Free Thought Pages
from my Dissertation
:Constructive Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief (Chapter 3, Sec 1-3) Ó
The Concept of Belief
Belief is not an activity, but a cognitive state of mind. Some beliefs are mutable, while others endure. It is not an affective state like an emotion or desire, but a disposition to respond or act in certain ways when the appropriate situation arises. Many people are disposed to credulity, a tendency to be easily deceived and to accept propositions too readily or on weak or insufficient evidence. Credulity is a second-order disposition about how we arrive at beliefs and is a disposition that can lead to subjectivity. Credulity is displayed in unqualified assent to propositions or belief in propositions that are not sufficiently grounded to justify belief in them. Credulity may be a function of a natural ignorance or an uncritical insensitivity in assessing evidence. It may result from a readiness to accept the prescriptions of authority or pre-eminence, submissive or acquiescent personality or mental self-manipulation, self-indulgence or intellectual sentimentality.
often try to convince people to believe things ("Believe in God and you
will have everlasting life.") or implore them not to ("How can you
believe in astrology?"), and although believing would hardly make sense if
it were not a matter of decision, it cannot be construed as an action. It is
characteristic of both believing and actions that they can be easy or hard and
that we provide reasons for them. But if believing was an activity or exercise,
when it ceased to occur we would stop believing. For example it makes sense to
say that "I will play tennis, but not right now" but it does not make
sense to say "I will believe that Clyde won the match, but not right
is generally accepted that believing is easy, and knowing is hard. It takes
something more to know because
knowledge requires, besides mere belief, some reliable coordination of internal
belief with external reality. If one takes no thought for whether a belief is
true or false, reliable or unreliable, then believing itself is simply an arbitrary
game with no rules - a sort of mental helter skelter. Knowing is hard, but the
cognitive demands of believing should not be child's play either. To speak of
simply deciding to believe something, independently of any reasons real or
imagined, is to stretch the notion of "belief" beyond belief. After
all, is not care in managing our beliefs exactly what the study of reasoning and
philosophy is supposed to teach us? Suppose, for example, the richest man in the
world will grant you a billion dollars if you believe in the Tooth Fairy and
disbelieve in gravitation. Also, suppose that this rich man has special
telepathic powers in which he can decipher the contents of your mind and
ascertain what you "really" believe. Is it possible for belief to be
an act of the will in this way? I do not think so. To believe in the Tooth Fairy
and reject gravitational theory, a person is going to have to make serious
modifications to the remainder of his belief system and come to believe a whole
range of other propositions that will become epistemically irrational for him.
The nature of belief prevents this since belief surely cannot be a simple
non-epistemic act of the will, although those who speak of a “leap of faith”
reject this hypothesis
it then possible for us to believe something while holding there is no more
reason to believe it than its contrary? Is the notion of a leap of faith
psychologically intelligible at all? These are difficult questions. Moreover,
since a leap of faith can be made to any one of an infinite number of
metaphysical positions and world-views, what criteria are to be used in the
process of selection? The notion, recurrent in Kierkegaard’s writings on
Christianity, for example, that belief is subject to the will is a highly
problematic one in philosophy, and is plagued by ambiguities. We can surely
decide to act as if we believed a
particular proposition to be true, leaving the matter of its actual truth-value,
provisionally at least, undetermined. This is clear enough and can often be
allowed to occur. Kierkegaard seemed to suggest, as did Pascal, that personal
involvement, commitment and perseverance in action would have the consequence
that a person will eventually come to believe the proposition in fact and not
merely hypothetically. What is less likely is that we can, consciously and
directly, set ourselves to believe something tout
court, irrespective of any grounds we
might have for supposing it to be true and even perhaps in the face of what we
see to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Moreover, these difficulties
are exacerbated if what we are asked to believe is stated to be inherently
paradoxical - not only lacking in objective foundation, but intrinsically
offensive from a rational standpoint. In what sense can I undertake to believe
something that I recognize to be inconsistent, self-contradictory, opaque,
contrary to experience or literally unthinkable? But this, it would seem, is the
essence of Kierkegaard’s thesis - the very intelligibility of the claim that
one can believe what one at the same time recognizes to be necessarily or
Many beliefs and belief systems cannot in fact be epistemically justified since
they are culturally inculcated conditioned responses and a function of habit, or
perhaps the product of a doctrinaire upbringing. It is no coincidence that out
of all the belief systems and world-views, the overwhelming majority just happen
to choose the one that their parents or society adhere to rather than the belief
system that is the most coherent and plausible, has the most evidential support,
the most equitable moral code, the best miracles, and so on.
could be argued, however, that all beliefs grounded in authority are to some
extent a function of "faith," particularly if there is some element of
risk in acting on those beliefs or putting them into practice. For example, it
would seem odd to say that one has faith that
"2+3=3+2" or that "the sun will rise tomorrow" but
quite sensible to say "I have faith in Allah and the tenets of the
Koran." Faith is, it would appear; a species of belief and it makes sense
to speak of a credulous or "blind" faith (e.g., "The Lord will
provide" or "My Country, right or wrong") and a rational faith
(e.g., "I have faith in my physician's diagnosis of a peptic ulcer").
"Blind faith" can justify anything but "rational faith", or
perhaps "trust" would be a better word, must have some significant
degree of evidential support. To use faith as if it were an alternative way to
the truth cannot bypass the crucial question of whether such results really have
any likelihood of being true.
Belief and Truth
Belief is not independent of truth since: (1) what is believed must
either be true or false (since the formal object of belief is always a
proposition), and (2) what is believed, even if it happens to be false, is
believed to be true. If we value the truth,
then "psychological" assent to a proposition, without a commitment to
determining whether or not it is true, comes at a heavy cost to intellectual
integrity. Intellectual integrity requires that one be on guard against what he
wishes to be true and to pursue an argument even if it leads to conclusions that
are judged to be regrettable. For example, some, despite the strong arguments in
its favor, that materialism is false, may desire it. I have also suggested in
the previous section that the concept of belief as construed as an act of the
will is problematic. If the object of belief is truth, then
I could acquire a belief at will, I could not acquire it not knowing whether it
was true or not; moreover I would know that I could acquire it whether it was
true or not. If in full consciousness I could will to acquire a
"belief" irrespective of its truth, it is unclear that before the
event I could seriously think of it as a belief, i.e., something purporting to
could be said that an increase or decrease in knowledge is an increase or
decrease in its extent, whereas
sometimes an increase or decrease in a belief is an increase or decrease in its intensity.
But the intensity of a belief cannot be counted on to reflect its supporting
evidence any more than its causes can.
One obvious test of evidence is this: "would it still be taken to support
the belief if we stripped away all motives for wanting the belief to be
As Clifford has stated
fact that believers have found joy and peace in believing gives us the right to
say that the doctrine is a comfortable doctrine, and pleasant to the soul; but
it does not give us the right to say that it is true. And the question that
our conscience is always asking about that which we are tempted to believe is
not, "Is it comfortable and pleasant?" but, "Is it true?"
Many beliefs are, of course, a function of a process of rationalization,
wishful thinking or self-deception and it remains an open question as to whether
all those processes are morally wrong.
Nevertheless, "to maintain any belief while dismissing, or refusing to give
due weight to, reasonable and relevant objections, is to show that you are more
concerned to maintain that belief than really to know whether it or some other
is, after all, true."
As I have pointed out earlier, there is a strong inclination, particularly among
adults, to believe what they want to believe, to see what they want to see,
conclude what they expect to conclude and to ignore or discount disconfirmatory
evidence. A person's motivations influence his beliefs via the subtle ways he
chooses a comforting pattern from the fabric of evidence. A person's preferences
influence not only the kind of evidence he considers, but also the amount he
examines. When the initial evidence supports an individual's preferences, he
becomes self-satisfied and terminates the inquiry. Conversely, when the initial
evidence is unfavorable, he resumes his search for confirmatory evidence to
reveal reasons to believe that the original evidence was faulty. For example,
when Jane loses 6-1, 6-0 to Joan in tennis, rather than accepting the rather
clear evidence of her deficiencies as a tennis player, she will attempt to
account for the loss by searching for further "evidence" such as
problems with the tension of the string, external distractions, her biorhythm
and so on.
Belief, Faith and Pascal's Wager
faith, which H.L. Mencken glibly defined to be "the illogical belief in the
highly improbable" and which Nietzsche defined as "not wanting to know what is true,"
is relevant to the present discussion. A colleague recently tried to convince me
of the belief in the existence of the Christian God by arguing that "you
can't prove that God does not
and explained why this particular belief is a "no lose" situation. I
countered by stating that the burden of proof for exceptional claims such as the
existence of God rests with the believer and quoted T.H. Huxley's well known
axiom: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and
"the more a fact conflicts with previous experience, the more complete must
be the evidence which is to justify one's belief in it." Moreover, when
there is no good reason for thinking a claim to be true, that
in itself is good reason for thinking the claim to be false and, accordingly, a
proof of X's non-existence usually derives from the fact that there is no good
reason for supposing that X does
exist. Michael Scriven subscribes to this view when he states that "the
proper alternative, when there is no evidence, is not mere suspension of belief:
it is disbelief."
In bringing this maxim to bear on theism, Scriven goes on to say that
"atheism is obligatory in the absence of evidence of God's existence."
If epistemically null conditions could obtain for any proposition p and its
denial ~p, then it seems we would be forced to disbelieve p, thereby believing
~p, and to disbelieve ~p, thereby believing p. But this is absurd, so
epistemically null conditions cannot obtain both for a proposition and its
denial. The absence of a positive epistemic consideration in favor of p will
just be a positive epistemic consideration in favor of ~p, and vice versa.
stated further that, in my opinion, Pascal's notorious wager
and William James "Will to Believe" are strange distortions of the
notion of belief, my colleague responded by saying that he was familiar with
neither Pascal nor James. I explained Pascal's wager and argued that, since
there is little or no evidence for the existence of God and rational people
harbor reasonable doubts about it, surely a just God who values rationality
would not punish people for being reasonable. In fact, He might even reward the
skeptics for their independent habits of thought and punish believers for their
credulity. In other words, there might be a god who looked with more favor on
honest doubters and atheists who, in Hume's words, proportioned their belief to
the evidence, than on mercenary manipulators of their own understandings.
Indeed, this would follow from the ascription to God of moral goodness in any
sense that we can understand. The sort of god required for Pascal is modeled
upon a monarch stupid enough and vain enough to be pleased with self-interested
flattery. We are, in effect, back with the god of the Book of Job, and, whatever
we may think of Job himself, there can be no doubt that Jehovah comes out of
that story very badly. Moreover, it never seems to be thought that since God has
made us flawed in so many ways, He might also have seriously limited our
capacity to find out precisely what He wants us to do.
further quite obvious objection to Pascal's wager is the problem of numerous
different versions of theism, many of which promise eternal bliss, all vying for
credence. It is even logically possible that there exists a being who promises
infinite eternal reward to all and only those who deny the existence of other
claimants to worship, including the Christian God, yielding a dilemma equivalent
to a practical contradiction: a rational person both ought and ought not to bet
on, say, the Christian God. Perhaps the biggest reason why Pascal's wager is a
failure is that if God is omniscient he will certainly know who really believes
and who believes on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. He will spurn the latter
- assuming He actually cares at all whether people believe in Him. And finally,
it would seem that a fair and just God would judge people on their actions in
life and not whether they happen to believe in Him.
wager could at most give us only psychological reasons (motives) for wishing
that we believed or could believe. What we lack are good reasons (grounds) for
having this kind of faith. The postulation of a Supreme Being has, ever since I
was a youngster, seemed to me "throwing in the towel", a refusal to
take complex problems seriously - a facile, groundless and evasive response to
deeply disturbing difficulties. It welcomes the self-comforting delusion that we
know what we do not know, and have answers that we do not have, thereby denying
the true humility of awe, wonder, mysteriousness, and perhaps, inexplicability
of what is. By sheer chance I had what I perceive to be the good fortune to
arrive at these conclusions early in life when I became aware of the
contradictions between my experiences and what I was told at Sunday school. One
example of this was the result of my dear mother's efforts to comfort me following
the death of my dog Rusty who died after being struck by an automobile. My
mother, in her efforts to console, assured me that I would eventually meet Rusty
again in Heaven. But later at Sunday school I was informed that dogs do not have
"souls" and consequently will not enjoy an afterlife. I did not find my mother's explanation
convincing and I have since been highly suspicious of facile explanations and
solutions to difficult questions. The efforts of my mother and my teachers to
answer my pressing metaphysical queries were not successful, and I could not understand why so many other students were not interested in these
deep existential questions that seemed so important to me, and appeared to have no easy answers.
Hence, if beliefs persist and there are no reasons for holding them, we should look for causes
- look what makes people believe as they do. Belief in God is
irrational - perhaps absurd - but, as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Santayana and Freud
have shown, the psychological need for this construct of the human heart is so
great, that in cultures like ours many people must believe in spite of the
manifest absurdity of their belief. They can accept and see the absurdity in the
religious beliefs of primitive tribes and ancient cultures and sometimes, as
with Kierkegaard and Pascal, they can partially see it and accept it in their
own culture, but the acceptance is not unequivocal and the full absurdity of
their own belief remains hidden from them.
Russell was highly critical of pragmatic devices like Pascal's wager, asserting
true precept of veracity, which includes both the pursuit of truth and the
avoidance of error, is this: "We ought
to give every proposition which we consider as nearly possible that degree of
credence which is warranted by the probability it acquires from the evidence
known to us. The further questions, what propositions to consider, and how much
trouble to take to acquire knowledge of the evidence, depend of course upon our
circumstances and the importance of the issue. But to go about the world
believing everything in the hope that thereby we shall believe as much truth as
possible is like practicing polygamy in the hope that among so many we shall
find someone who will make us happy.
I am inclined to think that Pascal's advice carries with it a large dose
of intellectual dishonesty and self-deception. William James, as we shall soon
see, appears to advocate the same thing. Brand Blanshard attacks this Pascalian/Jamesian
pragmatic defense of religious claims:
only evidence that is relevant to the truth of a belief is evidence that is logically
relevant... James was thus left in the uneasy position of saying that we were
justified morally in accepting what we were clearly not justified in accepting
logically; I say uneasy because if we know that we are not logically justified,
to say that we are morally justified is to warrant an attempt at self-deception.
Hence, what ought not to be allowed, if rational belief is to be objective, is that it be dependent on the particular value judgments or motives of the believer or on the kind of application or consequences the belief is going to have.
are, in many respects, like possessions. An individual acquires material goods
because of the satisfaction they provide and one often feels inclined to
purchase and retain beliefs in a like manner.
This similarity is captured in our language by people referring to beliefs as
being "adopted", "inherited", "acquired",
"held", "maintained", "lost", and
"abandoned." However, in the marketplace of beliefs one must be an
astute and discriminating shopper. There are many things one is enticed to
believe, and to do so would often be comforting and agreeable. The will to
believe in ESP, for example,
is likely motivated by the fact that it entails several other comforting
corollaries and opens up many inviting prospects such as the prospect of an
"afterlife." There are many beliefs to be purchased at
bargain-basement prices; but in acquiring some of these consolatory beliefs, one
pays a high price in rationality and intellectual sincerity. There are many
things we would like to believe but reality gets in the way. Furthermore, many
people tend to be quite protective and tenacious about their beliefs and become
overly sensitive and defensive when their beliefs are challenged and exposed to
intellectual scrutiny and criticism. Others, aware of this neuroticism, are
reluctant to openly question the beliefs of another, particularly those beliefs
that lack substantial evidential support such as political and religious creeds.
Many people of course try to avoid potential conflict with others and often
feign agreement with the claims of others in order to "play ball" or
to avoid being branded by the "group" as offensive, negative,
unfriendly, or hostile. The hidden assumption in statements such as "I
trust you won't mind if I'm perfectly frank" is usually false when it comes
to criticism of another's cherished beliefs. Moreover, with the notion of
"political correctness" seemingly dominating and restricting present
day rational discourse, many topics such as religious and ethnic beliefs have
become societal sacred cows. For example, many skeptics consider it dangerous
politically or socially to apply their critical thinking to scriptural claims.
The plight of Salman Rushdie is ample evidence of the paranoia that presently
exists, and probably always has existed, in religious communities.
to Pascal, it would seem that with his infamous wager he was employing the
“Principle of Insufficient Reason” which John Maynard Keynes, in his Treatise
on Probability, renamed the “Principle of Indifference”. The principle
can be stated as follows: If a person has no good reason for supposing a
proposition to be true or false, then he assigns even odds to the probability of
both truth and falsity. The principle has had a long notorious history having
been applied is such disparate fields as science,
statistics, economics, philosophy, ethics and psychic research. Unfortunately,
its application often leads to absurdities and paradoxes, if not wholesale
logical contradictions. If one assumes that Pascal believed the odds of both the
Christian God existing and the Christian God not existing to be even,
one can easily see how it can lead to inconsistencies.
illustrate the problematic nature of the principle, consider the following. All
theistic religions make claims about the existence of their God or Gods. Now,
there have been a multitude of theistic claims throughout history and it is
estimated that there are in the order of 200 theistic religions in the world
today. In one of his well-known satirical essays, Memorial Service
(1922), H.L. Mencken lists approximately 100 Gods that are no longer with us
because of the dissolution of the cultures that believed in them. As Mencken
proclaims in his closing statement of the essay, “They were all gods of the
highest dignity - gods of civilized people - worshipped and believed in by
millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.”
All these theistic religions claimed exclusivity; that is, their God is the one
and only God. Now, if the probability of the Christian God’s existence is .5,
the probability of the Muslim God’s existence is .5, the probability of the
Jewish God’s existence is .5, and so on, one can calculate the following: The
probability of the Christian God’s existence is (.5)n, where n
represents the number of religions making exclusive claims to a deity, the
probability of the Christian God existing is .5, and the probability of all the
other God’s not existing are .5 respectively. But the probability of the
Christian God existing or the probability of the Christian God not existing must
equal 1, an obvious contradiction since (.5)n + .5 = 1 if and only if
n = 1.
It might be argued, in defense of Pascal, that he was actually following a course recognized as valid in the theory of utility in Decision Theory (i.e., Expected utility = p(outcome) x value(of outcome). The only unresolved issue is the fact that here Pascal uses infinity as a multiplier (i.e., "degree of happiness" = (infinite happiness in heaven), but p(of this bliss) = 1/n (as n ® ¥), since, based upon subjective empirical probabilities concerning God's existence, it would be reasonable to assign a probability near zero to this event. Such relationships are considered acceptable in Decision theory. There is, however, some serious question about the use of probability assignments at all. It seems clear to me that the only interpretation of probability relevant and useable here is the subjective one; yet how are even subjective probability assignments supposed to arise out of the mere insistence that theism is not demonstrably impossible? Its mere possibility need not be taken to endow it with any positive probability at all. Even if it could be argued that theism and atheism are in approximate epistemic parity, no decision between them can be made on purely epistemic grounds and some form of agnosticism would seem to be the appropriate doxastic stance if no considerations other than purely epistemic ones could or should enter into such decisions. It should also be pointed out that Decision Theory by itself is an instrumental theory of best action, not of rational action. For those who are intellectually honest, belief is based upon evidence and plausibility, not upon the power of the will or cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, is it not irrational to gamble on an infinitesimal probability, even though the stakes are high? Purchasing a Lotto Canada ticket when the odds of winning anything of significance are in the order of fourteen million to one is a case in point.
References: Abelson, R.P. (1986) "Beliefs are like
Possessions." Journal for The Theory of Social Behaviour, vol. 16,
Brand (1974) Reason and Belief. London: Allen & Unwin.
W.K. (1877) Lectures and Essays,Vol 2, eds. L. Stephen & F. Pollock,
London: MacMillan, 1901
Flew, Antony (1975) Thinking About Thinking, London: Fontana/Collins
Flew, Antony (1982) "A Strong Program for the Sociology of Belief." Inquiry, vol. 25, pp. 365-385
Kaufman, Walter (1961) Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday
Martin, Robert M. (1992) There are Two Errors....
Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.
Mencken, H. L. (1982)
A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York: Vintage Books
Morris, Thomas V. (1986) "Pascalian Wagering", Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 437-454.
Nietzsche, F. (1885) The AntiChrist/Twilight of the Idols, trans.R.J. Hollingdale, New York: Penguin, 1985.
Price, H.H. (1969) Belief. (Gifford Lectures, 1960). London: Allen
& Ulliam, J.S. (1978) The Web of Belief. New York: Random House
Bertrand (1966) Philosophical Essays. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ryle, Gilbert (1949) The Concept of Mind.
London: Penguin Books, 1968.
Sartre, Jean Paul (1956) Being and Nothingness. trans. Hazel Barnes, New York: Washington Square Press, 1966.
(1966) Primary Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill
(1982) "A Lesson in Gambling with Pascal", Teaching Philosophy,
Vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 311-312.
Williams, Bernard (1973) Problems of the Self. New York: Cambridge University Press
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. G.E.M.
Anscombe & G.H. Von Wright trans. & eds. New York: Harper &
For Gilbert Ryle, it is a mistake to think of a belief as any kind of
private mental state, activity or occurrence. Beliefs are dispositions,
whereas knowledge is more akin to an ability. According to Ryle's account in
The Concept of Mind (1949), a person has a disposition if he is
inclined to speak and behave in a particular way. In light of the
limitations of this thesis, I shall sidestep the difficult analysis of the
concept of belief and follow the lead of Ryle and
H.H. Price. Price (1969) states that "A believes that P"
is to attribute a multiform disposition to A which is manifested or
actualized in many different ways: not only in actions but in emotional
states, feelings of doubt, surprise, confidence, and inferences.
Wittgenstein argues that we do not acquire our beliefs by being dragged and
screaming, as it were, out of
skepticism (skeptics are made, not born). Nor do we carefully weigh the
evidence of every proposition recommended to us. Rather, our culture teaches
us to organize our experience in certain ways by giving us conceptions,
rules of use, names, and so on. We acquire a picture of the world; that is,
a loosely connected network of propositions in which the consequences and
premises are mutually supporting. (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, p.
21.) It is against this background that doubt arises, either because what we
expect is contradicted by our experiences in the world, or because we find
ourselves entertaining propositions that are, or whose consequences are,
contradictory. In other words, we begin by believing and we must have
grounds for skepticism. Clifford would argue that it should be the opposite.
Kierkegaard, in attempting to
create a barrier for Christianity against the presumptions and incursions of
rationalism, has done so at the cost of giving no grounds for preferring
Christianity to any other religion or system of belief and even robbing it
of all serious pretensions to credibility. Obviously a good deal depends
here on how the ideas in question are taken. It is one thing to regard
acceptance of the Christian faith as commitment to a self-contained sphere
or Wittgensteinian “form of life”, not itself finally justifiable by
external criteria or modes of assessment; it is another to treat its content
as being in some sense essentially paradoxical, avowedly “absurd” or
contradictory. In so far as Kierkegaard subscribed to the second, and not
merely the first, of these positions, his standpoint has been felt - not
unnaturally - to present special problems.
It is interesting to note that for classical Greek philosophy, as for
Plato, faith (pistis) is the lowest form of belief, characteristic only of the
wholly uneducated, who fail to reflect critically on what they experience or
are told. The Jewish-inspired Christian emphasis on faith struck educated
pagan observers with astonishment; it represented, in their eyes, the
extreme of anti-intellectualism -
Evidence for a belief must be distinguished from the motives
and causes of belief; for some
causes of belief can be counted as evidence and some cannot. When someone is
said to have some reason for believing a certain proposition, we may need
to ask whether this reason is a ground
for holding that the proposition is actually true or whether it is a motive
for persuading himself of it, irrespective of whether it is true or not. In
the former case we can speak of a reason (ground), in the latter of a reason
(motive). Many beliefs are caused
by social factors such as what we have been taught by our elders, or
"picked up from [our] peers by social osmosis." (Antony Flew
(1982), p. 367-69; also Flew (1975), p. 58.)
Of course it is a fundamental point of logic
that one cannot disprove a universal negative. I cannot, for example, prove
the non-existence of super intelligent invisible green goblins residing on
the planet Neptune.
Scriven (1966), p. 103-104. Scriven would argue that agnosticism is really a
confused position. The self-styled agnostic who suspends judgment about the
existence of God while asserting without hesitation that, of course,
Aphrodite, Zeus and Satan do not exist, and there are no angels or mermaids,
is confused: he takes it for granted that Satan and angels have to be
conceived anthropomorphically, while God must not be considered that way.
However, once we leave the absurdly false but intelligible claims of a very
anthropomorphic and religiously and rationally unacceptable theism, we get
versions of Christianity and Judaism which make central claims. But for them
it cannot be ascertained under what conditions they would be false or
probably false, and their logical status and indeed their very intelligibility
and coherence is problematical or anomalous. It therefore seems that the
agnostic, unless he is willing to suspend judgment rather than deny extraordinary
claims such as the existence of Bigfoot, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy,
the Loch Ness monster, disembodied spirits and a host of other alleged
paranormal entities, he should also be willing to deny the existence of God.
Scriven points out that at least Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster are not
alleged to possess any powers or attributes of an utterly unprecedented
sort. But when a claim asserts the existence of something that is greatly at
odds with our previous experience and our best scientific knowledge, we
rightly regard the claim as very probably false until we are provided with
truly strong evidence in its favor. Thus we are not too skeptical when we
read in the newspapers that the world record for the 100 metre dash has been
exceeded by one-tenth of a second. However, one would be considered
credulous to uncritically accept a newspaper report of someone sprinting
across Canada in one day. The same would hold for claims that human beings
can be cured of a terminal illness by Gregorian chants or by the words of an
evangelist faith healer. The relevance of these considerations to
theistic claims of an omnipotent, omniscient deity that does not exist in
space or time (but can act in space and time) is obvious.
Pascal's Wager:"If God does not exist, we can still believe in Him with
impunity, but if he does exist, we doubt him at our peril; therefore it is
the counsel of prudence to believe in God." (Quine & Ulliam (1978),
p. 61) It would seem that the argument is aimed at convincing open-minded
self-interested skeptics, whose coolness about their prospects for
immortality horrifies Pascal, that they should become involved
on the side of those Christians committed to immortality -
but it seems to me no such person would accept the premises. It seems
more likely that the argument is not for the skeptic who is satisfied
with this world, but is rather for the person who is conscious of the
miserable human condition. It is certainly consistent for a self-interested
rational skeptic to feel unhappy about man's lot. But even if he had the
appropriate existential human longings, the rational skeptic must find
Pascal's argument invalid. The primary source can be found in Pascal's
Pensees and the Provincial Letters, trans. W. F. Trotter, New York,
1941, pp. 79 - 85 (Sections 233 - 241 of the Pensees).
More people in the United States believe in ESP than in Evolution.
("Gallup Poll of Beliefs" (1989) Skeptical Inquirer, vol.
13 (3), pp. 244-45 and "Scientific Literacy" (1989) Skeptical
Inquirer, vol. 13 (4), pp. 343-45.)
The French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Laplace once used the
principle to calculate the probability of the sun rising at 1,826,214
It would seem that Pascal must have considered the probability of the
Christian God’s existence to be sufficiently high, otherwise his wager
argument would carry little weight. In any event, any such probability would
be a priori and highly speculative and if the odds of the Christian God’s
existence were extremely low, say 1 in 1010, then the wager
argument could not take flight.
H.L. Mencken (1982), p. 98.
Many would argue that basic religious concepts and propositions are
unintelligible or, at best, incoherent and therefore incapable of being
rational objects of belief. Hence, for a reflective and concerned human
being possessing a reasonable scientific and philosophical understanding of
the world, some form of agnosticism or atheism is the most nonevasive option
for such a person.