God’s Existence: The Gambler’s Argument

cardPascal’s Wager

The arguments for and against the existence of God that we have examined so far (1234, 5) have all been aimed at proving that God does or doesn’t exist. They have all purported to give us knowledge of his or her existence or non-existence. The Gambler’s Argument, which is derived from the writings of the philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and is usually known as “Pascal’s Wager”, is very different from these. Its aim is not to provide proof, but rather to show that a sensible gambler would be well-advised to “bet” that God exists.

It begins from the position of an agnostic, that is, someone who believes that there is not enough evidence to decide whether or not God exists. An agnostic believes that there is a genuine possibility that God exists, but that there is insufficient evidence to decide the issue with certainty. An atheist, in contrast, typically believes that there is conclusive evidence that God doesn’t exist.

The Gambler’s Argument proceeds as follows. Since we do not know whether or not God exists, we are in much the same position as a gambler before the race has been run or a card turned. We must then calculate the odds. But to the agnostic it may seem just as likely that God exists as that he or she doesn’t. The agnostic’s course of action is to sit on the fence, not making a decision either way. The Gambler’s Argument, however, says that the most rational thing to do is to aim to have a chance of winning as great a prize as possible, whilst keeping our chance of loosing as small as possible: in other words, we should maximize our possible winnings, and minimize our possible losses. According to the Gambler’s Argument, the best way to do this to believe in God.

There are four possible outcomes. If we bet on the existence of God and win (i.e. if God does exist), then we gain eternal life — a great prize. What we lose if we bet on this option and it turns out that God doesn’t exist is not great when compared with the possibility of eternal life: we may miss out on certain worldly pleasures, waste many hours praying, and live our lives under an illusion. However, if we choose to bet on the option that God doesn’t exist, and we win (i.e. God doesn’t exist), then we live a life without illusion (at least in this respect), and feel free to indulge in the pleasures of this life without fear of divine punishment. But if we bet on this option and lose (i.e. of God does exist), then we at least miss the chance of eternal life, and may even run the risk of eternal damnation.

Pascal argued that, as gamblers faced with those options, the most rational course of action for us is to believe that God does exist. This way, if we are correct, we stand to win eternal life. If we gamble that God exists and are wrong we do not stand to lose so much as if we choose to believe that God doesn’t exist and are wrong. So, if we want to maximize our possible gains and minimize our possible losses, then we ought to believe in God’s existence.

Criticisms of the Gambler’s Argument
Can’t decide to believe:

Even if the Gambler’s Argument is accepted, we are still left with the problem that it is not possible to believe  in whatever we want to. We can’t simply decide to believe something. I can’t decide tomorrow to believe that pigs can fly, that London is the capital of Egypt, or that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good exists. I need to be convinced that these things are so before I can believe them. But the Gambler’s Argument provides no evidence whatsoever to convince me that God does exist: It merely tells me that as a gambler I would be well-advised to bring myself to bring this to be so. But here I am faced with the problem that , in order to believe anything, I must believe that it is true.

Pascal had a solution to this problem of how to make ourselves believe that God exists if this goes against our feelings on the matter. He suggested that the way to do this was to act as if we already believed that God existed: go to church, soy the words of the appropriate prayers, and so on. He argued that if we gave the outward signs of a belief in God, then very quickly, then very quickly we would develop the actual beliefs. In other words, there are indirect ways in which we can deliberately generate beliefs.

Inappropriate argument:

To gamble that God does exist because we thereby gain the chance of everlasting life, and then to trick ourselves into an actual belief in God because of the prize we win if we are correct, seems an inappropriate attitude to take to the question of God’s existence. The philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) went so far as to say that if he were in God’s position he would take great delight in preventing people who believed in him on the basis of this procedure from going to Heaven. The whole procedure seems insincere, and is entirely motivated by self-interest.gambler 2

Source: Philosophy: The Basics, by: Nigel Warburton