Russell, Pascal and betting on God

Ernest asked:

What was Bertrand Russell’s response to Pascal’s Wager?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that you did a search for “Pascal’s Wager” and “Bertrand Russell” and you were unable to find any quote from Russell responding to Pascal’s argument. Guess what, I did the same. Knowing how good search engines are these days, I would lay odds on that in his long career Russell didn’t, in fact, state any view specifically about Pascal’s Wager, although in his History of Western Philosophy he makes some pretty deprecating remarks about Pascal, going so far as to raise questions about his sanity.

(It’s best to read the original text of Pascal’s Wager rather than ‘Sweded’ versions. The original passage from Pascal’s Pensees is quoted here.)

Pascal as a philosopher doesn’t much interest me, although Russell does. ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ in Russell’s essay collection Mysticism and Logic deserves to be on the top shelf of any atheist book collection. (No need to buy the book, you can easily find Russell’s essay on the web.)

A quote from Russell that frequently surfaces is what he claimed he would say after death if he found himself confronted by an angry God, demanding, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me?’ Russell replies, ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ or words to that effect. The point of this isn’t about evidence, it’s about God’s motives. The very notion that unbelievers should be punished for their unbelief, that human beings should make a sacrifice of their (supposedly) God-given powers of reason is monstrous, an atheist would say.

On the other hand, demanding that another person (a partner, say) ‘have faith’ in us is part of universal human experience. ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ is a very poor response to give to one’s spouse when after much travail his or her book is finally published — or when he or she is acquitted of a murder charge.

Arguments over this point are never going to be resolved. So making the argument depend on what is or is not a suitable object of ‘faith’ isn’t going to be helpful.

Let’s look instead at the very idea of a bet, and betting odds. A bet is a guide to action, and two factors come into play: your calculation of the likelihood or odds of a particular event occurring or not occurring, and your level of risk aversion — or, alternatively, your positive preference for risk taking.

Let’s say that having won your 450 horse power Japanese sports car on eBay, the first thing you plan to do is drive across Europe to Germany so that you can belt down the Autobahn at 200 miles per hour. Relying on your driving skills to dodge the slower traffic you are risking permanent injury or death but the thrill is worth it, isn’t it? Might be. If there wasn’t the risk, the thrill would be less.

Assume that we knew for sure that there is a Hell and some human beings are going there. (There are a few temporary escapees, that’s how we know.) Would that be sufficient reason for toeing the line and obeying God’s commandments? Not at all. The thought that evil carries a mortal risk might enhance the pleasure for some. Besides, in real life, no-one knows for sure what the right action is. A Mephistophelean anti-God might punish human beings for being good and reward evil.

The point, however, is that as a reason for action an argument from probability like Pascal’s Wager can never be compelling for all persons at all times. If you think that the likelihood of there being a God is no more or less than the likelihood of there being an anti-God then all bets are off. Whereas if you incline, for whatever seeming ‘reasons’, to the God alternative then it is possible that one day walking down the street you will experience the urge to walk in to your local Buddhist temple — or synagogue, or church, or mosque — just to experience the atmosphere of holiness and reverence, to give that a chance of working on you.

What a frightful prospect! Indeed. Knowledge doesn’t come into it. This is about betting and risk. For a few atheists, the risk of being converted away from atheism is so horrifying that they wouldn’t go near a place of worship. Other atheists might find it a breeze, and a bit of a laugh. And yet others, again maybe only a few, might be tempted by an argument from probability to give belief a chance.

It may seem a rather weak defence of Pascal’s Wager to say that it might be valid in some, maybe only a few cases. But this isn’t the same as simply saying that it is invalid. It is a rational argument from probability with a special application, valid, if and only if the relevant circumstances apply.

One thought on “Russell, Pascal and betting on God

  1. If one believes some proposition because he thinks that it will be advantageous to him to believe it and not because he thinks that it is true, then he would be deceiving himself and that is, I think, one of the worst things a human being can do.

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