The current paper aims to discuss the criticism of Pascal’s wager. It is essential to mention that Pascal’s wager is a specific argument for all people to follow God’s commandments in order to avoid potential negative outcomes for wrongdoing. This thinking experiment was developed by Blaise Pascal, who is known as a French philosopher, physicist, and mathematician.
Evidently, Pascal was an extremely religious individuals, who tried to demonstrate the importance of Christianity for all people. Thus, he proposed a wager based on the theory of probability. This wager states that it is rational for a person to believe in God and follow God’s commands because such behavioral pattern is more profitable in case of God’s existence. It means that if God exists, an atheist would suffer forever in hell. If God does not exist, individual will suffer only some minor inconveniences connected with religious lifestyle. Needless to say, that Pascal’s wager was criticized by many thinkers. It is essential to examine the opinion of philosophers in order to understand the lawfulness of Pascal’s arguments.
There seems to be no doubt that the understanding of Pascal’s wager is impossible without the analysis of Pascal’s biography. He was born in 1623 in the family of tax collector in France (McPherson 12-13). He was an extremely talented youngster, who achieved great success in the sphere of science, particularly physics and mathematics. Thus, in the early age, he developed the prototype of mechanical calculator. Unfortunately, Pascal had poor health, which led to his early death at the age of 39.
In 1646, Blaise Pascal became the member of the Jansenism religious movement (O’Connell 28). As a result, he started writing philosophical texts, which had an aim to demonstrate the benefits of Christianity. One of the most famous his works is Les Pensees or Thoughts (Pascal 5-6). He provided his thinking argument under the name of wager in section 233 of this text. He used his knowledge in mathematics, particularly the theory of probability, in order to develop the examined argument.
It is crucial to highlight that Pascal was confident that the humanity could not rationally prove or refute the existence of God. Therefore, the wager uses logical construction of the probability theory to demonstrate pros and cons of different behavioral patterns. The invention of Pascal’s wager became possible due to the results of scientific correspondence between Pascal and Fermat. They discussed the theory of games and analyzed the value of different game results. Consequently, the notion of expected value became fundamental for the formation of the Pascal’s wager argument.
The wager proposed by Pascal is based on the logical assumption that any individual participates in specific game during his or her life. This game implies the necessity to take decision regarding the ethical behavior. Needless to say, that morality depends on the belief of an individual in God’s existence. Consequently, there are two possible game assumptions, such as:
God does not exist.
It means that an individual has two alternatives. In case if God exists, any immoral behavior would be seriously punished. In case if God does not exist, immoral behavior will have any negative outcomes. At the same time, the benefits of religious behavior is that the eternal life could be granted for moral individual. On the other hand, the benefits of immoral behavior are not so promising. Consequently, it is rational to choose the alternative with the biggest possible profit. With the help of such rational argument, Pascal aims to demonstrate all skeptics that it is essential to follow Christianity.
It is necessary to mention that Pascal’s wager became very popular among the wide audience. Nevertheless, many people refused to follow Pascal’s arguments. Evidently, even the followers of Christianity explained serious concerns about the quality of the argument. For instance, the ideas of Rene Descartes, who also lived in France in the 17th century, demonstrate that the basic premise of the wager about the impossibility to rationally prove God’s existence is not correct.
Rene Descartes provided the proof of the God’s existence with the help of his systematic analysis of mind. The philosopher argued that “the action and power needed to preserve the things is capable of creating something qualitatively new” (Sorell 57). It means that the cause should have the same amount of inner power as the effect has in order to set an equality.
Descartes was sure that he did not have enough power to preserve his existence as an individual because he seemed to be just a thinking thing. Consequently, the power should come to the human being from outside. Descartes concludes that “the one, who gave him the possibility for existence and gave him ideas, must be God” (Sorell 62). Thus, God exists. In such case, the statement of Pascal that there is no rational evidence for God’s existence is false. Consequently, the religious belief is not a question of game.
Descartes also tried to solve the problem of solution in conditions of uncertainty. The proof of the God’s existence provided by Descartes gives the qualitatively new issue of the human mistake. Descartes highlighted that the faculty of judgment comes from the omnipotent God, who is a perfect non-deceiver. Therefore, it would be impossible for some judgment to go wrong. Nevertheless, the experience shows that people make a huge amount of different mistakes. It could lead to the thought that God is not perfect or omnipotent. Descartes finds the answer on this question by his own explanation of the origins of the human error.
The French philosopher notes that the individual is something intermediate between nothingness and God. Thus, human error does not come from God. It seems to be an effect of the imperfect being. Descartes argues that the error is based on the human thoughts and the choice of the human being based on the free will. They all are given by the omniscient God. The human error arises due to the fact that the scope of the will is much wider than that of the human thought or knowledge. It means that the will is infinite, while the knowledge is finite. As a result, the will could judge anything, including various matters, which are impossible to understand.
The issue of the error appears due to the inability of the finite intellect to perceive everything distinctly. As a result, some perceptions could be wrong. In other words, “people make error during the attempt to judge things that are beyond the human understanding” (Descartes 15). For instance, it could be the reasons of the God’s behavior. It means that Descartes tried to offer a solution to those who were seeking to avoid error. He was sure that people need to control the perceptions provided by the intellect. It is crucial for the perception to be clear and distinct. In case if the perception is doubtable, there is the risk of some error, and the judgment must be avoided. It means that it is rational for any individual not to participate in wager because the price for mistake is very high.
There also exists the refutation of Pascal’s argument by James William, a famous philosopher of the 19th century. James William argued that the wager does not explains what religion should individual choose to gain profit. It is clear that Pascal wanted to protect Christianity. Nevertheless, the followers of Islam could also propose such argument to defend their religion. Furthermore, any person could create his or her religious system, which will have brilliant conditions of afterlife. Consequently, it is absolutely impossible to make a choice, which will demonstrate the optimal behavior for the individual.
Finally, it is important to state that Pascal’s wager could be interpreted as a cynic attempt to attract people to follow some religion. The spiritual growth could not be based on fear or intention to receive profit. On the other hand, religious people try to avoid the impact of common capitalistic values on their spiritual growth. In such case, it is better to ignore Pascal’s wager while thinking about the personal religious future.
It is possible to conclude that Pascal’s wager is usually rejected by both atheists and religious people due to the several shortcomings of such rational position. There is no doubt that this wager could be used in debates regarding God’s existence. Nevertheless, it is hard to force people to follow some religious belief only due to some fictional benefits, which could probably happen as a result of specific behavior. Consequently, this argument could not be used as a serious evidence to prove the rationality of faith.
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Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company. 1999.
McPherson, Joyce. A Piece of the Mountain: The Story of Blaise Pascal. Greenlaf Press. 2009.
O’Connell, Marvin. Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart. Eerdmans Publishing. 1997.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. Penguin Classics. 1995.
Sorell, Russell. Descartes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 2009.