Marilyn Misunderstands Pascal's Wager

Marilyn is Wrong Copyright © 1996-1998 Herb Weiner. All rights reserved.

Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine, published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" for "Highest IQ."

Pascal's Wager, proposed by Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623 - August 19, 1662) states that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in Him; but if He does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in Him.

In her Parade Magazine column of September 22, 1996, Marilyn challenges Pascal's assumption that if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in Him, and reasons that "Pascal's argument implies that the best bet is to join whatever religion makes the most promises." Marilyn also challenges Pascal's assumption that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in Him, and asserts that, if he was wrong, Pascal "lost the remainder of a truly luminous life, and all Earthly lives are short."

Sorry, Marilyn

First, you suggest that Pascal's argument implies that the best bet is to join whatever religion makes the most promises. I fail to see how Pascal's Wager suggests this implication. Greed in a gambler can be his downfall.

Second, you suggest that Pascal's own experience is an example of what one can lose. To suggest that Pascal lost the remainder of a truly luminous life is judgemental at best. This is like saying that a person who gives up a successful career to spend more time with family has lost something. Only the person who has done such a thing can answer the question of whether the change was a gain or loss. Perhaps in Pascal's mind, his contributions to religion were greater than his contributions to science.

But even if we accept the fact that Pascal did lose the remainder of a truly luminous life, it's unfair to blame this on a belief in God. Many successful people believe in God without giving up their careers for Him. And one can believe in God without practicing a particular religion.

Herb's Response

My own response would be that an atheist can not simply decide to believe in God because one can lose nothing by doing so. Beliefs are not so easily changed. Perhaps it is easier to convince others that one has changed his believes than to convince oneself.

Another Response

Cynthia Ehrlich <> wrote to suggest another possible response of an atheist to Pascal's Wager.

Simply believing in God in order to gain eternal life is not sufficient. In order to achieve eternal happiness rather than eternal damnation, one must not only believe in God, but must also obey "God's Laws." That is, one must not steal, lie, cheat, fornicate, covet, envy, etc. An atheist who enjoys doing these things might respond to Pascal's Wager by claiming that he would in fact lose something, specifically his enjoyment of the hedonistic lifestyle, by believing in God.

Note that the above is used simply as an example, and is not intended to imply that atheists are any more likely to enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle than any other religious group.

And other

Travis Wilson <> offers some theories on Pascal's thoughts behind his wager:

Pascal's argument reduces religion to a gamble with an investment and a possible payoff; it was specifically designed this way in order to appeal to a wide audience of various beliefs. I therefore contend that it isn't specifically belief in God that Pascal advocates, but the practice of belief. As you point out, belief itself is not so easily won or lost. His rationale is much more oriented towards convincing people to be good and to pray and so forth, with the potential of a future, eternal, reward.

Here is Travis' message in its entirety.

And more

GE Wagner <> writes to say that:

I submit that any individual who denies what he/she truly believes, will suffer one of the greatest personal losses possible.

Free Will vs. Predestination

Greg A. Pavlik <> wrote to point out that Free Will and Predestination are not mutually exclusive.

I have a dog that I know is of the breed "chow hound." I take a piece of steak in my left hand and a piece of kibble in my right hand. I hold them both in front of her until I know she knows what each one is, then I let her eat. I know that she will eat the steak first. From my knowledge of her genetic tendency to be a carnivore, and her particular affinity for meat, I can predict her behavior. By presenting her with this choice, I have conspired to alter her destiny, for I know what she will do. Does the fact that I know what she will do imply that she did not make a choice?

My dog used her brain to determine which tidbit she would enjoy more, and she took it. The fact that I presented her with a choice knowing in advance her decision is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not she made the choice. She chooses the meat, and I know that she will choose it.

Now suppose that an omniscient being exists - we'll call the being God. Since God is omniscient, God knows all choices (of dog and human), for all eternity. God's knowing of outcomes is analogous to my holding morsels in front of my dog. We make choices that are known to God in advance, but are none the less our choices.

Since God knows all choices past, present, and future, the universe is predestined. Since we make the choices, we have free will. Free will and predestination are not mutually exclusive philosophies of religion.

Thomas Sanderson <> wrote to point out one problem with the above argument:

Greg did not create his dog. If he had, he would be responsible for its carnivorous nature and therefore not only would the dog be predestined to choose the meat, but the dog would have had no choice in doing so from the creator's perspective. From its perspective, the dog may be under the mistaken impression that it had free will, but the dog would be wrong. The dog which requires a creator has no more free will than a robot even though the complexity of the dog may elude us in our present state of understanding. A robot which we can build and understand has no more free will than a human which a Creator has built and understands. I am not saying that free will is absent in reality, but rather only when one imagines an omniscient omnipotent creator exists.


Christian Walters <> suggests that we all need to decide whether God would be more pleased with someone who had honest doubts, or with someone who went through the motions of belief because it was prudent to do so. last updated June 30, 1998 by