Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, and Pascal’s Wager is concerned with trying to rationalise if one should believe in God. According to Pascal, a person has two options – either to believe in God (and do all that comes with that, such as attending church etc.), or to not believe in God (and to live your life in such a way). As to whether or not God exists, again, there are two options – either he does or he does not exist. These two elements then combine into four possibilities:
- You believe in God, and God does exist.
- You believe in God, but God doesn’t exist.
- You don’t believe in God, but God does exist.
- You don’t believe in God, and God doesn’t exist.
Pascal’s Wager is an attempt to select which one of these “bets” – believing or not believing in God – is the safest “bet”.
Say you don’t believe in God, and God turns out to not exist. You can therefore live your life in a carefree and selfish manner, and it doesn’t matter because nothing bad will happen to you after you die. But say you don’t believe in God, and it turns out that God, does, in fact, exist. Therefore, if you live your life in a carefree and selfish manner, when you die you’ll find yourself condemned to eternal damnation, which is a very Bad Thing.
Now, say you do believe in God, and God does turn out to exist. You’ll have obligations in your life, obligations that you may not wish to do, but which you have to do because you faith requires it – things like going to church on a Sunday, helping others who are less fortunate than you, etc. However, provided you do these things, when you die you’ll be rewarded by spending eternity in heaven. Sounds pretty good. But say you believe in God, but it turns out that God doesn’t actually exist. You’ll still live your life with all of these obligations, but, when you die, nothing will come about because of them – you don’t get to spend eternity in heaven.
Out of these four possible scenarios, the best possible outcome is that you make it to heaven, and the worst possible outcome is that you end up in hell. The best possible outcome comes from believing in God, and the worst possible outcome comes from not believing in God.
Pascal therefore reasoned that the safest bet was to believe in God. If you chose to believe in God, you had a chance to get to heaven if God did exist, but if he turned out to not exist Pascal felt that you wouldn’t have lost too much as these obligations weren’t too onerous. If you chose to not believe in God, then there was a chance that you’d end up in hell, so you stood to lose a lot just so you could live a carefree and selfish life.
So that’s all clear and simple then, yes? We should all just believe in God, because that is the safest bet. Well, no, personally I don’t think so...
I find serious problems with Pascal’s reasoning. I don’t think one can simply choose to believe in God in such an arbitrary manner like this. If you believe in God, then you really have to believe that he exists and that he created you, me, everything around us etc. etc. etc. You can’t just choose to believe because you want to get into heaven. If you’re going to church and helping out others for no other reason than you’re betting on there being a God who you don’t truly believe in, then I think you’re going to find yourself in trouble if God does exist. Because you’re not doing these things because you believe in God, because you think these are the right things to do. You’re doing these things for purely selfish reasons – you want to get into heaven. You personally may not care for others, but you go through the motions of caring for others just so you can go to heaven, not because you think that caring for others is just the right thing to do in and of itself. Whilst the person on the receiving end of the care may be getting the care they need either way, when the caregiver is someone living by betting on there being a God and heaven rather than truly believing in what they’re doing, the motives for the care are not pure.
I feel that people should do good things, to live their life in a good way, simply because being a good person is just the right thing to do, irrespective of whether or not God exists. If, hypothetically, it could be proven beyond all doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that God definitely did not exist, I wouldn’t see that as an excuse to live your life in a bad way, in a selfish manner. You should still live your life in a good manner, because that is just simply the right thing to do, as it makes the world a better place for everyone.
There is another philosophical wager out there (I don’t know who came up with it first) known as the Atheist’s Wager. One of the elements is still whether or not God exists, but the other element is to live a “good” or a “bad” life (I’m just using these terms for shorthand here). So, now let’s look at these four possibilities.
You live a “bad” life, and God doesn’t exist. You don’t go to hell, but the people you leave behind will think badly of you – you’ll be remembered for having had a bad influence on the world.
You live a “bad” life, and God does exist. You go to hell, and the people you leave behind think badly of you.
You live a “good” life, but God doesn’t exist. You don’t get to heaven, but the people you leave behind will think fondly of you – you’ll be remembered for having had a good influence on the world.
You live a “good” life, but God does exist, even though you may not believe in him. It has been argued that it would have to be a cruel God indeed that would condemn someone to hell to all eternity just because they didn’t believe in him, even though they may have lived a good life and made the world a better place for everyone. Many people therefore feel that a truly caring and loving God would admit such a person into heaven as they should be judged on their deeds and their motives. If a person is essentially good, then they should get into heaven.
As mentioned in last week’s blog post, I come from a Jewish family. Both of my parents were practising Jews, and they tried to bring me up in the Jewish faith. Now, it was a faith that I ended up rejecting – I simply didn’t believe. I could come up with too many examples which could be argued to show that God did not exist (I won’t go into them here as I have enough to say there to fill up another, or indeed several, blog posts). I therefore don’t consider myself to be “Jewish”, even though I come from a Jewish family. For me, saying you’re Jewish means you follow the Jewish faith, rather than a statement of ethnicity – I describe myself as coming from a Jewish family and having Jewish ancestry, but not referring to myself as Jewish. Again, I could write a whole other blog post on this topic...
Getting back to my own beliefs, whilst I don’t completely reject the possibility of there being a God, with regards to God’s existence I am generally more persuaded by atheist arguments than by theist arguments. I therefore define myself as an atheist leaning agnostic.
So, getting back to wagers, which option should I go for? Well, when I was trying to make up my mind about whether or not God exists I reached the following conclusion: It doesn’t matter. Either way, I still want to be a good person, because life is simply better for everyone that way. If we all live our lives in a good manner, then, irrespective of whether or not individuals do or don’t believe in God, the world would be a good place to live in. If we all lived our lives in a bad manner then the world would be a very unpleasant place to live in. Which is why I always try to do the right thing, to be a good person, in everything that I do. I don’t do it because I’ve made any sort of bet as to what the best outcome for me will be when I die. I do it simply because it is the right thing to do. Of course, I’m aware that when I die this should hopefully put me in good stead for whatever comes next, but that isn’t what motivates me.
I just want to be a good person, because that is simply the right thing to be. I may not always get it right – in fact I know that sometimes I do get it wrong, sometimes very badly so. But, overall, I always hope that I do the right thing in the end.
Next Week: Early Friends