Pascal’s Wager and the Spoils of Faith

I read a recent statistic that was mind-boggling: According to a series of Gallup surveys, ninety-four percent of Americans believe in God, and ninety percent pray. Why, I wondered, in our modern age of science, do so many people still believe? This is a time when things not empirically proven are left by the wayside. Of course, a good number of believers have simple faith, and that’s that. But there is also a burgeoning scientific community offering impetus for statistics like those above.

I happened upon the work of Patrick Glynn, a Harvard scholar, currently the associate director of the George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. He promotes the Anthropic Principle, which originated in the 1970s as the brainchild of Cambridge astrophysicists and cosmologists, including Brandon Carter, a colleague of people like Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. Glynn, however, made the theory popular through his book God: The Evidence.

Basically, the Anthropic Principle posits that “what we expect to observe in the universe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers.” In other words, all the seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common: these are precisely the values you need if you want to have life in the universe. Moreover, the myriad laws of physics seem to have been fine-tuned from the very beginning of the universe for the existence of human beings.

According to Glynn, more and more scientists are subscribing to the Anthropic Principle, which heavily implies an ordered universe and a supreme controller, i.e., God. Because of this, Glynn tells us, “Pascal’s Wager” is starting to really make sense.

“Who’s what?” I asked myself.

I promptly went on-line to find out exactly what Pascal’s Wager is all about.

Pascal’s Wager

The seventeenth-century mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal formulated a pragmatic argument for justifying belief in God. Which is worth the risk of error, Pascal questioned, belief or non-belief? It is wise, he said, to “wager” on the existence of God, for the alternative, to put one’s faith in faithlessness, is an inferior bet. And, more, if one believes in God but is eventually proven wrong, one loses nothing. But if one believes and is proven right, one gains just about everything. And what if one disbelieves in God and is proven wrong? What if one lives an atheistic life and then finds out there is a God? That’s going to be trouble for sure.

Most philosophers think Pascal’s Wager is the weakest of all the traditional arguments for believing in the existence of God. But Pascal thought it was the strongest. After completing his construction of the full argument in his work Pensees, he wrote, “This is conclusive, and if men are capable of any truth, this is it.” This declaration was a rare moment of certainty for Pascal, one of the most skeptical thinkers of the modern era.

But here’s how he saw it: Suppose a loved one is dying. You’ve tried everything, and all the specialists agree that there is no hope. Then a doctor comes along and offers a new “miracle drug.” He says there’s a 50-50 chance it can save your loved one’s life. Would it be reasonable to try it, even if there were some expense? And what if it were free? Couldn’t one conclude that it is entirely reasonable to try it and unreasonable not to?

Here’s another analogy: Suppose you’re at work and you hear a report that your house is on fire and your children inside. You don’t know whether the report is true or false. What is the reasonable thing to do? Do you ignore the report, or do you take the time to check it out, either by going home or by phoning in?

“No reasonable person,” wrote Pascal, “will be in doubt in such cases. Deciding whether to believe in God is a case like these.… It is therefore the height of folly not to ‘bet’ on God, even if you have no certainty, no proof, no guarantee that your bet will win.”

Srila Prabhupada agreed with Pascal on this point. In Dialectic Spiritualism: A Vedic View of Western Philosophy, a series of dialogs between Prabhupada and some of his disciples, he is apprised of Pascal’s Wager. Here is the substance of the exchange:

Disciple: Pascal claims that by faith we have to make a forced option, or what he calls a religious wager. We either have to cast our lot on the side of God—in which case we have nothing to lose in this life and everything to gain in the next—or we deny God and jeopardize our eternal position.

Prabhupada: That is our argument. If there are two people, and neither has experience of God, one may say that there is no God, and the other may say that there is God. So both must be given a chance. The one who says there is no God dismisses the whole case, but the one who says there is a God must become cautious. He cannot work irresponsibly. If there is a God, he cannot run risks. Actually, both are taking risks because neither knows for certain that there is a God. However, it is preferable that one believe

Disciple: Pascal says there is a fifty-fifty chance.

Prabhupada: Yes, so take the fifty percent chance in favor.

Disciple: Pascal also advocated that. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Prabhupada: Yes. We also advise people to chant Hare Krishna. Since you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, why not chant?

Of course, Pascal’s Wager is not the best way to approach God. Obviously, if one has an inborn appreciation for God and serves Him out of natural love and devotion, that’s best. If not, one should develop the sense of loving God by following the recommendations of one who does love God, along with the advice given by the scriptures and the sages. But, as the Bhagavad-gita (Chapter 12) tells us, people are rarely spontaneous lovers of God. Second best, says Lord Krishna, is to fix one’s mind on God. And if one can’t do that, then one should follow the regulative principles of an established religious path. This would be Pascal’s advice, too. In this way, the Gita offers many options for those of us not born with a natural or innate love of God.

To understand Pascal’s wager, it helps to understand its background. Pascal lived in a time of great skepticism. He was a Christian apologist looking for a way to explain God to skeptical peers. He saw faith and reason as two ladders to the Divine. What remaining options were there for those bereft of these ladders?

“Could there be a third ladder,” he questioned, “out of the pit of unbelief and into the light of belief?”

Pascal’s Wager claims to be that third ladder. Pascal was well aware that it was a low ladder.

“If your belief in God emerges as a bet,” he wrote, “that is certainly not a deep, mature, or adequate faith. But it is something, it is a start, it is enough to dam the tide of atheism.”

The Wager appeals not to a high ideal, like higher echelons of faith, hope, love, or even proof, but to a low one: the instinct for self-preservation, the desire to be happy and not unhappy. Bet on God and you’ll be happy; don’t, and you won’t. That’s what it amounts to.

Counterarguments

Of course, atheistic philosophers are naturally critical of Pascal’s wager. The first problem, they say, is that the Wager implies the necessity of making a choice. But in fact, say Pascal’s critics, we don’t really have to. We can just adhere to the principle of agnosticism and admit that we don’t really know if God exists or not. We can live our days with this lack of certainty. Period.

But on the battlefield of life, one simply must choose to go one way or the other. Consider Arjuna, the hero of the Bhagavad-gita. At the onset of a civil war, right there on the battlefield he said, “I’m not going to fight.” Like Arjuna, we sometimes pretend there is no battle, that we can live our lives without answering to one course of action or another, that we can live our lives without consequence. Clearly, this sort of denial is not advantageous. In Arjuna’s case, armies were arrayed, waiting for battle. He had to choose. Pascal says we must bet for God or against Him, and this bet will determine exactly how we live our life, for better or for worse. One can be a good person without God, says Pascal, but it is far less likely.

Another problem put forward by critics of Pascal’s Wager is that it focuses on accepting the God of Christianity, along with His rules as given through the biblical tradition. But why, they wonder, should the wager be that narrow? What if I bet on the Christian conception of God but that conception turns out to be wrong? What if God is someone else, with a whole other set of rules?

The fact is that God Himself may be unknowable in all His fullness, but His laws are certainly within our range of knowledge. Moral law and, higher, spiritual law are no secret to humanity. Despite what some may think, God’s commandments vary little from religion to religion. Sanatana-dharma, or the eternal function of the soul, is a thread that connects the mystical essence of religion. And the science of God focuses in on that. Krishna consciousness teaches that betting on God is the prerogative of the human form of life. Pascal’s Wager—even if only a fifty-fifty chance that God exists—is a wise choice.

God Is a Safe Bet

If God does not exist, it doesn’t matter how you wager, for there is nothing to win after death and nothing to lose as well. But if God does exist, your only chance of winning eternal happiness is to believe—and to act on that belief—and your only chance of losing it is to refuse to believe.

But is it worth the price? This is the real question. What must be given up to wager that God exists? Let us remind ourselves that whatever we give up is only finite, and, as Pascal would say, it is most reasonable to wager something finite on the chance of winning something infinite. That’s what the theistic enterprise is all about. Even if you have to give up certain deep-rooted habits or pleasures to wager on God, doesn’t the possibility of a higher happiness make it worth it in the end? Patrick Glynn, mentioned earlier, deals with this at some length:

Of course, the touchy issue here concerns what those who opt for belief must sacrifice in this life: Revelation teaches that they must, in Pascal’s words, “curtail” their “passions.” Pascal tried to minimize this sacrifice by pointing to the purely rational benefits of a life lived in conformity with the moral law. “Now, what harm will you come by,” he wrote, “in making this choice? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly, you will not enjoy those pernicious delights—glory and luxury; but will you not experience others?” The atheist and agnostic position has always been that Pascal had soft-pedaled the sacrifice end of the bargain. In giving up the pleasures and glories that religion teaches us to forgo, so the atheist argument has run, we are indeed sacrificing much. But modern research in psychology makes clear that the morally unrestrained life is not worth living. The crowning irony is this: Even if their beliefs were to be proved illusions, religiously committed people lead happier and healthier lives, as numerous studies show.

But the larger point to recognize is that the modern secular psychological paradigm—the effort to give a complete account of the workings of the human mind without reference to God or spirit—has crumbled. Modernity failed to achieve its ambition of a comprehensive, materialistic alternative to the religious understanding of the human condition. A purely secular view of human mental life has been shown to fail not just at the theoretical, but also at the practical, level. The last thing that Freud would have predicted as the outcome of more than a half century’s scientific psychological research and therapeutic experience was the rediscovery of the soul.

A God-conscious life has much to offer, with spiritual bliss superseding any and all hardships. Sure, devotees rise early, commit to regulated chanting, and follow certain restrictive principles, like no meat-eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling. But these accoutrements of devotional life are not as hard as they seem, and they get easier as the years pass.

Actually, research shows that these things are good for you. Rising early and being regulated in one’s habits are good for health, and so is vegetarianism and refraining from intoxication. Learning how to meditate on Krishna’s names and contemplating the philosophy of Krishna consciousness are good for the brain, stimulating in ways that material pleasure can’t even approach. Associating with devotees means being with the best people in the world. I’ve come to love many of my co-practitioners, for they exhibit higher qualities and are some of the best people I’ve ever met. And chanting the holy name in kirtana—at home, at the temple, or in the streets—has to be the highest pleasure known to man! The spoils of faith definitely outweigh the difficulties of devotion. And if Pascal were here today, he would clearly have reason to increase his odds.

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The worker who is always engaged in work against the injunctions of the scripture, who is materialistic, obstinate, cheating and expert in insulting others, and who is lazy, always morose and procrastinating is said to be a worker in the mode of ignorance.

by Gita 18.28

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