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Pascal's Wager and dying to live

Pascal's Wager was much discussed at the FMER conference I've already reported on. I'm not myself a fan of Pascal's Wager for a number of reasons, the chief of which is that I have serious Cliffordian questions about the legitimacy of trying to get oneself to believe something for other than evidential reasons, as a "bet."

Richard Swinburne's stated preference in one Q & A is for a wager that involves acting as a Christian, not necessarily trying to "get oneself to believe" in the truth of Christianity. And I am told that in the English apologetics tradition of the 18th and 19th century, the practical recommendation was that, in view of the importance of the truth of Christianity, one should take plenty of time to investigate the truth-claims seriously. I do heartily endorse this last view, and I am often frustrated at the lazy ease with which people lose their faith or reject Christianity, but it bears little resemblance anymore to Pascal's original wager.

Anyway, it has often seemed to me that even if we waive the kinds of hesitations I have about the wager, one thing that is not considered much is the question of what the non-Christian has given up if Christianity is false. Jesus said we should take up our cross and follow Him, and the picture I think a lot of philosophers have in their minds of what the wager would involve is something much tamer, like going to church or giving up riotous living. But how would the utilities be changed if, to wager, one were required to give one's life as a Christian, perhaps in some torturous way?

The key question, from a formal point of view, is whether that would make the "disutility," as it is called, for making the wager infinite in a world in which God does not exist. The strongest form of the wager gives infinite disutility to not wagering if God does exist--the idea being that one goes to hell for all eternity in that case. And it also gives infinite utility--infinite good-stuff-ness--to wagering for God if God does exist, because one goes to heaven and experiences infinite bliss after death in the beatific vision.

Not being an expert by any means in decision theory, I am not sure that giving infinite disutility to wagering mistakenly--for example, dying as a Christian martyr and not getting heaven--would actually undermine the wager from a purely formal point of view. It seems plausible that not wagering would still have only finite utility--a happy earthly life.

But what is the argument for regarding wagering in a universe without God to have infinite disutility, even if one does have to die? The idea is that in that case one loses everything. The atheist, on this view, has every reason to hang onto his life, because that is all he has. There is nothing after death. In that case one would be treating dying prematurely for one's faith and going nowhere (simply ceasing to exist) as being just as bad as dying and going to hell (if one does not wager and it turns out that God does exist).

This seems rather implausible, though. So the counter-position is that, since everyone is going to die anyway, the atheist should not value his life so highly or put such a strong disutility on dying prematurely (even under torture?) and simply ceasing to exist.

What do you think, dear readers? Should atheists value their earthly life so highly that they would think it just as bad to die unpleasantly years before their time as to die and go to hell? (This on the consideration that a martyr in a universe where God exists loses everything, and loses it unnecessarily and with no gain.) Or do you think rather that one should say, "If God does not exist, I stand to lose only my earthly existence, even if more unpleasantly than most people do and earlier than I otherwise would. But this is still only a finite loss if there is no God and no afterlife. Death comes to all"?

Comments (22)

I think your question answers itself. But who says that acting as though God exists when he doesn't entails infinite disutility? That seems utterly bizarre to me (not to mention that I think living as a Christian makes most people happier than to live as an atheist).

My own inclination is to think that living as a Christian makes people on the whole happier *in the comfortable West*. But it's a lot more iffy when we start looking at parts of the world or times in history when Christians were horribly persecuted. Would, for example, a minor civil servant in the Roman Empire, doing pretty well in life, circa 115 have been made happier by avowing that he was a Christian and refusing to pour a libation for the emperor?

That, to me, is the kind of situation that makes the question of infinite disutility even interesting. Suppose _that_ were what "wagering" involved--going off and getting yourself thrown to the lions (after being tortured) with a bunch of Christians. One might be able to write a formal decision matrix that made that come out as a dominant strategy. If one believed that God--if he exists--would "count it as righteousness unto you" if you thus threw away your life and would give you heaven, you might think, "What the heck. We've all got to die sometime anyway. I might as well die in a way that gives me a shot at infinite happiness." But viscerally, it sounds _crazy_ to me to take such a bet. Isn't there some intuitive force to that seeming craziness?

I think, by the way, that Chesterton once said something like that. If someone has the quote and reference, feel free to plug it in. He did something like laying out Pascal's wager and then said something like, "But this is nonsense. Because if you are a Christian you have to be willing to lose your whole life. And if there is no God, then all these people throughout history who have given up all their earthly joy have simply thrown it away for nothing."

I don't have the Chesterton reference, but someone else said something in ballpark (though not explicitly about Pascal's Wager):

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Exactly. And in that case, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. There is something highly artificial about Pascal's wager anyway. One certainly never (at least I never) see Christ or the apostles suggesting that one do anything of the kind. A believer is a believer--one truly committed to Jesus Christ, not one making a utility calculation that it's worth "doing" something "Christian-like" in order to have a ticket for the infinite bliss lottery.

On the other hand, I think that a good novelist could write a fascinating novel about an unbeliever who finds himself getting martyred with the Christians in some persecution because...because...he just can't stand bullies, maybe? Because he decides that he'd rather die with these people than live with their tormentors? And then, of course, one would imply that he goes to heaven in the end.

So that sort of possibility then raises the kind of question I've raised in the main post: if you were quite convinced that there was no God in fact, could it make sense to give your life "on the chance"? Or would that just be nuts? Sometimes I incline one way, and sometimes the other. But I do think the requirement of laying down one's life changes something in the utility calculus, or should.


I'm with you here. Though I'd be terribly remiss if I failed to add that my own pernicious little thoughts in regard to believing in God on the basis of a bet was something I'm sure others have touched upon as well, i.e., "Reckon God might have a toasty lil' corner of hell reserved for those who 'believed' only on the basis of Pascal's Wager?"

Still, it seems to me that your intuition regarding "disutility" might be right. Even aside from other historical epochs. Which is just to say, it's _hard_ to be a Christian. Or, perhaps I should say, it's _hard_ to be a good Christian. Something Luther recognized, I believe, as well as something of which Kierkegaard was fairly well convinced.

Now, does such a view entail that I believe the following: "ceteris paribus, an atheist is happier than a Christian"? Seems not. A Christian's happiness may just be so _in virtue of_ the struggle of living a good life. But then, it appears difficult to capture _that_ in a utility calculus.

I know many people who have trouble with "The Wager". But to me it really is just Green Eggs and Hams'
Sam-I-Am asking us to "Try it! Try it! You will see!".

Try Christianity, learn about Christ and ask Him into your heart. It is worth the bet. Chesterton said that Christianity has not been left tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. So Try it! Try it! You will see!

Pascal fervently loved Jesus and wanted others to experience the same joy. As he was a gambler, he spoke in those terms most familiar to him.


I have not read it yet but Kreeft has a recent book on Pascal that I plan on vetting this summer for my curriculum. I read somewhere a blog interview that suggested he'd had success employing Pensees in general and the wager in particular in his classroom. Any familiarity with his defense of the wager/did it come up at FMER?

No mention of Kreeft; I suspect he wouldn't have been considered "techie" enough. :-) But the consensus as far as I understood it was that so long as one assigns non-zero probability to God's existence, the wager could work on utilities alone (without consideration of the specific probability of God's existence) provided one uses a strong enough form. In particular, my understanding (and recollection) is that one needs to assign infinite disutility to going to hell, which seems fairly reasonable, as well as consistent with Pascal's original formulation.

There was an absolutely formidable paper by Paul Bartha about the many gods objection. He had a whole formalism worked out for trying to "stabilize" wagering behavior among the possible existences of various types of god. (At least, that was what I understood.) One of his conclusions (which actually makes sense in decision-theoretic terms) was, "Nice gods finish last." In particular, any god who sends everybody to heaven is not a god one needs to consider betting on, for obvious reasons, because if he exists, you'll go to heaven no matter what you do.

I think what you are asking is whether an atheist can have a moral belief system that he is willing to die for. They may be a little more circumspect about throwing their life away on lost causes, but that is a general sign of prudence in my book.

Actually, I'm wondering whether it could ever be rational--in the decision-theoretic sense--for an atheist to die for a belief system he doesn't believe in, such as Christianity, on the grounds that he might stand to gain eternal happiness if he turns out to be wrong and Christianity is true after all.

All causes are lost under an atheist perspective anyway. Which, oddly enough, is probably yet another factor in favor of the wager itself.

Still, I don't think Pascal's Wager (which even I have problems with in its original format - but I think the value of it when expanded upon and considered is tremendous) is properly represented when the question is put the way I see it here. Even for Christians, even for people who believe they have good to very strong evidential reasons for their belief, an act of martyrdom isn't really some kind of expectation of the faith. That, to me, seems akin to arguing that perfect faith is required of Christians, and any person who entertains slight doubts in whatever direction therefore isn't really Christian. So I don't think Pascal's Wager, as it's originally given, rightly applies to extreme situations - particularly given that Christianity is one faith that generally expects its adherents to be prone to failings.

I also don't think Pascal's Wager ignores epistemic considerations, or at least it doesn't have to. Their effects would be more pronounced in situations such as what Swinburne talks about, but Pascal himself was frustrated that his study of nature didn't give him a solid indication one way or the other on the question. So the wager comes into play when it's recognized that evidence isn't going to answer the question decisively (which seems to be foreshadowing the ideas of Kant, etc, on these topics.)

I'm not really sure about terms like utility and disutility, but I really like Pascal's wager. The wager works even if there is no afterlife. It's not the case that if there's no God that this life is all you have and thus takes on more value. If there no God then this life is nothing but some random firing of synapses anyhow. It makes no difference if they fire this way or that way. The synapses fire and then they don't--that's it. This existence, if there is no God is less than Hell, because at least Hell is real.

If, on the other hand, there is a God, then one has the possibility of real existence, in this life and the next. Pascal's wager is a good bet because there is literally nothing to lose if there is no God. If the believer is wrong, then he has lost nothing, if the atheist is right he likewise wins nothing. However, if the believer is right he gains a great deal, and even if the atheist is wrong then he too at gains something more that he would have even if he had won.

Sure, he could be an inconsistent atheist. I suppose you will have to explain the sacrificing himself for a belief system he doesn't believe in. I can see an atheist dying for a belief system that happens to overlap some Christian belief or activity, but that isn't what you are aiming for.

Well, Step2, my inclination right now is to agree with you that it isn't reasonable for the atheist to die for a system he doesn't believe in. But it's interesting to ask why not, in terms of the original wager and decision theory. If losing his life has only finite disutility, then it should stack up that he's still making a smart bet by dying for Christianity, because he stands to gain more than he stands to lose. That just doesn't sound right to me, though. Which is why I've toyed with giving the atheist's losing his life infinite disutility if it turns out there is no God. I'm still not sure how that would pan out in the decision matrix, though, because I'm taking only baby steps in decision theory. Probability theory has been more my "bag."

Ben, your version is rather different from Pascal's. Pascal is very explicitly considering heaven and hell to be crucial to the whole thing. I think when you speak of gaining something even if there is no heaven, you mean "gaining a more satisfying worldview" or something of that sort. But if the worldview is false, then the only way one could give that high utility would be by saying that it gave the person peace of mind or something.

I think myself that figuring heaven into the mix is pretty important, even if one doesn't think of the wager in quite its original form. Even St. Paul said, "I reckon that the sufferings of this present life are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed."


Sorry to repeat a stock objection, but you're overlooking the possibility that atheists go to heaven and believers go to hell (a possibility which is every bit as likely as the reverse, at least from the perspective of your average atheist).

This article from Touchstone last year, although not dealing exclusively with the wager, makes an interesting case regarding what Pascal was getting at. It echoes some of the comments here.


I have not read it yet but Kreeft has a recent book on Pascal that I plan on vetting this summer for my curriculum.

I've been reading "Christianity for Modern Pagans" off and on for awhile.

Prof. Kreeft spends a fair amount of time on The Wager (pp 291-307) and begins by noting that while it is his most famous idea, "Yet it is not his central concern, the thing closest to his heart....The end, the point, the goal, is Christ."

Prof Kreeft defends The Wager by casting it as a "beginning" and, in that way, echoed the practice of Jesus and he goes on to claim that Pascal's Wager,"..has you out of indifference and onto the battlefield..." we must choose.

Along the way, Prof Kreeft forms more of his famously fetching observations - "True faith is not a wager but a relationship. But it can begin with a wager, just as a marriage can begin with a blind date."

Prof Kreeft deals with an objection raised in here by observing, "If we take the leap of faith and wager on God, we may gain something infinite but we will have to give up something finite (which he calls "noxious pleasures").

Prof Kreeft begins to wrap-up his explanation (defense) of The Wager in this paragraph: "Now Pascal lets the cat out of the bag and blows his cover. He is not a gambler but a matchmaker! The Wager is not a worldly calculation after all, but a divinely inspired fishnet to catch souls. Pascal got his Wager from the same source Anselm got his "ontological argument," according to his ownj testimony (Proslogion 1-2): from prayer"

Lydia I'm not myself a fan of Pascal's Wager for a number of reasons, the chief of which is that I have serious Cliffordian questions about the legitimacy of trying to get oneself to believe something for other than evidential reasons, as a "bet."

Prof Kreeft began his explanation (defense) of The Wager by observing:

A further limitation of the Wager is that it is only for some people; for those who are (1) interested, not indifferent, and (2) doubtful, not certain, either by faith or by reason, concerning the existence of the God of the Bible. We all start in a pit; but some are not even interested in investigating whether or not there is a way out of the darkness into the light of the sun, and others already have climbed out by the ladder of reason or the ladder of faith. For those still in the pit, eager to escape, and doubtful of these two ladders, Pascal provides a third ladder in the Wager.

Hi, Lydia,

"... living as a Christian makes people on the whole happier *in the comfortable West*."

Maybe. It seems to me so, too. But it's in contrast with St. Paul's era: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." (1 Cor 15:19)


One basic question wrt (and maybe also a classical objection to) Pascal's Wager a la decision theory matrix with expected utilities. Suppose heaven has aleph-zero utility, hell aleph-zero disutility, the probability of going to heaven on being a serious Christian is positive, the same holds for the probability of going to hell on being a serious Christian, and the same holds, mutatis mutandi, for the probability of going to heaven/hell on not being a serious Christian. Don't we, then, have a stalemate? Either the expected utilities are undefined (for aleph-zero minus aleph-zero is undefined in standard math) or the aleph-zero dis/utilities cancel out (somehow, in some non-standard math) and what remain are the finite earthly utilities (so, if you're in the West, be a serious Christian, if not, don't be?).


Some, not much technical, discussions here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/wager.html Haven't read them yet. But they look interesting.


Bartha's talk was too dense for me to follow with a sufficient grasp, apart from Tooley.

As a rare atheist on this blog, I'd like to point out that just saying there is or is not a god is not a 50/50 proposition.

What if there were either 2 gods or there were not, or 3 gods, or there were not? You see?

There is no evidence for god, there never has been. As Christopher Hitchens says - "a memory of supposed miracles to stupefied pesants" is not evidence.

And betting for god is not a good bet in any case, for two reasons I can think of, as a start. One is that it is not morally proper to be moral in expectation of a reward. The other is that the christian philosophy is a philosophy of death.

If you believe there is an afterlife, and you begin to base ANY of your day to day decisions on that afterlife (actions which don't serve you here, but have an afterlife reward), to that extent, you have increased your suffering and chance of death.

An exmmple would be giving to a charity for which you have no personal attachment, but do so to please god. Sacrifices of this kind are evil. Among men, you are most to be pitied.

If you have the moral courage to listen to the atheist case, please watch this youtube video of Christopher Hitchens -


Bob Johnson, compared to the atheists at FMER, you're a pretty pathetic specimen. I'm actually not a fan of Pascal's Wager, but it's always a crack-up to see you Internet-level atheists talk like no one has ever thought of any of their objections. To the philosophers at the conference, including perhaps _especially_ the non-Christians, the Wager is an exercise in technical decision theory. I listened to an entire technically formidable paper on the "many gods" objection. And as for the probability that God exists, yes, that's one of the technical questions: If you get the utilities right (e.g., infinite value for heaven, infinite badness for hell), do you have to worry about the exact actual probability that God exists? This is something philosophers discuss. Like professionals. Unlike Christopher Hitchens.

Hi Lydia:

I am not very familiar with your site, but apparently you are a Believer. I just want to add a few thoughts. I really do this in "good faith" I am not one of your "bitter atheist" types. Plus I am sure you would enjoy trying to beat my argument, as you clearly think about this subject more hours than I do. I tried reading your article more carefully.

"I am often frustrated at the lazy ease with which people lose their faith or reject Christianity."

It takes no energy to reject God, the real strenuous work is creating tortuous arguments for something that isn't there, yes? You have the burden of proof, not me, correct?

"{Bob Johnson, compared to the atheists at FMER, you're a pretty pathetic specimen."

Argument ad hominem. Points for your case: zero.

"you Internet-level atheists talk like no one has ever thought of any of their objections."

Still no progress for you on your case.

I will admit to not being a decision theorist, but I would take a stab and say that that the utility of making a choice is based on both the size of the reward/punishment, and the perceived likelihood of each.

Your article does a good job of explaining what is at stake for an atheist - I need to compare dying early with spending eternity in hell.

"If you get the utilities right (e.g., infinite value for heaven, infinite badness for hell), do you have to worry about the exact actual probability that God exists?"

Yes, yes you do. :D

What you are still doing, as Pascal did before you, is make an assumption that there is some sort of 50/50 chance of either possibility. It is in the interests of the Theist to be mum on this subject. The either/or is a scare tactic. Either I sign this insurance policy or I run the risk of watching loved ones die in an accident for lack of medical care. Hardly a 50-50 proposition. Except your alternatives are more stark. Either I sign the insurance policy or I watch my children die in a car crash (with certainty!!)

I am open to evidence for God. I have not seen any objective evidence, nor has anyone else. Also, the larger the claim, the more evidence I demand. If you told me you had pasta for lunch, I would tend to believe you, even if I was not there. If you tell me I need to not go out today because the tea leaves are not auspicious, I would request a lot more evidence. If you tell me I have to cease following my rational self interest, to instead submit to the whims of a being codified in an old book for the rest of my life, well, you'd have your work cut out for you.

"This seems rather implausible, though. So the counter-position is that, since everyone is going to die anyway, the atheist should not value his life so highly or put such a strong disutility on dying prematurely (even under torture?) and simply ceasing to exist."

Where do theist get the balls to entertain the idea that atheists don't value their lives as highly as theists do? If this life is all I have (and it is), then there is no meaning except my life, my happiness, and my principles.

It is a silly example, but in the movie "Religulous", Bill Maher asks a christian "is heaven a better place than this?" He answers yes. Bill says "then kill yourself right now."

I don't get the not valuing life just because I am going to die. My glass is half full by definition, not half empty. It is not a matter of opinion.

I'd also like to see you address my other statement, that betting on God for a perceived payout is not the way to make moral choices in your life.

Finally, The Hitch is a writer and popularizer. He read the arguments, just like you did. I just offered the link to people that want to hear the arguments in an absorbing and entertaining way.

If you choose to respond, try not to do the straw man thing, and object to trivial aspects of my argument. Go for the big themes, state them up front so the peanut gallery can see clearly what you have chosen to respond do, and what you have chosen to avoid.

One more video for the viewers at home, on the idea of what it means to be open-minded. You might like it too.



Mr. Johnson, you just don't get it. I wasn't making a case in the main post. I certainly wasn't trying to make some sort of case for the existence of God to someone of your stripe. In fact, I wasn't making an argument there for the existence of God at all. I was raising an interesting question in decision theory--whether the fact that, if there is no God, death is the loss of everything does or does not mean that the Wager has a problem with it. From a decision-theoretic perspective.

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