinite,’ because the afterlife is eternal.
However, if you replace p (which presumes any positive probability for God’s existence) with 0, the formula looks like this:
W = ∞ x 0 + d x (1-0) = d
Thus, the only outcome, given the certainty of God’s non-existence, is death. This means that the only sensible course of action is to wager against the existence of God and maximise the utility of your mortal life.
Don’t be a mug – give up on God!
So there you have it, all the numbers conclude that atheism isn’t just rational, it’s a damn smart bet. Find a bookmaker to take you on and you’ll be quids in: guaranteed.
The only slight problem is you have to die to collect. I guess that’s why they call it a dead-cert (zing).
(Just to clarify, no offence intended to anyone who does believe in God. Live and let live, right?)