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An Atheist’s Response to Pascal’s Wager

Posted: Thu, May 29, 2014 | By: Religion / Atheism



          Pascal’s Wager is one of the more respectable arguments in favor of religion. As an atheist, I am nonetheless sympathetic to this argument, because it attempts to use reason to actually persuade people to believe in God, rather than circularly using the Bible as a reason to believe in the truth of the Bible. Of course, as an atheist, I also believe that Pascal’s Wager is a mistaken argument. But here I will give it the consideration it deserves.

           Pascal’s Wager is named after Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century mathematician and philosopher, also known for his invention of one of the first mechanical calculators. This is the essence of the argument. If one believes in God and ends up being wrong, one has nothing to lose; one’s ultimate fate is no worse than if one did not believe in God and ended up being right. On the other hand, if one believes in God and ends up being right, one has everything to gain – especially an eternal life full of bliss.

            Pascal is to be commended for examining two possible outcomes and their implications. However, he fails to grasp the full range of the possibilities. Pascal only explores the possible outcomes if one chooses to believe in God. He fails, however, to consider the possible outcomes if one chooses not to believe in God.

            So let us refine Pascal’s argument a bit and consider it then. We must consider not one but two different alternatives. One can either believe in God or not believe in God, and in each case one can either be right or wrong. So there are in fact four possibilities.

            Someone who believes in God and is right will go to Heaven.

            Someone who believes in God and is wrong will simply cease to exist after death – if it is indeed the case that death is a cessation of one’s being and individuality.

            Someone who does not believe in God and is wrong will go to Hell – to assume the worst-case scenario.

            Someone who does not believe in God and is right, if he dies, will cease to exist just like the believer who is wrong.

            Even if we grant that Heaven is better than Hell, from an atheist’s perspective, Hell is not the worst possible outcome. The worst possible outcome is the one that the atheist already assumes to be the case after death. In Hell, one may suffer horribly, but one still retains one’s individuality, sensations, and thoughts. The sheer nonexistence that an atheist believes to follow death is much more frightening – so frightening that, unlike Heaven or Hell, it is not even conceivable for an existing individual.

            So, if I do not believe in God and happen to be wrong and go to Hell, I will still be much better off than if I believed in God and were wrong and ceased to exist. No matter how greatly God may punish me for disbelief, the punishment will pale in comparison to what I already think is coming.

            But it is still not enough to consider the four alternatives in terms of what happens after death. It is also important to look at how a choice to believe or not affects one’s life in terms of time spent doing particular things – attending church services, uttering prayers, and partaking in numerous ceremonies – as well as the foregone opportunities that this time could have been devoted to. This is not to mention the lost opportunities from various dietary prohibitions, prohibitions on work, and tradition-based restrictions that seem to have little to do with abstract theology.

            So it is not the case that someone who believes has nothing to lose; he has a tremendous amount of time and foregone opportunities to lose. I like doing work on Sundays, and the time I would spend attending church would be wasted if I believed in God and were wrong, but would be well spent if I did not believe in God and were right. This time would even be well spent if I disbelieved in God and were wrong – because I would still accomplish something real in this world during it. Believe me, all those Sundays add up.

            Furthermore, if non-existence after death is worse than Hell, then that, and not the possibility of Hell, is the foremost problem that needs to be addressed. If this were the year 1900, I would not have a chance of plausibly saying this, but we are on the verge of astonishing medical breakthroughs that will at the least dramatically expand the human lifespan in this world. If you are interested, I urge you to look up the work of Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil – both distinguished world-class scientists who believe that we can achieve effectively indefinite longevity within the next thirty to forty years. I can understand placing one’s bets on eternal life in Heaven during an era in which eternal life in this world was definitely out of our reach, but if the possibility of existing indefinitely in this world – a world we can be sure of – is offered, it is surely preferable to the mere faith in existing forever in another world, for whose existence there is no evidence.

            So I hereby invert the Pascal’s Wager argument and offer my own version – Stolyarov’s Wager – for why you ought to exert your utmost efforts to extend your life in this world and to assist in any way you can the technological developments that make this possible.

            If you believe in human life extension and are right, you have everything to win – a happy, prosperous, indefinite life that you can be sure of in this world.

            If you believe in human life extension and are wrong, you cease to exist.

            If you do not believe in human life extension and are right, you cease to exist.

            If you do not believe in human life extension and are wrong, it may be that the effort that you did not put in to promoting the idea was just enough for the possibility not to come to pass. Then you will cease to exist.

            Unlike the fully developed version of Pascal’s Wager, the choice here is clear and unambiguous. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by focusing your attention on this world and on extending your life in it.

By G. Stolyarov II - from The Rational Argumentator



Comments:

Consider the case of one who spent several years participating in the Christian religion, going to ‘church’ 3-4 times a week and spending countless hours with others outside said meetings.  All the while, there was simply a gnawing knowledge that one did not believe at all.  In such a case, it is simply impossible to use the logic of Pascal’s argument and decide to ‘believe’ to play it safe.  It is akin to attempting to tickle oneself, it cannot be done.  For one that has been on an operating table and seen the look of extreme alarm on a doctor’s face, knowing that death could shortly take place, and yet have not given even a fleeting momentary thought of deities or the afterlife, to think that such inane musings by Pascal could allow such an individual to ‘believe’ is simply ludicrous.

By David on May 29, 2014 at 5:55pm

There is a much simpler and less convoluted rejoinder to Pascal’s wager - if we for the moment speculate that there is a god, who perhaps created the whole universe, then we should assume that it would be pretty smart. If you say that you believe in it as an insurance policy rather than wholeheartedly committing yourself and being full of faith, the god would see through you instantly as insincere. Your simulated faith would count for nothing. If on the other hand there is no god, let’s just go off and lead the best life we can.

By Roger on May 29, 2014 at 6:08pm

I have some doubts about Stolyarov BEING AN ATHEIST. If you think being tortured forever is preferable to being ‘nothing’, then you are hoping for “salvation” at some point. That is NOT being Atheist.

While he makes a fairly good argument for extending LIFE [on Earth, as we are], his comment ” if I do not believe in God and happen to be wrong and go to Hell, I will still be much better off than if I believed in God and were wrong and ceased to exist.” makes it sound as if he is Afraid to Die and “become nothing more than worm food”, as TRUE ATHEISTS Insist Happens at death.

As A True Atheist, I would fear far more the torture that this “all loving god” would force me to endure forever because IT didn’t make clear ITS Existence [multiple religions all claiming to be “the one true religion”, and with the MANY Contradictions in Every One of Them] than simply “not being” anymore.

And yet, with that possibility [however FAR REMOTE], I still chose being Atheist.

By Realist1953 on May 30, 2014 at 1:26pm


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