Is it in your best interests to Believe? Pascal's Wager says yes.
Pascal's Wager, given by Blaise Pascal, is an argument designed to convince theological skeptics or agnostics that it is in their best interests to make a good go at belief. The best part about the wager is that it makes no presumption about the evidence for God's existence: it's all about the best bet.
Pascal's Wager (and the maths)
The wager says something like this:
(1) The rational person will want to minimise personal risk and maximise personal gain.
(2) If you believe in God and you are correct, you gain infinite reward; otherwise it is status quo.
(3) If you reject God and you are incorrect, you suffer infinite loss; otherwise it is status quo.
(C) Thus, the rational person should believe in God.
"But," I hear you say, "the chances of God even existing are very improbable." Well, that doesn't matter. The genius of Pascal's argument is such that probabilities are inconsequential. Let me explain. Imagine atheism is more likely (Pa = 0.9) and theism is unlikely (Pt = 0.1). In order to know how we should value (V) both choices we need to look at the rewards (R) inherent to each.
Pa [0.9] x Ra [0 or -∞] = Va of 0 or -∞
Pt [0.1] x Rt [0 or +∞] = Vt of 0 or +∞
So, after you factor in the potential value to yourself, the value of theism is infinitely great whereas the value of taking the atheist position is infinitely bad.
Theism is win-win! If you rule out drawing even (a consequence common to both choices), it looks like the results are heaven or hell. The betting person would surely know which horse to back. Sounds clear cut, right?
There are, of course, the usual criticisms.
i) Religious revelations are inconsistent.
Different religions make different claims about the exact god that requires our worship and, hence, who we need to direct our affections (and our Wager) towards in order to be considered for salvation. This is all fairly beside the point, given that inconsistent revelations don't tell us that we should give up on the wager altogether. The betting man would still bet on some god, even if it wasn't a guaranteed result. You've gotta be in it to win it! Best bet is to choose a jealous god. If you're wrong, maybe the less jealous god would reward your faith anyway.
ii) God may reward honest seeking and thought, even if that means unbelief.
True. That's a perspective offered by Richard Dawkins. I suppose this is some kind of ultimate Scientific Deity, who rewards us because of our smarts and our sincere hearts. Aww. The question is, would this god turn around and punish the faithful who believe through simple faith and not through empiricism? Such a nice god probably wouldn't. Still sounds like belief is a good recipe for success, even if the heathen scientists get a free pass, too.
iii) God may be "Nahweh" (Perverse Master) who rewards unbelief and punishes belief.
This is some kind of Anti-Wager. This God works in reverse to Pascal's assumptions. The problem here is that if you have the chance of Yahweh rewarding the faithful and Nahweh rewarding the infidels then the Wager get's awfully sticky. Of course, you can't actually believe in Nahweh or he would punish you, wouldn't he? Still sounds like belief in some god (other than Nahweh) is the way to go. If you die and find yourself standing before Nahweh you can tell him, "Well, I was an atheist... with respect to you." Many people don't like this idea merely because they view it as an ad hoc manoeuvre by tricksssy philosophers; it lacks a religious tradition to lend it street cred.
iv) "This is mercenary..." etc
O noes! You can't BET on faith! God wants a sincere heart, not a person looking after their own skin. Well, you might argue that Pascal's wager is designed to make people attend church (see the next point). But, at the end of the day, if we find ourselves having to choose between good and bad, it can hardly be smart to select bad. Do the people who use this rebuttal expect the atheist "seekers" to leave church and wallow in their misery, awaiting their doom? Hardly. We make the "best" choice out of various options all the time. Anyone who disagrees should go and burn themselves on the stove out of principle.
v) You can't CHOOSE to believe at will.
What good is it to realise that faith is in your best interests when it is evidence, not will-power, that determines our belief? Well, that is possibly true, but possibly not. In Mark chapter 9, one man asked Jesus to help his unbelief. Some argue that faith is, in fact, a gift from God. I read one person's article where they advocated using Cognitive Dissonance as a means of personal belief modification! But putting that aside, Pascal actually felt that when we enacted religious behaviour we would actually increase our level of personal belief. I guess his plan is to attend religious services, pray, read the holy book of your choice, etc, and eventually you will believe. I don't know of any empirical studies to back his theory up but I would be surprised if it didn't have something to it. I would imagine that you can't be a member of a faith community for long without some of it rubbing off on you.
The Killer Argument
There is, in my opinion, one response that is far more effective. A "killer argument", if you will. Pascal's entire argument relies on the mathematics and not so much general argument or evidence. Therefore, it is worth looking at the argument from a mathematical perspective to see if it holds water.
The strength behind Pascal's advantage is that despite the evidence for God being low (or even excluded from the discussion), the infinite reward makes the value infinite. But this creates a problem. In order for any other competing views to be irrelevant, the chances of them producing any value must be utterly non-existent. To give the clearest example (and there are many others), I will bring in a third competitor to Pascal's Theism and Atheism: Universalism.
Universalism, specifically Universal Reconciliation (salvation) is the doctrine that says that beings will ultimately be reconciled to God. Universalism rejects the notion of hell altogether and some variants allow for a period of purgatory.
Why does this present a problem for Pascal's Wager? Well, in order for it not to break the wager, the chances of Universalism being true must be absolutely, utterly zero. It can't be very low, it can't be negligibly small, it can't even be infinitely small... it must be no possible chance whatsoever.
Remember our maths earlier? I put atheism at 90% chance, theism at 10% chance (just to prove a point. Let's make Universalism, Pu = 0.0000000001.
Pu [Pu = 0.0000000001] x Ru [+∞ for everybody] = Vu = +∞
So it looks like the value of Universalism is the same for Theism. Even if the chances of Universalism being true are less than the chances of Paris Hilton being U.S. President, the value of adhering to the doctrine of Universalism is infinitely great!
Now consider the implications. Pascal's wager is made on the assumption of zero evidence. That means that the "win conditions" are vague. There may be any number of ways that an individual might gain salvation (e.g. by drinking a latte, by worshiping the Flying Spaghetti Monster, by wearing green on mondays, etc) and all will be so patently absurd as to be basically zero chance of being true. But "basically zero" and "no chance" are very different animals when you are dealing with the infinite. If they happen to have an infinite metaphysical payoff (and why not?), then any one of these arbitrary actions gains just as much value as theism does using Pascal's Wager. The only way for theism to maintain its priority in Pascal's Wager is to beg the question and assume that these other options are absolutely impossible. That makes Pascal's Wager circular, broken, and worthless to the individual betting.
Pascal's Wager is now buried. He tried to appeal to the skeptics by providing them with an argument for God that relied on clever maths instead of evidence. Unfortunately, his ultimate tool, infinity, is also his greatest enemy.