Saturday, October 29, 2011

Quotes from Chapter Eight: Faith, Risk, and Rationality

I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true. (Pascal, Pensées, 387/241, p. 143; in Christian Apologetics, p. 155)
...not to believe in Christianity, either as a committed unbeliever or as an agnostic, means to forfeit the benefits promised only to the believer (eternal life), should Christianity be true. Deciding not to choose has the same result as not believing in God. (Christian Apologetics, p. 159)
If Christianity is true, the prudential benefits for believing (eternal life) far exceed those offered by believing in atheism or any other worldview (finite pleasures). The prudential detriments of not believing if Christianity is true (loss of eternal life; gaining of hell) also far outweigh the detriments of not believing atheism or another other worldview if the non-Christian view is true (loss of some finite pleasures). Pascal is right to affirm that eternal bliss outweighs any finite good, and eternal loss is far worse than mere extinction. (Christian Apologetics, p. 161)
A prudential consideration of the Christian truth claim can, when offered wisely, invoke a healthy self-interest that encourages unbelievers to inquire into Christianity. (Christian Apologetics, p. 167)


David Schmitz said...

I've always wondered about Pascal's observation here in light of 1 Corinthians 15:

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Any thoughts?

The Atheist Missionary said...

I thought I would share this excerpt from philosopher Peter Millican's The Devil's Advocate (the full text of which can be found at

[Pascal's wager] will only be the least bit persuasive to those who are completely blind to alternative religious hypotheses, and who therefore accept that Pascal’s table of four outcomes indeed exhausts all the available
possibilities. But this assumption needs only to be stated to be seen to be ridiculous: why, for example, should we not consider the possibility that a Supreme Being exists who will reward disbelief, or who will punish the sort of self-inflicted brainwashing that Pascal advocates? Pascal’s argument makes no appeal at all to the plausibility of theism, so any number of crazy theories could be similarly supported. Suppose, for example, in order to focus on the Supreme Being’s moral qualities, that we consider the theory that instead of a good God, there is an
omnipotent, omniscient, eternal Creator who is supremely evil, and whom we might therefore call ‘Antigod’ (note that Antigod, who is entirely supreme, is not to be confused with the relatively limited devil of Christianity). To
show that Pascal’s Wager does nothing whatever to recommend belief in the Supreme Being’s goodness, we can put forward a parallel argument for belief in Antigod .... I do not wish to suggest that such an argument provides a convincing motive for taking up devil worship, but it is, I believe, no worse than Pascal’s. Pascal asks us to believe that a good God will punish rational doubt with eternal damnation, and reward his own self-interested religious observance with eternal bliss. Antigod is surely at least as credible a Deity: unrestrained by morality, He capriciously tortures those who do not worship Him, and
shares the sensual delights of His eternal debaucheries with those who are sufficiently corrupt themselves not to make Him feel uncomfortable (we can suppose that just as God dislikes the contemplation of wickedness, so
Antigod will dislike the contemplation of virtue).

Pascal’s Wager, then, is at best a two-edged sword. So far from legitimating belief in God, it can with equal plausibility be adapted into a recommendation for belief in Antigod. Since an omnipotent God and an omnipotent Antigod are mutually exclusive, however (clearly it is not possible for two different beings both to have unlimited power), this adaptation simply demonstrates that Pascal’s Wager is hopelessly unsound. Any method of argument which leads with equal plausibility to two contrary conclusions reveals itself to be untrustworthy. By applying a similar treatment to other traditional arguments for the existence of God, I hope in what follows to show that this
condemnation applies with similar force to all of them.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Atheist: I deal with all the these objections either in the chapter in question or elsewhere in the book.

Tom said...

The Atheist Missionary: While I have a lot of respect for Professor Millican (his article on the ontological argument that appears in *Mind* is really terrific), this quotation is pretty weak. First, it’s just factually wrong in Pascal mentions the threat of eternal punishment—he thinks that wager needs only that the agnostic/atheist miss out on the chance of eternal bliss. Second, it is never intended to be a piece of natural theology—i.e., an argument for God’s existence.

Here’s how I understand it: Pascal is giving advice to the nonbeliever. He begins by saying that reason can’t answer the question of the existence of God. I take this to mean that what philosophers call “theoretical reason” doesn’t work here (“theoretical reason” being the kind of reason we use in the formation of beliefs—theoretical reason gives us reasons for believing that a proposition is true).

What then should one do about the possibility of the existence of God? To simply ignore it is to treat it as though it were false, and given what was said about theoretical reason, we have no good reason to think that it is false. So what do we do? Well, practical rationality is to action as theoretical rationality is to belief. So we should see if practical rationality can be of any help. To horribly oversimplify, the rational thing to do is the action that is most likely to have the best outcome. Pascal thinks that the outcome of the non-religious life is minimal. On the other hand, the outcome of the religious life is very good and possibly infinitely good. Pascal thinks that a life of religious devotion will be happier than the nonreligious life even if God doesn’t exist. But if God exists, then the outcome is infinitely good. So the “expected utility” (as decision theorists say) is much greater if one lives a life of faith than if one doesn’t. So Pascal’s advice is to move toward faith---remember, this is practical not theoretical reason. The end state of this variety of reasoning is an action, not a belief. So start going to church, reading books of the faithful, hanging around believers, etc. In this way, belief may eventually come.

Now the “Many Gods” objection is a serious one—and Professor Millican is right about that. If we knew that there were only two options, say atheism and Roman Catholicism, then Pascal’s wager would have much more force. But even acknowledging the great plethora of religious traditions, I don’t think the wager is entirely impotent. Notice that my previous paragraph is, as it were, religion neutral. As long as there are traditions that claim to offer some variety of other-worldly bliss, the wager will tell you that you should move toward something and not stay content in your atheism or agnosticism.

Of course, Pascal’s wager does hang on a couple big assumptions, viz., that reason can’t determine the existence of God and that the non-religious life is not a much happier life if it turns out that there is no God. If either these is wrong, then it seems to me the wager loses whatever remaining force it has.