by T. Nelson
In its simplest form, Pascal's Wager states:
If God exists:
If I do not believe in God, I will burn in hell forever.
If I do believe in God, then I might not burn in Hell.
If God does not exist:
It makes no difference.
Therefore, the logical course of action is to believe in God.
This argument may sound silly, but philosophers have devoted many man-hours trying to come up with arguments against it. Most of these are based on various logical flaws, such as the difficulty of comparing infinite improbabilities with infinite risk. There is no universal agreement whether or not Pascal's wager is logically valid.
One argument against it is that “believing” or “not believing” in something is not something one can just decide to do. Assuming that “wager” really means “believing” and not just “placing a bet” (which wouldn't make sense—the whole point of the argument is that the stakes are infinitely high), one cannot just will oneself to believe or not believe something. So Pascal's wager is a classic self-referential logical fallacy.
But there's more to Pascal's wager than meets the eye. It tells us a lot about how religions must have evolved. It is equivalent to the argument a primitive might have who believes that performing some ritual, such as sacrificing a virgin, is necessary to make the sun rise in the morning:
If my ritual is necessary for the sun to rise:
If I forget to sacrifice the virgin, the sun will not rise, and it will be the end of the world.
If I sacrifice the virgin, the sun will probably rise.
If my ritual is not necessary:
It makes no difference ... well, except possibly to the virgin.
In effect, Pascal's wager is a way of tricking God. But God, if he existed, might not be amused by Pascal trying to trick him, and might very well refuse to be fooled by it. In this case, the syllogism becomes:
If Pascal does not believe in God, he will burn in Hell forever.
If Pascal pretends to believe in God, then God will smite him and he will burn in Hell forever.
In either case, Pascal is f***ed.
Remember the story of Uzza, the poor slob who was enlisted to transport the Ark of the
Covenant. While driving the cart, he reached out to prevent the ark from falling over and
was killed by God immediately. God, it seems, is very strict. He's also not a believer in
Danger High Voltage signs, and it therefore seems likely that He would
also not take kindly to people trying to sneak into heaven using a logical subterfuge.
So we must conclude that, no matter what he does, Pascal gets struck by lightning and burns in Hell for being a smart ass.
Pascal's Wager illustrates how religions evolved from a concern about global or tribal welfare (the sun rising, crops failing, etc.) to concerns about individual welfare (sin, karma, and hell—all concerns of the individual).