- Pascal's wager
- The ancient and popular (or vulgar) view that belief in God is the ‘best bet’, given its classic formulation in the Pensées of Pascal . Suppose that metaphysical argument leaves us knowing nothing about divine matters. Nevertheless, we can ask if it is better for us to believe in God. If God exists then it is clearly better: infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers, and eternal damnation for non-believers. If God does not exist, then we lose nothing, and may even gain in this life by losing ‘poisonous pleasures’. So belief is the dominant strategy. It can win, and cannot lose. The wager is ‘infini–rien’: infinity to nothing.Pascal knew that you could not just choose to believe because of this kind of consideration, but thought, perceptively, that beliefs are contagious, and you could deliberately deaden your intelligence by choosing to associate with people who would pass their belief to you. You would thus end up believing, and the argument has shown that this is the most desirable strategy.Critics of the argument point out that Pascal has not considered enough possibilities. It may be that the kind of Christian God he was interested in does not exist, but that another does who reserves bliss for those strong enough not to believe in a Christian kind of God, and damnation for those superstitious enough to do so. In other words, if we are really metaphysically ignorant, our ignorance extends to the rewards and penalties attached to our actions and states of belief. The other uncomfortable feature of the argument is that unlike most arguments for belief, it proceeds without reference to the likelihood of truth. This feature inspired a particularly spirited counter from W. K. Clifford (1845–79), in his Lectures and Essays (1879). Clifford quotes Coleridge : ‘He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and in the end loving himself better than all.’ See also pragmatism, will to believe.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.
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