Tabarrok’s wager

19th November, 2005

Dear Economist,

“Pascal’s wager” states that even if it is unlikely that God exists, it is rational to believe in his existence, since disbelief risks infinite unhappiness for eternity.

But even if hell exists, its torments are likely to be so intense as to have a high discount rate. Although any individual moment in hell might be infinitely painful, the sheer intensity should lower the expectation that such pain might continue through eternity. Multiply that by the low probability of the existence of a deity that actually operates as hypothesised and the future expected value of both heavenly bliss and hellish torment should converge close to zero. Doesn’t Epicurus make more sense than Pascal?

Karthik Sankaran, New York

Dear Karthik,

Infinity doesn’t work like that. Pascal’s wager does not depend on the eternal duration of reward and punishment. A moment in heaven is infinitely pleasurable, so even if heaven lasts no longer than that, that moment outweighs a lifetime of Epicurean pleasures.

Even if you believe the probability that God exists is tiny, a tiny chance of a moment of infinite bliss outweighs a lifetime of large but finite bliss.

Perhaps you think that Pascal’s wager displays flawed logic. But wait. The economist Alex Tabarrok points out that if there is even a tiny chance that Pascal is right, a tiny chance of a tiny chance of a second of infinite bliss is still infinitely valuable.

Now, if you give me all your money, I’ll intercede with God on your behalf and increase your chance of going to heaven. Of course, there is only a tiny chance that my intercession will help, but a tiny chance of infinite bliss is, again, infinitely valuable.

Please send your cheque via the FT, and quickly please – I’ve already given Professor Tabarrok all my cash.

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