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Pascal's Wager vs. Descartes' Meditations

By Scooter21 Oct 20, 2008 1592 Words
Pascal’s wager is a risk/benefit assessment to determine whether or not a person should believe in God. It in no way aims to prove that God exists. Unlike Descartes, who tries to prove God’s existence through the idea of God himself Pascal does not think such a proof can succeed. Pascal does a good job in his argument because he takes both sides into account and comes to a reasonable conclusion using mathematics. Overall, Pascal’s wager is preferable to Descartes’ meditations because they contain many errors and do not appeal to people outside of Descartes’ own mind or beliefs. Pascal focuses on the question: Should one believe in God? He takes the basic variables and puts them together and weighs the outcomes. The variables are A: God exists, and B: God does not exist. The other two variables are X: Believe in God and Y: Do not believe in God. When variables A and X are put together, i.e., if God exists and you believe in God, this is an infinitely good thing because if one believes in God, he will go to heaven. Next, consider variables B and X i.e., God does not exist but one believes in God. This is viewed as a status quo because nothing is gained or lost by worshiping nothing. This set of circumstances is given the value of zero. Next, variables A and Y are taken into account. If God truly does exist and one does not believe in him, this is an infinitely bad thing, because eternal damnation is viewed as a negative. Thus, this set of circumstances is given a negative value. The final two variables to be weighed against each other are B and Y. If God does not exist, and one does not believe in him, again the value will be zero because nothing is gained or lost in this example. When the values for the variables X and Y are averaged, it shows that overall it does not hurt to believe in God. If one believes in God, there is no chance that the subject will go to hell. One who refuses to believe in God has a chance that he will end up in an infinitely bad place. Again, this argument does not try to prove that God exists; it is simply suggesting that when the options are weighed, believing in God projects a positive outcome. It is wise to believe in God because the worst outcome of one who believes in God is the same as one who does not. The chances are better of ending up in an infinitely good place by believing than refusing to believe. In his Meditations, Descartes tries to prove the existence of God. This feat is not easily accomplished because Descartes gives no physical proof of God. He tries to explain that God exists through his ideas. Using the Ex Nihilo principle, Descartes claims that the idea of God must have come from somewhere. This idea must have a cause. Because Descartes is finite and God is infinite, the idea is infinite and can only come from an infinite being. Through the objective reality principle, Descartes states that “there must be enough formal reality as objective reality from such a cause, therefore God must exist.” Simply put, the idea of God is so immaculate, that only an infinite being i.e. God, could come up with the idea. No finite person could possibly come up with the idea of God all on his own. This argument, although compelling, does not prove to the skeptics that God exists. A person could simply come up with the idea of an immaculate unicorn. One could say that a unicorn is so infinite that no one could possibly come up with the idea of all on his own. Does this mean that unicorns exist? Certainly this is not the case. Descartes, being that he believes in God, cannot describe how omniscient God is in his eyes. The argument fails because it does not appeal to those who do not already believe in God. Descartes basically says that God gave him the idea of God. For this to be true, one must believe that God exists in the first place. Descartes proves that God exists within his mind, but does not prove the physical God with hard evidence. Every single person could have an idea of God, but this does not mean that he actually exists. Just because someone has an idea does not give sufficient proof that the idea itself exists outside of the mind.

In his fifth meditation, Descartes attempts to prove that God exists outside of his mind in the external world, through the use of reduction ad absurdum. Reduction ad absurdum: attempt to prove a claim by assuming its opposite, and then deriving a contradiction. Descartes explains that he has an idea of God. God is the “being-than-which-no-greater-can-be-conceived.” This means that God exists inside the mind. Now assume the statement is false: the “being-than-which-no-greater-can-be-conceived” does not exist outside of the mind. If this is true, then there can be another being greater than the “being-than-which-no-greater-can-be-conceived.” One attribute that would be “greater” is if the being actually existed outside of the mind. Therefore there must be a being that is greater than the “being-than-which-no-greater-can-be-conceived,” but this is not possible: it is a contradiction. Therefore the idea that assuming the being does not exist outside of the mind is a contradiction as well and so God must exist outside of the mind as well. Again, Descartes has failed to prove anything because the logic does not follow. Just because a being exists in the mind does not mean it exists in the real world. How does Descartes make the jump? Could not one just think of a “unicorn-than-which-no-greater-can-be-conceived” and follow the same logic to conclude that unicorns exist outside the mind? The problem with Descartes’ arguments is that they are too personal to him. He believes that within his mind he is correct, but to the person that does not believe in God, the arguments lack proof that God is evident to all.

Descartes also says that God is perfect because he is all knowing, all powerful, all perfect, and all good. Existence, according to Descartes is a quality of perfection, therefore: God must exist, however God’s qualities contradict. If God is all perfect, he is the perfect evil. Also, God is all good. How can a being be good and evil? If God is all powerful he must control what happens in the world. God must cause natural disasters, and yet he is also all good. How can good come from disasters that kill so many people? It seems that Descartes has no concrete proof of God’s existence, so he decides to make up “qualities of perfection.” Because people exist, does that mean that people are perfect? The idea of perfection is difficult to prove. Nothing on earth is perfect; it can only exist in the mind; not in the actual world.

By incorporating logic into his argument, Pascal has appealed to everyone. Each and every person either believes in God or does not believe in him. Pascal then takes the two possibilities and decides the outcome. It is hard to argue with his reasoning because his argument is not driven through emotion like Descartes’. This is not to say, however that Pascal’s argument could not be incorrect. Some Religions have different Gods. Who is to say that the Christian God is the correct one to worship? Would the real God, assuming he exists, be angry with someone if they worshiped something else or something false? Pascal would argue that one should pick a religion that gives reward with heaven and damnation with hell to take full advantage of his chances. Even if forty different people worship different Gods, and only one is the true God, each of those forty will have a better chance of getting into heaven than a person who refuses to believe. Mathematically Pasqual’s Wager is air tight. What exactly does “belief” mean? If someone goes to church every week, is this good enough to get into heaven? What if a man accepts God as his savior ten seconds before he dies; does the man get into heaven? The questions are too tough to answer because no one knows for sure which is the true God or what constitutes a life that is worthy of heaven or hell. One thing is certain: if there is a God and one decides not to believe in any God at all, the chances are that he will end up in an infinitely bad situation. Perhaps proving God is too difficult of a task. Each individual has a bias against those who believe different. Descartes tries to tell people that his ideas are correct, so he does not show moral competence. The ideas he comes up with can easily be disproven. Descartes barely tries to refute opposing points of view. Pascal approaches the problem with appeals to emotion and logic. He uses all points of view and gives positive and negative values to the after life. Looking closely at both arguments, it is obvious that Pascal’s Wager provides a more solid argument than Descartes’ Meditations concerning God.

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