Pascal vs. Paulos, Round 2: Paulos Ups the Ante

Previous Entries:

Pascal vs. Paulos, Setting the Stage

Pascal vs. Paulos, Round 1: Pascal’s Wager

Here is a brief summary of John Allen Paulos’ critique of Pascal’s wager in his book Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains why the Arguments for God Just Don’s Add Up. I believe there are very sound responses to each of his points mentioned below and I plan on discussing them in the next post. For now, you can read the previous entry in which I summarized Pascal’s Wager, read what Paulos has to say, and think for yourself how valid his reasoning is and how you might respond.

If you pay attention you will notice how the presuppositions Paulos brings to this matter affect the way he reasons and the way he discusses mathematics. I think this book is a clear demonstration that religious beliefs affect the discipline of mathematics, be they Christian, atheist, or something else entirely. So the real question then, is why should an atheistic or naturalistic worldview be more appropriate for mathematics than a Christian one? But I digress, a topic for another time. Back to the book…

Paulos’ Summary of the Pascal Wager Argument for God (133):

  1. We can choose to believe God exists, or we can choose not to so believe.
  2. If we reject God and act accordingly, we risk everlasting agony and torment if He does exist but enjoy fleeting earthly delights if He doesn’t.
  3. If we accept God and act accordingly, we risk little if He doesn’t exist but enjoy endless heavenly bliss if He does.
  4. It’s in our self-interest to accept God’s existence.
  5. Therefore God exists.

The first problem that Paulos finds with the argument is that:

The argument itself has little to do with Christianity and could just as readily be used by practitioners of Islam and other religions to rationalize other already existing beliefs (134).

In summarizing the mathematics behind expected values, Paulos’ first critique becomes even more apparent by his own parenthetical comments:

If we multiply whatever huge numerical payoff we put on endless heavenly bliss by even a tiny probability, we obtain a product that trumps all other factors, and gambling prudence dictates that we should believe (or at least try hard to do so) (135).

In essence, the first problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it is not faith specific and it very vague in its description of how one actually bets on God’s existence.

As an aside Paulos even brings into doubt the ability to assign a probability to God’s existence. He notes that the statement “the probability of a God” is unlike “the probability of a royal flush.” We can calculate the number of poker hands and royal flushes that are possible and determine that all hands are equally likely but, unlike a deck of cards, the universe is unique. Since we cannot calculate the number of universes there are and how many of them have a God and how equally likely they are, the statement “the probability of a God” is nonsensical.

The second problem that Paulos finds with the argument is that while it can be used to argue for a rational belief in God, by assigning such large values to the payout of God’s existence the argument can also be used to rationalize horrible actions.

Killing thousands or even millions of people might be justified in some devout believers’ eyes if in doing so they violate only mundane human laws and incur only mundane human penalties while upholding higher divine laws and earning higher divine approbation (135).

Paulos uses this notion to relate Psacal’s Wager to an argument from fear, summarized as follows (137):

  1. If God doesn’t exist, we and our loved ones are going to die.
  2. This is sad, dreadful, frightening.
  3. Therefore God exists.

This prompts a sound lampooning of religious and political leaders who lead by fear-mongering. His critique then moves into a discussion of ethics, largely focused on demonstrating that atheists and agnostics are at least if not more moral that devout religious believers.

An atheist or agnostic who acts morally simply because it is the right thing to do is, in a sense, more moral than someone is trying to avoid everlasting torment or, as is the case with martyrs, to achieve eternal bliss. He or she is making the moral choice without benefit of Pascal’s divine bribe (140).

Extrinsic rewards undercut intrinsic interest and this is a reason not to base ethics on religious teaching (141).

Tune in next time for a response to Paulos’ critique.


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