Pascal’s Wager is an argument for belief in the Christian God – not proof of its existence, but merely a contention to believe in it – that runs as follows:
[E]ven though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should “wager” as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose.
Game theorists might explain the wager using a chart like this:
God exists God does not exist Wager for God Gain all Status quo Wager against God Misery Status quo
Already we see one problem – if belief in the Christian God costs us nothing, it also means nothing. You can argue over what a belief in the Christian God requires: consumption of the Eucharist? regular attendance at Sunday Mass? faith alone? faith plus good works? In fact, millions have been arguing this for the last twenty centuries, and millions have died in the arguing. But it strikes me as common sense that belief must entail some behavior that non-believers aren’t doing. There has to be some obvious difference between belief and non-belief. Otherwise, the term “belief” is meaningless.
Okay, the apologist says: belief costs something. But that’s a relatively minor pittance compared to the infinite reward of Heaven. A small price is worth paying if there’s a chance of an infinite payoff.
This bugged me for a while until last night, as I got off the shuttle from work. As usual, I was thinking about gaming.
Consider: I have a die with six sides. You examine it to your satisfaction to prove that it’s not weighted or tricked. If you like, we can substitute a die of your own, provided I get to examine it as well.
I say, “Pay me $5 and I’ll let you roll this die. I’ll pay you whatever number comes up.”
You say, “That’s a sucker bet.”
I say, “But! If you roll a 6, I’ll let you re-roll and add the new number to the total. If you roll a 6 again, I’ll let you roll again. I’ll let you keep doing this as many times as a 6 comes up.”
You say, “Really? I dunno …”
I say, “Come on! A small price is worth paying if there’s a chance of an infinite payoff!”
So you fork over $5 and roll. Ten rolls later, I’m up at least $8, if not more.1
Pascal’s Wager has a lot of problems, but the biggest is: he never gives you the odds of each outcome. And you never trust a game where they don’t post the odds. Let’s say the Commonwealth of Massachusetts holds a special lottery where the prize is infinite money for life – the ultimate charge card. Should I pay $1 for a ticket? $10? $50,000? Depends on the odds of winning.
The “infinite payoff” of Heaven sounds nice and all, but I don’t know if the odds of the Christian God existing are one in a thousand, one in a trillion or one in ten. And that’s a lot of hours to give up on Sunday if I guessed wrong.
These are the things I think about on the bus.
1 The average roll on a fair die with six sides is 3.5. The average roll on an exploding die with six sides – meaning, one that lets you re-roll and add on every time you get a six – is 4.2.