Although several countries have begun rolling out immunisation programs for the coronavirus, the distrust of the vaccines amongst people across the globe has remained unabated over the last several months. For instance, back in September 2020, Politico reported that around 45 percent of those polled in Poland and Hungry indicated that they would not get a vaccine. A couple of months later, Dr. Reed Tuckson, co-founder of the Black Coalition against Covid observed on CNN that “the distrust is emerging as almost as important as the disease of Covid-19 itself…” And as recently as in February 2021, a survey conducted across 700 business managers in Canada found that “fewer than a majority are strongly convinced” about whether the vaccine can do its job.
Among various reasons given for this vaccine distrust, a significant one was scepticism about its effectiveness – i.e., whether it will stop us getting the infection with its consequences such as pain, distress and even death. One vaccine that has copped this criticism than others in this respect is AstraZeneca, developed jointly by Oxford University and a British-Swedish pharmaceutical company. While there are mixed opinions about its efficacy compared to other vaccines – including how the differences in the testing paradigms could influence these results – it has not fared well against its competitors even on the question of safety. According to a YouGov poll from March 2021, the number of people who considered it unsafe had increased from 30% to 40%.
Given such resistance, how do you convince someone like that, someone who is reluctant, to take the jab? This essay argues that we can do so by presenting to them a reasoned argument from theology. But isn’t it rather oxymoronic to talk of rationality and theology in the same breath? Someone who showed that it need not be so was the French polymath Blaise Pascal who was perhaps uniquely qualified to comfortably link both logic and belief in the same dialectic.
New wine in an old bottle
Pascal (1623-1662) was – besides being a philosopher and theologian – also a mathematician and scientist. In his short life riven with chronic illness he managed to do ground-breaking work in such diverse fields as probability theory, hydraulics, and the nature of the vacuum. It is not surprising therefore that his intellectual openness to ideas led Pascal to prefer empirical experimentation (as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) tells us) to “the rationalism and logico-deductive method of the Cartesians; and… the metaphysical speculations and reverence for authority of the theologians of the Middle Ages.”
Pascal was nonetheless a lifelong Catholic who also acknowledged that we do not know for certain that God exists and held that more theological “proofs” of God’s existence would not add to that certainty. He wished instead to identity “prudential reasons” for believing in God. One of his well-known arguments is what has come to be known as “Pascal’s wager” which, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), is “to put it simply, we should wager that God exists because it is the best bet.”
I believe that there are similar grounds for contending that elements of this wager would help encourage vaccine acceptance, especially among the sceptics or those willing to be swayed provided lucid arguments are presented to them.
This essay is not however about offering one more argument for belief in God who can – akin to how prayer works, according to some – ultimately also enhance vaccine acceptance. Moreover, the fact that so much has been written in the last four hundred years about the theological aspects of Pascal’s wager shows that an attempt by me to add to the literature in this respect would be as futile as gilding the lily.
It is rather about a more mundane or secular objective: using – or repackaging – elements of Pascal’s argument from theology to support the assertion that Covid vaccines can in fact help improve our lives.
What does Pascal’s wager propose?
Before we can repurpose Pascal’s wager for our discussion, let us unpack it a bit to understand what it is about. In his Pensées the argument comes in three versions. But their central message is the idea that given that we are not certain that God exists, it is better to bet on God’s existence and enjoy that belief’s potential rewards than miss out on that opportunity. As the IEP explains, per Pascal’s wager “it is not only prudent but practically obligatory too” to bet on God’s existence. For,
“if you bet on His existence, you stand to win an infinite reward (an eternity in paradise) at the risk of only a small loss (whatever earthly pleasures you would be required to forego during your mortal life). On the other hand, if you bet against His existence, you risk the possibility of an infinite loss (loss of paradise – along with the possibility of an eternity in Hell) for only a limited gain (the opportunity to enjoy a few years’ worth of worldly delights).”
Arguments from Pascal’s wager against vaccine scepticism
Pascal’s wager provides several pointers in our quest to encourage uptake of coronavirus vaccines. These can be categorised as follows:
• Benefits outweigh risks
• How having a modicum of agnosticism could help
Decision-making: To show someone why they should believe in the existence of God, Pascal could have offered arguments for theism such as first-cause and intelligent design. But (as Liz Jackson, a philosopher from Ryerson University points out) Pascal took instead a “pragmatic” approach to the question. This is because he felt that theistic arguments cannot provide sufficient evidence that God exists.
But in our quotidian world, none of us have every single bit of information to our hand before we can take a decision – or any decision – including the question of whether we should believe in the efficacy of Covid vaccines. This necessitates us employing such epistemic tools as probability theory and decision theory, as Pascal did in support of his wager.
The adoption of these two theories by Pascal is summarised by SEP as follows:[i]
|God Exists||God does not exist|
|Wager for God||Gain all||Status quo|
|Wager against God||Misery||Status quo|
This matrix states that as you do not gain anything by betting against God’s existence you should choose instead the option that has the “maximum expected utility (when there is one”. But rationality requires you to also limit the probability you assign to God’s existence to be positive, but not infinitesimal.
We could replace “God” with “vaccine effectiveness” in this matrix and conclude that we are better off taking the vaccine. We should however limit our expectations and not expect it to bestow “infinitesimal” benefits on us.
Benefits outweigh risks: This matrix and the requirements of rationality tell us, in other words, that we are asked make decisions without a cast-iron certainty about its outcome. However, if one of the possible outcomes could be our proving right – and our decision proves its worth – then we would be better off taking that option than not. That way we have nothing to lose – and something to gain. Hence, to reiterate, if you take the vaccine, there is a good chance that you will be protected from infection. On the other hand, if we refuse to take the jab – and heaven forbid we get infected – we have missed out on the protection offered by the vaccine. This is akin to a corollary we could deduce from Pascal’s wager: it is not worth being an atheist as you then miss out on the potential benefit of God’s protection.
If the vaccine is not effective, on the other hand, nothing is lost anyway (except the painful jab and assuming that there will be no major side effects.)[ii] Furthermore, while nothing in medicine is completely safe doctors nevertheless opt (as pointed out in a BBC report) to use drugs that have high levels of toxins or those associated with brutal side effects (chemotherapy drugs, for example) in appropriate circumstances.
How having a modicum of agnosticism also helps: Not all scepticism is bad and that includes having doubts about coronavirus vaccines. But it becomes counter-productive when it leaves us in a limbo of indecision. This is the juncture at which we need to suspend our judgements and take the plunge. Blaise Pascal would perhaps have referred to this state of mind as being agnostic. Being agnostic helps, curiously, both the person needing to decide and someone (or something, like this essay) trying to assist with that task. With the former, an agnostic attitude may help them move on. And that makes the task of the latter that much more sanguine. It is perhaps easier and more fruitful to present arguments to someone who was sitting on the fence, so to speak, to someone who has specific unanswered questions and hence may be unsure about an issue. This is akin to how Pascal may have thought that his wager “might appeal to and perhaps even sway… a sceptic, or a Deist who might be teetering on the brink of belief” as the IEP contends.
Limitations of this approach
Grounds for potential criticism of these arguments can be summarised as follows:
• Does not cover all reasons for vaccine distrust
• Addressing lack of evidence and misinformation
• Ethical objections
• Not everyone may believe in heaven
Does not cover all reasons for vaccine distrust: Comparisons and analogies by nature make sense only within certain limits – and what I have argued here is no exception to that dictum. This is especially true when we remember that people could be against vaccinations for a variety of other reasons besides vaccine effectiveness. There is, for instance, the anti-vax cohort for whom no vaccine is acceptable. There are those who object on grounds of human rights. And there are those who propagate and believe in conspiracy theories. These demographics represent perhaps a sizeable slice of the 40% or so in, for instance, the USA who have chosen not to get the vaccine.
This is similar to how Pascal’s wager has been criticised for assuming that the decision matrix applies uniformly to everyone whereas the rewards could be different for different people Some philosophers have argued that the matrix should have many more rows or columns (see SEP, section 5.1). We could object by contending that doing that makes the argument too fine-grained and unwieldly.
Addressing lack of evidence and misinformation: As indicated by the above decision matrix, what Pascal is attempting is to convince someone to believe in God in the face of a “real world” scenario where complete and satisfactory evidence is rarely if ever obtainable. This no doubt applies to every decision-making exercise, including taking a vaccine.
What muddies this situation is the peddling of misinformation about the vaccine. One of the key factors driving this information, according to a World Health Organisation report, was the use of emotion instead of rationality in decision-making.[iii] This essay – taking its cue from Pascal – advocates therefore a more clinical approach based on reasoning to vaccine-related decisions while also considering the probability of different outcomes.
Ethical objections: Some thinkers have contended (see section 5.4 of SEP) that the putative “divine plan” which is presupposed by Pascal’s wager “is itself immoral, condemning as it does honest non-believers to loss of eternal happiness…” When we apply this to the vaccine situation, this means that by taking the vaccine – and thereby seeking, in a way, favourable treatment in protecting us from infection and death – we can be accused of valuing our own lives over that of others.
In responding to this criticism of the wager, others have expressed the belief that this “immoral plan” can be ameliorated “as long as God treats non-believers justly…” While we do not have the power to guarantee a similar outcome with the virus, we can feel confident that it is met naturally because the probability – of getting the virus and death resulting from it – can be assumed to be the same for every living person (subject of course to difference in access to appropriate medical care and factors like age.)
Not everyone may believe in heaven: Another objection to Pascal’s wager is that the “prospect of salvation” – and by implication the potential for a place in heaven – may appeal more to some people than others. But what a vaccine offers is the avoidance of death and suffering which should appeal uniformly to almost every living person (unless they are suicidal). Secondly, objectives like salvation and heaven are benefits associated with the afterlife whereas a vaccine by definition is about keeping one alive and well in this life.
[i] This table is based on one proposed earlier by Edward McClennen from Syracuse University, as acknowledged by SEP.
[ii] There was recently some concern surrounding cases of some patients who received the AstraZeneca vaccine getting blood clots subsequently. After investigating this issue, the European Medicines Agency concluded that it could not rule out a potential link between the vaccine and the blood clots. The EMA added nevertheless that the benefits of the vaccine “still outweigh the risks”. (This issue is still being investigated as we write.)
[iii] The other factors the WHO identified included distrust of science, big pharma and government, complacency, and certain socio-demographic characteristics.