The Course of Reason

Jebediah’s Wager

August 12, 2011

A response to Pascal’s Wager by Seth Kurtenbach.

Pascal’s Wager is an all too familiar argument for those of us in the skeptical community.  We like to point out that there are innumerable other gods for whom the same wager may be considered, thereby undermining the power of the original wager which usually focuses on Christianity.  We say, as did Richard Dawkins, “what if you’re wrong about Zeus, Ba’al, Wotan, or the great JuJu at the Bottom of the Sea?…”

 

You may know by now that a Christian will quickly point out that these deities do not threaten eternal damnation as punishment for lack of belief, and do not offer eternal reward for belief.  The strength of Pascal’s wager is its appeal to infinite reward and punishment.  It is a simple decision procedure called dominance reasoning which tells us that, given the possible payoffs, it is rational to believe that Jesus saves.  Even if one uses a slightly different decision procedure, expected utility, one is still rational to accept Jesus into his heart, because any non-zero probability, however small, multiplied by infinity is still infinite.  Thus, the Christian believes he has you.

But, you say, consider the infinite number of deities that can be cooked up wholecloth, which do threaten eternal punishment and reward.  We may not have discovered the one true god yet, and based on this uncertainty, there is no reason to favor Christianity in particular.  This response has its merits, particularly if it emphasizes human fallibility and uncertainty about the cosmos, but it is likely to have little affect on one’s interlocuter.  If the point is to undermine the strength of the wager itself, then I think there is a better way to do so.

And it goes like this.


Jebediah, proposing his Wager

Suppose Jebediah, a devout Amish, approaches you (a Christian) and proposes the following wager:

“Good fellow Christian, we believe in the same Lord our God, that He died for our sins, was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day He rose again.  We both know that accepting the Lord into our hearts carries with it eternal salvation; an infinite reward.  We both know that failing to accept the Lord into our hearts carries with it eternal damnation, an infinite punishment.  Now, as a member of the Amish community, I believe that one must shun the fruits of technology, and live as they did in the Bible, without buttons, zippers, and iPods.  Should one fall to the temptation of such devilry, one is surely lost and doomed to Hell forever.  I see that you have a smartphone, and a zipper, and you drive a car.  Good fellow Christian, what if you’re wrong?  What if you are judged at the Pearly Gates for endulging in such sins, and though you believe in the One True God, he casts you out for failure to keep the Laws?  We all know that a True Christian keeps the Laws.  Is your zipper, button, iPod, or car really more valuable to you than your soul?  Surely these items do not provide infinite satisfaction.  If you give them up, and live as the Amish, and we are wrong, then your loss is merely finite, but if you fail to give them up, and we are right, then your loss is infinite!  Listen to reason, and shun the iPod!”

Behold, Jebediah’s Wager:

  1. If you shun technology and the Amish have the correct theology, then you gain eternal reward.
  2. If you shun technology and the Amish have the incorrect theology, then you suffer a finite loss, but still live a rewarding life of simplicity and devout Christianity, and so may still receive an eternal reward!
  3. If you do not shun technology, and the Amish have the correct theology, then you suffer eternal punishment.
  4. If you do not shun technology, and the Amish have the incorrect theology, then you gain some finite pleasure from the technological comforts (mmmm, the joys of zippers!), and perhaps still an eternal reward.

Thus, by shunning technology, one is guaranteed an eternal reward in Heaven, and by refusing to shun technology, one will either suffer eternal damnation or perhaps eternal reward anyway.  Why gamble with salvation?  Take the sure bet, and shun technology.

How will the Christian respond to this?  If he or she does not immediately become Amish, then he or she realizes the weakness of Pascal’s Wager.

This post originally appeared of the blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics.

 

 

About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at Seth.Kurtenbach@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.

Comments:

#1 Seth van Esschoten (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 11:40am

This was a fantastic article, thank you so much.

#2 Darren Pinder (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 1:45pm

Nailed it, thank you. Not only have you given us a logical weapon to use against Christian argument, but you might also have done the rarest of deeds: made them think about something logically.

#3 NestorS (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 6:19pm

"You may know by now that a Christian will quickly point out that these deities do not threaten eternal damnation as punishment for lack of belief, and do not offer eternal reward for belief."

The gods you listed may not offer eterernal bliss as a reward or eternal damnation as a punishment, but there are others that do.

#4 Mike (Guest) on Friday August 12, 2011 at 9:51pm

Just to play devil's advocate. Most Xians will just say well god won't send you away for those sins and only for unbelief. "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into." It will simply become a fight about the "rules" their imaginary sky daddy gave them.

#5 Darren (Guest) on Tuesday December 06, 2011 at 6:58am

I'd echo Mike's sentiment on this one. It's a great argument, however are there rules in the Bible which say you must live like the Amish chose to? Are there specific rules against using advancing technology?

A similar (and less extreme) Wager could be applied, that of following the Bible literally. What if a Christian worked on the Sabbath? Wouldn't that result in eternal damnation too?

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