Most people are familiar with Pascals' Wager. (If you aren't, I've written about it here and here.)
Pascal's basic idea was that it makes sense to believe in God, because if you're right the benefits are eternal and unlimited, while if you're wrong you lose nothing.
(Or very little. Such as listening to a bunch of boring sermons and not eating meat on Fridays.)
Over on the New York Times web site, there's an interesting piece by a philosophy professor, Gary Gutting. In "Pascal's Wager 2.0" he argues that doubting God is a better bet than denying God.
The wager requires a choice between believing and not believing. But there are two ways of not believing. I can either deny that God exists or doubt that God exists. Discussions of the wager usually follow Pascal and lump these two together in the single option of not believing in God.
They don’t distinguish denying from doubting because both are ways of not believing. The argument then is about whether believing is a better option than not believing. My formulation of the argument will focus instead on the choice between denying and doubting God.
Denial of God means that I simply close the door on the hope that there is something beyond the natural world; doubt may keep that door open. I say “may” because doubt can express indifference to what is doubted. I don’t know and I don’t care whether there is an even number of stars or whether there are planets made of purple rock.
Indifferent doubt is the practical equivalent of denial, since both refuse to take a given belief as a viable possibility — neither sees it as what William James called a “live option.” But doubt may also be open to and even desirous of what it doubts. I may doubt that I will ever understand and appreciate Pierre Boulez’s music, but still hope that I someday will.
Well, at first I was pretty much on board with Gutting. But after reading his entire essay, and some of the intelligent reader comments (check out the "reader's picks"), his arguments came to seem weaker to me.
Gutting's distinction between atheism and agnosticism, which seems to basically line up with denying and doubting -- atheists deny, agnostics doubt -- is spurious.
As I've noted many times before on this blog, I don't know any atheist who wouldn't be convinced of God's existence if there was highly persuasive demonstrable evidence of this. Atheists like me aren't 100% sure that God doesn't exist. We're just highly confident, given the lack of positive evidence that God is real.
So I'd say that virtually every atheist is a doubter, not a denier. Meaning, atheists don't deny that there is some possibility that God exists. They simply strongly doubt this is true.
Further, I'd be overjoyed to learn that God is real and I'm going to spend eternity in a really nice heaven. So nice, I won't be bored with it, even if I'm there for forever.
I'm pretty sure most atheists feel the same way.
Who wouldn't like to be proven wrong about God, if this means both life and the afterlife are going to take on a much more pleasurable appearance? This assumes, of course, that God is a good guy/gal/sexless being.
If God is a nasty piece of shit who enjoys seeing people suffer -- not a bad hypothesis, actually, given the way the world is -- then it is great news that this God doesn't exist.
Anyway, give "Pascal's Wager 2.0" a read. Make up your own mind about Gutting's arguments. Then scan the reader's picks comments. New York Times subscribers always leave thoughtful comments that often are better than the piece being commented on.
Here's a few comment samples:
Professor Gutting writes that belief in God's existence enables people to "find a higher meaning and value to their existence by making contact with a beneficent power beyond the natural world." What is his evidence that God is beneficent? He is ignoring the evil in the world. Even if God were beneficent, what is Professor Gutting's evidence that believing in God provides people with a higher meaning and value to their existence? It may for some people, but not for others.
Professor Gutting adds that "we have good reason to expect much greater happiness if there is a beneficent power we could contact." What is his evidence for that? Maybe God's beneficence won't affect me personally. Or maybe it would increase my happiness just a little and not make it "much greater."
Professor Gutting, like all believers, is just making stuff up.
More nonsense from Gutting.
We should "hope" that there's a god? Why? God, based on man's made-up descriptions of him, is cruel, capricious, arbitrary, violent, and perverse. We should "hope" that there's NO god. And that's before even factoring in the evils of self-interest and self-indulgence inherent in the concept of "heaven" and "god's goodness."
If Gutting wants "meaning," there is plenty of it in the real world; we do not need fantasies and fairy tales to create meaning. People need help and care, communities need development, the natural world needs protection, human relationships need improvement; and the world needs progress and enlightenment. There can be found enough "meaning" in seeking these paths as would fill a million million lifetimes.
Let's just drop the supernatural, superstitious pablum once and for all, and deal with what actually exists in reality: an often terrible, often beautiful, always imperfect world.
Atheism is not a form of belief. It is the absence of belief. I think it was Sam Harris that said calling atheism a belief is like calling not collecting stamps a hobby. Also, I fail to see how agnosticism is closer to science than atheism. We all acknowledge that there could be a God since the concept is not falsifiable. If simply believing makes it so, than anything I believe in can become real, whether or not it is so. So how is this more like science?
Aside from the fact that God appears to be a psychotic monster in his disregard for human suffering, the evidence for his existence is entirely apocryphal. This raises several issues. First, who would want to make contact with such a creature? The ways in which he works are supposed to be mysterious, but they're mysterious in the same way that randomness is mysterious. Further, the "evidence" for god appears to come from some misfiring of our human presumption that there is a human-like cause behind all phenomena.
There is no good reason for engaging in any wager about the benefits or even the physical reality of such a being. When there are sightings of Elvis we don't make such wagers. We dismiss the claimants as deluded and get on with our lives.
God belief says nothing about reality, but it says a lot about our psychology. We've only recently evolved from creatures who instinctively revere the alpha male. He's the smartest and the strongest. He doles out rewards for good behavior and punishes transgressors. We're careful not to challenge him, so we abase ourselves before him and tell him that we are unworthy. These tendencies are in our DNA, shared by our ape cousins to this day. They don't have the language to create metaphors and poetry to personify this instinctive imperative, but we do, and we call it God.
It's one thing to lose money on a bad bet. It's quite another to wager your intellectual integrity on a chimp's fantasy.
I understand from whence cometh Gutting's argument. I long ago gave up on God, but I find value in the teachings of Jesus and Buddha: values for living a worthwhile life, and values that increase my spiritual connection with the universe. People often mistake me for a Christian, but I tell them "No, I'm not. I know too much to believe the fairy tales of that religion; however, I do assess my life by the words of Jesus and Buddha, both of whom tell us to eschew a material-centered life and care for our fellow humans and refrain from activities that might soil our being and reduce our ability to be a good person." I try, not always successfully, to do that.
Atheism derives from what one knows: One knows that no evidence of God's existence has been found. An atheist does not assert definitively that God does not exist, because to assert it definitively would require a leap of faith. We cannot prove the non-existence of God. But an atheist will not take seriously the possibility that God exists until evidence turns up.
We cannot prove the non-existence of unicorns, flying pigs, or the tooth fairy either. Therefore, we should not deny their existence. But that doesn't mean we should be agnostic about them. Agnosticism implies that we take their existence seriously.