Rascal's Ante: A Mutant's Response to Pascal's Wager

Pascal's 17th century wager is often cited as a logical argument in favor of belief in a Christian God and is one of the earliest known arguments using what is essentially games theory. It has often seemed strange to me that people feel compelled to create logic driven arguments for what essentially comes down to 'believe it or not' but some of my friends and I had some fun with this one both pro and con because we love to argue about almost everything. (This argument is meant for entertainment purposes only... really! Apply your tongue firmly against your cheek before you read any more.)

The wager:

What follows is an essential restatement of the wager although Pascal himself tended to emphasize the positive aspects rather than the possibility of hell (another aspect which separates him from some of his modern analogs). The wager states that reason requires one to believe in (a Christian) god because either God exists or does not. If God exists and one bets against his existence one loses the infinite prize of eternal life with God. If God exists and one bets for God then the reward is infinite. If God doesn't exist and you vote for him you have lost nothing. If God doesn't exist and you don't believe then again you have lost nothing. Therefore, in Pascal's wager all possible options are contained in a 2 x 2 matrix but all the weight resides in two of the cells – infinite joy or infinite sorrow. Ergo, prudence argues for betting on God's existence for no other reason than the fact that the stakes are so high if you are wrong.

It is not a particularly pious form of spirituality but it has a certain cynical logic to it. And in fairness to Pascal, there is an important caveat which he stressed but many modern co-opters fail to mention. He did not consider this an end but merely the beginning of a search for faith. A seed as it were.

The Critical Central Assumption: God beyond Reason

Like most broad-stroke philosophies this one only makes sense if certain assumptions or premises are factual. If these premises are false then Pascal's assertion is meaningless or even potentially harmful. What is the lynch pin of Pascal's wager? Quite simply, the wager is based upon the assumption that God is beyond reason. But I will argue that if the Bible is true, which must be the case for the wager to have the infinite value Pascal describes, the central premise of Pascal's assertion must be false. I refer to this as Rascal's Ante (as opposed to my auntie's for she would be very upset with me). If the Bible is not true then the promise of eternal life central to the wager is invalid, rendering the foundations of Pascal's argument meaningless. I will endeavor to show that God cannot be beyond reason if the Bible is true. Let me repeat: Pascal asserts that reason and observation of the natural world alone are incapable of revealing the true nature of the universe (and God) which only can be gleaned through religion and faith. Since God is beyond reason, then faith in God as a matter of course must become reasonable because of the stakes in the wager – eternal life vs death. But a cursory reading of the Bible can refute this cornerstone of the argument of God being beyond reason and observation. In fact, for the Bible to be true as written God must not be beyond reason.

Rascal's Ante: Refuting the Central Assumption: God within reason:

The Bible makes explicit statements about the nature of Man which contradicts Pascal's argument. Christian doctrine states that Man was created in God's image - Genesis 1:26: Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Here it is reasonable to assume that God is speaking metaphorically rather than literally.) If this is so (and if not, then Christian doctrine is false and therefore Christianity includes false doctrine, a possibility to which we will return later), then reason can be used to assess the core of religion. How? If Man is created in God's image, then it is reasonable and logical to conclude that at least some of God's characteristics can be reasonably inferred by a study of Man's characteristics which is a proven scientific method for categorizing related species. For Man to be made in God's image then Man must share some of the traits that God processes or values. As Man is often a curious, pensive and skeptical creature constantly searching to learn and unravel the nature of existence (central components of our being), and if created in the image of God, is it not reasonable to assume that these traits, if not actually 'God like', are at least favored traits by God? Since Man was not created in the image of sheep it seems reasonable to state that mindless following of the herd is not God-like behavior. God of course cannot by definition be a follower or a sheep – who would God follow? If God created the universe then it is obvious that God is a self-starter who favors his own council. These traits and many others are reasonable assumptions based upon statements made in the Bible. Nor were we created in the image of a slug, cow, sponge or any other incurious creature and so on.

The Bible provides additional ammunition to the claim that we can reasonably make some determinations about God: God is defined as a perfect being. This will have importance later on in the discussion but for now it is sufficient to remember that God, as a perfect being, cannot have any traits that humans consider imperfect in themselves as they are created in God's image which must be the wellspring of our understanding of perfection if the Bible is true. God must be incapable of imperfection. (a bit of a theological conundrum right there. An existential version of the classic rock too big to carry argument that we all had as kids. If God is all powerful can God be imperfect if desired? ). If not, then Christian doctrine is false and the wager is invalid.

Potential Objections:
  • Some may retort that the Bible also includes examples of God demanding blind obedience of his creation such as Abraham and Isaac, or Moses striking the rock twice instead of once to start the flow of water, however, in all these cases, God directly communicated with the individual in question leaving no doubt as to his existence (assuming Biblical accuracy).
  • A second line of argument could be that not all of God can be discerned from a study of Man because Man, a corporal entity, is by definition less than God. True, but logic would not suggest that attributes conflicting with Man's traits should be considered as central to God's 'personality'. Such conflicts would be indicative of imperfection which would negate Biblical doctrine. Inviolate Biblical doctrine is central to Pascal's wager.
  • A third objection is the translation of 'in his image'. One cannot rationally assume that this implies physical likeness to a non-corporeal being so is it reasonable to assume that this is a somewhat metaphorical statement. And if this translation is false it a priori calls the Bible into question.
  • A fourth objection might be the notion of original sin. Clearly God did not make Man identical in thinking to himself (or did He? The Old Testament reveals many examples of what we would certainly think of as fairly human reactions often lacking in obvious empathy) or the Bible's doctrine of infallibility would be void. Frankly however, original sin is a problem for Christianity for the accounting of the events in the Garden of Eden reads like a behavioral experiment testing 'nurture over nature' which suggests the possibility of a non-beneficent God testing an interesting subject.
  • Pliny you are a @#%%#%^!* toad! A potential objection but hardly proof of illogical argument.
Implications of a God Within Reason:

If Man's appetite for knowledge is not patterned after God then Pascal's assertion might be proven partially right – at least as far as reason being of no help in making determinations about religion. But his wager would lose its luster for if false, Pascal's probability of a favorable outcome would become invalid whether God existed or not.

Why? Because if Man is not patterned after God then Christian doctrine is false and no reasonable determination as to what, if any, part of it could be reasonably used to guide behavior and belief (up to and including even a belief in God). If this central tenant were wrong then it would be reasonable to assume that other central doctrines were also flawed and might justly be ignored if logic is our guide. The possibility of false doctrine adds considerably to the complexity of deciding to believe purely on logical grounds since the infinite reward, so critical to the original wager, is invalidated.

In the case of an extant God and a false doctrine, then the doctrine can provide no reliable and rational insight into God's wishes. One would be better off not betting at all and merely living a decent life and letting the chips fall as they may because the probability of following false doctrines (with potentially dire consequences) is indeterminable. This approach would minimize conflicts with the living irrespective of any postmortem considerations. There would be no rational way to be sure of what God wants of us and we would be better served to live life as we see fit and at least be judged on our true merits if at all. And an extant God would of course know this and recognize the confusion created by false doctrine if God were benign or caring. If not, then there would be no reasonable way to choose amongst the various doctrines in order to try to divine the hidden path that God would prefer one to take.

If God did not exist (proof enough to repudiate all Christian doctrine with no additions) then again one is better off living a decent life and devoting no resources to false belief structures which will return no benefits. Pascal and his modern parrots wrongly state that there is no cost to belief if false. Resources, time and angst associated with the support of a false religion is quite a burden even excluding the ripple effect on others of potential prejudices and persecutions predicated on false doctrines. Resources spent on non-existent souls would be better applied to shared problems that are more amenable to reason.

More Patterns for Living:

However, if Man is patterned after God as can be reasonably inferred from the Bible, then it is reasonable to infer God values curiosity and intellect. Why? Because ignorance and sheepish devotion are the tools used by human tyrants and con artists not divine beneficence. If so, then one is likely to use these mental talents to consider the plethora of divergent sects within Christianity as well as the even bigger problem of other major religions. Logical analysis of this conundrum leaves one faced with at least 7 choices, none of which favors blind obedience: 1) the variation in religions is a false construct created by men which obfuscates God's truth; 2) The variations are the work of an evil analog to God meant to obfuscate truth; 3) God is not benevolent; 4) the variations are indicative of competing gods; 5) God is not around; 6) it's all made up, or 7) skeptical beings are an undesirable mutation.

  1. The variation in religions is a false construct created by men which obfuscates God's truth: If this scenario is true and faced with an absence of overt and objective clues to the truth left in plain sight by God for the benefit of his curious and skeptical progeny, then it is reasonable to conclude that a God favoring reason would 1) possibly be testing our reasoning skills, and/or 2) understand the dilemma faced by humans and make some accommodation. In such a case a rational being would be unable to reasonably sort out which doctrines (institutionalized over centuries) were false and would be forced to use reason and observable facts to guide behavior even if the facts did not support the demonstrable existence of God. This is consistent with a God who is perfect and therefore required to be far more loving, understanding and compassionate than humans who are less than perfect. Humans cannot, by Bible definition, be more just and forgiving than God and since some humans have demonstrated love and compassion to those who reject their values or even harm them, a God as described by the Bible must be even more compassionate if the Bible is correct. So if the Bible is true, a perfect God could not hold his creation to a standard less perfect than they themselves can exercise. If not, then God is imperfect, Christian doctrine is false and Pascal's wager is invalidated. A God valuing reason would be most pleased with the individual who refused to be cowered by superstition, false loyalty or absent evidence.
  2. The variations are the work of an evil analog to God meant to obfuscate truth: If an evil analog of God (let's call him Satan for purposes of convention) is able to proliferate all the false religions and create an extraordinary tapestry of data across dozens of scientific disciplines comprehensive enough to fool the most intelligent of men while God does nothing to dissuade the inquisitive mind, then Christian doctrine is in crisis. Or God, having made us in His image would have to be an ignorant dullard incapable of reason which seems unlikely of a universal creator (though it might account for the seeming evolutionary cut and pasting seen in living organisms allowing for a new theory of 'somewhat intelligent design'.) No entity save God himself is described as having such power in the Bible. So for this scenario to be true, then either the doctrine is wrong about Man's relationship to God and intellect, skepticism and curiosity are not valued traits, or it is falsifying and minimizing the threat posed by Satan. Or it is misrepresenting the very nature of Satan by describing him as a fallen angel. Even more difficult is the fact that the false beliefs strewn about could be any (or even all) of the faiths. How is a rational being to navigate this greatest of minefields? Again living a decent (and secular) life is the most reasonable course. God would know of Man's dilemma and the confusion sown in Satan's wake and if at all merciful, show compassion to his confused flock. This is required of a perfect God who made us in his image: since imperfect humans are capable of such selfless compassion, a perfect God must be more so. And if unable to defeat the power of evil then we would all be toast anyway so living a falsely pious life would an expensive waste of effort unless Satan himself gets religion or turns out to have a lot more of Milton in him than Augustine or Tim LaHaye.
  3. The variations are indicative of competing gods: If so then all bets are off because the rational being has no way to determine which gods to follow if any. Clearly the existence of multiple gods would falsify Christian doctrine (predicated on only one, albeit one wearing many hats.) and call in to question the validity and reasonableness of expecting whether a god who has been thusly misrepresented is able or willing to care for believers for all time which is the crux of Pascal's assertion. The Bible itself hints at the possibility of other gods. The Ten Commandments warn against 'having any other gods before me'. The commandment is not implicitly clear as to whether other gods exist or merely are wrongly worshiped. Moses' encounter with the Egyptian priests (the fighting serpents) also is suggestive of either competing gods or the existence of magic which many contemporary Christians rail against. Once again, a decent life devoid of religious entanglements is the reasonable choice in this scenario.
  4. God is not benevolent: This scenario is a particular bummer. Essentially the same scenario as # 2 with the same reasonable approach and outcome with even less of an upside to pious devotion. The Bible itself hints at this possibility by positing an all knowing and all seeing God who clearly would have known the results of the Garden of Eden experiment before hand. To what benign purpose would setting up two innocents to fail contribute? This does not mean that God would have to be a mean god, merely apathetic to the plight of humanity. This is not an unreasonable possibility based upon historical events in human history. This scenario would also include the experimenter God who's interest in humanity would be dispassionate.
  5. God is not around: This does not have mean that one must agree with anything said by Nietche. God might be away or otherwise engaged, possibly even off somewhere blowing cosmic bubbles that will become new universes. The rational selection remains the secular and decent life filled with questions and concrete pursuits which would likely impress such a builder god more than coming back to find a stagnant world filled with doe-eyed acolytes or perhaps God would not care either way.
  6. It's all made up: A reasonable person might rationally come to the conclusion that all is fiction based upon the extant conflicting doctrines. It is more reasonable to conclude that because so many people vehemently believe in mutually exclusive faiths, it is an indication of a human origin for all religion as opposed to an explanation requiring a loving and compassionate god associated with only one. Why? Because a reasonable person would expect a God having any interest in his children to help show the way to truth a bit more clearly than a bronze age anthology, oft rabidly quoted by strange men whose chief attributes seem to be a loud voice, an obsession with money, the power to completely suspend credulity and the ability to convert His name from one to two, or even three syllables. Here again, the decent self-directed life is the best wager.
  7. Skeptical beings are an undesirable mutation. If this is a case and you happen to be one of the sorry mutants you may as well just eat right, exercise and live a decent life and enjoy what you can because you will eventually be culled from the flock because like Thomas or Moses, you will at some time test the limits or start a blog and get smacked down hard. You won't be able to help it. It's in your nature...
In summary, it is more rational, based upon either the truth or fiction of the Bible, to conclude that a decent life spent without religious encumberment (as if God does not exist in Christian form) is a more rational wager and strategy than Pascal's assertion whether or not the Christian God is, or is not, the one true God. If the Bible is true then Man patterned after God will not believe the contents of the Bible which are in conflict with empirical evidence. This creates a fatal exception requiring a hard psychic reboot. After the restart it is best to avoid the affected program and quietly go about your business. Or buy a Mac. Others may disagree of course... about the Mac, I mean...

Have fun with this one!


Asylum Seeker said...

Wow. You really went to town on this one! And you didn't have to go after the most galling assumption behind the Wager itself: that either the Christian God exists, or no God exists, and there is no possible way that you could worship the Christian God and still run afoul of the man behind the curtain. It was actually my personal focal point when I decided to toy around with Pascal's Wager. Yet, you showed that Pascal's Wager is pathetically weak even if you are willing to grant its "Jesus or nothing" assumption. Kudos on that. I honestly have not seen a refutation of Pascal's Wager that was quite like this.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I am a mutant after all.

Asylum Seeker said...

Hmmm...I was wondering if you referring to yourself when you said "mutant" in the post title. I guess now its been verified by word of God (so to speak).
I think you may have gone a bit overboard though: you could have gone on much more of a tirade about the problems with positing that Satan has god-like abilities. It is one of the more entertaining problems with modern day Christianity, especially when they claim that Satan has influenced and outright caused the creation of certain non-Christian religions without batting an eyelash, or wondering whether the same might be possible for their own allegedly invisible-entity inspired doctrines. Whenever we get into that prospect, I get absolutely giddy: it's not often that you get a chance of accusing Christians of devil worship [without sounding insane, that is].

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

The issue of Satan's role in Christianity has always been interesting to me as well. No one seems to realize what a doctrinal crisis they are creating by suggesting Satan has essentially God-like powers. Especially those who suggest that the geologic record was created by him.

Harvey said...


As a slightly (as yet) unsure agnostic, I have often posited the possibility that the entire Universe might have been created, but that it was analogous to a drop of sweat that fell off the Deity's nose; it would be "His" creation, but would have about as much interest or meaning to "Him" after it was created as a drop of sweat. Since we obviously still cannot "disprove" the existance of a creator, I guess that my possible scenario would still refute the validity of Pascal's wager.

GearHedEd said...

I vote for Option 6. It best sums up my philosophy AND is compatible with the concept of Occam's Razor. It's the simplest explanation that fits the empirical data.

GearHedEd said...

BTW, if Observant happened to read this, he'd probably die from a conniption...


Pliny-the-in-Between said...

It is interesting to pull a 180 on this argument. Most people (who care about such things!) are put on the defensive and try to refute the wager through some atheistic variation which usually plays into the hands of the Pascal's defenders (In my mutant opinion) who fall back to the safe haven of 'you cannot disprove the existence of God'. An argument that avoids debating existence eliminates that safe haven. At this point hopefully the argument returns to where it should be.

Hopefully some of you smart people can take these arguments, improve them (or discount them- hey I'm a skeptic after all...), and run with them the next time old D'Souza, et. al. dusts off Pascal's wager. Or you'll show me the error of my ways through logical discourse ;)

GearHedEd said...

I mentioned this before on D'Dumbass's blog, that my mother had attempted Pascal's wager on me when as a young man I told her I was an atheist. My response was that her argument was too weak to be a basis for faith.

I remember that we used to pray (Say "Grace") before our evening meals:

God is great,
God is good,
And we thank Him
For this food.

By His hand
We all are fed.
Give us, Lord
Our Daily Bread.

But even as a little child, I knew that food came from the grocery store.


Saint Brian the Godless said...

This is what James Huger has to say about the wager:

"Pascal's Wager is a famous argument to believe in God. While you may not have heard it called that, you have probably heard it in one form or another. If nothing else, someone may have asked you: "What have you got to lose by believing in God?"

In essence, you are asked to analyze the question of God's existence in terms of a bet, that is to say, in terms of the odds of winning and the payoff. If there is no God, it doesn't matter what you bet: you are worm food either way. If there is a God, and you believe, then you go to heaven; and you don't believe, you go to hell.

In a normal betting situation, you need to compare what it costs to play to the odds of winning and the payoff. This is not a normal betting situation. The payoff is infinite and the cost is finite. As long as there is any chance at all, no matter how small, it is best to bet for God. You have nothing to lose, and infinitely much to gain. Or so the reasoning goes.

Bait and Switch
Let me begin by making it clear that Pascal's wager is not really about believing in God, it's about accepting religion. It might be an old religion with lots of cathedrals and a globe-spanning ministry, or a tiny little cult that meets in someone's front room. At the very least it will be a definition of God that you must accept, along with the infrastructure needed to propagate that definition.

Don't believe me? Next time some Mighty Zombie asks if you believe in God tell them this: "Sure: I believe God is sex, and I definitely believe in sex." If they're cute and you're available, wink.

Suppose I decided that Pascal is right, that I should "get religion" just in case. Which one should I choose? On a worldwide basis, roughly equal numbers of people are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu, each having roughly one billion adherents. Another billion have some religion other than one of the big four. The remaining billion or so have no religion. None of the religions call to me. I have no basis for choosing one over the other. When I knelt and prayed for guidance God told me he didn't exist.

All-Powerful = All-Stupid?
If God does exist, presumably He'll know I don't really believe in Him, that I'm pretending to believe in him on the off chance that He might really exist. If He's willing to accept me if I just "Go through the motions" then I suspect just being a good person will also be enough. Pascal's own answer to this point was that this is why we have churches, to help us grow in faith. In other words, if I submit to a church-approved brainwashing program, they can make me believe. I do not find this comforting.

Hidden Costs
The cost to "place the bet" is not as low as some would claim. Tithes and other contributions are just the beginning. People are dying, now, as I type, because of their religion, or because of somebody else's religion. There are people refusing medical treatment because it's "against their religion". There are people killing other people over religion. The "ethnic cleansing" in Eastern Europe was very much a religious war between Christians and Muslims. Similar conflicts are taking place in Indonesia. And let's not forget 9/11.

If You Bet, Bet Responsibly
Let's suppose someone offers you the following wager: Roll a single die. If it comes up a six, they will give you ten thousand dollars. If it comes up 1 through 5, you give them one thousand dollars. Should you take the bet? The odds of winning are 1:6 and the payoff is 10:1. If you've got a thousand bucks to spare, it's a good bet. But if that money is supposed to go towards rent and utilities, then it would be irresponsible of you to make the bet.

If we atheists are right, this is the only life you have. Using it to place a risky bet is irresponsible."

I think you've added more depth to the portfolio of reasons that the "wager" is a sucker's bet, Pliny...

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks Brian - blast away at any holes you see

Saint Brian the Godless said...

Looking forward to the Cthulhu post.

I'm an old Lovecraft fan from way back...

May Yog Sothoth bless and keep you... in his stomach of course.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Looking forward to the Cthulhu post.

I am afraid that one will set a major theological upheaval...

Asylum Seeker said...

"I am afraid that one will set a major theological upheaval..."

Are you implying that Cthulhu is not actually the patron saint of tentacle rape, anointed by Cardinal Abdul Alhazred himself? Because I will be so pissed...

GearHedEd said...

I believe that Cthulhu is the seventh avatar of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. I'm eager to see the Cthulhu post, too.

GearHedEd said...

Dang! Almost forgot...

"Bless His noodly appendage, Amen."

That was CLOSE!!!

Asylum Seeker said...

Amen? AMEN! The orthodox term is "rAmen". May his noodley appendages have mercy on your soles.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

GHE! Do not speak of such a thing - you might spoil MY October surprise...

mac said...

Funy thing about wagers...there is a loser everytime!!

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Hey Mac

That unfortunately is very true.
It's why I never go to Vegas - that and the heat and crowds