Pascal's Wager is one of the more respectable arguments in favor of religion. As an atheist, I am nonetheless sympathetic to this argument, because it attempts to use reason to actually persuade people to believe in God, rather than circularly using the Bible as a reason to believe in the truth of the Bible. Of course, as an atheist, I also believe that Pascal's Wager is a mistaken argument. But here I will give it the consideration it deserves.
Pascal's Wager is named after Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century mathematician and philosopher, also known for his invention of one of the first mechanical calculators. This is the essence of the argument. If one believes in God and ends up being wrong, one has nothing to lose; one's ultimate fate is no worse than if one did not believe in God and ended up being right. On the other hand, if one believes in God and ends up being right, one has everything to gain — especially an eternal life full of bliss.
Pascal is to be commended for examining two possible outcomes and their implications. However, he fails to grasp the full range of the possibilities. Pascal only explores the possible outcomes if one chooses to believe in God. He fails, however, to consider the possible outcomes if one chooses not to believe in God.
So let us refine Pascal's argument a bit and consider it then. We must consider not one but two different alternatives. One can either believe in God or not believe in God, and in each case one can either be right or wrong. So there are in fact four possibilities.
Someone who believes in God and is right will go to Heaven.
Someone who believes in God and is wrong will simply cease to exist after death — if it is indeed the case that death is a cessation of one's being and individuality.
Someone who does not believe in God and is wrong will go to Hell — to assume the worst-case scenario.
Someone who does not believe in God and is right, if he dies, will cease to exist just like the believer who is wrong.
Even if we grant that Heaven is better than Hell, from an atheist's perspective, Hell is not the worst possible outcome. The worst possible outcome is the one that the atheist already assumes to be the case after death. In Hell, one may suffer horribly, but one still retains one's individuality, sensations, and thoughts. The sheer nonexistence that an atheist believes to follow death is much more frightening — so frightening that, unlike Heaven or Hell, it is not even conceivable for an existing individual.
So, if I do not believe in God and happen to be wrong and go to Hell, I will still be much better off than if I believed in God and were wrong and ceased to exist. No matter how greatly God may punish me for disbelief, the punishment will pale in comparison to what I already think is coming.
But it is still not enough to consider the four alternatives in terms of what happens after death. It is also important to look at how a choice to believe or not affects one's life in terms of time spent doing particular things — attending church services, uttering prayers, and partaking in numerous ceremonies — as well as the foregone opportunities that this time could have been devoted to. This is not to mention the lost opportunities from various dietary prohibitions, prohibitions on work, and tradition-based restrictions that seem to have little to do with abstract theology.
So it is not the case that someone who believes has nothing to lose; he has a tremendous amount of time and foregone opportunities to lose. I like doing work on Sundays, and the time I would spend attending church would be wasted if I believed in God and were wrong, but would be well spent if I did not believe in God and were right. This time would even be well spent if I disbelieved in God and were wrong — because I would still accomplish something real in this world during it. Believe me, all those Sundays add up.
Furthermore, if non-existence after death is worse than Hell, then that, and not the possibility of Hell, is the foremost problem that needs to be addressed. If this were the year 1900, I would not have a chance of plausibly saying this, but we are on the verge of astonishing medical breakthroughs that will at the least dramatically expand the human lifespan in this world. If you are interested, I urge you to look up the work of Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil — both distinguished world-class scientists who believe that we can achieve effectively indefinite longevity within the next thirty to forty years. I can understand placing one's bets on eternal life in Heaven during an era in which eternal life in this world was definitely out of our reach, but if the possibility of existing indefinitely in this world — a world we can be sure of — is offered, it is surely preferable to the mere faith in existing forever in another world, for whose existence there is no evidence.
So I hereby invert the Pascal's Wager argument and offer my own version — Stolyarov's Wager — for why you ought to exert your utmost efforts to extend your life in this world and to assist in any way you can the technological developments that make this possible.
If you believe in human life extension and are right, you have everything to win — a happy, prosperous, indefinite life that you can be sure of in this world.
If you believe in human life extension and are wrong, you cease to exist.
If you do not believe in human life extension and are right, you cease to exist.
If you do not believe in human life extension and are wrong, it may be that the effort that you did not put in to promoting the idea was just enough for the possibility not to come to pass. Then you will cease to exist.
Unlike the fully developed version of Pascal's Wager, the choice here is clear and unambiguous. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by focusing your attention on this world and on extending your life in it.
© 2007 The Rational Argumentator
Philosophy at Troynovant