Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Return to Pascal's Wager

Rick Warren, in a recent Newsweek covered debate with Sam Harris, sums up his argument with Pascal's Wager:

We're both betting. He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.
Harris himself, in a recent article, goes into many good reasons why you shouldn't give any mind to Pascal's Wager. To quickly sum up his points: 1) it falsely assumes that a life would be led the same way as an atheist or as a believer, 2) it could be applied to any belief system and therefore conflicts with itself, and 3) it assumes that a person can rationally decide what to believe in.

I came across Pascal's Wager when I was seven or eight. I grasped Harris' third point right away. I couldn't understand how a supposedly omnipotent God could be tricked by someone choosing to believe in him for selfish reasons.

Later, I also decided that any God that was only interested in whether or not you believed in Jesus, and not whether or not you led a good life and were respectful, honest, and nice to others, was not a God I wanted to associate with anyway. I think that Christians are so thoroughly steeped in this thinking, that they don't understand how breathtakingly arrogant their God looks like from an outside point of view. It's a divine version of, "Well, that's enough talking about me! Let's talk about you. What do you think of me?"

The biggest problem, though, is that it's just a wager! It has absolutely zero bearing on the truth, so I don't understand why it keeps coming up in debates. It's like saying that making a safer bet (lower odds) in a Casino will encourage the dice to roll in your favor.

Or, let's translate it into something more mundane. Say you are trying to decide whether to cross the street or not. You reason that there could be a car coming at exactly the right moment so that if you stepped into the road it would hit you. Or there might not be, and you might get to cross the road safely.

Pascal's Wager would say that if you believed there was a car, and there wasn't one, it wouldn't matter, you were safe either way. But that if you didn't believe in the car, and there was one, you were dead and lose the wager.

What this example and Pascal's Wager have in common is that neither one takes into account the ability to observe the situation and determine the actual odds. You're not stumped by a Street Crossing Wager every time you're at an intersection, you can observe the traffic and determine if it is safe to cross. Pascal's Wager and the existence of God are the same way. We can observe the complete lack of evidence of God and the success of alternate explainations, and realize that the probability of a God existing is vanishingly small.

Atheists do not play dice with the universe.


Ebonmuse said...

"Atheists do not play dice with the universe."

Fantastic line! I'm going to have to remember that one. :)

nullifidian said...

I really liked that analogy with crossing the road. Excellent stuff.

Sacred Slut said...

Excellent rebuttal to this hackneyed and stupid argument.

Forgiven said...

I have 3 words for you and any other Atheist!!!

I love you!

Anonymous said...

I have to say, that while your rhetoric is compelling, I fail to see how the arguments for God are scarce. Think about this one, a teleological argument... if you find a pocket watch on a beach, you naturally assume that it was created. now, think about the vast complexity of the universe that we live in and think of how it is far superior in its complexity than a pocket watch, how then does it not assume a creator like the pocket watch does? we can even take it a step further and show that there is "made in china" etched into the back of the universe so to say because we see that the commonalities between the systems of all things seems to indicate a conscious creator, rather then a random implosion of matter and energy thus creating the universe we live in...
anyways, just some ideas to chew on for you...