Pascal’s Wager

I thought I’d use today’s entry to discuss what had to be one of the saddest descents of logic and rational thought in recorded history: Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was (along with Fermat) the father of modern probability theory (the irony of this will, I’m sure, not be lost on you by the end of this post). Pascal also made fundamental contributions to mathematics, physics, philosophy, and epistemology, having developed essential features of the modern scientific method. In short, Pascal’s place in history is safe; there is no denying his remarkable contribution to our collective understanding.

All of this makes Pascal’s descent into philosophical lunacy all the sadder. In his Pensées (published posthumously), Pascal set out his argument for belief in god, which has now become (famously) known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal writes:

Let us now speak according to natural lights…Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Pascal presents us with two possible scenarios:

1. God exists
2. God does not exist

With these two scenarios in mind, we must consider to which side we will “incline”. There are two further possibilities:

1. Believe
2. Do not believe

Pascal then dissects out the various permutations afforded by the two possible “inclinations” (Belief/Non-belief) superimposed on the two scenarios (God/No God). The results are:

1. God exists, and we believe
2. God exists, and we do not believe
3. God does not exist, and we believe
4. God does not exist, and we do not believe

So far, it would appear, so good.

Under proposition #1, we are rewarded with eternal life; under proposition #2, with eternal damnation. Propositions #3 and #4 are of no consequence to us, because either way we have lost nothing; god does not exist, and therefore it makes no difference whether we believe or not.

Pascal concludes that the only logical move is to believe, since if there is a god, you are rewarded, and if god doesn’t exist, you’ve lost nothing; the worst outcome for the believer is “no loss”. By contrast, the worst outcome for a non-believer is eternal damnation; “no loss” is the best outcome.

Belief, according to Pascal, is the only sensible move. The fact that a 6 year-old could tear Pascal’s Wager apart, however, suggests otherwise.

First off, Pascal’s Wager tacitly assumes that the Christian god is the only possible god. It goes without saying that a vast majority of the planet’s current occupants do not believe in this god (or, at the very least, in the specific teachings of Christianity, the identity of god himself notwithstanding). If we accept that all gods (those that have existed, as well as all gods that are theoretically possible) are equally likely to be the ‘true’ god, then Pascal’s wager falls apart. What if we believe in the wrong god? What if god values logic and reason over blind faith (or just values ‘goodness’, rather than belief for no good reason)? Is there any reason to suggest one story of god is more or less ‘right’? Pascal’s Wager is valid if, and only if, we accept that Yahweh (and, one assumes, Jesus) is god. It could be applied equally well to any particular religion we can dream up.

Even if we accept that Yahweh is the only possible god (even if!), Pascal’s Wager still implies that an omnipotent, omniscient god (which Yahweh surely is) can’t tell the difference between someone who honestly believes, and one who believes only because of probability. Does Jesus want to be accepted because his is the one true path, or because the ‘believer’ has a one-in-four chance of being saved? Surely this type of ‘belief-under-duress’ won’t pass muster on Judgment Day; I don’t recall the words “lip service” used anywhere in the Bible.

There is a much more unfortunate corollary of Pascal’s Wager, however. It is, of course, highly likely that there is no god; it is even more highly likely that even if there is a god, it is not the god of Abraham. If we scale our beliefs with evidence (and consequently reject the notion of any particular god), we are free to investigate the wonder of our universe, without baggage. Pascal claims that one should believe, because even if there is no god, there is no loss (since there is no god to ‘punish’ that lack of belief). Unfortunately, this overlooks the ‘loss’ that happens every day when the wonders of nature are ascribed to miraculous interference.

You have the opportunity to investigate truth; you have the awesome privilege of contributing, in a meaningful way, to the furtherance of our species and our planet. This can take many forms, of course, but make no mistake, each of us possesses this ability. A belief in god cheapens the experience. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, isn’t it enough to see that the garden is beautiful, without also believing there are fairies at the bottom of it? One can be good simply because it’s ‘right’ to do so, not because one is afraid of what will happen if they aren’t. One can ask questions in the enviable quest to know more; one needn’t accept anything on insufficient evidence. The unexamined life is, truly, not worth living.

You get one chance at this life; ask whether, based on all that you know about what is literally true (and how you determine that in every other aspect of your life), you should use this opportunity to further your personal understanding of your own existence (and further our collective knowledge of each other and our universe), or whether there are justifiable reasons to believe that a particular god, revealed to and propagated by people who didn’t know enough about disease prevention to wash their hands after using the bathroom, favours belief over all else; that god, who gave you the powers of reason, logic, and rational insight, doesn’t really want you to use them.

I remain,

Michael

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