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The Contender
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Pascal's Wager Gives a Sound Argument That One Should Believe in God

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 10/3/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,064 times Debate No: 62587
Debate Rounds (4)
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The last I debated this topic, my opponent deactivated their account. I would still enjoy debating this topic, however. Don't accept if you will forfeit.

First round is for acceptance.


I accept.
Debate Round No. 1


Pascal's Wager is as follows:

"Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) offers a pragmatic reason for believing in God: even under the assumption that God"s existence is unlikely, the potential benefits of believing are so vast as to make betting on theism rational." [1]

However, this argument is flawed.

Contention One: Genuineness

The standard by which this argument assumes God is that God, if he exists, rewards those who believe in him. However, this is an ultimately unfounded assumption because nothing in the definition of God (a maximally great [entity] that would be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and all good [2]) suggests this. However, even if we accept this idea, we are then faced with the problem that basing a belief on a mercenary bet does not actually result in genuine belief. To quote:

"According to doxastic voluntarism, believing and disbelieving are choices that are up to us to make. Intellectualists deny this; they say it is impossible to adopt a belief simply because we decide to. If I offered to pay you $1000 for believing the sky is green, for instance, could you sincerely adopt this belief simply by wishing to? Evidently not. Therefore, some say, Pascal"s wager does not give legitimate grounds for believing in God.

But although we cannot adopt a belief simply by deciding to, the same is true for other actions. For instance, we cannot go to school simply by deciding to; rather, we have to wake up by a certain time (which may mean first developing a certain kind of habit), we must get dressed, we must put one foot in front of another, and so forth. Then if we are lucky we will end up at our destination, though this is far from guaranteed. So it goes for any other endeavor in life: one chooses to become a doctor, or to marry by age 30, or to live in the tropics " the attainment of such goals can be facilitated, though not purely willed, by appropriate micro-steps that are more nearly under voluntary control. Indeed, even twitching your little finger is not entirely a matter of volition, as its success depends on a functioning neural system running from your brain, through your spine, and down your arm. Your minutest action is a joint product of internal volition and external contingencies. The same applies to theistic belief: although you cannot simply decide to be a theist, you can choose to read one-sided literature, you can choose to join a highly religious community, you can try to induce mystical experiences by ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD, and you can choose to chant and pray. No mere exercise of will can guarantee that you will end up believing in God..." [3]

Contention Two: False Dichotomy

When presented with Pascal's Wager, we are given a false dichotomy: believe in God, or do not believe in God. While this first appears to be sound via disjunction introduction, the first option is in reality merely a compartmentalization of many more options, believing in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Animism, Paganism, Daoism, etc. At first this may seem to be splitting hairs, as Universalists insist that belief in any God is adequate. However, this idea breaks down when we see religions condemning each other.

"You shall have no other gods before me." - Exodus 20:3 [4]

Therefore, the simplistic idea held to previously that it is only necessary to believe in a God for infinite reward has now been shattered, as many religions supply that other believers are doomed. Even denominations condemn other denominations, sunnis condemning shias, catholics condemning protestants, hasidic jews condemning reform jews. Given the veritable thousands of options one has to choose from, the probability of infinite reward for choosing the right God has been shrunk to infinitesimally small proportions. And since every religion is unavailable to those who came before it, we have no way of knowing if the "true" God belongs to a religion that hasn't even been invented yet. We simply must accept the we have no way of knowing whether the "true" God is Yahweh, Allah, or even Cthulhu.

Contention Three: Probability

One might claim that no matter how unlikely one is to choose the correct God, all that matters is that the probability exists. To quote:

"It"s unlikely that the probability of God"s existing is exactly one-half, but this does not matter. Due to the infinite value[...], if God"s existence has any finite probability then the expectation for believing in God will be infinite." [5]

At first this appears to be a sound reasoning, but this falls under two main objections.

Subpoint A: Unknowability

When dealing with the nature of a God, assuming tenets about this nature is absurd. Pascal himself admits this.

"If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible...reason can decide nothing here." - Blaise Pascal.

When dealing with a deity that we can admittedly know nothing for certain about beyond its definition, to assume that this deity rewards believers is absurd. In fact, since the tenets of this deity are unknowable, any behavior we make is just as likely to be rewarded by that deity as it is to be punished. Therefore, an atheist is exactly is as likely to receive an infinite reward for their beliefs as an infinite punishment, as is a theist of any religion. This idea may seem strange or alien, but when dealing with a deity about which nothing can be known, any possibility is as likely as any other. Since the likelihood for any outcome is as likely to be positive infinity as it is to be negative, the expected values cancel out, leaving the payoffs for any belief, atheistic or theistic, at exactly zero.

Subpoint B: Self-Contradiction

Even if we ignore the above, we still need to understand that although the infinite reward and punishment do provide a dominant strategy for any probability of choosing the correct God, this only applies if that probability is greater than zero. However, given our definition of God (a maximally great [entity] that would be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and all good) there are some contradictions in the basic nature of this entity that reduce the probability of His existence to zero. The paradox of the stone (If God can do anything, can God create a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?), the problem of evil (If God is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, how can bad things exist?), the prediction paradox (If God is all-knowing he knows what He will do, but if He is all-powerful, He can change it to falsify his knowledge), and the list goes on. In essence, when infinite sets are combined with self-referentiality (essentially the definition of God), the result is always a paradox. And a paradox cannot exist in reality.

Over to you, Pro.







Error in Category

Pascal was a deeply skeptical man. He lived in the 17th century, which rejected the medieval age's confidence as to the possibility for reason to reach knowledge of God. We cannot understand the argument apart from this context.(1) Pascal did not believe it was possible to prove God, and so he centered his efforts on proving that belief in God remains the most rational position. His is not an argument for the existence of God, but exactly what this debate proposes: a sound, practical argument that one should believe in God.

Pascal does not, therefore, aim his argument at those who believe there are arguments which cast doubts upon the existence of God. In saying that God is unknowable he is saying his is also unfalsifiable. To Pascal, God only makes himself intelligible through the Incarnation, and even then only to those who are seeking him. As professor David Wetsel puts it: "(...) hardened skeptics fail to penetrate the (...) veil of Revelation. In Pascal's scheme of things (...) [those who seek God] have already been touched by Grace." It is to these who seek without yet having found to whom Pascal directs his Wager, and to apply the logic to others would be to misapply it. His is not a universal argument, but one tailored to a very specific audience. To say it unsound because it does not do what it did not seek to do would be irrational.

Reformulating Pascal's Wager

Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, defends Pascal's wager by re-formulating it. He sets forward three scenarios:

1. A person you love is dying and a cure is offered to you at a small cost. You do not know whether the drug actually works. ¿Would it not be reasonable to try it?
2. You are told your house is on fire with your children in it. Would it not be reasonable to run (or at least call) home even without asking for further evidence?
3. There are two lottery tickets left, one being the winning ticket. Would it not be reasonable to spend a dollar "on the good chance of winning a million"?

Pascal argues that belief in God is one such case. We have no way of rationally proving or disproving the claims that come to us through Revelation, and yet the potential gain is so high if one accedes, and the potential loss so great if one refuses, that it would be irrational not to believe in God.

Belief and the Will

Con's intellectualist objection seems to be a strong one. Indeed, it is among the few that Pascal addresses directly in his own exposition of the wager in his Pensées.(4) Pascal asks his hypothetical objector to act as if they did believe. To "fake it till they make it" if you will.

Once it is accepted that the safest bet when arguments for and against are inconclusive is belief in God, it would be irrational not to take it, then it is no longer a matter of reason that prevents belief but "human passions", as Pascal puts it. Intellectualists would say that this is besides the point, as one cannot force oneself into belief. This, however, is counter factual and, as the Latin adage would say: contra facta non valent argumenta. The fact is that many people do this very thing. Pascal had experience of it in his own day (he tells objectors to "learn of those who were bound and gagged like you, and who now stake all they possess") and we have numerous examples today, not only in the realm of religion but also of politics.

Anthropologist Carol J.C. Maxwell, in her book Pro-Life Activists in America(5), explores the "process of conviction" and sets forth the idea that beliefs many time follow actions, and active involvement with a cause may not be so much the result of conviction as its cause. This is a topic increasingly studied by behavioral psychologists, sociologists and others besides anthropologists and goes beyond the scope of this debate. Suffice to say that intellectualists have to face reality before they can formulate a coherent objection against Pascal.


Besides those we have already explored, my opponent offers two objections. One, based on what he regards as a false dichotomy, and the other on probability.

False dichotomy: "The first option [belief in God] is in reality merely a compartmentalization of many more options, believing in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism(...)."

Pascal is not making an argument for those who are between Budhism and Shinto or between Animism and Islam. Pascal is speaking specifically to those who are trying to make sense of Christian Revelation and yet have reservations as to the existence of God because they regard it as unproven. Comparative religion is interesting in its own right, and would make for a fine debate, but it is not the debate that Pascal was engaging in. Whether or not it applies to every person in every situation may affect the validity and soundness of a general proof of the existence of God, it is hardly relevant to what is a pragmatic argument in favor of a specific group of people accepting belief in God. Con's contention certainly proves it is not universal, it does very little to prove that it is unsound.

Probability A, Unknowability: "When dealing with a deity that we can admittedly know nothing for certain about beyond its definition, to assume that this deity rewards believers is absurd."

We have already seen that Pascal regarded God as unknowable to unaided reason, but knowable through Revelation to those who seek Him. This is not an abstract argument, but one which has Christian Revelation as a starting point. First come arguments in favor or against the validity of Revelation, where Pascal would reject such religions as were known at the time (fundamentally Islam and Judaism). Once Christian revelation has proved unfalsified if unsupported he goes on to the wager. Remember, as we have said before, we are not addressing a universal argument, such as Aquinas' five ways. I may prefer the latter being a Thomist, but I would be cautious before saying that this makes it unsound. A practical argument directed to particular people need not address the concerns of those it is not directed towards in order to be considered sound.

Probability B, Self-Contradiction: Given our definition of God (...) there are some contradictions in the basic nature of this entity that reduce the probability of His existence to zero

Most of Con's contradictions are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of God, and base themselves on the idea of one quality limiting and therefore negating another. Things such as the paradox of the stone which have God creating something which limit himself may be fun as playful musings, but they make for bad philosophy. Not everything that we can say in a sentence is logically possible. It is not weakness for God not to be able to draw a square circle or create a married bachelor or make a kilt out of happiness. It is simply a foolish thing to ask. It is not a strength for God to be illogical, and it is not a contradiction for Him not to oblige. The problem of evil, of course, has had debates of its own on this site. It is probably the only cogent argument against God's existence that has ever been formulated. It would, however, be enough to refute it to posit that there is a "sufficient moral reason", as William Lane Craig puts it, for God to allow evil. As long as it is even possible that such a reason exist, there is no longer an essential contradiction.

In any case, Pascal's argument is directed specifically at those who have already sifted through arguments like these and found them wanting. It is further directed at those who have already sifted through the arguments for God's existence and found them wanting. The argument starts from the premise of the unfalsifiability of God and is directed solely at those who accept this premise. In the case that the premise is true, Pascal's wager is sound.

Back to you, Con.


Debate Round No. 2


Surrealism forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


Surrealism forfeited this round.


Oh bother.
Debate Round No. 4
7 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 7 records.
Posted by TrasguTravieso 2 years ago
Thanks! It was a bit disappointing, I don't fault him, though. As you say, often real life has to take precedence to internet arguments.
Posted by james14 2 years ago
Surrealism says "don't forfeit," then forfeits himself. Oh well. Sometimes real life intervenes. Kudos to his opponent.
Posted by crazedAtheist 3 years ago
this is a shame, i was interested in seeing the wager debated on a higher level.
Posted by mightbenihilism 3 years ago
I think contention two is the hardest to refute.

Although, with all due respect, we know Cthulhu is not God because he is a lesser being than Azathoth, according to CthulhuWiki.
Posted by TrasguTravieso 3 years ago
You underestimate the DDO community Wilted. If you can find people to argue in favor of hitting women, finding someone to debate Pascal's wager is a mere matter of patience.
Posted by Wylted 3 years ago
You won't get an opponent, because nobody is actually pro on Pascal's wager.
Posted by Citizen_ofthe_Cosmos 3 years ago
Great topic. Hope you get a competent opponent.
3 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Vote Placed by Atheist-Independent 3 years ago
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Total points awarded:04 
Reasons for voting decision: Superior arguments from Pro plus forfeits by Con results in a default victory for Pro.
Vote Placed by badbob 3 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Surrealism loses conduct because he forfeited. Pro had wonderful counter and it looks like con got scared and ran. To bad. It was shaping up to be an interesting debate. pro wins
Vote Placed by 9spaceking 3 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: ff