Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pascal's Wager

There's an idea known as Pascal's Wager. In the commonly heard form, the idea is this: If God exists and you believe in God, then you will receive eternal life, and if God does not exist and you believe in God, you will have lost nothing. On the other hand, if God exists and you do not believe in God, you will have lost eternal life. Therefore, you should make the "wager" of deciding to believe in God, because the possible return so greatly outweighs the risk.

Pascal's Wager is often much maligned for two reasons: (1) because it is seen as an attempted proof of the existence of God, and (2) because it is treated as though there were nothing more to it than the brief sketch presented above.

This second point is where I'd like to start. I was wondering about Pascal's Wager recently. I thought Pascal, being a mathematician, could have been just dense enough to come up with an idea as thoroughly unsubtle as the above sketch, but then I thought Pascal, being a philosopher, must have thought more deeply about it than that.

So I did some reading. It turns out Pascal was starting from an assumption of irresolvable uncertainty. Reason alone cannot assure us of either the existence or non-existence of God. There is no indisputable evidence for the existence of God, but there is also no indisputable evidence of the non-existence of God. So how does one choose? Pascal considered the potential reward for each choice and the potential risk for each choice. He concluded that choosing to believe in God offers the possibility of infinite reward with at most a finite risk.

But there were still a couple of problems. First, Pascal recognized that simply "choosing God" wouldn't be enough. Faith, Pascal knew, involves more than simply making a rational decision. And that leads to the second problem -- a person can't choose to have faith. So what can a person do? Pascal says:
You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.
-Pensées, 233
Act as if you believe, do the things that believers do, and this will lead you to faith, Pascal claims. I'm not sure I'm sold on that. It could work, but I'm not sure. Pascal asks:
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
-Pensées, 233
This I like, and to me, this is the strength of the argument. Ultimately, I don't think faith can be said to be about believing or not believing some intellectual proposition. I think faith is more a matter of how we live our lives. What sort of life will I choose? Will I choose a life where I look after only my own interests, constantly in struggle with the world, fighting daily for what I believe is, or at least could be, mine? Or will I choose a life where I make myself vulnerable to others by being open to them and asking them to be open to me? What is the outcome of these ways of life?

As far as I am able to see, the life that is open to others, is the life that will be more worthwhile and rewarding. Yet to some extent, this takes me back to Pascal's starting point. My reason is weak. I cannot always see what is the best way of life. I cannot always see the way that leads to a better, more open life. How do I find the way? My answer is that I can't rely on my own reason to find the way. I must trust myself to the teachings of Jesus -- Jesus who said:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
-Matthew 7:24-27
Here, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I find the meat of Pascal's argument. Live this way, and you will find life. Do not live this way, and you will lose it.


Dr. Rural said...

Oh, now that is VERY well said. Thank you!

BruceA said...

Finally, Pascal's wager makes sense.