Several years ago, Sam Harris set out to refute Pascal’s Wager in the pages of the Washington Post. Harris began as follows:
The coverage of my recent debate in the pages of Newsweek began and ended with Jon Meacham and Rick Warren each making respectful reference to Pascal’s wager. As many readers will remember, Pascal suggested that religious believers are simply taking the wiser of two bets: if a believer is wrong about God, there is not much harm to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins eternal happiness; if an atheist is wrong, however, he is destined for hell. Put this way, atheism seems the very picture of reckless stupidity.
But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager.
When looking through the “many questionable assumptions,” it quickly became apparent to me that Harris doesn’t understand how the Wager can work. So first, let me spell it out and then we can return to Harris critique.
I was not raised as a Christian. I became a Christian, and remain a Christian, because of reason and evidence. However, I also recognize the limitations of the human intellect. Since my Christian faith is not rooted in intellectual certainty, I fully concede that I could be wrong. I could be deluded. That naturally leads to the following question – “What if I am wrong?” It’s precisely at this point that the Wager comes into play. For if I am wrong, if when I die I simply cease to exist, the answer becomes “So what?” It’s not as if I will ever know or notice it.
Let’s now turn to Harris’s critique:
But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager. One is the notion that people do not pay a terrible price for religious faith. It seems worth remembering in this context just what sort of costs, great and small, we are incurring on account of religion. With destructive technology now spreading throughout the world with 21st century efficiency, what is the social cost of millions of Muslims believing in the metaphysics of martyrdom? Who would like to put a price on the heartfelt religious differences that the Sunni and the Shia are now expressing in Iraq (with car bombs and power tools)? What is the net effect of so many Jewish settlers believing that the Creator of the universe promised them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? What have been the psychological costs imposed by Christianity’s anxiety about sex these last seventy generations? The current costs of religion are incalculable. And they are excruciating.
Harris is simply trying to shoehorn his standard “Religion Is Eeevil” talking point that is sustained by intensive cherry picking and confirmation bias. Yet for the purpose of this argument, we need not even challenge his meme. All I have to do is notice the simple fact that Christianity has incurred no incalculable, excruciating cost to my life. On the contrary, I am confident that if I could replay the tape of my life to go back and reject Christianity, this new, non-Christian life I would be experiencing would entail far more costs and stress. Note, I am not saying that would be true for all. I just know it to be true for myself.
At this point, Harris might claim that I should not be so self-focused and instead consider the costs of religion to society. But again, even if I accepted his dark views on religion, I would simply note that having me abandon Christianity to become an atheist would not change a thing. I am not significant. If I became an atheist tomorrow, Sam Harris would still be going on and on (and on) with the exact same complaints about the eevils of religion.
It’s not quite clear how this first argument was supposed to be a challenge to the Wager, as it looks more like some tangent forced upon us as a consequence of Harris trying to squeeze his standard talking point into his essay, but nevertheless, we can see how this first argument fails: 1) I do not suffer some incalculable, excruciating cost to my life for being a Christian and 2) even if Harris is correct about the Great Costs of Religion to Society, me becoming an atheist changes nothing.
Let’s move on to the more direct attack on the Wager:
While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth; and the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.
First of all, is there anyone other than Harris who thinks Pascal’s Wager is some Argument from Analogy? Here is how the Argument from Analogy works:
Argument from analogy is a special type of inductive argument, whereby perceived similarities are used as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed.
The Wager does not use perceived similarities as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed. It’s simply a crude cost/benefit analysis.
Secondly, given the Wager is a wager, it’s not an issue of it being “valid.” It’s whether or not it is wise. Whether it is smart. And the answer to that question will depend on a) the actual wager being made and b) the person who makes the wager.
Yes, I think when it is an issue of choosing between atheism and Christianity, the Wager is wise. As I mentioned above, if I am wrong, and the atheist is right, I’m left with the unanswerable question – So what? When I die, I simply cease to exist. I have incurred no cost.
So let’s look at Sam’s other examples.
Christianity vs. Islam? In that case, the Wager seems rather useless, as costs incurred for being wrong cancel each other out.
Christianity vs. karma and rebirth? If I am wrong, it simply means I’ll get another chance. And another. And another. It is always wise to bet against karma/rebirth because the cost is so minimal.
Time vs. Newsweek. This is simply a silly, ad hoc choice that does not truly exist. You don’t get to game the system by making up and inserting a fate of fiery damnation for the sole purpose of hijacking the wager. Remember, the Wager applies only after all the beliefs are laid out and the strength of each belief is assessed. A smart bettor is not conned by someone else gaming the system.
Finally, we get to this:
But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe something, he must also believe that the belief under consideration is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.
From my position, the “greatest problem with the wager” is easily defeated. I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence. As I explained, the Wager comes into play after the evidence is considered. The Wager exists due to the fact that none of us can purchase intellectual certainty. The human brain is too limited and too fallible. The Wager is the response to the question, “I don’t think I am wrong, but what if I am wrong?”
From where I sit, Harris’s objections to Pascal’s Wager are rooted in confusion and ignorance. His objections fail.