Monday, November 25, 2013

Pascal's Wager

I have a lengthy, meandering post on the subject - I think I will trash it.

Central point:  If you think there's a 1% chance Christianity is true, then Pascal's Wager makes sense. Technically, because Pascal was a mathematician and liked to think in terms of infinities, it makes sense anyway.  But our brains really don't work that way.  "Big number" is a big number, no more, and infinity is just a big number.  So infinite bliss and infinite torment, to our reptilian brains that we really decide with, boil down to "a whole lot. At least 87."

But I don't see how the wager gets us from 0% to 1%.  If you really think there is zero chance it's true, Pascal can't help you. But it's a slam dunk as a tie-breaker, if you are actually 50-50 whether to believe.

I think there is 0% chance that reincarnation in the Hindu sense, of coming back as animals and other people over and over until we get it right, is true.  But we are to be given new bodies on a remade earth in the Christian new creation, and at least one 1st C group of believers believed in reincarnation, so the idea that we might come back as a something, some unimaginable helper in some other universe, I think rates a 1% chance.  If there were some precautionary action I should take for that, some other version of Pascal's Wager, I'd consider it.

Epicurians and Confucians, in different ways, believed that getting along in a peaceful society was a great good and pleasure, and so recommended worshiping the local gods, with neither seeming to ask whether you believed in them. That is Pascal writ small, a minor inconvenience for a great gain.  The Victorians in the C of E, and the Scandinavian Lutherans until about 50 years ago, seemed to echo this.  Believing was less important than the positive benefits of all journeying together and being a community.

Modern Christians, especially evangelicals, don't think much of that sort of belief.  They want to see BELIEF, not some Potemkin village of belief. I sympathise, but they are simply wrong.  On a purely worldly level, no one who relies on the Four Spiritual Laws and coming forward on the sawdust trail in a moment of excitement is in much of a position to criticise others about getting in on a technicality.  But even on a deeper level, none of us comes into belief for a good reason of our own. We are called, not because of our merit but because of His love.  So a Pascal's Wager convert should be welcomed.  Heck, she should even be given a whack at teaching adult Sunday School. Once, anyway.

Update:  See James's comment.

10 comments:

james said...

If I get Pascal correctly, his "believing" is more than just a one-shot sawdust trail, but instead the associated change of life; and a change of life that you could acquire more confidence in as you lived it. The latter point seems silly at first glance (you can get used to anything, right?), but if this way of life is what you were designed for, over the long term it will be experienced as more fitting.

Of course we live in a war zone, so such evaluations are a little tricky.

Larry Sheldon said...

Question from the F row about a (possibly) related matter.

How much does (not "does", but "how much does") buying a lottery tick improve your odds of winning that lottery?

David Foster said...

Pascal's Wager seems to implicitly assume that the ONLY possible states of the universe are (a) Christianity is true, and (b) there is no God at all.

But what if there is a 1% chance that Christianity is true, a 1% chance that Islam is true, a 1% chance that Baal-Moloch is the true god, etc etc?...or for the fairly-convinced atheist, a .01% chance for each of the above?

The Wager makes sense as constructed only if there is an independent chain of logic, outside of the Wager itself, demonstrating that IF there is a god, then it must be the Christian one.

james said...

Pascal goes into that elsewhere in the book. He considers paganism self-evidently wrong. The only two that survive his cuts are Islam and Judaism, and he addresses those.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis boiled it down to Christianity and Hinduism, seeing Buddhism as mostly a variant of the latter, and Islam or Judaism being variations of the former, worth examining only if one had already committed to that category.

David Foster, yours is a common argument, which was part of my longer post but I left out here. There are actually very few choices. Hinduism is just polytheism with some philosophical overlays that attempt to tie it together. Perhaps good ones, but only if you think polytheism is really a likely explanation of the universe. Is it even on the menu? Buddhism is a similar exercise overlaying Chinese folk wisdom and superstitions ("Don't build your house near running water or money will flow through your hands.") Some westerners have a Buddhism Lite they try to adopt, and it is possible it is the best explanation out there. Yet I am suspicious of cafeteria-style anything. Those who would be Buddhist must embrace that it never crusades against injustice, it merely discusses how to endure it. The animisms of the world are similar, the pantheisms of the world are similar, the polytheisms of the worlds are similar. If you thought that something in one of those groups looked most possible, then you would start narrowing. It is possible also to say "those primitive things were the foundation, but the current product could quite possibly have come from them." If so, then you have to grant the same courtesy to the Abrahamic faiths.

It's easy to say "1% chance Christianity is true...1% chance Islam is true..." but no one actually thinks that way. No one actually debates whether Mel Ott or Brickyard Kennedy was the greatest baseball player of all time, even though both were legitimately good. It's just playing with math as a way of avoiding the internal question of "all right then, what do I think, from my observations, is the short list of what might be true?"

If your short list, in your own metaphysic, is that none of those looks very likely, and only atheism/agnosticism seems probable, then Pascal can't help you, as I said. Pascal doesn't take you off the zero point.

panjoomby said...

yeah, but faking like one believes something is true makes it a pie in the sky wager :( then which god, zeuss, the mormon one(s), that old egyptian dog head dude, a trickster fox, the one i perceived as god in my early 20s, the one i can't bring myself to perceive anymore, etc. so many wagers, so little time! :)

james said...

As mentioned before, the "Which class of gods needs to be considered" isn't dealt with in the wager. That is a separate question.

From the translation at CCEL, section 233: "Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. 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." Here and in 234 and in 240 he is using language of physical action rather than intellectual processes; whether of giving up some things or of doing others.

The wager isn't a matter of "faking it" by trying to persuade yourself of what you don't believe, but of staking your time and effort on something you aren't sure about. We do that all the time in small things, and even risk our lives trusting that other people will do their work correctly.

The wager doesn't really apply if you haven't parsed out what you are looking at or looking for.

Antioca said...

I am interested in the longer post. Would you mind if others read it before you wiped it. I am trying to wrestle my 14 y old son round to some acceptance of religion in our lives.

I may have left it too late. ( circumstances beyond my control) but I am going at it historically and intellectually. I have used Pascals Wager to introduce the idea already. Marina (Australia)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

James, that is an important refinement I hadn't fully appreciated. It is again, not something that can take a person off the zero point, but an eminently good strategy if you are part way in. It is in fact, a strategy we use with most other things in our lives.

@Antioca - I am quite sure the longer post would not help you. 14 y/o's do not respond to intellectual arguments very well. They are more immediately concerned with the initial signs of "Will I be an acceptable person with friends? Will anyone love me? Will I secure some sort of role and be able to live independently? Will it be fun?" He is not consciously thinking these things, but if you watch him you will see these worries being enacted. I say this as one who raised two sons from birth to adulthood, and who brought in three other teenagers as sons at 13, 13, and 16. You have a hard road. Each kid is different and you have to constantly re-evaluate what you are presenting.

I would say start immediately but do not try and build this house overnight. Force yourself to have the patience to go brick-by-brick, accepting from the outset that this is a decade-long task.

For the rest of my advice:
1. Require some physical adherence such as youth group or church attendance, but no more than that.

2. Do not ever bring Christianity in by the front door at this point. That region is too well defended by his friends, his secular reading, and his worldly concerns. You will not get through and he will put up even more armies there. Everything must be back door, side door, garage door, at this point.

3. Pray without ceasing. Help will come from unexpected quarters.

4. Even smart 14 y/o's who think they are operating from intellectual premises seldom are. The answers which should steer him properly are all in CS Lewis's Screwtape and The Great Divorce, but he cannot apprehend these abstractions very well yet. He can gaze on them but not think them on his own just yet.

However, he may think he is reasoning fully and seeing through it all, even though he is only seeing that "some people think this is bosh! (Or boring, or obvious, or obviously not obvious) They are looking down on those who believe it. I can't have that!" There's nothing for it. No frontal assault affects.

Brick by brick.

Antioca said...

Thanks for your reply, especially your comments about raising boys yourself.

I will alter my approach. You are right in that the worldliness and the outright atheism of the rest of his circles seemed more than a match for me.

It's a pain that there are so few "muscular Christian" churches around in Australia. Our current PM, who has some attempt at this ideal, is a man out of his time. Marina