Philosophy of Religion

Chapter 8  Religious Language World Views and Reason 

Section 5 The Pragmatic Approach

    In this view whether the ideas or claims of a religion are true or not or make sense or not is not that important as those questions may not be resolvable. What is important is whether or not there are reasons for a person to be a believer and what difference it makes in the world to be a believer.

    Whether or not to believe becomes a matter for reasoning and calculating in terms of its consequences and not the veracity of the claims or the coherency of the set of religious beliefs.

    Pascal’s Wager

    This French thinker held that one should use reason to determine whether or not to believe in the existence of God. He utilized a rationalization as the basis for belief. He thought that a person should conduct an evaluation of the advantages of belief and weigh them against the disadvantages; a cost-benefit analysis. The result of his "calculations" was that he thought it far more reasonable to believe than not to for the rewards are greater and the possible disadvantages are far less if one is mistaken and it turns out that there is no deity at all.

    Table of possible consequences:


    God Exists

    God does not exist

    Believe in God

    Rewards are great

    Loss of a finite amount of pleasure

    Don’t Believe in God

    Eternal suffering

    Gain a finite amount of pleasure

    Therefore , it is better to believe!!!

     As summarized by Louis Pojman:

    “If I believe in God and God exists I win eternal happiness and infinite gain. If God does not exist, I suffer minor inconvenience. If I do not believe in God, and God exists, I lose eternal bliss. I suffer infinite loss infinite loss unhappiness.” “If I do not believe in God, and God does not exist “I gain a finite amount of pleasure.” 

    Non-Epistemic proofs are arguments for the existence of God that are not knowledge-based arguments. If understood properly, the non-epistemic proof should invoke a personal response. The power of Pascal's Wager is not found in valid rules of inference but in probability and possible outcomes. The Wager appeals to the gambler in us - not the philosopher. Other non-epistemic proofs have been formulated based on pragmatic concerns, beauty, morality, and more.


Problem with Pascal's Wager:  Clifford vs James

W.K. Clifford argues against such a wager and the Ethics of Belief.  He claims that we should never hold a belief without sufficient justification.    The moral foundation for promoting the use of reason in drawing conclusions is argued in In The Ethics of Belief (1877) ( Originally published in Contemporary Review, 1877) wherein  William K. Clifford  concludes that :

We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from that experience by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know.

We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.

It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence; and where it is presumption to doubt and to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to believe.

READ: Clifford, W. K.  “The Ethics of Belief.”  Lectures and Essays.  London:  Macmillan, 1879.

Summary by Meghan Ramsay, QCC 2004

In his essay, W.K. Clifford opposes the pragmatic justifications, like Pascal’s wager, for belief in the existence of a deity.  Clifford maintains that beliefs based upon insufficient evidence are always wrong.  In essence, believing in something just because it may prove to be beneficial in the long run is not genuine belief.  To illustrate his point, Clifford gives an example of a ship owner who sees that his ship is old and in need of repairs.  However, the ship owner manages to convince himself that his ship has made many voyages from which it has always returned safely, and he begins to sincerely believe that this trip will be no different than all of the previous ones.  Although the evidence before him suggests danger for the passengers, the owner has faith and lets the ship sail.  Clifford points out that if the ship sinks, the owner will be directly responsible for the deaths that occur as a result of his negligence.  Clifford also points out that even if the ship managed to make the voyage, the owner would still be guilty, he just wouldn’t be found out, as the question has to do with the foundation for his belief rather than the outcome.  In this case, the ship owner had no right to believe that the ship would be safe because of the evidence before him.  Clifford points out that it is not so much the belief that must be judged but the actions following the belief.  Even though the ship owner believed in the seaworthiness of his ship, he could have taken the precaution of having it examined before putting the lives of others on the line.  Yet Clifford points out that when acting in a way that is opposite of one’s belief, it seems to condemn the belief.  For example, if the ship owner truly believed that his ship was sound, he would have no reason to have it examined.  The examination would suggest that the owner did indeed have some doubts.  Clifford maintains that it is one’s duty to investigate both sides of an issue, and when one holds a belief that is not based upon evidence he looses his objectivity and is unable to perform that duty.  Additionally, Clifford points out that beliefs are all incredibly significant, as they lay the foundation for accepting or rejecting all other beliefs and provide the framework for future action.  Additionally, one’s beliefs are not private.  Beliefs are passed on within society and to future generations.  Beliefs which are based upon evidence and have been thoroughly investigated allow humanity to have mastery over more of the world, but when those beliefs are unfounded and contrary to evidence, the mastery resulting is counterfeit.  Clifford argues that beliefs that are unfounded are deceptive, as they make humans feel stronger and more knowledgeable when they really aren’t. 

            Clifford suggests that holding beliefs based upon insufficient evidence can lead to the downfall of society.  Even if these beliefs turn out to be true, society will suffer, as people will stop examining the issues with an open mind.  Humans will no longer inquire as to the validity of their beliefs.  They will become gullible and susceptible to fraud, hastening the downfall of civilization.  Thus, holding these unfounded beliefs and suppressing doubts is a sin against humanity.   

William James argues that there is sufficient justification.  There is a practical justification when one considers that we must make a decision and that believing can place one in a much better position.

READ: James, William.  The Will to Believe.  New York:  Longmans, Green & Co., 1897.

Summary by Meghan Ramsay, QCC 2004`

            In his response to W.K. Clifford, William James points out that there are two ways of viewing humanity’s duty in terms of opinion and belief.  He points out that we are commanded to know the truth and avoid error.  However, knowing the truth and avoiding errors are not one commandment stated in two ways.  Instead, they are separable, and stressing one over the other will provide vastly different results.  James maintains that those who place the avoidance of error above knowing the truth (such as W.K. Clifford), are keeping their minds in a constant state of suspense out of fear of being duped.  James likens this to a general telling his soldiers to avoid battle so that they do not suffer any injuries.  Victories over neither foes nor nature are won by not taking action.  Thus, James says, he is willing to face the occasional falsehood or dupe in order to eventually arrive at a true belief.  James does take into account that there are times when we can postpone making a decision until more sufficient evidence is provided.  However, we can only postpone making up our minds if the option is not a crucial one with earth-shattering consequences.  James points out that often the need to act is not so critical and urgent that we must risk acting upon a false belief than on no belief at all. 

            James then moves into religious beliefs.  He states that religion essentially states two things: 

  1. The best things are those which are eternal. 
  2. Belief in the first affirmation betters us now and forever.

James says that although the skeptic says he is awaiting more evidence before making his decision, he has, in all actuality already decided.  The skeptic, according to James has decided that it is better and wiser to dismiss the belief in these two affirmations for fear of being duped than it is to believe and hope that they are true.  In essence, by choosing to wait, the skeptic joins the side of the non-believer.  Since no one is absolutely certain as to the existence of God, one must make the choice whether or not to believe or wait for more proof.  However, choosing to wait is not considered being inactive—it’ is just as much an act as that of believing.  Ultimately, James concludes that whether to believe or not is up to the individual.  He maintains that one “enters at his/her own risk” (or does not enter at all at his/her own risk), and he concludes that no one should be intolerant of another’s choice whether to believe or not. 


Notes on W.K. Clifford and William James


READ:  Philip L. Quinn, Gale on a Pragmatic Argument for Religious Belief PHILO,  Volume 6, Number 1.

Abstract: This paper is a study of a pragmatic argument for belief in the existence of God constructed and criticized by Richard Gale. The argument's conclusion is that religious belief is morally permissible under certain circumstances. Gale contends that this moral permission is defeated in the circumstances in question both because it violates the principle of universalizability and because belief produces an evil that outweighs the good it promotes. My counterargument tries to show that neither of the reasons invoked by Gale suffices to defeat the moral permission established by the original argument.


Other Problems with Pascal's Wager:

Based on this work:   Richard T. Hull  Pascal's Wager: Not a Good Bet, Free Inquiry , Vol 25, No. 1. , Dec. 2004/Jan.2005

1. Many Gods Problem:

If a skeptic were to accept Pascal's invitation to believe in what deity would that person place their psychological commitment to believe?  There are different conception of the deity in different religions of the West and the East.  If the deity does exist and it is the one and only and it does pay attention to what humans do and it will reward and punish then the would-be believer needs more than Pascal's argument to arrive at  the proper conclusion as to exactly which conception of a deity to place trust and hope in in order to avoid the possibly vindictive deity who would punish both non-believers and those who believed in a "false" or inaccurate conception of the deity.

While " Pascal clearly intended his argument to persuade the reader to adopt belief in Christianity... the same argument can be given , with suitable substitution for the word God and its associated concept, for any other religion."

2. The assumption that believing in God has no different result than not believing in god , if there is no god. This is not always the case however.  If a person chooses to believe in a deity and that belief leads a person to certain actions such as using prayer in the place of medication for illnesses for which there are known cures then there is a decided difference.  A believer in the deity of the Christians or Islamic people might lead a person to a negative regard for others or even into physical acts of violence towards infidels.

3. "a similar argument could be given for believing in any supernatural conception of the world: forces that determine earthquakes, tornadoes, or floods or the supposed power of other humans to make magic, do psychic surgery or read minds."   

It would appear that Pascal's approach would have appeal for those who do not want to use the intellect to its fullest extent and investigate all claims about what exists or does not exist.  It would appeal to those who want to have some being to appeal to for favor or exemption from harms and ills or favor for support against those they would oppose.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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