Home > religion > The Cognitive Dissonance in Using Pascal’s Wager part I

The Cognitive Dissonance in Using Pascal’s Wager part I

Blaise Pascal came up with one of the most infuriatingly inane arguments for the belief in god. Specifically he was talking about the Christian god which is kind of ironic, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. The first thing we should note is that it is called Pascal’s “wager” not his argument, not his proof, but his bet. Further, we should also note that the wager only affects the actions of the individual, not necessarily their beliefs. This is because of the wager itself. The wager states that a betting person would act as though there was a god because if there is and that person didn’t they would find divine wrath to be more detrimental than not acting like a believer. It’s mathematical, to him, a person who believes and is granted eternal reward gains infinity, but if the believer is wrong they lose the same thing as everyone else: existence, so it’s all the same. The core of the argument is in the afterlife, and whether or not you are willing to make the risk involved. If there is eternal punishment, the non-believer (me in this case), is up for an infinite amount of trouble once they die. Pascal thinks that if you rationally weigh the cost/benefit, it trends in favor of belief.

There are numerous problems with this bit of wordplay. The first is that it is inherently unconvincing. Sure, it makes sense from the most mathematical point of view if you refrain from noticing that the entire thing is based on assumptions. Any kind of proof of anything has to have a foundational element that can be agreed upon by everyone. The design argument, for instance, rests on the idea that the universe appears to operate in an ordered fashion. If you don’t agree with that, which I would think it impossible to do, the argument is going to fail (I find the conclusion to be an illogical follow up to that first idea, but I’ve covered that in detail before), but with Pascal’s Wager you have to buy every aspect of a specific religious tradition to even begin to think that the argument is plausible. It’s one of the most widely accepted forms of question begging that I know of.

In order to admit of the Wager you have to make accept as true the following assumptions: there is a god, that god is involved/cares about human activity, this god is also wrathful, there is a heaven and hell, there are specific methods of behavior that will either damn you or raise you to paradise. The argument doesn’t lend itself to convincing the non-believer of anything because if the non-believer denies any one of the those propositions then the whole thing collapses. That’s the weaknesses of using it against a non-believer, a believer on the other hand has a much different issue.

If a person is a believer because of this argument, they are a believer in only the dimmest sense of the word but there reasoning for belief is based on fear. It’s not a positive belief system it only exists out of the fear of punishment. It’s belief with a gun to the head of the believer. Any kind of devotion would be hollow, worse than the type of person who only attends religious service out of habit. If someone performs an action because they are threatened with violence we don’t think that individual wanted to do that action. We think that they wanted to avoid being hurt or killed. Why wouldn’t this conclusion be applied to people who are faithful because of Pascal’s Wager? It’s the same thing, only if we apply the Wager’s math to it’s infinitely more dangerous to tell the person no when they can torture you for eternity.

The second issue with this Wager is that it neglects to inform the individual exactly how one goes about avoiding the Divine wrath. Sure, if belief is all it takes, then we can skip this problem but there are very few religious traditions where the only thing required for afterlife reward is simple belief. Usually, and I mean most of the time, you have to do something more than just believe in order to gain that kind of reward. This requires its own wager as diving into one set of rules can often run in contradiction to another set of rules. Each civilization has made the gods in its own image so the rules that get set up are often very specific for a particular group of people in order to separate them out from another group of people. I could give a run down of various rules that fly in contradiction between religions, or even within certain specific religious traditions; but that would be unnecessary and rote. The only thing that we need to ask is “which god am I supposed to believe in?”

All these gods and divine powers have names. Almost all of these beings also have the rule that they are number one, and the big three monotheistic religions also have the rule that no other gods can be worshiped or even admitted as existing. This leaves us with the uncomfortable position of having to pick one over the others and just hoping that we are right. If we return again to the Wager, it means that believing in a god if there is a chance that it’s the wrong one is actually just as bad as not believing, and in some cases worse. Some of these gods regard apostasy as being a greater crime than heresy. It’s why ISIS is more focused on killing the “wrong” kind of Muslims than they are the Christians that live within their borders.

The betting individual would almost have to be a Deist in order to just maintain the requirement of belief, but that alone isn’t enough for heavenly reward if the rest of the religious traditions are to be believed (apologies to the Unitarians). The religions usually require a bit more than just flat belief and anything beyond that just risks pissing off the deity if you’ve dropped your dime on the wrong horse.

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