Betting against Pascal?

by Michael Potemra

Blaise Pascal is one of my favorite writers of all time — the Pensées are generally brilliant and the Provincial Letters are a masterpiece of scathing invective. But when he comes up in conversation I am usually placed in the uncomfortable position of being asked to defend one of his least impressive thoughts, which happens, regrettably, to be the only one every person on Earth has heard of: the famous “Pascal’s Wager.” (Crudely put: Human beings are gamblers, and should bet that God exists because the potential gain is so great and the potential loss negligible.)

In his new book, The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics, Steven E. Landsburg has done an excellent job of phrasing what’s wrong with it. “Pascal’s Wager,” he writes, “presents God as a sort of Nigerian e-mail scammer. Even when his promises seem too good to be true, they’re also too good to walk away from.” He continues with a counterwager proposed by economist Alex Tabarrok. Landsburg writes: “There’s an (admittedly small) chance that God exists and really really wants you to give Alex Tabarrok all your money. In fact, there’s some chance that your admission to heaven depends on this. Since there’s so much at stake, the wise gamble is to send him all your money.” Landsburg wryly concludes: “I’ll take 10 percent as a finder’s fee.”

To say that Landsburg is unsympathetic to religion would be an understatement (“to me, all religions are such patent hokum that it’s clear nobody could possibly believe this stuff”). But I think he expresses well why even many religious believers are uninspired by, and unimpressed with, the Wager.

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