Some Notes on Pascal’s Wager and the Search for Truth

Introductory notes

In this post I’ll address the objection to Pascal’s Wager that it somehow encourages people to weigh truth less heavily than they ought to.  Is it not an invitation to reify the joke about the definition of faith being when you believe something even though you know it is not true?

An initial response is that one could cheerfully concede that one is not making a blinkered assessment of whether the existence of God is more likely than his nonexistence, just that the existence of God is (a) not completely improbable and (b) that if He does exist its better to be wrong in believing in Him than wrong in not believing in Him.  Since belief requires the cultivation of faith, one does that, but of course if evidence came along that the existence of God is indeed completely improbable, then the matter can be revisited.  

Fine, then, the objector might respond, but there’s a second-step objection, namely that the cultivation of faith itself encourages a devaluation of truth.  

In any event, let me make this point:  Part of what I’m urging is just an attitude — that one ought to be looking for God, not running from Him; and looking for reasons to believe, not reasons not to believe.  This is a form of confirmation bias, I suppose, but if we disqualify all truth-seekers with confirmation bias, then we disqualify all truth-seekers. 

A final introductory note:  One could use the Wager more or less narrowly — that is, one could use it in deciding whether to believe in God, but not whether to whether to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, or vice versa.

How do we decide if something is true?

Just add up the evidence on both sides, one might say, and the side with the most evidence wins.  That’s straightforward enough, but a bit daunting in the context of asking, Does God exist?  I think I win that contest, but the evidence (especially on my side) includes lots of apples, oranges, and bananas, so it’s not easy to calculate a total weight.

What’s more, to riff a bit more on this last point, the questions we are trying to answer here are not strictly analogous to answering scientific questions.  The latter are, in theory at least, knowable in a way that the former may not be. 

How do we decide if we believe something?

That’s more complicated.  Certainly the evidence for and against the something per se is relevant.  But if believing/not believing results in having to discard the rest of one’s beliefs, that’s certainly relevant, too.  And – peculiar to this context – if believing/not believing is more likely to result in a miserable existence, that’s relevant, as well.

Try this analogy:  You have a hypothesis that appears based on what you know to be unlikely on its own terms, but if true will make sense of lot of other phenomena and answer a lot of other questions.  So you look for evidence that is true, more vigorously than a hypothesis that is similarly unlikely but does not have these other positive features.

There’s nothing wrong with looking for things you might not otherwise see if you had rejected some hypothesis.  So there is nothing inherently wrong with looking for evidence of God and things that confirm His likely existence.  In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (“Dan Brown Can’t Cite Me to Disprove God,” October 13, 2017, at A13), MIT physics professor Jeremy England writes that “seeing the hand of God at work starts with a conscious decision to view the world a certain way.”  (In the op-ed, he also says, “[I]t is impossible simply to describe ‘the way things are’ without first making the significant choice of what language to speak in”; “I’m a scientist, but I also study and live by the Hebrew Bible”; and “Do we need to keep learning about God?  For my part, in light of everything I know, I am certain that we do.”)

There’s more along these lines in another Wall Street Journal op-ed, “At Its Heart, Science Is Faith-Based Too,” by Matt Emerson, March 14, 2016.  In particular:

But just as faith is indispensable to science, so is reason essential to religion.  Many find themselves relating to God in a way analogous to the scientists searching for gravitational waves.  These seekers of religious truth are persuaded by preliminary evidence and compelled by the testimony of those who have previously studied the matter; they are striving for a personal encounter with the realities so often talked about, yet so mysterious.

In such a context, it isn’t blind belief that fuels the search, any more than scientists blindly pursued the implications of Einstein’s theory.  Rather, it’s a belief informed by credible reasons, nurtured by patient trust, open to revision.  When I profess my belief in God, for example, I rely upon not only the help of the Holy Spirit.  I also rely upon the Einsteins of theology, thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, whose use of reason to express and synthesize theological truths remains one of the great achievements in Western civilization. … 

Here’s an interesting point from David Yount’s Spiritual Simplicity:  Simplify Your Life and Enrich Your Soul (an otherwise not especially profound book that was personally reassuring for me, but not written well or logically or for believers):  Scientists have to have their own faith, namely in a coherent universe that is predictable and orderly (145).

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Back to the beginning of this section:  William James advised to believe in free will because the results are happier.  James — pragmatist, brother of Henry, and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience — was an orthodox Protestant.  And see this (from Philosophy:  100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes):  

In line with his pragmatism, however, James does not attempt any rationalistic proofs of the existence of God.  Equally, he accepts that there is no straightforward empirical evidence that can settle the matter one way or the other.  However, there are good reasons, both empirical and practical, that justify “the will to believe.”

First, James reiterates the point that religious belief is both “forced” and “momentous” — for certainly momentous things follow if it is true.  Now, if we must decide, then in the spirit of pragmatism and empiricism we should consider what difference opting to believe will have on our lives compared to not believing.  Since a life of religious belief has a positive effect of bringing discipline, motivating force and strength into our character, James considers that it does indeed have a pragmatic effect:  to make our lives better than if we do not believe.

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Along these lines:  The “belief” at issue with Pascal’s Wager is not just a matter of true/false, but also whether to take certain action(s).  For the latter, we consider likely consequences of two different paths all the time.

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I want to believe my wife is faithful.  I want to believe this or that scientific research hypothesis.  I want to believe my life has meaning.  I want to make 7 no-trump and so I will assume that the cards lie the one way that I can.  I want to believe in reality and the reliability of my senses.

Is affirming the truth an absolute good?

Suppose you can choose to make a true statement or a false statement, and by doing the former everyone in the world will suffer hideous deaths after leading sinful lives, and by doing the latter you bring in Heaven on Earth.  On the other hand, God is truth, just as He is love, is He not? — and what kind of a belief system can be constructed if it is not true and requires us to reject truth?

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It is rather odd:  It is harder for a nonbeliever to reject Pascal’s Wager than a believer.  A nonbeliever has no grounds for asserting the absolute value of truth — or of anything else.   (Note that, without God, there can be no truth, or at least certainly no reason to put truth ahead of anything.  In the long run, then, affirming God is the best assurance of advancing truth.)  

The nonbeliever also has no grounds for rejecting an appeal to his interests, for he has no reason to put anything else in front of them.  Why not do whatever makes your molecules feel good?  I’ll note, in particular, that there seems to me to be no legitimate objection that an atheist can have to the comfort that a belief in God may give to the dying.

But the Wager works for Christians, too, since the Bible makes appeals to our interests, and suggests that faith sometimes requires belief in things that are unproved, are unseen.

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And look, I’m not suggesting that truth should be denied, so maybe the inclusion of this section is misguided.  My argument is, rather, that there is nothing inherently anti-truth in choosing to believe in God and then cultivating one’s faith in Him.

Do making up your mind and changing your mind raise different issues? 

Maybe so.  At this point, let me quote a paragraph from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (in one of the two consecutive chapters it has titled, “Faith”). The sentence preceding it, by the way, reads, “Consequently one must train the habit of Faith”:

The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.  Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind.  It must be fed.  And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument?  Do not most people simply drift away?

Note that obviously Lewis does not envision us going through life perfectly willing to rethink all our assumptions at every turn in the road.  Having made a tentative decision that it makes sense to hold a particular belief, we can endeavor to hold it.

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Aren’t there lots of situations in life where we reason like this?:   Okay, my best guess now is that this is the side I want to be on, so I’m going to take this side.  If my position becomes untenable given new evidence, I may switch sides, but I’m not going to get up every day and begin from square one.

I mean, really, when you think about it, isn’t this scenario ridiculous?:  You think that the existence/nonexistence-of-God question is a close one, barely 51 percent likelihood one way or the other.  So from day to day, depending on what you’ve just read or heard or observed or had for breakfast, you either believe, and strive to be Christ-like in all things, or you disbelieve, and lead a life of a wanton libertine.  That can’t be right.

On the other hand, of course someone can change his mind if strong and compelling new evidence comes to light.  But it seems entirely commonsensical and logical for the Wager to put a thumb on the scale for evidence that comes along that fails to reach that standard.

Of course, if the evidence for belief remains at or above 51 percent, then the course is clear.  Bear in mind, too, that as noted above you can’t really know say whether it is 49 percent or 51 percent since we are dealing with apples and oranges and bananas, and with uncertain and changing information.

Concluding notes

You could begin by acknowledging that there is not going to be enough evidence to prove or disprove Christianity, and so there will be room for deciding what we would prefer to believe.  That is, there is going to be a role for faith, inevitably, so you will have to decide whether you’d like to have faith in there being a God or there not being a God.  You will have to want to believe or want not to believe.   Cf., e.g., John 3:16, which suggests that we won’t know, we have to choose to believe.   

The very concept of faith is rooted in our trusting in God and His wisdom – and His existence – even when the objective facts are unfavorable.  We are told, indeed, that believing under such circumstances is more admirable than believing when the objective facts are supportive.

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And here’s one last, but very important, fact:  We know that we do not and cannot know all the facts that are relevant and that, even if we did, we are not able to process all of them.   We have to guess which side has the most evidence.  And this is on top of the fact that atheists admit we cannot be objectively certain that God doesn’t exist, and Christians know that faith is sometimes necessary.