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6.2.10: Argument- Pragmatism

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    Blaise Pascal, 1623 - 1662, was both a mathematician and a philosopher. He had studied many of the traditional arguments for the existence of God but did not find the arguments persuasive. Living in a time when gambling was en vogue, Pascal attempted to formulate an argument, based on chance, that would impel the reader to believe in God. After reading Pascal's Wager, Pascal wants you to believe that the "smart money" is on belief in God. 

    VIEW:  Pragmatic Argument


     According to Pascal, we can conceive or our choice whether or not to believe in the existence of God as a wager. As in all bets, if we wager properly, then we stand to gain. If we wager improperly (or lose the bet), then we stand to suffer a loss.

    The bet at hand concerns the existence of God. We can either bet on the existence of God or we can bet on the non-existence of God. But what would a gambler want to know before placing their money on the table? A gambler would probably want to know how much is at stake. Most bets are monetary. In this case, the gambler can think of her investment in terms of lifestyle choices. That is, those who do believe in God will act accordingly, e.g. no more late night parties, no more seeking of the good life, etc. Belief requires certain practices and orthopraxy - like when you want to watch football on Sunday morning but you have to attend Church. The next thing a gambler would want to know is the payoff/penalty. That is, how much will the gambler win potentially and how much will the gambler lose potentially. The Wager is often presented as follows:  

    1. If you believe in God and God does exist then your payoff is immeasurable. You will enter heaven and know eternal happiness
    2. If you believe in God and God does not exist then you have lost some pleasure but you have led a decent life. You have forfeited a high amount of pleasure but your existence was not miserable.
    3. If you do not believe in God and God does exist then your penalty is immeasurable. You will suffer eternal displeasure.
    4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist then you will have a high measurable amount of pleasure. Your pleasure will end once your life ends.  

    Although "4" does pay well, it does not have as high a potential return as "1". Considering the consequences of "3" and the potential return of "1" Pascal concludes that the most reasonable wager is to place your money on the existence of God. Even if you are wrong, the potential loss is minimal (see "2").

    Sometimes the return or payoff is represented as follows:





    On Pascal's argument:

    Suggested Reading : Reason and Faith: Pascal Pensees

    A Word about Non-Epistemic Arguments.

    Many arguments for the existence of God are deductive or inductive arguments. Some of these same arguments are based on valid laws of inference and specific claims of knowledge. While these arguments might try to infer God with very different arguments that are built upon very different assumptions and methodologies, these arguments do have one thing in common, i.e. they argue for the existence of God based on specific propositions or ideas.  This has been the case with the ontological, cosmological and teleological  arguments. Such arguments are known as epistemic arguments. Epistemic is from the Greek, episteme, or knowledge. Such arguments are well organized and appear to lead to their conclusions and so they are called valid indicating that if their premises were true their conclusions would be true as well.  However valid they may appear their soundness and cogency are not at all well established as their premises have been severely criticized over the centuries. It has fairly well been demonstrated or proven that their premises are not obviously true nor can they be verified as true through empirical methods.  So these arguments have been rejected by many as having unwarranted conclusions or as not being cogent or convincing.

    Non-Epistemic proofs are arguments for the existence of God that are not knowledge-based arguments. If understood properly, the non-epistemic proof should invoke a personal response. The power of Pascal's Wager is not found in valid rules of inference but in probability and possible outcomes. The Wager appeals to the feelings in us- to our emotions, our fear of loss or punishment and our hopes for rewards. Should human beings accept such arguments?  Should rational human beings act on less than rational arguments?  Some say it is immoral to so act.  Others disagree..

    Problem with Pascal's Wager:  Clifford vs James

    W.K. Clifford argues against such a wager and the Ethics of Belief.  He claims that we should never hold a belief without sufficient justification.    The moral foundation for promoting the use of reason in drawing conclusions is argued in In The Ethics of Belief (1877) ( Originally published in Contemporary Review, 1877) wherein  William K. Clifford  concludes that :

    We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from that experience by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know.

    We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.

    It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe.

    READ: Clifford, W. K.  “The Ethics of Belief.”  Lectures and Essays.  London:  Macmillan, 1879.

    Summary by Meghan Ramsay, QCC 2004

    In his essay, W.K. Clifford opposes the pragmatic justifications, like Pascal’s wager, for belief in the existence of a deity.  Clifford maintains that beliefs based upon insufficient evidence are always wrong.  In essence, believing in something just because it may prove to be beneficial in the long run is not genuine belief.  To illustrate his point, Clifford gives an example of a ship owner who sees that his ship is old and in need of repairs.  However, the ship owner manages to convince himself that his ship has made many voyages from which it has always returned safely, and he begins to sincerely believe that this trip will be no different than all of the previous ones.  Although the evidence before him suggests danger for the passengers, the owner has faith and lets the ship sail.  Clifford points out that if the ship sinks, the owner will be directly responsible for the deaths that occur as a result of his negligence.  Clifford also points out that even if the ship managed to make the voyage, the owner would still be guilty, he just wouldn’t be found out, as the question has to do with the foundation for his belief rather than the outcome.  In this case, the ship owner had no right to believe that the ship would be safe because of the evidence before him.  Clifford points out that it is not so much the belief that must be judged but the actions following the belief.  Even though the ship owner believed in the seaworthiness of his ship, he could have taken the precaution of having it examined before putting the lives of others on the line.  Yet Clifford points out that when acting in a way that is opposite of one’s belief, it seems to condemn the belief.  For example, if the ship owner truly believed that his ship was sound, he would have no reason to have it examined.  The examination would suggest that the owner did indeed have some doubts.  Clifford maintains that it is one’s duty to investigate both sides of an issue, and when one holds a belief that is not based upon evidence he looses his objectivity and is unable to perform that duty.  Additionally, Clifford points out that beliefs are all incredibly significant, as they lay the foundation for accepting or rejecting all other beliefs and provide the framework for future action.  Additionally, one’s beliefs are not private.  Beliefs are passed on within society and to future generations.  Beliefs which are based upon evidence and have been thoroughly investigated allow humanity to have mastery over more of the world, but when those beliefs are unfounded and contrary to evidence, the mastery resulting is counterfeit.  Clifford argues that beliefs that are unfounded are deceptive, as they make humans feel stronger and more knowledgeable when they really aren’t. 

                Clifford suggests that holding beliefs based upon insufficient evidence can lead to the downfall of society.  Even if these beliefs turn out to be true, society will suffer, as people will stop examining the issues with an open mind.  Humans will no longer inquire as to the validity of their beliefs.  They will become gullible and susceptible to fraud, hastening the downfall of civilization.  Thus, holding these unfounded beliefs and suppressing doubts is a sin against humanity.   

    William James argues that there is sufficient justification.  There is a practical justification when one considers that we must make a decision and that believing can place one in a much better position.

    READ: James, William.  The Will to Believe.  New York:  Longmans, Green & Co., 1897. 

    second location  for Will to Believe

    Summary by Meghan Ramsay, QCC 2004`

                In his response to W.K. Clifford, William James points out that there are two ways of viewing humanity’s duty in terms of opinion and belief.  He points out that we are commanded to know the truth and avoid error.  However, knowing the truth and avoiding errors are not one commandment stated in two ways.  Instead, they are separable, and stressing one over the other will provide vastly different results.  James maintains that those who place the avoidance of error above knowing the truth (such as W.K. Clifford), are keeping their minds in a constant state of suspense out of fear of being duped.  James likens this to a general telling his soldiers to avoid battle so that they do not suffer any injuries.  Victories over neither foes nor nature are won by not taking action.  Thus, James says, he is willing to face the occasional falsehood or dupe in order to eventually arrive at a true belief.  James does take into account that there are times when we can postpone making a decision until more sufficient evidence is provided.  However, we can only postpone making up our minds if the option is not a crucial one with earth-shattering consequences.  James points out that often the need to act is not so critical and urgent that we must risk acting upon a false belief than on no belief at all. 

                James then moves into religious beliefs.  He states that religion essentially states two things: 

    1. The best things are those which are eternal. 
    2. Belief in the first affirmation betters us now and forever.

    James says that although the skeptic says he is awaiting more evidence before making his decision, he has, in all actuality already decided.  The skeptic, according to James has decided that it is better and wiser to dismiss the belief in these two affirmations for fear of being duped than it is to believe and hope that they are true.  In essence, by choosing to wait, the skeptic joins the side of the non-believer.  Since no one is absolutely certain as to the existence of God, one must make the choice whether or not to believe or wait for more proof.  However, choosing to wait is not considered being inactive—it’ is just as much an act as that of believing.  Ultimately, James concludes that whether to believe or not is up to the individual.  He maintains that one “enters at his/her own risk” (or does not enter at all at his/her own risk), and he concludes that no one should be intolerant of another’s choice whether to believe or not. 


    Notes on W.K. Clifford and William James


    READ:  Philip L. Quinn, Gale on a Pragmatic Argument for Religious Belief PHILO,  Volume 6, Number 1.   

    Abstract: This paper is a study of a pragmatic argument for belief in the existence of God constructed and criticized by Richard Gale. The argument's conclusion is that religious belief is morally permissible under certain circumstances. Gale contends that this moral permission is defeated in the circumstances in question both because it violates the principle of universalizability and because belief produces an evil that outweighs the good it promotes. My counterargument tries to show that neither of the reasons invoked by Gale suffices to defeat the moral permission established by the original argument.


    Other Problems with Pascal's Wager:

    Based on this work:

    Richard T. Hull  Pascal's Wager: Not a Good BetFree Inquiry , Vol 25, No. 1. , Dec. 2004/Jan.2005

    1. Many Gods Problem:

    If a skeptic were to accept Pascal's invitation to believe in what deity would that person place their psychological commitment to believe?  There are different conception of the deity in different religions of the West and the East.  If the deity does exist and it is the one and only and it does pay attention to what humans do and it will reward and punish then the would-be believer needs more than Pascal's argument to arrive at  the proper conclusion as to exactly which conception of a deity to place trust and hope in in order to avoid the possibly vindictive deity who would punish both non-believers and those who believed in a "false" or inaccurate conception of the deity.

    While " Pascal clearly intended his argument to persuade the reader to adopt belief in Christianity... the same argument can be given , with suitable substitution for the word God and its associated concept, for any other religion."

    2. The assumption that believing in God has no different result than not believing in god , if there is no god. This is not always the case however.  If a person chooses to believe in a deity and that belief leads a person to certain actions such as using prayer in the place of medication for illnesses for which there are known cures then there is a decided difference.  A believer in the deity of the Christians or Islamic people might lead a person to a negative regard for others or even into physical acts of violence towards infidels.

    3. "a similar argument could be given for believing in any supernatural conception of the world: forces that determine earthquakes, tornadoes, or floods or the supposed power of other humans to make magic, do psychic surgery or read minds."   

    It would appear that Pascal's approach would have appeal for those who do not want to use the intellect to its fullest extent and investigate all claims about what exists or does not exist.  It would appeal to those who want to have some being to appeal to for favor or exemption from harms and ills or favor for support against those they would oppose.


    Another way to look at this Argument or Proof:

    It is not a “Proof” at all.

    It is not an argument that provides support in thinking that a deity actually does exist.

    It is an argument that in spite of a lack of proof people should want to believe anyway.  Just to be safe.



    The Argument:


    1. The possible reward for believing in a deity are greater than not believing in a deity
    2. The possible punishment or penalties for not believing in a deity is greater than the possible penalties for believing.
    3. It is less risky to believe in a deity than not believe.

    Conclusion 1:

    Believe in a deity existing.

    Conclusion 2:

    There is a deity

    Problem with argument:

    1. ____Premises are false or questionable
    2. __X__Premises are irrelevant
    3. ____Premises Contain the Conclusion –Circular Reasoning
    4. _X___Premises are inadequate to support the conclusion
    5. ____Alternative arguments exist with equal or greater support

    This argument or proof has flaws in it and would not convince a rational person to accept its conclusion.  This is not because someone who does not believe in a deity will simply refuse to accept based on emotions or past history but because it is not rationally compelling of acceptance of its conclusion.

    6.2.10: Argument- Pragmatism is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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