The Wager, the Ethics of Belief, and the Will to Believe

Pascal’s Wager and James’
Will to Believe
• Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century
French Philosopher and Mathematician.
• Developed the Probability Calculus.
• Lived a lascivious lifestyle until he had a
profound religious vision, at which point
he became a very devout Christian.
• Developed his Wager as an appeal to
former friends, who were still living a
lascivious lifestyle.
What is →
What I
God exists
Infinite gain
Infinite loss
does not
At best,
finite gain
At worse,
finite loss
At best,
finite gain
At worse,
finite loss
• Pascal believed his Wager shows that, from the
standpoint of practical reason, the only rational
thing to do is to believe in God.
• Comments
– If someone likes to go for broke, then he
should believe because that choice has the
best positive payoff.
– If someone likes to play it safe, then he
should believe because that choice has the
least negative payoff.
– Why can’t I just not believe and be
• Being agnostic is the same as not
• When Pascal talks about
believing in God, he’s NOT just
talking about believing that God
• He’s talking about adopting the
lifestyle that goes with believing
that God exists.
• One cannot live agnostically.
• One either lives a religious
lifestyle or not.
• “[W]e are . . . ‘embarked’ . . . , as on a
ship. The ship is our life. The sea is time.
We are moving past a port that claims to
be our true home . . . . This ‘home port’ . .
. is not just an idea (that God exists). It is
a marriage proposal from this God. Not to
say yes is eventually to say no. Suppose
Romeo proposes to Juliet, and she says
neither yes nor no, but wait. Suppose the
‘wait’ lasts and lasts – until she dies.
Then, her ‘wait’ becomes no. Death turns
agnosticism into atheism. For, death
turns ‘tomorrow’ into ‘never.’”
Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans
– How can there be a finite gain if I
believe in God and he doesn’t exist?
• “You will be faithful, honest,
humble, grateful, generous, a
sincere friend, truthful.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No.233
– The Wager is too mercenary.
• “The Wager can easily be recast to
appeal to a higher motive than the
fear of Hell. One could wager as
• “If God exists [as the Supreme
Being], he deserves all my
allegiance and faith. I don’t
know whether he exists or not.
Therefore, to avoid the terrible
injustice of refusing God his
rights, I will believe.”
Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern
– Faith in God is not something that
you can just turn on, like turning on
the hot water.
• “You want to find faith, and you do
not know the road. You want to be
cured of unbelief, and you ask for
the remedy: Learn from those who
were once . . . like you and now
wager all they have.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No. 233
“[In The Brothers Karamazov,] Madame
Hohlokov comes to [Father Zossima]
distraught at losing her childish faith by
exposure to science and philosophy . . . .
Wise old Zossima tells her that it is not
possible simply to go back to her
childhood, forget her doubts and believe
naively . . . . But, there is . . . a way to
become certain. It is the way of active
love, acting as if she believed, loving her
neighbors indefatigably.
– In the end, Pascal is asking nonbelievers to try the religious lifestyle for
awhile, since, as the Wager shows, it
clearly pays.
– Pascal is confident that, given a fair
chance, genuine faith will grow.
• “I tell you: ‘You would soon have faith,
if you give up a life of pleasure. Now, it
is up to you to begin. If I could give
you faith, I would, but I cannot . . . .
[Y]ou can easily give up your pleasure
and test whether I am telling the truth.’”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, No. 240
– Final Thoughts
• Does Pascal underestimate the
difficulty of trying to live a religious
lifestyle when one does not already
• Pascal himself did not come to faith
until he had his religious vision.
• Is his challenge unfair to sincere
• William James vs. the Evidentialist
– Recall Pascal’s Position
• From the standpoint of speculative
reason, one can neither prove nor
disprove God’s existence.
• One, however, should believe in
God because, from the standpoint
of practical reason, believing in
God has the best “pay-off.”
– One who raises the Evidentialist
Objection maintains that, since there
is insufficient evidence for God’s
existence, one should not believe in
God. One should be agnostic.
– This claim rests on the more basic
claim that one should never believe in
anything without sufficient evidence
for the existence of that thing.
– In the words of one of the most
prominent Evidentialist Objectors:
• “It is [morally] wrong always,
everywhere, and for anyone, to
believe anything upon insufficient
William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”
• Rationale behind Clifford’s Ethics of
– Clifford tells a story
• “A ship owner was about to send
to sea an emigrant ship. He knew
that she was old and not over-well
built at the first,
• “that she had seen many seas and
climes and often had needed
repairs. Doubts had been
suggested to him that possibly she
was not seaworthy. These doubts
preyed upon his mind and made
him unhappy; he thought that
perhaps he ought to have her
thoroughly overhauled and refitted,
even though this should put him to
great expense. Before the ship
sailed, however,
• “he succeeded in overcoming these
melancholy reflections. He said to
himself that she had gone safely
through so many voyages and
weathered so many storms, that it
was idle to suppose she would not
come safely home from this trip also.
He would put his trust in Providence,
which could hardly fail to protect all
these unhappy families that were
leaving their fatherland to seek for
better times elsewhere.”
• “He would dismiss from his mind all
ungenerous suspicions about the
honesty of builders and contractors. In
such ways he acquired a sincere and
comfortable conviction that his vessel
was thoroughly safe and seaworthy.
He watched her departure with a light
heart and benevolent wishes for the
success of the exiles in their strange
new home that was to be. And he got
his insurance money when she went
down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”
William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”
• One thing to note is that Clifford’s
dramatic tale is really irrelevant to
his claim.
– Clifford claims that it is always
morally wrong to believe on
insufficient evidence.
– The ship owner in the story,
however, does not believe on
insufficient evidence. He
believes contrary to sufficient
– There is sufficient evidence the
ship is not seaworthy, but,
despite this evidence, the ship
owner believes it is seaworthy.
– Credulity
• Despite the rather inflammatory
story with which he begins,
Clifford’s real reason for
maintaining one should never
believe on insufficient evidence is
NOT that doing so might lead to
false beliefs that produce disasters.
• What’s really horrible about
believing on insufficient evidence is
that doing so makes a person
credulous, i.e. makes him such that
he will believe anything at all.
• “[I]f I let myself believe anything on
insufficient evidence, there may be
no great harm done by the mere
belief; it may be true after all, or I
may never have occasion to exhibit
it in outward acts. But, I cannot
help doing this great wrong
• “towards Man: That I make myself
credulous. The danger to society is
not merely that it should believe
wrong things, though that is great
enough; but that it should become
credulous, and lose the habit of
testing things and inquiring into
them; for then it must sink back into
William Clifford “The Ethics of Belief”
• “The Will to Believe”
– Essay written in response to
Clifford’s by the great Harvard
philosopher and psychologist William
– Contra Clifford, James maintains it is
sometimes morally permissible to
believe on insufficient evidence.
– James maintains two conditions must
be met in order for it to be permissible
to believe something on insufficient
• The matter must be “intellectually
undecidable,” i.e. it must be very unlikely
that you will ever have enough evidence
to settle the matter one way or another.
• The choice in question must represent a
“genuine option.”
– Living, i.e each alternative must have
some initial plausibility. For example,
in the contemporary West “Be a
Protestant or be a Catholic” is a living
option. In the contemporary West
“Be a Manichean or be a Christian” is
not a living option.
– Forced, i.e. one must choose
one alternative or another.
There is no third alternative, e.g.
“Accept my love or live without
– Momentous, i.e. the benefits
that would accrue by choosing
truly are very significant and
unique. One cannot gain these
benefits in any other way
» “[I]f I were Dr. Nansen and
proposed to you to join my North
Pole expedition, your option would
be momentous; for this would
probably be your only similar
opportunity, and your choice now
would either exclude you from the
North Pole sort of immortality
altogether or put at least the
chance of it into your hands. He
who refuses to embrace a unique
opportunity loses the prize as
surely as if he tried and failed.”
William James, “The Will to Believe”
– James claims that the choice
between believing in God and not
believing in Him is both intellectually
undecidable and a genuine option.
• Both alternatives have initial
• The choice is forced, for, as Pascal
pointed out, one cannot live
• Also, as Pascal also pointed out,
the benefits of believing truly in
God are infinite.
– James’ response to Clifford’s charge
of encouraging credulity
• James points out that humans have
two epistemic goals.
– To attain truth
– To avoid falsehood
• Clifford concentrates on the latter
goal to the exclusion of the former.
• Does Clifford, however, have
sufficient evidence for doing this?
“No,” says James.
• “‘Better go without belief forever than
believe a lie!’ merely shows
[Clifford’s] own preponderant private
horror of becoming a dupe. He may
be critical of many of his desires and
fears, but this fear he slavishly
obeys. He cannot imagine any one
questioning its binding force. For my
own part, I have also a horror of
being duped; but I can believe that
worse things than being duped may
happen to a man in this world.
• “[S]o Clifford’s exhortation has to my
ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is
like a general informing his soldiers that
it is better to keep out of battle forever
than to risk a single wound. Not so are
victories either over enemies or over
nature gained. Our errors are surely not
such awfully solemn things. In a world
where we are so certain to incur them in
spite of all our caution, a certain
lightness of heart seems healthier than
this excessive nervousness on their
William James, “The Will to Believe”
• When faced with an intellectually
undecidable and genuine option,
someone of a less morose, more
optimistic, nature that Clifford’s
might choose to believe.
– “Better risk loss of truth than
chance of error — that is your
faith-vetoer’s exact position. He
is actively playing his stake as
much as the believer is; he is
backing the field against the
religious hypothesis,
– “just as the believer is backing the
religious hypothesis against the field.
To preach skepticism to us as a duty
until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be
found, is tantamount therefore to telling
us, when in presence of the religious
hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of
its being error is wiser and better than
to yield to our hope that it may be true.
It is not intellect against all passions,
then; it is only intellect with one
passion laying down its law. And by
what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom
of this passion warranted?”
William James, “The Will to Believe”
– James sees belief in God as the
more hopeful choice, and, as such
it appeals to him.
– If it does not appeal to Clifford
thus, so be it. But, let him not
become a vetoer of James’ will to
– James concludes his essay with by
quoting another thinker, Fitz James
• “If a man chooses to turn his back
altogether on God and the future,
no one can prevent him; no one
can show beyond reasonable doubt
that he is mistaken. If a man thinks
otherwise and acts as he thinks, I
do not see that any one can prove
that he is mistaken. Each must act
as he thinks best; and if he is
wrong, so much the worse for him.
We stand on a mountain pass in
the midst of whirling snow
• “and blinding mist, through which we
get glimpses now and then of paths
which may be deceptive. If we stand
still we shall be frozen to death. If we
take the wrong road we shall be
dashed to pieces. We do not
certainly know whether there is any
right one. What must we do? ‘Be
strong and of a good courage.’ Act
for the best, hope for the best, and
take what comes. . . . If death ends
all, we cannot meet death better.”
Fitz James Stephens, Liberty, Equality, and