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March 26, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Philosoraptor |
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Is Believing in God Worth it?

Going to Heaven for all of eternity seems like it would be pretty great. In fact, it seems so awesome that any finite sacrifice I could make during my life would be worth it if it meant I got to go to Heaven. Given that, why don’t I make the finite sacrifice of choosing to believe in God?

After all, if it turns out that God exists and rewards believers, then I’ve just won myself an eternity in Heaven; if that’s not the case, then at worst I’ll have behaved a little irrationally during my life. Even if I think that the probability that God exists is very very low (say, 0.000001%), the benefits of going to Heaven are infinitely large, so I should still choose to believe in God.

This argument is called Pascal’s Wager, after the 17th century mathematician who invented it, and it’s a much-derided and often-dismissed argument. But the philosopher Amanda Askell argues that many of the common objections people present to it actually don’t stand up to critical examination.

Consider, for example, the “Many Gods Objection,” which proceeds roughly as follows:

Pascal’s Wager states that, since going to Heaven has infinite value, believing in God has infinite expected value. (Expected value is the product of the probability of an outcome and its value – and anything times infinity is infinity.) But in addition to a God who rewards believers, there are many other possible gods. For example, maybe an Atheist-Loving God exists, who only sends atheists to heaven. Then, even if the probability that an Atheist-Loving God exists is very low (say, 0.00000000000001%), being an atheist has infinite expected value, and we should therefore be atheists.

The reason this argument is flawed, Askell argues, is that not all infinite expected values are equal. Suppose, she says, that you turn up to the gates of Heaven, and find two doors. St Peter tells you that if you go through Door A, you will be guaranteed to go into Heaven. If you go through Door B, there’s a 1% chance you’ll go into Heaven, and a 99% chance that you’ll be instantly destroyed. Since Heaven has infinite value, both Door A and Door B have infinite expected value, but obviously Door A is much better than Door B. Similarly, as long as the probability that the traditional God exists is higher than the probability that the Atheist-Loving God exists, we ought to believe in the traditional God, even though both options have infinite expected value.

So as long we think that, out of all the possible Gods that could exist, a God who rewards belief is the most likely to exist, and as long as there is some nonzero probability that we have voluntary control over our beliefs, then we ought to try to believe in God.

Is this it? Have we solved the atheism-religion dispute? Not quite. Our understanding of how to think about cases like Pascal’s Wager – cases involving outcomes with very large (or infinite) value – is still very limited. Consider, for example, an argument by philosopher Nick Bostrom, humorously entitled “Pascal’s Mugging”, which proceeds roughly as follows.

If you – the reader of these words – deposit $20 into my bank account, I promise to use my magical powers to give you an arbitrarily large amount of value tomorrow. As long as you think there is a nonzero chance that I am telling the truth (even if the chance is very very small), I can promise you an amount of value that will make the expected value of taking this deal be way more than $20. For example, suppose you think that the probability that I have these magical powers is 0.00000001%. Then I can promise you $2,000,000,000 worth of value, such that the expected value of giving me $20 is 200,000,000,000*0.0000001 = $2000, which makes it worth it for you to deposit the $20.

Would you deposit the $20?

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