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I've always felt the following is the most direct obvious objection to Pascal's wager, yet I see no philosophers making it. I'm curious why.

Taken from here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager

"Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing"

Why would this be true? We could live in a reality where belief in god leads to eternal suffering... Why is this reality less likely than the theist conception?

My confusion is that I see a lot of jumping through hoops to beat Pascal's wager, when this to me seems the obvious direct one.

I can start an arbitrary religion that states any belief in a god leads to eternal suffering... So don't believe in god, and lose nothing... believe in god and lose everything. Why is the religion I just invented less likely to be true than others? So according to my reasoning, lack of belief in god is the safer bet.

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    That would be the many gods objection which is in circulation since Diderot (at least). You do not even need alternative gods to inflict torments for Pascal's payoff matrix to be invalidated (indeed, most people then and now find evil Gods implausible).
    – Conifold
    Nov 30 '20 at 22:27
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    I have seen some sources (such as here) refer to this argument as "Pablo's Wager."
    – Sandejo
    Dec 1 '20 at 0:24
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    You are right -- the fallacy in Pascal's wager was the assumption of, say, 50/50 chance of the Christian God actually existing. Which wouldn't look too incredible in Pascal's times. With what we know now, the chances of any religion or spiritual belief turning out to be true are close to zero... so betting on them makes no sense whatsoever. Dec 1 '20 at 3:32
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    The belief in the objective reality (in science, really) is, itself, irrational -- a leap of faith. Making that leap, however, is anything but -- in fact, it is our only rational choice. Dec 1 '20 at 4:04
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    It has always struck me that the wager assumes an improbable voluntariness of belief. One can't just choose to believe or not to believe simply by virtue of the consideration of consequences. This is nothing against your question, whch I've upvoted, but it's an observation I've long wanted to make. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 20 at 11:09
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This is closely related to the common response that belief in the wrong god may result in worse punishment than belief in no god at all. The only difference is that you're considering the possibility of a god who punishes based on the belief in any god, including itself. This possibility isn't necessary, since already it's enough to consider two different possible "jealous gods," who will punish belief in each other more than nonbelief. Moreover, this new type of god isn't posited by existing religion (to my knowledge anyways), and one might even argue that such a god is "meaningfully less plausible" than the merely jealous gods. So this argument lacks the force that the more common argument posesses by virtue staying within the realm of common religious beliefs.

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  • I guess I'm wondering why this is "meaningfully less plausible". Dec 1 '20 at 0:58
  • My thought is... the whole "other gods" idea is still playing the theist's game so to speak. There are an infinite number of "possible" realities, and infinite number of them leading to eternal suffering or eternal bliss depending on the rules of the possible reality. There's no need for other gods. Dec 1 '20 at 1:12
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Please note before I start this post that I'm an atheist and don't literally believe any specific religion is true.

I can start an arbitrary religion that states any belief in a god leads to eternal suffering... So don't believe in god, and lose nothing... believe in god and lose everything. Why is the religion I just invented less likely to be true than others?

I think it's fair to say, even as an atheist, that there's a non-0 chance that some god exists, and a slightly lower chance, but still non-0, that some specific existing religion is true.

If we limit the discussion to Christianity or Islam, for example, to simplify the conversation, then we would have to conclude that IF there's a non-0 chance that these religions are true, then there's a non-0 chance that their God is as they describe in some sense, and that God seems to want people to believe in him, and also show himself or communicate with a select few individuals, so he's made some amount of evidence of himself existing (very weak evidence) in the world, in the form of religious writings.

Now, it's my opinion that the probability of one of these gods existing is FAR higher than the probability of a God you've just made up existing. These holy books are weak evidence, but they are evidence, and therefore they put these specific conceptions of God more probably than a conception of God that you've just created for the sake of a thought experiment.

I think that's possibly why this isn't a very popular argument against Pascal's wager - I think people realize that any idea you invent about God just for the sake of a philosophical argument is naturally going to be lower-probability than a specific existing popular religion.

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  • "These holy books are weak evidence, but they are evidence, and therefore they put these specific conceptions of God more probably than a conception of God that you've just created for the sake of a thought experiment." Interesting... not sure I agree. It would mean we could 'construct' evidence for the truth a religion by just making certain ideas popular enough... and constructing enough written materials. What if at some future date, people starting thinking Harry Potter was actually real. Would the millions of sales of the book constitute evidence of the reality of the HP universe? Jul 20 at 13:33
  • In a Bayesian sense, in general, yes. "Evidence" to me means "any piece of information which changes the probability of a statement". It doesn't have to change it drastically - it could change it from 1 in a billion to 1 in 999million, and that would still be evidence.
    – TKoL
    Jul 20 at 13:39
  • Holy books are evidence of that sort imo - very weak, but clearly more probable that we would have these books in the universe where those words are true than in the universe where those words are not true.
    – TKoL
    Jul 20 at 13:40
  • Which should not be confused with me saying "it's more probable that we're in a universe where those words are true" -- that's a different statement, and one I don't believe in.
    – TKoL
    Jul 20 at 13:41
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It's actually a common modern objection to the Wager --a quick websearch shows Dawkins giving a fairly cogent version of it. The reason Pascal doesn't consider it is that he's basically talking to his own younger self, or others in the same condition. That assumes a context where the only two choices are Christianity and atheism. To be more specific, the Wager is aimed squarely at a person who admires Christianity, and would like to be part of a Christian community, but is unable to embrace faith because the existence of God (considered only as described in the Christian religion) cannot be proven, which makes religious belief seemingly illogical. (Pascal explains to this person that there are strong reasons to accept the existence of God, even if such cannot be proven, which means that accepting God is not illogical, which opens a door to the person who wants faith without abandoning logic.)

The Wager is considerably more sophisticated than is often realized, and contains answers to many common objections, although not necessarily to this one. However, I would imagine that Pascal's response would run along these lines: An evil god, or one that punishes believers, doesn't make even base-level sense. So even if Christianity is not completely correct about God, we can generalize to a good-and-powerful deity who will accept our worship even if some of the details are off.

That may seem like a big leap to the modern audience, but it comes directly out of the neo-Platonist tradition, in which only good can truly be said to exist (evil is just an absence or a "privation", like darkness or cold). Good, therefore, demands an ultimate source --which we call God. Evil, conversely, isn't anything real, which renders the idea of an evil deity absurd. That set of assumptions would have been part of the background context in Pascal's time.

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  • "An evil god, or one that punishes believers, doesn't make even base-level sense." imo, this is a purely cultural thing and is fluid depending on our current society. For me, Christianity makes zero base-level sense with bizarre self-contradictory ideas. But the ideas resonate with some people despite that. Jul 20 at 15:37
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    The hope of this answer is to give the context for understanding why Pascal didn't address this argument, and how he might have addressed it, and not necessarily to persuade you. Jul 20 at 15:49
  • I understand. Thanks. Yes I agree, that's probably the way Pascal would have responded to the argument. Jul 20 at 15:52

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