Late Night Thoughts on Pascal's Wager
I recently received an application for membership from an individual who added a qualification that he could not really accept our third article of faith because he cared "about the existence of a supreme being, at least in a 'Pascal's Wager' type of way." Even though he was sincere in his agnosticism and seemed on further correspondence to be an intelligent person, I had to regretfully decline his application. Without the third article, we lose our claim to be apathetic agnostics.
I have never understood the intellectual appeal of Pascal's wager. It only makes sense in an either / or situation: e.g. heads or tails; England or Argentina in a soccer game; Tyson or Lewis in boxing; Yankees or Red Sox in baseball; God or no god.
But as soon as you find out there are multiple variations of god, the decision becomes much more problematic. It's not a simple wager; it's a lottery.
The odds of winning the grand prize in a 6/49 lottery are close to one in fourteen million. And given the number of religions in the world, and the number of denominations, sects, and cults within each of the religions, it is reasonable to assume the odds of picking the "right" god (if any god exists) are in the same order of magnitude.
And playing Pascal's lottery is in some ways like buying 6/49 tickets. You can use your parent's numbers, or go along with the choice of friends and neighbours. You can change your numbers each week, or play the same numbers over an extended period. You can study numerology to determine your best numbers, or let blind chance determine them. But you cannot change the extremely long odds against making a winning choice.
But in other ways it is quite different. In Pascal's lottery, it is possible there are no winning choices, because there may be no god at all. Or a god who does not pay off with an afterlife. Or an afterlife that applies to all, regardless of beliefs and actions in this life.
Rather than just a dollar or two, you are betting significant time and money in this life. And rather than finding out whether you have won or lost in just a few days, you have to die to find out how you did in Pascal's lottery.
Really, this is not a good bet.
And Pascal's wager does not make very much sense.
- Suppose you go ahead and participate in Pascal's lottery anyway. You really have to be careful about your choices. For example, consider becoming a Jehovah's Witness. They claim to have seven million members - can that number of people be wrong? But the Witnesses believe (among other things) that in accordance with Revelations, only 256,000 will get into heaven. That means, even in the unlikely event they are right, only one in 27 will make it. By buying the Jehovah's Witness ticket, you've bought yourself a one in fourteen million chance of winning a ticket in another lottery that pays off one in 27.
The lesson here is to either pick a version of god that has no limits on the number of winners, or pick a sect that has significantly fewer members than places in the afterlife. The other lesson is that 1 in 27 is a useful arguing point the next time the Witnesses knock on your door