Transformative Experience and Pascal’s Wager

by Joseph Shieber

One of the most famous philosophical arguments is Pascal’s Wager, an attempt by the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to provide ammunition for religious believers in their struggles against nonbelief.

The Wager works like this. First, there are two possible states of affairs that you’re to consider: either God exists or God doesn’t exist. Second, there are two possible attitudes you could adopt with respect to God’s existence: either you believe that God exists or you don’t believe that God exists (you either actively believe that God doesn’t exist or you withhold belief in God’s existence.

This gives us the following possible combinations, with their resultant outcomes:

  1. You believe & God exists: eternal bliss in heaven
  2. You believe & God doesn’t exist: one false belief
  3. You don’t believe & God doesn’t exist: one true belief (at best)
  4. You don’t believe & God exists: eternal torment in hell

This way of setting out the case for belief vs. nonbelief does not do the nonbeliever any favors. 

If you don’t believe, the optimal result would be that God doesn’t exist. Then you would have one more true belief than the rubes who falsely believe (assuming of course that you actively disbelieve, rather than merely withholding belief in God’s existence). The other possibility for non-believers, however, is truly horrible. If you don’t believe and God DOES exist, then you are damned to an eternity of suffering in hell.

Contrast this with the situation for believers. The worst case for them is that they believe, but God doesn’t exist. Still not so bad! Just one additional false belief! If, however, God DOES exist, then the believer can look forward to a reward of eternal life in heaven.

Now, there are a variety of ways to object to the set-up of the Wager.

For example, you could question whether God would punish nonbelievers with eternal damnation. That doesn’t seem like something an omnibenevolent being would do. Or you could argue that the situation for the believer in the case in which God doesn’t exist is actually much worse than simply having one false belief: the belief that God exists causes you to structure your life in very different ways, leading you to lose out on many experiences that you would otherwise be able to enjoy. 

Or, perhaps most problematically, you could argue that, given the multitude of religious traditions on Earth, the situation is not a happy one even for the religious believer. Not only do you have to believe in God in order to enjoy the spiritual windfall of an eternity in heaven, but you have to believe in the RIGHT God. You’re a devout Catholic, but it turns out that Calvinism was the correct wager? Too bad for you!

I don’t want to focus on potential problems for the Wager, however. Even taking it on its face, I have never found it compelling. The problem for me, however, is that in some sense I feel that I SHOULD find the Wager extremely compelling. Here’s why.

A few years back, the philosopher L.A. Paul made headlines with a discussion of the puzzles for rationality associated with what she termed “transformative experiences.” Transformative experiences – like the experience of becoming a parent for the first time, or of genuinely embracing religious belief – are experiences that change your life in unexpected ways, ways that you are unable to predict prior to having the experience itself. (I discuss Paul on transformative experiences in the first lecture of Theories of Knowledge: How to Think About What You Know.)

Paul suggests that there are at least two challenges for rationality associated with transformative experiences. The first is that, if the experience is genuinely transformative, then you cannot imagine what the experience is like PRIOR to experiencing it. This means that you cannot rely on your expectation in deciding whether to have the experience at all in the first place.

The second, and perhaps more fundamental challenge, is that you yourself will change as the result of undergoing the transformative experience. This means that it might not be possible for you both to undergo a transformative experience and to judge whether that experience was one that you affirm as worthwhile: it might be the case that, in undergoing the transformative experience, the “you” that results is not the same “you” from before, so that the report of the new “you” as to the worth of the experience should not count as evidence that the old “you” would have found the experience worthwhile.

A good example of this would be genuine religious belief. It’s possible that genuine religious beliefs would change other aspects of your personality, your goals, and other beliefs of yours, so that you would no longer, in some sense, be the same person that you were before you acquired those genuine religious beliefs. If that’s right, then the testimony of the religious believer as to the value of their religious experience cannot be understood as the testimony of a nonbeliever who simply acquires a new belief, but must be understood as the testimony of a new person, a person whose priorities and system of values would be very different from that of the nonbeliever – even the nonbeliever inhabiting the same skin!

This is a lesson that should not be surprising for many religious believers themselves. For example, in 2 Corinthians 5:17 you can read that, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

These two challenges suggest that we can’t apply normal rational decision procedures to the case of transformative experiences. Consider, in contrast, a normal case. If I’m trying to decide whether to eat a healthy, nutritious salad or a croque monsieur for lunch, both of which I’ve eaten before, I can simply weigh up the pluses and minuses of each of the two options and decide which, overall, is preferable.

In the case of transformative experiences, I cannot follow this procedure. I can’t “weigh up the pluses and minuses” because, if the experience is genuinely transformative, I don’t KNOW all of the attributes of the experience that would count as pluses or minuses. That’s the first of the two problems Paul discusses. And because of the second problem, in transformative experiences we don’t have a clear answer to the question of whether a given experience is preferable: preferable FOR WHOM? The person prior to the transformative experience or the person who results from the having of the transformative experience?

Paul suggests that all is not lost. There is a way in which we can still make rational decisions about transformative experiences. The way to do this is to find people who are relevantly like us, but who have made the decision to pursue those experiences, and to see whether, on balance, THEY find those decisions worthwhile.

In the case of deciding to have a child, for example, I should try my best to research the experiences of people who are relevantly similar to me who decided to have children. If those people find their lives more fulfilling than those others who are relevantly similar to me who DIDN’T decide to have children, then I should choose to have children. This is true even if, from your perspective now, you don’t prefer the option of having a child. This seems quite counterintuitive.

Here’s how I put the point in my Theories of Knowledge lecture:

In such a case, it would seem like the rational course of action would be to decide to have a child. And this is true despite the fact that the prospect of becoming a parent holds no appeal for you at all. Imagine the funny looks you’d get: “Oh, I hear you’re expecting … are you excited?” “No, I really am not looking forward to having a child, but all the evidence suggests that I’ll be much happier in the long run if I do than if I remain childless.” I don’t anticipate a very festive baby shower for you!

This result actually jibes well with contemporary research on decision-making. There is a good deal of evidence suggesting that many of our decisions, from trivial ones like food choices to more significant ones like healthcare decisions, can have better outcomes for us if we defer to the opinions of relevantly similar people who have already made those choices.

But now we’re in a position to see why I SHOULD find Pascal’s Wager compelling. Pascal’s Wager is much more like the method that Paul says that we should use to decide about whether to engage in transformative experiences than it is like the method that we employ to decide about whether to engage in more prosaic experiences.

Of course, the Wager itself is framed in terms of future experiences – eternal bliss vs. eternal torment, for example. However, we can frame an argument analogous to the Wager that more explicitly appeals to the decisions people relevantly similar to ourselves.

Indeed, there is at least some evidence to suggest that religious believers are happier, healthier, more socially connected (even in nonreligious social organizations), and more likely to participate politically. (Although see, for example, here or here for an alternative perspective.)

Despite my being able to draw this analogy, and despite the fact that I DO find Paul’s general discussion of transformative experiences compelling, I DON’T find Pascal’s Wager compelling – even though, in some sense, I recognize that I should.

I can’t see a way to resolve this tension completely. My sense is that part of the problem is the notion, in Paul’s discussion of people who are RELEVANTLY SIMILAR to ourselves. The difficulty here is that there are different ways to expanding on the notion of “relevant similarity,” and that these different ways of explicating that notion would lead to different results with respect to whether the outcomes achieved by those relevantly similar people would support making a particular decision regarding transformative experiences.

This becomes a more significant problem if you, like me, don’t think that there is only ONE criterion against which to weigh the value of an outcome. I don’t, for example, think that happiness is the measure that we should use in order to assign value. (Compare Paul Bloom — for example, here.) If that’s right, however, then at least part of what makes a life meaningful — and thus part of what constitutes how we should assign value to different outcomes — will differ depending on how we interpret the set of “relevantly similar people” used to make decisions in the way that Paul recommends.