Book Review: Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence, and the Abundant Life
Michael Rota’s book, considered with respect to organization, cogency of argument, and clarity of writing, merits high rank among contemporary works in apologetics and natural theology. He relies on an “updated version of Pascal’s Wager” to advance a compelling, sophisticated defense of Christianity. The central argument:
- If Christianity has at least a 50 percent chance of being true, then it is rational to commit to living a Christian life.
- Christianity has at least a 50 percent chance of being true.
- Therefore, it is rational to commit to living a Christian life.
Rota supports the first and second premisses in Part I and Part II, respectively. He ends the book by recounting the lives of three Christians—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jean Vanier, and Immaculee Ilibagiza—so as to show that total Christian commitment is not only reasonable but beautiful as well.
Part I. According to Rota, Blaise Pascal directed the Wager argument to people who are genuinely open to Christianity—those who are uncertain as to its truth but think that it might be true. The insight is this: it is rational to commit to God and live a Christian life, since there is much to gain and little to lose by doing so, much to lose and little to gain by not doing so, and in any case a decision is has to be be made one way or the other—for or against.
Rota builds on that insight to argue for his first premiss, and does so by using decision theory, which studies how we can make good decisions in the face of uncertainty or risk. When something is at stake and you must choose between options, how do you discern the best course of action? Decision theory, based on common sense, says that you should pick an action if it weakly dominates its rival. In other words, you should pick an action if there is at least one possible scenario in which it delivers a better outcome than its rival and there are no possible scenarios in which it delivers a worse outcome; it is not only rational to pick it, but in ordinary circumstances it is irrational not to.
Rota begins by comparing two choices—committing to God and not committing to God—with respect to two possible outcomes. One outcome is that Christianity is true; the other is that naturalism—“there is no God, or anything like God, [there are no supernatural beings and no souls], and when we die it all goes black”—is true. It goes without saying that the two outcomes cannot both obtain. To commit to God (or to Christianity) is, roughly, to act in a way that would lead you to God if he were real (or if Christianity were true). It follows that you can commit to God even if you are an atheist; for instance, you might, in a certain sense, lack belief in God, while still possessing a desire to believe and a determination to act as if God were real. Rota goes well beyond Pascal’s brief sketch of the Wager, appealing to recent studies in psychology and sociology on the goods that religious commitment brings, to show that committing to God weakly dominates not committing to God.
He responds to the most pressing objections against the Wager, most of which are not new. One says that it motivates people to base their religious devotion on a self-centered analysis of costs and benefits, which is reprehensible and unworthy of any good God that might happen to exists. Rota points out that many if not most of the goods that come from committing to God go beyond self-interest, and many of them are on full display in the stories he tells about Bonhoeffer, Vanier, and Ilibagiza. He also argues that self-interest is not in itself a reprehensible motivation.
His response to the so-called “many Gods” objection is fascinating. The objection says that the Wager by itself cannot support Christianity, since there are many understandings of who or what God is, and therefore many religions one might commit to. Rota argues that even if there are many religions, committing to God (in the Christian sense) still weakly dominates not committing to any religion. It follows that, for first premiss of Rota’s argument to go through, one need only discern whether Christianity is more credible than each other religion, and he provides a nice discussion of the ways in which one should make such an evidential discernment.
His treatment of the other objections is just as good. What is nice about this section, and really the entire book, is that the difficult material is not a hindrance to understanding, even for readers unfamiliar with decision theory, probability, physics, and philosophical argumentation. This is so, in part, because of Rota’s clear, persuasive illustrations.
Part II. Rota defends his second premiss in three ways. First, he defends generic theism by way of arguments from the contingency and fine-tuning of the universe, which are versions of the cosmological and design arguments, respectively. The contingency argument is compelling and easy to understand, given Rota’s exposition, which includes several neat examples and a helpful visual representation. It concludes that “there must be at least one necessary being that is part of the explanation for the existence of contingent beings.”
An excellent primer on probability and Bayes’s theorem precedes the chapters on fine-tuning. The examples and illustrations are excellent, and even a reader who has no prior knowledge of probability, if he pays due notice, will find himself sufficiently equipped to follow the technical side of the arguments to come. After responding to several popular objections to the fine-tuning argument, Rota concludes from it that we have “good reason to think that the cause of contingent beings is (or at least includes) a being with intelligence as well as great power.” He begins by describing what fine-tuning is and why one might think it is evidence for theism. The basic fact is that physical constants (Rota considers only the cosmological constant) fall within a vanishingly small life-permitting range. He contends that this fact stands in great need of explanation and, using Bayes’s theorem, argues that it is much more probable given theism than non-theism. Then he defends against several good objections and concludes with a chapter on the so-called multiverse objection, which maintains that fine-tuning is no less probable if there exists a wide array of universes; if enough universes exist, surely we should expect that one of them would be life-permitting. Appealing again to Bayesian reasoning, Rota argues, on the contrary, that the multiverse hypothesis itself confirms theism.
Second, he argues for Christian theism specifically. He uses an inference to the best explanation to make a case for Jesus’s resurrection, relying largely on the work of N.T. Wright and others, and he also highlights evidential value of the beauty and “existential resonance” of Christianity. Finally, he responds to the problem of evil and suffering, which counts as evidence against Christianity. On the whole, he thinks that the epistemic probability that Christianity is true—that is, the level of confidence, given some background information, that a rational person with that information would have with respect to the proposition that Christianity is true—is very high, far above 50%.
This part of the book is full of interesting, clearly stated arguments, and the responses to objections are thorough. It provides apologists, and philosophers in general, plenty material to appreciate and think about. The one fault, besides some quibbles that specialists in probability will no doubt raise, is that Rota too quickly dismisses the evidence against Christianity from evil and divine hiddenness.
Part III. The interesting, even moving biographies at the end of the book serve to reinforce Rota’s main argument in several ways. They show that, even with immense suffering, Christian commitment is beautiful and fulfilling, full of human goods. The sort of goods on offer when people commit to living the Christian life, even with suffering, include joy, sacrificing for the good of others, love of enemies, benevolence when nothing is expected in return. No honest person will read the stories of these individuals and doubt that they are forces of great good in the world. And how could anyone doubt that Christianity is the reason for that force?
My verdict: you will be challenged and rewarded, both intellectually and spiritually, by getting this book and working your way through the arguments.