Pascal’s Wager: A Metaphorical Interpretation

Pascal’s Wager: A Metaphorical Interpretation[1]

In this paper, I will argue that Pascal’s wager provides pragmatic justification for belief in God; however, the wager’s ontological depravity and lack of belief-producing force suggests that the wager is best interpreted as a metaphorical argument. First, I will explain how Pascal’s wager (in a non-question begging way) provides pragmatic justification for belief in God using the ‘expected utility principle (EUP).’[2] Secondly, I shall answer the objection that Pascal’s wager is ontologically deprived of God’s existence by suggesting that the wager doesn’t extend to ontological considerations. In conclusion, I shall respond to an objection concerning God’s preference of human beliefs and conclude that the lack of belief-producing force of the wager, alongside its ontological depravity, suggests a metaphorical interpretation of the wager.

Traditionally, Pascal’s wager has been interpreted to provide pragmatic justification for belief in God; that is, to provide a reason to believe in God based upon pragmatic considerations. Pascal, therefore, argues that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing” (233). In probability theory notation, I am arguing, where E(u) is the expected utility of belief in God, P1 the probability that God exists (contrarily, P2, the probability that God does not exist) and that u1 the expected utility of belief in God (infinite gain) and u2 the expected utility of unbelief[3] (finite gain), that E(u)=P1*u1+P2*u2.[4] According to this formulation, belief in God has an expected utility of ‘infinite gain’ and unbelief ‘finite gain’; therefore, insofar as EUP is taken as axiomatic, it follows that it is more pragmatically justified to believe in God. However, the EUP may seem question begging as it relies on comparing potential infinite gain and actual finite gain. But, it should be remembered that since the probability of each choice’s obtaining is .5,[5] the merit of the choice, on the EUP, is based solely on the highest expected utility and thus the comparison of choices are not question begging. Since belief in God has the highest expected utility, it is more pragmatically justified than unbelief.

In response to the argument, it has been objected that Pascal’s wager, since it rests on pragmatic considerations, is structured on an ontological depravity, namely, God’s ontological status. The objection further suggests that this depravity makes the decision to believe, phenomenologically, exceedingly difficult; and, in fact, makes Pascal’s wager lose its ability to be belief-producing. I find these objections important but not successful defeaters of Pascal’s wager.

Pascal’s wager extends only to pragmatically justify belief in God and not ontologically establish God’s existence; thus, the wager works insofar as it does not extend beyond the bounds of pragmatic justification. For the sake of argument, I shall suppose that these ontological considerations weaken Pascal’s wager. In response, I suggest that Pascal’s wager should be interpreted as metaphorical, seeking to establish the question of God’s existence as a significant one. I give two reasons for suggesting this interpretation. First, Pascal speaks of the ‘embarked’ (233) nature of experience which demands a choice: that of belief in God or unbelief (assuming, controversially, withholding belief is not an alternative). Though it may be objected that God may care more about the authenticity of human beliefs rather than their holding true beliefs, if Pascal’s wager is established, it is probably the case that the only real authentic belief is, ultimately, belief in God. Secondly, the ontological depravity limits the wager as not being intuitively belief-producing. More explicitly, as far as the wager goes, ‘infinite gain’ remains a logically possible state of affairs and thus presents itself, phenomenologically, as a gap in our grasp of what can be obtained (and thus loses its force as belief-producing). In conclusion, Pascal’s wager is, under ontological and belief-producing considerations, best interpreted as a metaphorical argument establishing the question of God’s existence as a significant one.

In this paper I hope I have shown that Pascal’s wager, applied with the EUP, pragmatically justifies belief in God and can avoid ontological and belief-state considerations through a metaphorical interpretation.

[1] ‘Pascal’s Wager: A Metaphorical Interpretation’ is my first university philosophy essay; and, I have, upon handing it in for grading, received helpful and important feedback (especially from Yousuf Hasan). I have chosen to not edit this paper and incorporate such considerations for two reasons. First, this paper is a rough sketch in what seems to me a convolution of analytic (i.e., capturing what is meant or denoted by ‘justification’ in the wager) and continental philosophy (i.e., Pascal’s ’embarked’ resembles (but is not identical nor metaphysically related to) some sort of Heideggerian ‘thrustness.’ (The definition of these terms are irrelevant here). Thus, I am interested in what sort of theses I can derive from this paper as perhaps a future project. Secondly, this paper will appear in the University of Western’s Annual Arts and Humanities Undergraduate Academic Journal ‘Semi-Colon’ (2015). This paper, too, is limited in both its scope and word limit. Minimally, I hope that my paper has merit albeit its limitations; this is a brief exposition of my interpretation of Pascal’s wager. As a final note, the title has caused much dispute and thus I should mention one consideration briefly. The term ‘metaphorical’ is not, in my view, a vague term; however, an important question arises in the paper very forcefully: ‘Where is the metaphor?’ To this, I must say I do not know. But, I am sure that if the word ‘metaphorical’ is omitted, the problem evaporates and my argument still holds (regardless of their being no metaphor my task is to provide hermeneutical insight into Pascal’s wager). Lastly, I have only changed one embarrassing spelling error and that is ‘Yousef’ to ‘Yousuf’.

[2] I am indebted to Yousuf Hasan for the probability notation and equation. The EUP applied to Pascal’s wager (that I am both using and defending (albeit their formulation)) is found in William Lane Craig and J.P Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press), 2003, p.159.

[3] By unbelief I am referring to ‘belief in no God.’

[5] “…there is an equal risk of gain and of loss” (233).


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