Who Will Debunk the Debunkers?
The totalitarian subjugation, debasement, and enslavement of language foreseen by prophets of dystopia such as George Orwell is in full flower. I need not point out recent examples like “peaceful protest”, “court-packing”, and the like to show how many previously clear and serviceable expressions have been made to mean something other than what they purport to mean, sometimes even their exact opposite.
One such term with a long history of abuse is “debunk”. This word originally meant to disprove, to show that a particular statement or argument was “bunk”, i.e., nonsense. For some time now, however, I’ve seen certain people employ the term when they have made no serious effort to refute something, but have simply stated their disagreement. They often seem to think that if they simply invoke the word without actually making an argument, debunk will, through some numinous power of its own, refute an unwelcome assertion.
Debunk has become something of a red flag for me because of this history of abuse. It’s what caught my attention a few years back when I saw a reference to an article claiming to debunk Pascal’s Wager. When I looked at the article in question I found that, to their credit, the authors did in fact make the effort to present arguments in support of their positions; the problem was, their arguments were themselves largely bunk. But don’t take my word for it: I make my case below in an article I first published six years ago this month, “Has Pascal’s Wager Really Been ‘Debunked’?”.
Is it true that Pascal’s Wager has been “debunked”? Most informed Catholics will be familiar with Pascal’s Wager, which is an argument 17th century Catholic philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal developed in his Pensees. Pascal says that whether to believe in God or not is a choice we all need to make. There are four possible outcomes to our choice: if we choose to believe and we are right, we experience endless bliss after death, but if we are wrong we experience nothing at all, we simply cease to exist. If we choose disbelief and we are right, we likewise experience nothing after this world, but if we are wrong we suffer eternal damnation. Belief is clearly the best bet, because we risk nothing and stand to gain infinite joy, whereas disbelief gains us nothing even if we’re right, and costs us absolutely everything if we’re wrong.
Where’s the Bunk?
It’s a simple and straightforward argument, and it seems pretty obvious. You wouldn’t think that there was room for much “bunk” in it. And yet the New Atheism’s evangelists of nothingness claim to have shown it to be an empty shell. You can find websites created by self-proclaimed debunkers which present the main anti-Wager arguments (along with a fair amount of neo-atheist snark). One such site, for instance, takes three main lines of attack:
1) “It assumes that there is only one religion”, thus we are presented, not with two clear choices, but with a myriad of choices. This objection, which has been around since Pascal’s time, is traditionally known as the argument from inconsistent revelations.
2) The second, as we shall see, is not so much an argument as an unsupported opinion: ‘Also, the second problem is that it assumes that the possibility that the Christian doctrine that “everyone is going to hell unless they become a Christian and accept Jesus as their Savior” is a realistic and significant possibility. Perhaps they think it is even as probable as the possibility that there is no God. However, based on the arguments in this book and in others linked, it should be clear that that probability is pretty much zero by now.’
3) ‘Finally, few, if any, disbelievers disbelieve out of choice . . . Most disbelievers disbelieve simply because they know of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe . . .’ and ‘Even if you said all the right prayers and attended church regularly, that would still not be the same thing as believing from the heart, and any real God would obviously see straight through that.’
The Straw Man Cometh
Let’s get the second out of the way first because, as I observed above, it is not a serious argument. Our unbelieving friends make a sweeping assertion and offer no proof other than inviting us to read their book. Sorry guys, your opinion isn’t proof of anything. And if the quality of their argument here is any indication, I doubt that I’ll find the rest of their book any more persuasive (and I’m willing to bet I’ve heard all those “arguments” before, too). This is no more than an attempt to dismiss the case before it can be litigated.
Number one at least has the virtue of being an actual argument, one that was first raised, in fact, in Pascal’s lifetime (just as an aside, if Pascal’s Wager is “old and outdated”, as the debunkers assert, doesn’t the same criticism apply to their equally antique counter-argument?). Pascal himself dismissed it as an attempt to derail the argument, a straw man, rather than an attempt to get at the truth, adding “But if you desire with all your heart to know it, it is not enough; look at it in detail.” What he says next points up the main weakness with of this objection: “That would be sufficient in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake.” His wager is not an exercise in formal logic, nor is it a metaphysical proof, nor is it an attempt to offer a comprehensive answer to all the possible possibilities raised by religious belief. Most of all, it is not a hypothetical question for the amusement of bored minds: it deals with a real life and death choice, an eternal life and death choice, that we all must make. He is offering his wager as a guide to making a real decision of which path to set out on, confident that a seeker who is sincerely looking for the truth will, ultimately, find it.
The following analogy might help clarify what Pascal is getting at. Suppose you’re driving down the road and you come to a T intersection. A sign pointing to the right says “Jerusalem”, the sign pointing to the left says “Danger: Bridge Out.” If you take the left road, you might find yourself driving into a river, or maybe the bridge will have been repaired, or there could be ferry service, who knows? If you take the right, there might be an unexpected landslide, or you might miss another turn and get lost, or you might get eaten by a lion; there are an endless variety of things that might happen. You can’t know any of those things at the intersection, but you can be reasonably sure that if you want to get to Jerusalem, the right hand turn is your best bet, while the left will, at best, take you somewhere else, or at worst get you killed. That’s what Pascal’s Wager is about, it’s about that initial decision to commit yourself to finding God, or to turn away. If you choose God, you will still have an endless series of further choices and decisions ahead of you, even if you are sure that the Catholic Church is the True Church. And remember, Pascal’s Wager doesn’t promise that you will find salvation if you choose God, only that you might, whereas if you choose to reject the possibility of God you definitely won’t. The argument from inconsistent revelations does nothing to change that.
Belief is Belief . . . or is it?
The third argument is a variant of the argument from inauthentic belief (briefly, that Pascal’s Wager is arguing for the outward appearance of belief, as opposed to actual belief). Like the first, it misrepresents what the Wager is really saying, and misstates what Catholics have traditionally understood by “belief”. It starts out, as does the debunkers’ second argument, with an unsupported assertion: “few, if any, disbelievers disbelieve out of choice”, followed by another, “Most disbelievers disbelieve simply because they know of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe.”
Not only do they fail to provide any evidence for either statement, the two are, in fact, contradictory: if nobody chooses to disbelieve, then what does evidence have to do with it? In any case, they don’t say reasons and evidence don’t exist, but “they know of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe”. The word “compelling” means persuasive, and implies that they do have a choice either to accept or reject the evidence on offer. And as it happens, according to polling data, 8 out of every 10 Americans do find the same evidence “compelling” enough to believe, so it would seem that whether or not it is “compelling” is in the eye of the beholder: we all do have a choice. Or maybe believers don’t really choose either, in which case, why try to “debunk” anything, since none of us, apparently, have any control over our beliefs? I have no choice but to believe this argument is simply incoherent.
That leaves us with the argument that following the outward form of religious observance without “believing from the heart” would not count as real belief, and “any real God would obviously see straight through” it. Like many fallacies, this point contains enough truth to make it appear plausible at first glance, because insincere belief is, of course, false belief.
And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Mark 10:52)
“Christ Heals The Blind Man” by Eustache Le Sueur, 1600’s
Part of the problem here is that this objection misrepresents what a Christian means by belief, in the same way that the secular world misunderstands what is meant by “love”. The modern secularist sees love as primarily an emotional effect, or even as pure emotion, and therefore something that happens to you, not something you do. In the Christian view, Love is a decision of the will, informed by the intellect, and ideally supported by the emotions, but the emotional part is the least essential. It is therefore possible to love, truly love, someone whom you heartily dislike if you sincerely desire what is best for them, without regard for your own self-interest. Genuine belief is likewise a conscious choice and a movement of the will.
Emotions are a very unreliable guide to actions, but can serve to support and reinforce the will. Very often we find that contrary emotions change (sometimes slowly) following a firm decision on our part, especially if we change our habits or practices to go along with it. Countless people have experienced such emotional changes after switching political parties, for instance, or changing some other allegiance. In fact, it is very often the emotional attachments that keep people from switching long after they see solid reasons to do so, and it’s only after they decide to act that the emotions follow.
Pascal believed (as Catholics and many other people traditionally have) that reason, not emotion, should govern the will, but that emotions were the main obstacle for most people, certainly for those who claimed that they wanted to believe but could not. In a case such as this, the challenge is to get our emotions in line with our reasoned decisions. Accordingly, this is his advice to such people:
Learn from those who were bound like you . . . Follow the way by which they began: that is by doing everything as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having masses said, etc. Naturally, even this will make you believe and will dull you. -’But this is what I am afraid of.’ – And why? What have you to lose?
Of course, Pascal was depending not only on the natural tendency of emotions to follow (at least eventually) a firm will, but also the working of God’s grace on those who are sincerely seeking Him, even if they are not yet sure that they have found him.
Now, our atheist friends might point out that they don’t believe in God’s Grace, and our emotions don’t always do what we want them to do. True enough. But it also doesn’t matter. Notice that Pascal isn’t offering a counter argument, but advice to those who might be hesitating, because the argument from inauthentic belief isn’t really an objection to Pascal’s Wager at all. As I indicate in the“T intersection” analogy above, the Wager is solely concerned with whether it is wiser to choose a road that leads toward God, or one that leads away. The choice itself is just a beginning, and is the same whether or not there might be difficulties or further choices along the way (as, in fact, we should expect there will be).
Is it really that complicated?
The simplicity of the choice is what gives Pascal’s Wager its persuasive power. You can find critics who present much more formal and complicated discussions than the self-proclaimed debunkers cited above, but they are all variations of the same old arguments presented here, all of which have been around since Pascal’s day, and all of which rely on making his Wager something it is not. They all have to do with raising questions about the certainty of Eternal Salvation, but that is, of course, why it is a wager in the first place, because there is no certainty in this world. I have yet to see an argument that overcomes this stark, simple choice: what’s the worst that can happen if you gamble on God? What’s the worst if you take the other path? Is it really that complicated?