~ An extract from a view on the concept of God.

What is your favorite philosophical idea?

Pascal’s Wager.

When people have been arguing about the same thing for over 800 years, you know that God’s a pretty big idea in philosophy.

Candidates from both sides of the theistic divide have presented a myriad of whimsical, fantastical arguments with numerous creative (yet sound) logical structures, and it never ceases to amaze me how people come up with all this stuff in their minds. In fact, the notion “God exists” could probably be considered as one of the biggest and hottest debating topics of all time, so much so that it has its own word for it (a theodicy, which refers to an argument for the existence of God).

Many philosophers argue for why they think God does or does not exist. They provide reasons that directly attempt to explain or refute his existence. If you’ve studied the philosophy of religion before, you’ve probably come across some of these:

St Anselm’s ontological argument, which argues that God must exist because he is the greatest thing there is, and what exists in reality is greater than what we can imagine, therefore God cannot exist solely in our imaginations.

St Anselm imaging God existing in reality.

Thomas Aquinas’s Cosmological arguments (these arguments aim to prove the existence of God by refuting the notion of an infinite regress; for example, Aquinas notes that every event must have been caused by something, your reading this post was probably caused by your curiosity, for example. Going down all the way however, there must have been an original causer that kickstarted the whole sequence of events – the first event couldn’t have caused itself – and that causer is God.)

Aquinas wondering who caused him (It was probably his mother).

The Grand Watchmaker Argument, supposedly started by William Paley which likens god to an intelligent designer (i.e. a watchmaker). This argument states that because the universe is so beautiful and complex and just seems so work together in so many wonderful ways, there had to have been someone who was working behind the scenes (a designer!) Something this complex couldn’t have come about by chance, and the designer was God.

God was fond of using Math to design the world.

Enter Blaise Pascal. Genius, mathematician, philosopher, writer, comtemporary to Newton, inventor of the unit for Pressure, and precursor to bad Physics jokes involving Newton and Pascal playing hide-and-seek in a circle.

Pascal’s argument stands out from the lot because Pascal doesn’t directly set out to try and prove God’s existence. Oh no, Pascal employs a far less discreet (but also arguably cleverer) method. Instead of stating directly why God should or should not exist, Pascal instead argues why we should or should not believe in God. According to Pascal, there were 4 possible scenarios regarding God in this world:

  1. God exists, and we don’t believe in him.
  2. God exists, and we believe in him.
  3. God doesn’t exist, and we don’t believe in him.
  4. God doesn’t exist, and we believe in him.

This, in essence, is Pascal’s Wager. Pascal believes that when we choose to make a decision about our belief in God, we are making a wager, and consequences exist for each of our choices.

If God doesn’t exist, and we believe in him, then well when we die we just won’t get to go to the afterlife. There’s no heaven, but presumably there’s no hell either. There’ll just be nothing. It’s a neutral outcome.

If God doesn’t exist, and we don’t believe in him, then we don’t lose anything, but we don’t gain anything either. A neutral outcome too.

If God does exist, and we believe in him, then good for us! We are rewarded for our loyalty when we die and we get to ascend to heaven!

If God does exist, and we don’t believe in him, then well we’re screwed pretty badly. Off to the flames we go.

So, concludes Pascal, what is our best option? Clearly we’re better off believing in God. We get to avoid going to hell should he end up really existing, and, even if God doesn’t exist, we don’t lose anything either.

The beauty of this argument lies in that it advocates a belief for the existence of god (thereby indirectly or passively advocating the existence of God) without advocating the existence of God. Philosophy at its best.

Sources:

Ontological argument – Wikipedia

Thomas Aquinas – Wikipedia

Pascal’s Wager – Wikipedia

Edit: Some helpful people have pointed out a number of counterarguments to Pascal’s Wager, citing reasons such as us believing in God for the reason in God would not constitute a true belief in God, and an omniscient God would see through it, that Pascal’s Wager doesn’t point toward the existence of the Christian God, and that Pascal himself makes a number of assumptions about the nature of God (for example, that God will necessarily smite non-believers, which… well shouldn’t be the case considering he is supposed to be kind and just and benevolent). Some people have also commented how there are actually a lot more options than the four listed above (Pascal doesn’t take into account, for example, what happens if we worship the wrong god, or what if the god happens to be insane and wants to smite his believers instead).

Each of these are legitimate criticisms. Pascal’s Wager is not a perfect philosophical argument (none are), and I’m not saying it is. I just feel that Pascal’s argument for God was unique because it circumvented the traditional rules that usually defined such arguments. Instead of arguing from a more traditional argumentative structure (God’s existence is used to account for the purpose of the universe, or the necessity of a first cause), Pascal takes a utilitarian approach – instead of advocating support for theists by trying to prove the existence of God, Pascal sets out to show why it may be better to believe in God.

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