Prudential Theism

There is one famous argument from the sceptical fideist tradition that takes the debate on faith and reason into another dimension. This is the argument known as Pascal's Wager. It depends on the sceptical premise that theoretical reason cannot determine whether God exists or not. In these circumstances it is appropriate for prudence to determine what one believes. If God does exist, and one has not believed, one forfeits eternal bliss; if he does not, and one has believed, one merely forfeits a few trivial wordly advantages; so it is manifestly the wiser bet to believe than not to believe. But Pascal recognizes that if one has no theoretical grounds for preferring belief to unbelief, one will not be able to have the belief it is better to have. In such circumstances the prudent gambler will induce belief in himself by acting as if he believed already: by doing those things that believers do from belief, he will perhaps bring about in this own soul the belief they have (Pascal 1966: fragment 418; Rescher 1985).

Pascal's argument has not had many admirers. Its many hostile critics have seldom sought to understand it or its context in his work. He does not suggest, as some assume, that the person who acts as though he believes has faith. One the contrary, faith is what this person hopes will issue from this course of action. Pascal never suggests that faith itself comes about through anything other than divine grace; the prudent wagerer seeks to open himself to it, not to pre-empt it. Even more importantly, Pascal does not seek to undermine the intellectual autonomy of the rational enquirer. The Wager presupposes that enquiry has produced a sceptical equipoise, so that considerations of evidential weight are no longer pertinent.

Two apologetic writings that echo the Wager have been very influential. One is the defence of revelation against the deists in Butler's The Analogy of Religion (1736). The other is William James's lecture, 'The Will to Believe', first published in 1896. Butler, telling us that for finite intellects like ours, 'probability is the very guide of life', argues that it is sometimes prudent to act upon propositions that have a low degree of likelihood, provided it is a real one, when the risks attendant on a wrong decision are very great. He then stresses that our knowledge of God's existence is accompanied by great ignorance of his detailed intentions, and in these circumstances it is wise to pay careful heed to what the Church says God has revealed, and to act as though the commands of conscience, which he assumes to be coincident with those of the New Testament, come from him. He stops short, however, of recommending his readers to adopt psychological inducements to induce belief, perhaps assuming that careful heed will always be enough (Butler 1900; Penelhum 1985, 1992).

William James argues against the claim of W.K.Clifford that we have a doxastic duty to avoid believing anything upon insufficient evidence. We find ourselves in matters of religion facing the choice between two hypotheses; this option, says James, is 'live' (since each hypothesis 'makes some appeal'), 'forced' (since, as Pascal had emphasized, suspending judgement is equivalent to a negative decision), and 'momentous' (since the choice one makes is unique and irreversible). In this situation our 'passional nature', says James, must decide when the choice cannot be made on intellectual grounds; the decision to run the risk of believing falsely rather than risk losing the truth is the only rational course (James 1979). It has seemed to most of James's readers that, in spite of his expressed distaste for Pascal's argument, his own does not greatly differ from it, and it does not tell us clearly, as Pascal does, what the seeker for truth must do if the passion for truth is to be satisfied. A prudential argument should issue in a plan; and James's argument does not.

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