Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pascal's Wager--A Fool's Bet

Pascal's wager is one of those "befuddle them with bullshit" tactics that theists use where they pack so many fallacies into one statement that the listener's brain has trouble picking them all out and dealing with them.  Notice also that it is an argument based on a threat, not reason.

Pascal's Wager is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal that, even though the existence of god cannot be proven through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because by living life accordingly he has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

Pascal's wager is bad reasoning on several levels.  First, it is wrong to say that one will have lost nothing.  He will have lost virtually his entire life because his life will have been almost completely defined by a false belief when it could have been spent on something real--and more fulfilling.  (This part of the refutation should hit home with any believer that is actually listening even a little bit.)  He will have sacrificed even his freedom of thought. You can say something like:

"That's obviously a lie.  Believers spend thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on their religion.  Not to mention that they make a huge number of their decisions in life based in part or completely on their religion.  Heck, they can't even think freely."

Second, if one's only reason for believing is hope of a reward, then the belief isn't genuine (just as morals based on fear of punishment aren't really morals).  Does he really think that "god" (as he defines the term) can't see that his belief isn't genuine?  Is god really so un-insightful and powerless?  Obviously a god capable of creating a universe can see through such falsehood.  Furthermore, is "god" really so petty and vain that he will be satisfied by false praise?  The bible says he isn't:  Jesus apparently said that only those who accept him with the blind faith of children will be saved.  Matt. 18:3, Mark 10:15, and Luke 18:17.  You can say:

"If my only reason for believing is to make a bet, then my belief isn't genuine.  The bible says that belief has to be genuine."

Third, for a non-believer, actually adopting this reasoning will probably result in a loss of self-respect for much the same reasons as it shows disrespect for god.

Fourth, the odds are presented as if they were fifty-fifty, but on closer examination, they clearly are not.

No one would follow Pascal's reasoning unless he were largely convinced, by the lack of evidence, that there was no god.  The argument is, by Pascal's own admission, a last-ditch effort to keep someone in the fold who sees that there is no reason for belief.  Thus this hypothetical wagerer probably already sees the possibility of god's existence as being less than 1%.  If he adopts Pascal's reasoning, then this minuscule chance has to be discounted by the possibility that he picked the wrong religion.  Since there are thousands of possible, but mutually incompatible, religions, the odds drop to < 0.0001%.

Furthermore, the odds would have be lowered even further to take into account the possibility that insincere pretense of belief is not sufficient.  I don't know how to quantify that one, but I think the addition of another zero could be justified.  So, at best, Pascal's wager is the proposition that one sacrifice one's integrity, not to mention time and money, for a < 0.00001% chance that there will be a payoff.  This is like buying a lottery ticket that is very expensive under circumstances that indicate the seller is simply a fraud.  You could point that out or you could say:

"There are so many different religions that the odds that I will pick the right one are very small, yet the cost is very high.  That's not what you said when we started this conversation.  Sorry, I am not that foolish."

Of course, the religious have a reply for this.  They say:  "Well, just pick the one that makes the most sense to you."  To which you can reply:

"They are all equally nonsensical to me because it makes no sense to believe in invisible people with magic powers and the 'evidence' you claim to have--the existence of the universe--applies equally to them all.  Besides, there is still the little problem of insincerity."

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