Revisiting Pascal’s Wager
Over the last four centuries much has been written about Pascal’s famous wager*. The wager is actually the last in a group of three philosophical arguments posited by the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. The arguments were found in a single paragraph in some unpublished notes that Pascal was compiling for a future publication called Apology for the Christian Religion. The notes were collected and published posthumously in 1670 under the title Pensées meaning Thoughts.
In its most basic form, the infamous third argument states if you choose to believe in god you have everything to gain, but little to lose. Yet, if you choose NOT to believe in god you have little to gain, but everything to lose. While this argument vies with Anselm's Ontological Argument for being the most famous argument in the philosophy of religion, the real contribution of Pascal’s Pensées was the introduction of probability theory and decision theory together for one of the first times in history.
As for the wager, Pascal laid out the argument as an apologetic for god’s existence within a Christian framework, which was refuted almost immediately after its publication. As countless refutations have mounted over the last four hundred years, the leading counter argument has become known as “argument from inconsistent revelations” or sometimes “avoiding the wrong hell problem.” This rebuttal was first proposed by Voltaire in his French satire Candide, published in 1759, and was later taken up by Diderot. This counter argument basically states because there are several competing and contradictory revelations of god(s), we have no guarantee of believing in the right god if we choose to believe.
The second most common refutation is an “argument from inauthentic belief,” which states that if god exists he will see through our false belief if we are not genuinely convinced of his existence, basically refuting the premise that we can freely choose to believe.
The last of the major rebuttals, though less well known, is the “argument of assumptions.” This asserts Pascal assumed a false dichotomy; god exists or doesn’t exist. There are actually innumerable possibilities such as god doesn’t exist, god exists and is malevolent, or god exists and is benevolent. Without going into the math here, which results from only adding two of god’s possible natures to the equation, choosing no belief in god is statistically the best decision when applying decision theory to these three possibilities.
Explosion of Christian Denominations
So why revisit this thoroughly refuted ancient apologetic? When Voltaire first posited his rebuttal to Pascal’s wager, Christianity was divided at the time into several major sects or denominations. Christianity had mostly existed for the first 1000 years of its history as one church known as the Catholic or Universal Church. There were dissenting groups, but they were branded as heretical and non-christian. In 1054 CE Christianity split into a Western and Eastern church in what was known as the Great Schism. The 16th century then brought on the Protestant Reformation and by the time of Voltaire there were Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and a few more.
Fast forward to today and Christianity has exploded into an estimated 41,000 denominations! Are YHWH’s communication skills directly responsible for this explosion in religious denominations? A quick look at the reason for this divergence, and how it got started in the first place, has significant implications on the lack of clarity in the Bible, which begs for a modern update to Voltaire’s famous counter to Pascal’s wager.
The Spark Behind the Explosion
Interestingly enough, Islam has largely existed in only two main sects since the death of Muhammad, the Shi’a and Sunni, some 90% of Muslims being Sunni. A third sect was founded in 1889 known as Ahmadiyya, which later split into two groups known as Qadiani and Lahore. That’s it. Comparing Islam to the number of Christian denominations, are Allah and Muhammad just better communicators in the Koran than YHWH and Jesus in the Bible?
Seriously though, why the huge divergence in Christianity? Even Judaism exists today in the free West in only three major movements: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Why did the Protestant Reformation give birth to modern Christian denominationalism?
The key to the Reformation was breaking the control of the Catholic Church and its central iron grip on regulation of doctrine. During this era translating the Bible into a common language, along with the invention of the printing press, finally broke the spell of scriptural ignorance the Latin Vulgate had cast over the non-Latin speaking congregants. A major thrust of the Protestant Reformation was to allow individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves and follow the dictates of their own conscience.
This freedom to read and interpret the Bible for one’s self is what sparked the explosion of Christian denominations. What do we learn from this aside from our cherished hope that humanity can and often does break free from religious oppression? If you allow people to actually read the Bible, no one will be able to agree on what it actually means! It is not a clear revelation in any sense of the word.
God’s Poor Communication Skills
If the Bible is indeed god's inerrant inspired word, his unintelligible, stogy publication leads to this undeniable fact: NO ONE can agree on what he actually said or meant. One would think if the Bible was actually an omniscient being’s personal biography providing everyone an opportunity to know and worship him, then beliefs based on the Bible should converge.
Some still argue it is god’s inspired word and he simply wrote through the style, language and vantage point of the human authors, in order to be vague, so it would require faith to find the truth. If so, must we then conclude he is a sadist who likes to play with our minds and delights in deceiving us? According to his own (supposed) words he is quite proud of the right path being very narrow and very difficult to find. He obviously doesn't want very many to find it. (Matthew 7:14)
The disagreements between all these different revelations are not minor. In my previous faith, I believed on supposedly solid scriptural support that if someone doesn’t believe Jesus is the one true God YHWH, as opposed to the second person in the Trinity, they are going to Hell (John 8:24). If they are not baptized in Jesus name specifically and receive the Holy Spirit accompanied with miraculous evidence of speaking in an unknown language, they are going to Hell (Acts 2:38, John 3:8, Acts 4:12). If they don’t live a holy and separated life from the world, awkwardly sticking out in society like a sore thumb, they are going to Hell (Hebrews 4:12).
You would think enough already, but there are yet many more ways to get into Hell. If someone is embarrassed to tell others about their faith in Jesus and share what he taught, they are going to Hell. (Mark 8:38) If they believe with only their mind, but not with their heart, they are going to Hell. (Romans 10:9) If they don’t live their entire life by faith as demonstrated by their good works ... you guessed it ... they are going to Hell. (James 2:19-20, Romans 14:23) And to cap it all off, most of us in the modernized world would have been classified as rich by 1st century standards, thus satisfying Jesus’ criteria for worldly comforts and distractions, therefore statistically, the majority of us will be going to Hell. (Matthew 19:24)
Needless to say, even if we take Pascal’s wager, but we fail to choose this specific Oneness Holiness Pentecostal belief of the United Pentecostal Church International out of the 41,000 possible Christian beliefs and these UPC Pentecostals turn out to be right, we will all be going to Hell. Indeed most of the devout Christians throughout history including Pascal will be going to Hell. Sorry Ray Comfort, William Lane Craig, Mother Teresa, Bill O'reilly, and Joel Osteen you are all betting against one scripture or another and if the Christian god exists, you are all most likely going to Hell with the rest of us.
Modern Argument from Inconsistent Revelations
Using the modern number of revelations that were unavailable to Voltaire’s argument, let’s break down our initial statistical chances of choosing the right revelation. In simplified Bayesian terms, this is just our initial probability of being right before considering any evidence. We will limit the scope to the three major monotheistic religions and nonbelief.
From our available choices, the initial priors break down as:
- There is a 50 / 50 prior probability a god does or doesn’t exist.
- There is a 50 / 50 probability if a god exists it is a multiplicity of gods or a single god.
- There is a 1 / 3 probability if it is a single god that it is Allah, YHWH, or Jesus.
- There is a 1 / 3 probability of choosing the right movement if it is Allah or YHWH.
- There is a 1 / 41,000 probability of choosing the right denomination if it turns out to be Jesus.
So calculating our initial probability of being right before considering any evidence:
- Nonbelief 1 / 2 = .50 (50% chance of being right)
- Islam (1/2) * (1/2) * (1/3) * (1/3) = 0.02777777778 (2.77% chance of being right)
- Judaism (1/2) * (1/2) * (1/3) * (1/3) = 0.02777777778 (2.77% chance of being right)
- Christianity (1/2) * (1/2) * (1/3) * (1/41,000) =0.00000203252 (0.0002% chance of being right)
Now in Bayesian terms, rock solid evidence can overcome even absurdly low initial priors. Hence the saying popularized by Carl Sagan “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The more extraordinary a claim, the lower the initial probability of the claim being true, and thus the greater the evidence required to overcome the low prior. However, if there is solid evidence for a specific revelation of god, the evidence will adjust the prior, increasing the probability of the belief being true.
Notice the dilemma here for theists? The mounting scientific evidence explaining the origin of life and the universe, sans supernatural cause, combined with the complete lack of evidence for theism, pushes the probability for non belief much higher than the initial 50%. Some would even argue as high as 99.99%. On the other hand, this lack of evidence for any single theistic belief drives down their already low prior probability to pretty much impossible.
The lack of evidence for theism is exactly what we would expect to find if there is NOT a god who is presently intimately involved with his creation. Again, if this involved god did exist, we would expect to find solid evidence around which the majority of beliefs would converge. The best this lack of evidence could support is a deistic view that a god or gods may have created everything and then went on vacation. Or if you want to believe all the miracles of the Bible actually happened and suddenly ceased just at the point we were able to verify miracle claims, we must conclude there was some sort of cosmic war or accident and god has become incapacitated or died. This might explain his extremely delayed return. Maybe he will recover.
In summary, history establishes the undeniable fact that Christianity has become extremely divergent since we first undertook reading the Bible for ourselves. In addition to the classic twelve major world religions, the sheer number of modern revelations to choose between means we have almost no statistical chance of being right if we take Pascal’s wager.
In fact, we may still choose the wrong one simply because the correct one was long ago forgotten or is not yet in existence. The right belief may even be next year’s big revelation. Christians should definitely keep reading Joel Osteen’s bestsellers and stay tuned to TBN just in case. Or better yet, improve their odds by converting to Islam or Judaism.
“They can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong.” - Homo Sapiens
To my rational, thoughtful brothers and sisters around the world who are facing unimaginable religious oppression, who are not yet free to openly follow the dictates of their conscience, who in spite of great personal risk live free in their hearts and minds, I stand in awe of your courage.