Betting with Blaise

August 20, 2004 | 19 comments
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Clark mentioned Pascal’s wager in a comment, and that reminded me of a thought I’ve had for some time: Pascal’s wager seems like a bad deal for Mormons.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with Pascal’s wager, the basic idea is that God can either exist or not. If he does exist, then believers go to heaven. If he doesn’t, then it really doesn’t matter whether one believes. The smart money says to believe in God and take the x% chance of infinite happiness.

How does this apply to Mormonism? Well, we have the added wrinkle of some pretty good second-best destinations. Thus, if one’s options are to either be a believing Mormon or a believing Catholic, and the two possibilities are that either Mormonism or Catholicism is true, the resulting chart of possibilities would look like this:

—-Mormonism CorrectCatholicism Correct
Believing MormonCelestial KingdomHell
Believing CatholicTerrestrial KingdomHeaven


The relatively positive second-best solution of ending up in a Kingdom of glory means that Pascal’s wager will tend to work against Mormonism. In fact, it will work against any religion with a good second-best solution. It makes Unitarian Universalism look terrible. Why be a UU, when you can get all of the eternal benefits of UUism– plus potential benefits of another church — by believing in another church?

Of course, problems arise in choosing between options that do not give a second-best alternative. How does one choose between Catholicism and Islam, or Evangelicism and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Yikes.

In addition, we can see the moral problem here. To perform best on the Pascal’s wager matrix, it behooves a religion to up the stakes as much as possible. But how to up the stakes more than they already are (infinite punishment, infinite happiness)? It can be done.

Consider this — I’ll start a new church and call it Kaimi-ism. You can be a Kaimi-ist, and you and your entire family will have infinite happiness. Or you can reject Kaimi-ism for some other church, and everyone in your family will go straight to hell. (Um, we’ll set aside for now the question of what happens if one family member is a Kaimi-ist and the others aren’t). How’s that for a religion built to thrive on Pascal’s wager?

Or one can consider whether an infinitely loving God is the type to “up the stakes” and inflict infinite punishment on so many people. Personally, I like the idea of a God who has prepared pretty good second-best places for sincere believers in other faiths. Anything else seems foreign. So maybe I’m betting against the odds here, but I’m doing so because it’s the bet that makes sense. I realize that the bookmakers disagree, but I’ve seen the horses, and I think that my particular bet is the best.

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19 Responses to Betting with Blaise

  1. Kaimi on August 20, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    Umm, does anyone (Clark?) know how to get rid of all the space in the middle, prior to the table? It’s not in the post, but it is showing up that way for some reason.

  2. Arvon Jones on August 20, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    “Pascal’s wager” has never appealed to me. If the logic of the wager appeals to you, does that qualify you as a believer? If you choose to believe in a “god”, which one of many do you choose to believe in? I believe!

  3. Charles on August 20, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    I think the problem with Pascal’s Wager is that you are applying logic to something that does not have to adhere to logic in this sense. I guess what I mean is it doesn’t matter what God you believe in, Only one of them is going to be correct right?

    If you believe in Mormonism then you also believe that good people of other faiths will share one of your benefits. Although, they may not attain the highest degree of glory. But at least they get one. IF you are wrong and the catholics are right, I’m not sure exactly what you get.

    Pascal’s Wager may work to decipher what you would get should any of the selections be right, but you cannot make the leap and say that if Catholocism is the best all around choice, we can agree that it is then correct. You may then believe that Catholocism is the best choice for the most people, but that won’t necessarily say that it is correct. God’s doctrine is his own. He is no respector of persons, Pascal included.

  4. DaveB on August 20, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    This calls for a little rational choice theory, specifically the branch that deals with “choice under uncertainty.” Your choice, Kaimi, is justified under the “maximax” strategy, which goes for the alternative among whose possible outcomes is the best possible outcome. (This assumes that the Celestial Kingdom is better than Catholic Heaven). Going Catholic could be justified under the “maximin” strategy — choosing the alternative whose worst outcome is less bad than any other alternative’s worst outcome.

    Either strategy is “rational”, and you might have various reasons for preferring one strategy or the other depending on the situation. In this case, given how much worse Hell is than any of the other outcomes, maximin sounds better to me.

    But you bring up the real problem with Blaise’s Bet when you talk about choosing between lots of different faiths. The original wager was between belief and unbelief, and maybe in those terms it makes some sort of rational sense to believe. But today, when any of us can choose from thousands of belief systems and their variations, any claim that one of them is rationally preferable must answer not just the “What about me?” of atheism, but of each of the other religious beliefs as well. It’s enough to give a rationalist believer a headache — and probably drive him/her to fideism, a la Avron.

  5. anon on August 20, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    Have you read Nate’s paper on the subject Kaimi?

  6. Kevin Barney on August 20, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    A number of evangelical critics of the Church have used Pascal’s Wager in their arguments. From their point of view, the Terrestrial Kingdom is virtually their conception of Heaven anyway, so why on earth take the risk and join the Mormons?

    One answer, I think, lies in the upside possibilities of eternal progression and godhood entailed in the CK. But an evangelical doesn’t believe in or value those things, so for her it’s a no-brainer to reject Mormonism.

    As a Mormon, I don’t believe in Hell, so I am willing to take that risk. If I’m wrong, so be it.

    (I’m assuming everyone has seen the hilarious South Park clip where the day’s new contingent of recently dead is gathered together in Hell. Various people complain, saying in effect, “Hey, I’m a Jehovah’s Witness [or Catholic or whatever], I’m not supposed to be here!” And the Hell Director tells them they all picked the wrong religion. They then ask which religion was right. The Director checks his clipboard and says, “Hmmm…let’s see…the Moooormons. The Mormons was the correct answer.” Or something like that. I saw it when it first played (many LDS with more elevated TV viewing habits have since seen it in clip form).)

  7. Kevin Barney on August 20, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Here’s the actual quote, from South Park episode 58:

    [Hell, waiting area. Many souls are there, wondering where they are, and why.]
    Speaker: Hello, newcomers, and welcome. Can everybody hear me? [taps the mic a few times] Hello? Can everybuh-? Okay. [the crowd quiets down] Uh, I’m the hell director. Uh, it looks like we have about 8,615 of you newbies today, and for those of you who are a little confused, uh, you are dead, and this is hell, so, abandon all hope and uh yada yada yada. Uh, we are now going to start the orientation process, which will last about-
    Man 4: Hey, wait a minute, I shouldn’t be here. I wa a totally strict and devout Protestant! I thought we went to heaven!
    Hell Director: Yes, well I’m afraid you were wrong.
    Soldier: I was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. Hell director: Uh, you picked the wrong religion as well.
    Man 5: Well, who was right? Who gets into heaven?
    Hell Director: I’m afraid it was the Mormons. Yes, the Mormons were the correct answer.

  8. Geoff B on August 20, 2004 at 3:02 pm

    Of course, the principal problem with the traditional mainstream Christian view of heaven and hell is that it doesn’t make any sense. How could a loving God who created us and set us upon the Earth consign us for eternity to one place or the other based entirely on our Earthly actions or faith? What’s the breaking point? Does Hitler get assigned to heaven if he confesses that Jesus is the Christ and says he’s sorry for all those deaths right before he kills himself? Or does a buddhist monk who has never hurt a fly and spent his entire life helping the poor get assigned to hell because he doesn’t believe Jesus is the son of God? Of course not.

    The Mormon version is, with a nod to South Park, the only one that makes sense. Our lives here are simply part of our eternal progression. Yes, everything we do on Earth counts, and it certainly counts if you sincerely are converted and repent and get baptized by somebody with authority, but we need to see our time here as only part of Jacob’s ladder. Getting assigned to Paradise or the spirit prison after we die is part of the progression process. God gives us many, many chances to repent and choose Him. It’s simply the only logical and believable scenario.

    This is why I have never used Pascal’s wager to try to win over an atheist. It’s simply not believable.

  9. JosephN on August 20, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    Re: Technical difficulties

    Kaimi,

    Get rid of the
    at the end of each of the lines of your table code.

  10. JosephN on August 20, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Re: Technical difficulties

    Kaimi,

    Get rid of the “[br /]” at the end of each of the lines of your table code.

  11. Clark Goble on August 20, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Kaimi, don’t put the table within its own paragraph and then take out the line breaks within your table.

  12. JosephN on August 20, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Lol. I seem to have had technical difficulties of my own…

    As usual, I’m just browsing the blog at work, trying to multitask too much. Love the site though :)

  13. Kaimi on August 20, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    Ahh, that explains it. Thanks, guys.

  14. Clark Goble on August 20, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    BTW – regarding Pascal’s wager. It is part of a general class of arguments for belief in God that might be called pragmatic arguments. I commented on them at my blog yesterday. They all are in certain ways problematic and the Stanford entry leaves out my favorite version: Peirce’s. They also offer certain parallels to Alma 32 for those interested.

    Pascal’s is really the least effective version of these arguments in that his approach doesn’t assume any feedback between the belief and the “immediate” (or at least short term) effects of the belief.

  15. Adam Greenwood on August 20, 2004 at 5:35 pm

    I don’t think this affects the argument much, Kaimi, but modern Catholics are not very inclined to assign all non-Catholics to hell. Substitute evangelicals and the question is the same.

  16. Gilgamesh on August 20, 2004 at 6:36 pm

    It would seem the wager suits members of the church much better if it is between believing in second chance redemption after death or not. For example, I am a relatively inactive member with a taste for beer. I decide, well I can be forgiven in the next life and my temple work will be provided for me, since we do it for everybody, it must mean we can be forgiven after death, etc… so I take my chances. This would be in contrast to the possibility that we only get this earth life to repent and progress to the Celestial Kingdom.

  17. arvon jones on August 20, 2004 at 9:43 pm

    DaveB- “and probably drive him/her to fideism, a la Avron.” Please, when I leave blanks, don’t fill them in. I am not a fideist. I reject Pascal’s wager because I don’t find it rational. I believe in the gospel because reason doesn’t contradict my faith.

    Arvon

  18. JWL on August 20, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    Yes, substitute evangelical for Catholic and this is a very real question. Reverend Craig Blomberg uses this very reasoning at the end of “How Wide the Divide” to explain why he does not consider becoming a Mormon. If he remains a devout, clean-living evangelical he can count on at least the lovely terrestial kingdom of glory if the Mormons are right whereas if he becomes a Mormon he goes to hell if the evangelicals are right.

    Also, although Rev. Blomberg is from Colorado, I believe that that book predates the South Park episode, so he came up with it on his own.

  19. bjay on August 23, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    Hi, I’m bjay.
    My answer to the question “How does this apply to Mormonism?” would be like this: When Pascal says “Haven” a Mormon should think “Eternal Life”. Therefore, when Pascal says “believe in God” a Mormon should think “Do everything that it takes to receive Eternal Life” i.e. repentance, baptism… This is because Pascal is telling us to believe in God because the reward for doing so is infinite. The Mormon equivalent to that would be Eternal Progression, and that only happens in the Celestial Kingdom. Since the reward for “Do everything that it takes to receive Eternal Life” is infinite not just in the sense of lasting forever, but progressing forever, the expected value of wagering on a belief in God is also eternal.
    Also, if a Mormon accepts Pascal’s wager and devotes his or her life to obedience to God’s commandments then they would not only receive Eternal Life but also joy in this life. D&C 59:23 says: “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”
    Wikipedia.org has a good article on Pascal’s wager.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager