Pascal’s Wager and James’ Will to Believe



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Pascal’s Wager and James’ Will to Believe

  • Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French Philosopher and Mathematician.
  • Developed the Probability Calculus.
  • Lived a lascivious lifestyle until he had a profound religious vision, at which point he became a very devout Christian.
  • Developed his Wager as an appeal to former friends, who were still living a lascivious lifestyle.
  • What is
  • What I Believe
  • God exists
  • God
  • does not
  • exist
  • I
  • Believe
  • Infinite gain
  • (Heaven)
  • At best,
  • finite gain
  • At worse,
  • finite loss
  • I
  • don’t
  • believe
  • Infinite loss
  • (Hell)
  • At best, finite gain
  • At worse, finite loss

Pascal believed his Wager shows that, from the standpoint of practical reason, the only rational thing to do is to believe in God.

  • Pascal believed his Wager shows that, from the standpoint of practical reason, the only rational thing to do is to believe in God.
  • Comments
    • If someone likes to go for broke, then he should believe because that choice has the best positive payoff.
    • If someone likes to play it safe, then he should believe because that choice has the least negative payoff.
    • Why can’t I just not believe and be agnostic?
      • Being agnostic is the same as not believing.

When Pascal talks about believing in God, he’s NOT just talking about believing that God exists.

      • When Pascal talks about believing in God, he’s NOT just talking about believing that God exists.
      • He’s talking about adopting the lifestyle that goes with believing that God exists.
      • One cannot live agnostically.
      • One either lives a religious lifestyle or not.

“[W]e are . . . ‘embarked’ . . . , as on a ship. The ship is our life. The sea is time. We are moving past a port that claims to be our true home . . . . This ‘home port’ . . . is not just an idea (that God exists). It is a marriage proposal from this God. Not to say yes is eventually to say no. Suppose Romeo proposes to Juliet, and she says neither yes nor no, but wait. Suppose the ‘wait’ lasts and lasts – until she dies. Then, her ‘wait’ becomes no. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For, death turns ‘tomorrow’ into ‘never.’”

      • “[W]e are . . . ‘embarked’ . . . , as on a ship. The ship is our life. The sea is time. We are moving past a port that claims to be our true home . . . . This ‘home port’ . . . is not just an idea (that God exists). It is a marriage proposal from this God. Not to say yes is eventually to say no. Suppose Romeo proposes to Juliet, and she says neither yes nor no, but wait. Suppose the ‘wait’ lasts and lasts – until she dies. Then, her ‘wait’ becomes no. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For, death turns ‘tomorrow’ into ‘never.’”
      • Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans

How can there be a finite gain if I believe in God and he doesn’t exist?

    • How can there be a finite gain if I believe in God and he doesn’t exist?
      • “You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful.”
      • Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No.233
    • The Wager is too mercenary.
      • “The Wager can easily be recast to appeal to a higher motive than the fear of Hell. One could wager as follows:

“If God exists [as the Supreme Being], he deserves all my allegiance and faith. I don’t know whether he exists or not. Therefore, to avoid the terrible injustice of refusing God his rights, I will believe.”

      • “If God exists [as the Supreme Being], he deserves all my allegiance and faith. I don’t know whether he exists or not. Therefore, to avoid the terrible injustice of refusing God his rights, I will believe.”
      • Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans

Faith in God is not something that you can just turn on, like turning on the hot water.

    • Faith in God is not something that you can just turn on, like turning on the hot water.
      • “You want to find faith, and you do not know the road. You want to be cured of unbelief, and you ask for the remedy: Learn from those who were once . . . like you and now wager all they have.”
      • Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No. 233

“[In The Brothers Karamazov,] Madame Hohlokov comes to [Father Zossima] distraught at losing her childish faith by exposure to science and philosophy . . . . Wise old Zossima tells her that it is not possible simply to go back to her childhood, forget her doubts and believe naively . . . . But, there is . . . a way to become certain. It is the way of active love, acting as if she believed, loving her neighbors indefatigably.

      • “[In The Brothers Karamazov,] Madame Hohlokov comes to [Father Zossima] distraught at losing her childish faith by exposure to science and philosophy . . . . Wise old Zossima tells her that it is not possible simply to go back to her childhood, forget her doubts and believe naively . . . . But, there is . . . a way to become certain. It is the way of active love, acting as if she believed, loving her neighbors indefatigably.

In the end, Pascal is asking non-believers to try the religious lifestyle for awhile, since, as the Wager shows, it clearly pays.

    • In the end, Pascal is asking non-believers to try the religious lifestyle for awhile, since, as the Wager shows, it clearly pays.
    • Pascal is confident that, given a fair chance, genuine faith will grow.
      • “I tell you: ‘You would soon have faith, if you give up a life of pleasure. Now, it is up to you to begin. If I could give you faith, I would, but I cannot . . . . [Y]ou can easily give up your pleasure and test whether I am telling the truth.’”
      • Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No. 240

Final Thoughts

    • Final Thoughts
      • Does Pascal underestimate the difficulty of trying to live a religious lifestyle when one does not already believe?
      • Pascal himself did not come to faith until he had his religious vision.
      • Is his challenge unfair to sincere non-believers?

William James vs. the Evidentialist Objection

  • William James vs. the Evidentialist Objection
    • Recall Pascal’s Position
      • From the standpoint of speculative reason, one can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence.
      • One, however, should believe in God because, from the standpoint of practical reason, believing in God has the best “pay-off.”

One who raises the Evidentialist Objection maintains that, since there is insufficient evidence for God’s existence, one should not believe in God. One should be agnostic.

    • One who raises the Evidentialist Objection maintains that, since there is insufficient evidence for God’s existence, one should not believe in God. One should be agnostic.
    • This claim rests on the more basic claim that one should never believe in anything without sufficient evidence for the existence of that thing.
    • In the words of one of the most prominent Evidentialist Objectors:

“It is [morally] wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

      • “It is [morally] wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
      • William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”
  • Rationale behind Clifford’s Ethics of Belief
    • Clifford tells a story
      • “A ship owner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old and not over-well built at the first,

“that she had seen many seas and climes and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however,

      • “that she had seen many seas and climes and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however,

“he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere.”

      • “he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere.”

“He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy. He watched her departure with a light heart and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be. And he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”

      • “He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy. He watched her departure with a light heart and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be. And he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”
      • William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”

One thing to note is that Clifford’s dramatic tale is really irrelevant to his claim.

      • One thing to note is that Clifford’s dramatic tale is really irrelevant to his claim.
        • Clifford claims that it is always morally wrong to believe on insufficient evidence.
        • The ship owner in the story, however, does not believe on insufficient evidence. He believes contrary to sufficient evidence.

There is sufficient evidence the ship is not seaworthy, but, despite this evidence, the ship owner believes it is seaworthy.

        • There is sufficient evidence the ship is not seaworthy, but, despite this evidence, the ship owner believes it is seaworthy.
    • Credulity
      • Despite the rather inflammatory story with which he begins, Clifford’s real reason for maintaining one should never believe on insufficient evidence is NOT that doing so might lead to false beliefs that produce disasters.

What’s really horrible about believing on insufficient evidence is that doing so makes a person credulous, i.e. makes him such that he will believe anything at all.

      • What’s really horrible about believing on insufficient evidence is that doing so makes a person credulous, i.e. makes him such that he will believe anything at all.
      • “[I]f I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But, I cannot help doing this great wrong

“towards Man: That I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.”

      • “towards Man: That I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.”
      • William Clifford “The Ethics of Belief”

“The Will to Believe”

  • “The Will to Believe”
    • Essay written in response to Clifford’s by the great Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James
    • Contra Clifford, James maintains it is sometimes morally permissible to believe on insufficient evidence.
    • James maintains two conditions must be met in order for it to be permissible to believe something on insufficient evidence.

The matter must be “intellectually undecidable,” i.e. it must be very unlikely that you will ever have enough evidence to settle the matter one way or another.

      • The matter must be “intellectually undecidable,” i.e. it must be very unlikely that you will ever have enough evidence to settle the matter one way or another.
      • The choice in question must represent a “genuine option.”
        • Living, i.e each alternative must have some initial plausibility. For example, in the contemporary West “Be a Protestant or be a Catholic” is a living option. In the contemporary West “Be a Manichean or be a Christian” is not a living option.

Forced, i.e. one must choose one alternative or another. There is no third alternative, e.g. “Accept my love or live without it.”

        • Forced, i.e. one must choose one alternative or another. There is no third alternative, e.g. “Accept my love or live without it.”
        • Momentous, i.e. the benefits that would accrue by choosing truly are very significant and unique. One cannot gain these benefits in any other way

“[I]f I were Dr. Nansen and proposed to you to join my North Pole expedition, your option would be momentous; for this would probably be your only similar opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at least the chance of it into your hands. He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed.”

          • “[I]f I were Dr. Nansen and proposed to you to join my North Pole expedition, your option would be momentous; for this would probably be your only similar opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at least the chance of it into your hands. He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed.”
          • William James, “The Will to Believe”

James claims that the choice between believing in God and not believing in Him is both intellectually undecidable and a genuine option.

    • James claims that the choice between believing in God and not believing in Him is both intellectually undecidable and a genuine option.
      • Both alternatives have initial plausibility.
      • The choice is forced, for, as Pascal pointed out, one cannot live agnostically.
      • Also, as Pascal also pointed out, the benefits of believing truly in God are infinite.

James’ response to Clifford’s charge of encouraging credulity

    • James’ response to Clifford’s charge of encouraging credulity
      • James points out that humans have two epistemic goals.
        • To attain truth
        • To avoid falsehood
      • Clifford concentrates on the latter goal to the exclusion of the former.
      • Does Clifford, however, have sufficient evidence for doing this? “No,” says James.

“‘Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!’ merely shows [Clifford’s] own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world.

      • “‘Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!’ merely shows [Clifford’s] own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world.

“[S]o Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.”

      • “[S]o Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.”
      • William James, “The Will to Believe”

When faced with an intellectually undecidable and genuine option, someone of a less morose, more optimistic, nature that Clifford’s might choose to believe.

      • When faced with an intellectually undecidable and genuine option, someone of a less morose, more optimistic, nature that Clifford’s might choose to believe.
        • Better risk loss of truth than chance of error — that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis,

“just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted?”

        • “just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted?”
        • William James, “The Will to Believe”

James sees belief in God as the more hopeful choice, and, as such it appeals to him.

    • James sees belief in God as the more hopeful choice, and, as such it appeals to him.
    • If it does not appeal to Clifford thus, so be it. But, let him not become a vetoer of James’ will to believe.
    • James concludes his essay with by quoting another thinker, Fitz James Stephen

“If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow

      • “If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow

“and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

      • “and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”
      • Fitz James Stephens, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity


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