A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

As an Atheist, I am often presented with Pascal’s Wager – essentially a postulation that one can optimize expected value by subscribing to Christianity. To be frank, although Blaise Pascal is duly revered for elevating the condition of human intellect, his eponymous wager betrays his fallibility. The wager proposes a binary choice and a binary result and evaluates the possible outcomes as follows:

NO BELIEF no loss big loss
BELIEF no loss big gain

Although Pascal’s Wager clearly establishes a profoundly optimized expected value for subscribing to Christianity, it is fundamentally flawed by two false dichotomies. As a Catholic philosopher, Pascal limited both the choices and the results to Catholicism. The wager completely ignores Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all other religions, not to mention all sectarian variations. Most, if not all, of these options contain mutually exclusive doctrines and dogmas: for instance, the god of Islam condemns those who subscribe to Judaism.

Furthermore, considering the propensity of religion for imagining increasingly superlative punishments, rewards, and gods, it becomes apparent that one should not limit oneself to only the pool of religions fabricated thus far but should, rather, press one’s mind to its limits of imagining the absolute and ultimately worst case scenario impossible. Consider, if you will, the concept of a god that demands your worship while offering eternal punishment or reward to your entire family. Surely such a god must be given top priority because the result applies not only to your eternal soul but also to the eternal souls of every single person you love.

Following the above logic, it soon becomes clear that the only reasonable course of action is to have every single person on the planet cease all pursuits so we can all focus on collaboratively embellishing continually worse and better case scenarios for the rewards and punishments of ever greater gods. Although this line of reasoning results in the slipperiest of all slopes, it does provide better footing than the product of multiplying two false dichotomies. In point of fact, it represents an established form of risk management that focuses on the uncertainty of worst case scenarios.

Managing risk by evaluating worst case scenarios for which certainty has not been and/or cannot be established is known as the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle espouses a basis for public policy that practices caution in the context of uncertainty. It is essentially a restatement of Pascal’s Wager that replaces belief with action and god with hazard thusly:

NO ACTION no loss big loss
ACTION no loss big gain

This type of evaluation has become common amongst proponents of extremely precautionary environmental policy. In cases where evidence may not be conclusive that environmental catastrophe is imminent, it is sometimes argued that the arrival of such evidence may signal a point of no return. Essentially this is analogous to Pascal’s evaluation that the certainty of a god cannot be determined until it is too late. Like Pascal, many environmentalists evaluate inaction (non-belief) as having no downside if the hazard (god) does not actually exist but having catastrophic implications if it turns out to be real. The evaluation of action (belief) follows suit by having no downside if the hazard (god) turns out not to exist but very positive implications if it is real.

Likely the most emotionally charged area of public policy currently employing the precautionary principle is in actions undertaken for public security in response to the threat posed by terrorism. Although terrorism is a certainty of the modern world, the specific hazards posed are not certain. Public security practices taken to prevent terrorism address threats and enemies of which and whom there is no certainty.

Just like Pascal and his belief in the Catholic god, environmental and terrorist issues present us with potential actions and hazards that should not be arbitrarily reduced to dichotomies. Fortunately there has been a great deal of advancement in the way such wagers are evaluated. For one, our evaluation of hazards can be constrained by setting minimum parameters for plausibility. Secondly, the result of inaction is not as superlative as eternal damnation. Finally, we can tangibly evaluate the costs of our actions to our pocketbooks and our liberties.

Unfortunately, public policy determined by precautionary principle can be subject to just the sort of slippery slope earlier applied to Pascal’s Wager. Those who are intellectually committed to a policy can overcome minimum parameters for plausibility by over-stating the consequences of inaction. Negotiation of policy can be easily swept away by appeals to emotion, leaving those armed with the most alarmist rhetoric leading the way down the slippery slope. Furthermore, in a world troubled by both shrinking pocketbooks and fleeting liberties, the cost of excessive caution should be closely examined before we automatically and blindly follow the very questionable doctrine of ‘better safe than sorry’.

I hope this little treatment of the similarities between Pascal’s Wager and the plausibility principle will help modern skeptics recognize and evaluate rhetoric designed to sway the public into adopting policies that over-manage risk. Although an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, let us not adopt polices that invoke a pound of prevention when the only ailment threatening us is uncertainty.

Views: 50

Comment by Jacob LeMaster on May 3, 2011 at 9:44am

Very interesting post Heather! I now have some more reading to do!

Comment by Robert Karp on May 3, 2011 at 9:55am
Excellent as always Heather. Can you give some examples that you see in the current societal realm of people using the plausibility principle to sway opinion in either a negative or positive way?
Comment by Arcus on May 3, 2011 at 1:58pm
I would say a life devoted to God if there is no God to be a Big Loss, since you just spent your alotted eternity on him. If God grants eternal life, then your time on Earth doesn't matter if you are a believer, but you'll miss eternity completely if you don't believe you won't get it (Pascal didn't mention hell). However, you will still have +1 life. However, if this life is everything, then it is infinity for the individual. Perhaps not measured in years, but there are an infinite amount of moments. If one sets pre- and post existance to a value of 0, and life=x, then lim(x->0) 1/x = 1/0 = ∞
God Exists
+infinity    +infinity
God Doesn't Exist
The clearly optimal strategy is therefore to be an Atheist (assuming no eternal damnation).
The matrix also skirts very nicely around the point that there are many religions. Not only must you choose God, you have to choose the correct God. Therefore, not only must you incur the possibility of a Big Loss if you choose No Belief/God, you must also incur a big loss if you choose Belief/God1 and the solution is God2, etc.
And yes, I just divided by 0. ;)
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 3, 2011 at 4:18pm



There are actually a lot of documented cases of the precautionary principle being adopted into legislation.  Although it may not be official, I would like to point out that the entire war on terror is based on precautionary principle.  National security policy around the world has become focussed on fighting crimes that have not as yet occurred, 'terrorists' who have committed no terrorist act are imprisoned because of what they are accused of aspiring to do, with no way to provide evidence to the contrary - a complete reversal of habeas corpus.




Yes, Pascal's Wager is riddled with problems.  I only tried to address the angle that helped me advance my ideas about precautionary principle here.




Uhm, well I hope you have taken enough calculus to realize that not all infinities are equal.  You took span known to be finite and made it infinite by considering analog moments, although there may actually be a minimum division of time just as there is space for all we know, and just sort of ignored a theoretically infinite span of time filled, obviously, with infinitely more moments.  Let me not be accused of defending Pascal's Wager, however.

Comment by Arcus on May 3, 2011 at 4:29pm

I am a trained Economist, do not accuse me of knowing calculus! The last economists who said they did collapsed the US economy. ;)

But enough with the self depreciatory humor, to the point of time. As it is relative to the observer, our lifes may be finite to us, but infinite or instance to another observer. How would a quark or a photon view it? Surely, if measured in Planck time, it would be considered near infinite for all intents and purposes. 

So time is really not a good measure of wheter one should believe in a God or not, unless you tack on the assumption that time flows in heaven and hell like on earth. But since it is religion who claims these places to be infinite in time, my only question is: By who's time exactly?

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 3, 2011 at 4:39pm
Well, to that end, it definitely fills in another piece of information in the 'no god' column of Pascal's wager and provides a loss for the option of believing.  To that end, if there is 'no god' then our moments here are all we have 'total' and thus provide infinite gain for living them well.  One might also point out that with 'belief' comes fear and guilt and with non-belief comes the ability to clear one's own conscience.  Another good angle for tipping Pascal's Wager - if you don't mind I'll add it to my list.  :D
Comment by Arcus on May 3, 2011 at 4:49pm

Be my guest (though no guarantees it's actually a valid interjection). :)


Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 3, 2011 at 4:54pm
If you start putting numbers on the valuations, though, it soon becomes apparent that when one is out god shopping, one should seek gods that offer not only the most intriguing rewards but also the least restrictions on worldly pleasures.  Perhaps and Epicurean god.
Comment by Arcus on May 3, 2011 at 4:58pm

Surely better than 72 virgins in heaven.

Btw, have I ever told you the horrible story of when I had to break in a new pair of boots..? ;)

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 3, 2011 at 5:11pm
No, I don't know that we've ever exchanged stories actually. Breaking in boots always sux though, especially if you are crazy enough to do it on a major multi-day hike into the mountains.


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