Pascal’s Wager and the Giant Meatball

English: raw meatball, before frying it עברית:...

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Blaise Pascal said in the seventeenth century that we ought to choose to believe in God because an assessment of the consequences tells us that we have more to gain by doing so. If God does exist, we gain infinitely by believing and we lose infinitely by not believing. If God does not exist, we (presumably) gain finitely by not believing and lose finitely by believing. Because the infinite consequence of our decision in the “God exists” world will always outweigh any finite consequence of our decision in the “God doesn’t exist” world, we stand more to gain by choosing to believe.

Pascal builds his argument upon the assumption that there is no way to reasonably determine the existence of God. Therefore, we must “wager” by weighing the possible outcomes. His argument also presumes, however, that it is reasonable for a belief to be determined by weighing the consequences—that belief is no different from any other action in this regard. My position is this: to hold a belief on any ground other than a justification of its truth-value is either irrational or non-rational. If it is decidedly impossible to justify the truth-value of a proposition, then it is irrational to believe the proposition.

Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to a different scenario. Suppose I believe that there is a giant invisible space-meatball speeding towards Earth that will knock it into the sun, and the only way to survive is to steal a local space ship from the shipyard and travel to the moon colony (this is a sci-fi example). I tell my friend this, and he is extremely skeptical. He says that I can’t prove it is true. I respond that he cannot prove to me that it is false. We mutually agree that we will never reasonably determine the truth-value of my claim.

But then I tell him we stand more to gain by choosing to believe that the space-meatball exists. If it does exist, we will gain our lives by believing, but lose our lives by not believing. If it does not exist, we will gain or lose little relative to our lives. My friend reluctantly agrees, and we spend the rest of our lives on the moon as ship-stealing fugitives, anxiously awaiting a giant cataclysmic meatball that never comes.

It is clear that using this wager-mode of thinking without giving any attention to the truth-value of one’s beliefs could be fairly disastrous if it results in dangerous behavior. The difference between this example and the example with God, is that if I can remain skeptical about the meatball and travel to the moon, I will still accomplish my goal if the meatball exists. However, I cannot merely act in life as if God exists and make it through the pearly gates. I must legitimately believe (at least in the Christian tradition). This means that I must believe despite an ability to falsify or prove the claim in order to accomplish my goal of not burning in hellfire for eternity.

Pascal wants to treat belief in God more like an action than a belief. It isn’t a physical action though. When it comes to justifying physical action, one may wager in terms of desired outcome. In complex cases, one must weigh possible outcomes in conjunction with risk. If I want to buy a clown nose at Walmart, I must think about the possibility that they don’t sell them and the risk that I will arrive to find that they have none. If I call, and the person says they have them in stock, I reason that I have reduced the risk that I won’t be able to purchase one at the store. The decision of what action to take is dependent both upon what I predict to be true and what I want to happen.

When it comes to belief, the thought process does not include desired outcome. Belief, by definition, is the mental state we have when we regard a proposition as true. So it must be grounded in a justification of whether or not a proposition correctly describes reality in order to fulfill its function. Therefore, the mental process leading up to belief is the means by which we figure out what is real and what is not. If all this is accurate, I think it follows that it makes no sense to believe something without having at least some justification for it. And I am fairly certain that to know what belief rationally entails while disregarding it purposefully is downright irrational.

Since belief in God is required to accomplish the goal of not suffering at the hands of demons forever, people who do not believe are thrust into an odd position. In order for an agnostic to believe in God, one must disregard the entire function of belief. This is what Pascal asks us to do. An agnostic must therefore decide between a rational decision to not hold a belief and a decision to cast rationality aside in favor of soul-insurance.  Many would call this faith and would agree that believing in God necessitates that one disregard rational thought in this case. Some have no problem with this. I used to have trouble understanding how it is possible, but there is no doubting the evidence that it is possible for human beings to hold beliefs that contradict other beliefs. It happens all the time.