Pascal's Wager & the Agnostic's Lemma
January 17, 2007
The remarkable Persian chronicler, Ibn Rustah, reported in the thirteenth century that a monarch in the Caucasus had decided to observe Muslim, Jewish and Christian rites equally. Apparently, the king declared: “I have decided to hedge my bets.”
This is the earliest recorded reference to a piece of metaphysical mathematics usually referred to as Pascal’s Wager – a bullying tactic used in modern times principally by evangelical Christians to attempt to force their belief system upon other people. The essence of this proposition from a Christian perspective, formulated in the seventeenth century by the noted mathematician Blaise Pascal (although variations have been found in a variety of religions throughout history) is as follows:
Either God exists or he does not. If he does exist and you believe in him, you gain eternal life. If he exists and you don’t believe in him, you risk eternal damnation. If he doesn’t exist, your gain and losses are finite and therefore negligible.
The logic behind Pascal’s Wager, therefore,
is that one could use Game Theory (a field to which Pascal was a heavy
contributor) to show that the option of believing in God dominates the decision
matrix that results.
To anyone tired of dealing with boorish evangelicals (and yes, there are other kinds!) who invoke this principle, there are two quick and easy defences. The first is for atheists, although agnostics may use it too. It is known as the Atheist’s Wager, and the principle is as follows:
The best bet is to live your life with a focus on making the world a better place. If there is no God, you will have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he will judge you on your merits and not just on whether or not you believed in him.
The Atheist’s Wager in effect rejects the Protestant principle of sola fide, and most evangelicals will respond by saying that good works alone are not sufficient to win God’s favour. For this reason, I suggest the following response to Pascal’s Wager, which I call the Agnostic’s Lemma. It works as follows:
Any number divided by itself yields unity. While it may be the case that the stakes of this decision are infinite, I believe that there are an infinite number of possible religions – the many different sects that exist today, in all their varieties, and many more to come in the future. Since infinity divided by infinity gives unity, choosing a religion becomes a metaphysical lottery where the infinitely high gain of winning is offset by the infinitesimally low odds of choosing the winning religion. I therefore choose to remain agnostic.
A lighter version of the Agnostic’s Lemma is found in Homer Simpson’s comment: “But Marge, what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!”
Pascal’s Wager proceeds from the assumption
that there is one and only one true religion. While people are free to believe
this, we are also free to believe (as the Sufi do) that every religion reveals
an aspect of a divine truth – that rather than God hiding a winning lottery
ticket in one and only one religious doctrine, a more intricate divine plan
beyond our understanding guides our diverse metaphysical realities. While a
prophet may share a glimpse of the divine, any human is flawed and incapable of
understanding the immensity of a divine plan conceived by an unknowable entity
of infinite capacity.
This is part of a principle I call NUTMOG –
No-one Understands the Mind of God. NUTMOG is a strong defence against any
attempts at belligerent evangelism, or exclusionary metaphysics. (Atheists who
can handle a pantheistic metaphysics should treat ‘God’ in this proposition as
the God of Spinoza, which was Einstein’s position, or perhaps replace the
phrase with ‘no-one can determine metaphysical answers by a process of
I am not opposed to evangelism, per se. I
have fond childhood memories of friends of my parents setting up their musical
instruments in the town
In general, however, I feel that the fundamentalist
evangelicalism prevalent in the
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The centrepiece of this instruction, therefore, is to teach people what Jesus commanded. And what did Jesus command? One and only one thing. John 13:34-35:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
The instruction to ‘make disciples of all nations’ is therefore an instruction to teach the nations of the world to have love for one another – which indeed would be a way towards peace on Earth, and goodwill to men.
If one believes the Great Commission was an instruction to spread the word of Jesus around the world, then this mission appears to be concluded. Today, especially in the age of the internet, the teachings of Jesus are very widely distributed, and most people are well aware of the basics of this ministry. Indeed, Christianity is currently the most popular religion in the world. As far as spreading the good news goes, this part of the evangelist’s mission is (arguably) concluded. All that is left is loving one another, as Jesus did.
This is the view of the post-evangelical movement, which sees a
Christian’s relationship with God and their fellow man as the most meaningful
aspect of Christianity, and rejects any formulation of Christianity which leads
to exclusionism and bigotry, since these are not an expression of love.
It will be an uphill battle to convince
committed evangelicals that their mission is concluded, and freedom of belief
means that they always have the choice to continue what they’re doing if that’s
what they wish, but perhaps the following argument, which might be called the Post-Evangelist’s
Gambit, can be used to some effect:
Your goal is to convert people to Christianity. If you attempt to do so using tactics that people find boorish and belligerent, it will have the opposite effect and disincline them from choosing Christianity. Therefore, the best way to achieve the goals of evangelism is to live a life of love and service to the community, thus demonstrating God’s love and the truth of Jesus’ teachings through your own actions.
If these responses to Pascal’s Wager do not sway the committed evangelist, perhaps at the very least they will ease the burden of anyone bored of being harassed by them. Freedom of belief protects our right to choose, but it does not excuse boorish behaviour. Religion should inspire people to great deeds, not obligate them to annoy their neighbours.
Yes, I often respond to Pascal's Wager with a version of your Atheist's Wager. Except I phrase it in a somewhat more... antagonistic way:
Do good on this earth. If there is no god, or there is no afterlife, you're fine. If there is a judging god and it is remotely just and rational, you'll go to heaven. If god doesn't pay attention to your good works and judges you on the basis of professed belief, then that god is a vain asshole and as a good person you have no business being in his heaven.
Posted by: Darius K. | January 17, 2007 at 04:55 PM
Yeah, what Darius said.
If I am expected to cast a vote nased (mainly) on who colonised where I live most recently, why would a god accept this? I know people are expected to do more than just choose. But why must they choose?
I always say that if I've really been bad enough in my life to go to hell, then there was no point trying to go to heaven. (I mean, as I haven't murdered anyone (that I'm telling you lot about) etc, surely I'd be in with at least a chance with a benevelent superior being?)
That being said, if all I need to do is go around loving everyone, I'll probably fail horribly :-D
Posted by: Neil | January 17, 2007 at 05:38 PM
I think that saying Jesus taught one and only one thing is a bit disingenious.
There's also this bit:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
- Mark 12:28-31
Note, although I agree with Pascal on this one, deciding based on probability is probably just going to lead you down the path of legalism.
Posted by: RodeoClown | January 17, 2007 at 08:11 PM
Yes, I would agree with RodeoClown that Jesus (as reported by the New Testament gospels, anyway) also issued a command to love God.
I'm a (free-range? - though I'm not quite sure what that means. Can someone enlighten me?) Christian who firmly believes in a benevolant God but who equally firmly doesn't want to belligerently evangelise.
So I'm rather encouraged by the example of Jesus himself. While he sometimes spoke in plain, terse terms to those who claimed they knew the best way to God (e.g., the Pharasies), it seems to me that he spent a great deal of his brief time telling cryptic, half-finished stories, as well as praying a lot.
For a Christian proselytizer, it's worth remembering the lessons that these two actions provide. One, you can't make people believe, but you may just be able to whet their curiosity (by, say, using your God-given creativity instead of the same old arguments). Two, if you believe in the God of Jesus powerfully enough to bash people over the head with him, then you probably at least theoretically also believe in the power of prayer. If someone won't come round to your viewpoint, perhaps your time would be better spent by sending up some prayers instead of arguing? :^D
Posted by: Tim Knauf | January 18, 2007 at 03:43 AM
Tim, your final sentence is absolutely spot on (and what Paul encourages in his letters - although he doesn't stop arguing/pleading/persuading either)!
Posted by: RodeoClown | January 18, 2007 at 06:45 AM
Ooh, a brief theological debate! :) Let me just briefly talk to the non-Christians first...
Darius: How often are you being harranged by Christians, may I ask? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? It is clearly winding you up, and I'm interested to know the frequency of these events.
Neil: you'd better hope that God is not a door, or you will be in trouble. ;) (Note that this won't make sense to anyone else!)
Okay, onto the theology...
Rodeoclown: Thanks for sharing your view! I always welcome your comments on Christian theology.
"I think that saying Jesus taught one and only one thing is a bit disingenious."
A slight confusion of terms here - Jesus *taught* many things, but he only gave one new *command*. This was my point.
The command to love God was from the ten commandments, not from Jesus. These were the prior covenant between Moses and God, not part of Jesus' ministry, per se. But of course, Jesus was a practicing Jew and so the ten commandments were a part of his teachings - but he did not issue these commandments. Moses did.
I apologise if my wording made it seem that all of the rest of Jesus' teachings could be ignored, as this wasn't my intent. My purpose was to show that in giving an instruction to spread 'what *Jesus* commanded' , only 'Love they neighbour' qualifies. (I'm aware that this has a basis in earlier scripture, but Jesus promoted its importance rather significantly!)
Of course, one can argue that the ten commandments also qualify - I consider this to be the largest grey area in Christianity. Does the new covenant replace or supplement the old covenant? We as individuals must make this determination.
I hope this clarifies my position!
Tim: when I talk about "free range" Christians, I mean a person who identifies as a Christian but does not belong to a specific denomination. I love this modern movement - it attempts to divest itself of thousands of years of bureacratic baggage and get back to the heart of Jesus' ministry, which is surely healthy for Christianity.
I am increasingly of the opinion that no-one should teach people against their will. For evangelists, this means waiting until people ask before talking about one's religion. I believe this is the most polite approach. At the very least, "may I talk to you about Christianity/religion?" would be a polite opening gambit.
And as you say, it is surely better to take ones troubles to God through prayer than to annoy one's neighbours here on Earth! :)
Thanks for the discussion! I appreciate the opportunity to talk this through.
Posted by: Chris | January 18, 2007 at 08:27 AM
Good, I guessed right about the way you've been using 'free range' in other posts. (I'm sure you've defined it before as well, but maybe a while ago.)
Posted by: Tim Knauf | January 18, 2007 at 08:41 AM
I know one theologian who says Christianity is not a set of beliefs but a poesis - a practice. He bases this on the institution of the Eucharist. Before the crucifixion, Christ's last command to the disciples is to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of him. He does not mention any metaphysics or any beliefs.
Then there's Don Cupitt, a Christian atheist theologian...
I'm hoping to muddy the water here, and blur outlines till you can't tell what's what. Probably failed completely. Still, worth the attempt sometimes.
Posted by: Theo | January 18, 2007 at 03:59 PM
"Therefore, the best way to achieve the goals of evangelism is to live a life of love and service to the community, thus demonstrating God’s love and the truth of Jesus’ teachings through your own actions."
alternatively formulated as either "action speak louder than words," or for Christians, "bearing witness." It's one of the hardest things to truly accept and implement in daily life--but if you believe that leading a holy life by example is the strongest argument for conversion and prayer itself is the strongest active methodology for changing peoples minds or affecting other kinds of change in the world (as you probably should, as a Christian), then there you have it.
Not that I don't think that the best and most sensitive, cautious missionaries haven't done amazing work in the past, but it remains for Christians to lead by example as you always return to (Love God, love your neighbor as yourself!). This is frankly something that anbody can -always- call Christians on and be right about. :)
Posted by: Jack Monahan | January 18, 2007 at 04:59 PM
In reality, life is always holy / whole, and never could be otherwise. All the clamor about belief, atheism, salvation, going to hell, etc. are simply stories arising, demanding attention for a while, and ultimately seen through and smiled at.
Posted by: Matthew Cromer | January 18, 2007 at 09:25 PM
Chris: I'm not personally harangued by people with Pascal's wager anymore. When I was in school I got into these kinds of discussions a lot (about twice a month), but nowadays I only get to talk metaphysics on the Internet :)
Posted by: Darius K. | January 18, 2007 at 10:30 PM
Theo: it's good to blur the edges sometimes... but I feel the problem with modern Christianity is not a lack of ambiguity at the edges but a surfeit of certainty at the centre. ;)
Jack: this is a nice summary of the general Christian position. This is the point I was trying to make in the original piece - that if a Christian is harassing people, this isn't a loving thing to do, and is therefore against a central tenet of their beliefs.
Matthew: "are simply stories arising, demanding attention for a while, and ultimately seen through and smiled at." I believe I understand the point you were trying to make, but this wording comes off slightly condescending, as least to my eyes. It seems to presume one worldview may be judged superior to another in some way...
Darius: OK, cool. We all suffer through all manner of horrors in school (don't get me started!) but it's good to know you're not hounded by belligerent evangelicals in "real life". ;)
Take care everyone!
Posted by: Chris | January 19, 2007 at 08:45 AM
I heard a vicar on the radio the other day, saying that Christianity is like a swimming pool - most of the noise comes from the shallow end.
Posted by: Theo | January 19, 2007 at 09:13 AM
Look at people like Falwell and Robertson, then look at people like Dawkins and Dennett. Look at the inner Falwell and inner Dawkins in you, in me, in everyone. It's nothing "personal", it's the nature of the game. . . Who gets offended at seeing ego in "others"? Ego.
Posted by: Matthew | January 19, 2007 at 06:13 PM
Chris, perhaps this formulation will raise fewer hackles?:
"A million worldviews all insisting on hegemony, a million thoughts clamoring for attention, proclaiming themselves as truth. And eventually it is seen clear that no formulation, no idea, no worldview can ever hope to encompass Reality."
Posted by: Matthew | January 19, 2007 at 06:43 PM
Matthew: A considerably friendlier phrasing! Thank you; much appreciated. You put it into quotes; are these your words, or someone elses?
As for ego, is it my ego that becomes angry at Dawkins? It doesn't feel like it. When I snipe at other games industry figures (usually in fun), I can feel a little ego behind it, but with Dawkins the feeling is closer to frustration. I feel he should be smarter than this.
Posted by: Chris | January 20, 2007 at 10:24 AM
About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist  on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].
Peace Be With You
Posted by: Micky | May 09, 2007 at 12:00 PM
Micky: thank you for sharing your experience with us. I'm not sure it really follows from the material in this post, but I am more than happy for people to be expressing themselves when they need to! Best wishes!
Posted by: Chris | May 09, 2007 at 12:15 PM
Jesus was a fraud just like Pascal's wager. You risk losing everything no matter what path you choose if you believe in God. Screw your Christian beliefs. It's nothing more than a disguised Nazi propaganda where the final holocaust begins with GOD and all are destroyed or given life based on the grounds of something as dubious as belief. How does this make God any different than Hitler? Both want a pure race with the same ideal and physical characteristics and both plan on achieving this goal through violence, death, control, manipulation and destruction masquerading as "love". Both use their followers to accomplish their tasks and both promise a better life for the privileged chosen.
You Christians disgust me.
Posted by: MONKEYMEN | April 06, 2008 at 05:48 PM
Monkeymen: Hitler's totalitarian nightmare was born of a growing anti-Jewish bigotry, not dissimilar to the anti-Christian bigotry you air in public in this comment. I'm sorry that your impression of Christianity is formed around such negative stereotypes, and not surprised that you feel disgust at the grotesque interpretation of Christianity you have formed in your own mind.
If you want to work through these hostile feelings, we have good discussions on this site with people from almost every conceivable part of the belief spectrum, from atheist to Zen Buddhist. Otherwise, I suggest airing your dirty laundry elsewhere.
Posted by: Chris | April 08, 2008 at 01:54 AM
Oh really? Then what do you call final judgment? Either you believe or you are punished for eternity. How is that any different than say being punished for eternity merely because of your skin color? Believing or not believing has as much bearing on one's own moral compass as does the color of a person's skin--none. Using it as the basis for judging eternal damnation just demonstrates the stupidity of the Christian deity and the ignorance that entails so much of the Christian faith.
Posted by: MONKEYMEN | April 08, 2008 at 05:03 AM
Monkeymen: beliefs on the "final judgement" vary quite considerably among Christians, and more so today than any other time in history. The last few hundred years have seen a marked decline in the doctrine of Hell, although of course there remain people who still hold a highly elitist beliefs in this regard. I would still say that nationalism is a bigger source of elitism and racism than modern Christianity, although this is of course a subjective judgement.
As this post demonstrates, I don't believe in anything close to "believe or suffer for eternity"; this theme was brought into Christianity from Plato by Constantine, and although it can be made to fit with the books chosen for inclusion in the Bible, it doesn't fit with Jesus' teachings very well in my estimation.
If you insist on judging Christianity by its shallowest adherents, you will certainly take away a negative impression - this is, incidentally, similar to the process which often leads to racist views on skin colour: individuals judge a diverse category of people (those with a particular skin colouration) by a few negative examples they have experienced and draw a conclusion they (unfairly) apply to the entire group.
I'll be writing about different beliefs on immortality, including scientific materialist beliefs about technological immortality, Christian beliefs about heaven and Dharmic beliefs about reincarnation, in a few weeks time - if you are genuinely interested in discussion, why not drop by in a month or so and explore the topic with others?
If, on the other hand, you're just trolling you've come to the wrong place. :)
Posted by: Chris | April 08, 2008 at 01:13 PM
The bible clearly states that no sinners can go to heaven. Therefore one must be saved. However, people can commit the "unforgivable" sin by denying the holy spirit. Gee...that sure sounds like believe or goto hell to me. How long do you plan on ignoring the blatant contradictions between your religion and YOUR beliefs?
Posted by: MONKEYMEN | April 09, 2008 at 01:57 AM
I guessed as much. You'd rather hide behind fantasies and foolish hopes than to face the truth of your own beliefs.
Posted by: MONKEYMEN | April 12, 2008 at 09:54 PM
Ha, that's hilarious! I didn't respond to your previous comment as I've been told it's always a mistake to feed trolls, but this comment is just too funny. Has anyone else been reading these comments? Priceless.
You'd be considerably more credible, Mr. Troll, if you'd actually bothered to read any of the material at this site. :)
The piece on immortality goes up tomorrow. If you are interested in discussion, the offer is still there. But if you just want to provoke an argument with someone with conventional Christian beliefs, you truly have misread the situation in the most spectacular fashion!
Posted by: Chris | April 14, 2008 at 02:45 PM
Just to add one more or less collateral point - more of a word game, really - in support of the Post Evangelical's Gambit: Both in the words of Jesus you quote, where He commissions Christians to "teach" His truth, and in the more common parlance where Christians are called upon to "testify" to His truth, there is no imperative, explicit or implicit, to coerce, or force, belief onto those who, for whatever reason, have not taken up the gift of Grace given them by God. To teach, for example, necessarily implies a student who desires to be taught, unless one is referring to the slang usage in which an aggressor is going to "teach" his victim a "lesson."
Further, to testify is to volunteer to offer evidence - datum from which the fact-finder may, or may not, derive facts, and from thence conclusions - it is most certainly not the act of commanding or compelling obedience.
Thus, if an evangelical takes the Great Commission as an injunction to forcibly "spread the word," even if doing so requires that one ignore or override the desires of the target of such spreading, then not only is that evangelical more likely to dissuade from, rather than conduce to, faith, that evangelical is, in fact, committing sin directly. It strikes me that, whatever the interpretation of the putative Great Commission, Jesus was not of the sort to accede that the ends justify the means, and therefore that Jesus would not have instructed us to commit sin in the course of carrying out that commission.
Posted by: Whitney | February 08, 2009 at 05:59 AM
Whitney: I wholeheartedly agree with what you say here! This is an understanding of Jesus' ministry that remains completely true to the spirit in which it was given.
Posted by: Chris | February 10, 2009 at 07:12 AM