Pascal's Updated Wager (A Summary)

By: Jordan Hampton

Published: 02/17/21

For over a year, I've been creating videos summarizing each chapter of Dr. Michael Rota's book, Taking Pascal's Wager. I've now reached the end. This post will be a brief summary of the main argument of his book. I've added hyperlinks to the corresponding videos if you want to go deeper.

Here is Rota's main argument. I call it, "Pascal's Updated Wager"

  1. If Christianity has at least a 50% chance of being true, then it is rational to commit to living a Christian life.

  2. Christianity has at least a 50% chance of being true.

  3. It is rational to commit to living a Christian life.

This is a logically valid argument, so the conclusion must be true if both premises are true.

Rota argued for the truth of premise 1 using decision theory. He did this in two basic steps. Step one was to create a decision matrix. And step two was to determine which strategy is most dominant.

Rota’s decision matrix contrasts Christianity with alternative worldviews, beginning with Naturalism. That matrix had four possible outcomes.

  • If you commit to living a Christian life and Christianity is true, then you’ve maximized your chance at eternal life, and you’re more likely to help others find eternal life. We called this “outcome WC.”

  • If you commit to living a Christian life and Naturalism is true, then you’ve lost certain temporary pleasures, and perhaps sacrificed some relationships. But you’ve still maximized your chance at a happier, more satisfying and longer life, while also being more charitable and sacrificial with your time and money. We called this “outcome WN.”

  • If you don’t commit and Christianity is true, then you’ve decreased your chance at eternal life. You’ll also be less likely to help others find eternal life. We called this “outcome ~WC.”

  • If you don’t commit and Naturalism is true, then you’ve gained certain temporary pleasures and relationships. But you’ve lowered your chance at a happier, more satisfying and longer life. You’d also be less likely to volunteer, and give time and money sacrificially. We called this “outcome ~WN.”

Rota then identified commitment as the most dominant strategy. Why? Well, commitment is far better than non-commitment if Christianity is true. And commitment is either better than, equal to, or only slightly worse than non-commitment if naturalism is true. That means if you commit, there’s a lot to gain, and not much to lose, making commitment the most dominant strategy.

Now one could be rational not to commit in this case if one thought that the chance of Christianity being true was really low, and the chance of naturalism being true was really high. But as long as the odds are about 50/50, commitment to living a Christian life is the most dominant strategy here.

But what about other worldviews? Well, you can swap those in for naturalism and follow the same steps. If you put in a worldview similar to Christianity in its rewards and consequences (like Islam for example), then the comparison of costs & benefits of each outcome will pretty much cancel each other out, and the most dominant strategy will then be based on the likelihoods. In this case you should commit to the one that seems more likely to be true, and this is where evidence from natural theology and history comes in.

So that’s the rationale behind Rota’s first premise. To see other objections to this premise, and Rota's responses to them, click here.

But what about Rota’s second premise? Is it true? He considers several lines of evidence and counterevidence.

  • First he argued that a necessary being exists and was involved in the production of our universe. His argument was that the entire group of all contingent beings that have ever existed (call it group C) has a causal explanation, and that explanation can’t be a member of the group C because group C would then be self-caused, so it must be a being outside that group. But if it’s outside the group of all contingent beings then it must be a necessary being.

  • Rota then offered a fine-tuning argument to show that this necessary being is intelligent. But if it is intelligent it must have a mind, making it a personal necessary being. This fine-tuning argument used Bayes’ theorem to show that the probability of a life-permitting universe (or multiverse for that matter) is greater on theism than on naturalism. To see some objections to this argument, and Rota's responses to them, click here.

  • Next, Rota provided two arguments to think that this personal necessary being is the God of Christianity. The first was that Christianity possesses a ring of truth in its moral beauty and existential resonance. The second was that the resurrection of Jesus best explains a minimal set of historical facts, and Jesus’s resurrection provides strong evidence for the truth of Christianity.

  • Last, Rota considers the counter-evidence appealing to the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. He responded to this counterevidence with an expanded free will defense that would lead one to expect vast amounts of suffering and potentially gratuitous evil in order to preserve human freedom, reveal our need to be rescued, and grow morally and spiritually so we have closer union with God.

Rota thinks that after weighing the positive and negative evidence, Christianity has at least a 50% chance of being true. And that’s the rationale for the truth of Rota’s second premise.

So what do you think? Are both premises true? If yes, then it’s not only rationally permissive, but rationally required of you to live a deeply Christian life. Begin praying, reading the Bible, and attending church. If no, which premise is false, and why? This is where your investigation begins. Wrestle with the argument for yourself, but just try to do it fairly. That means you need to do two major things.

  1. Try to control for your biases. Watch out for confirmation bias. If for example, you’re someone who is already convinced that theism or Christianity is false, you should be extra careful not to simply dismiss evidence in favor of them. Be critical of your knee-jerk reactions, and talk about the arguments with other people, especially people you disagree with.

  2. Employ the principle of charity. This will involve interpreting the arguments in the most favorable way that seems reasonable, and, when you identify a problem with an argument, exploring whether there is a way to patch up the problem.

Well that concludes this series on Dr. Michael Rota’s book, Taking Pascal’s Wager. If you want more, check out my interview with Dr. Michael Rota. And for a different updated version of Pascal’s Wager, check out my interview with Dr. Liz Jackson! Her work on the topic is really interesting and compelling in my opinion.