Monday, June 09, 2008

Pascal's wager -- my take

Pascal's wager has long been used by some people in Christianity as a way to reach out to unbelievers with an appeal to logic. Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French philosopher who broke quite a bit of new ground in his approach to philosophy and apologetics (the defense of Christianity). His "wager" was more of a sidenote at the end of one of his writings but it has some serious staying power, still often referenced almost 400 years later!

His idea was to look at the long-term upside/downside of being right or wrong about God's existence. For example, if God doesn't really exist:

--Believing in him costs us nothing -- even though Christians are technically wrong, we'll all just disappear after we die
--Not believing in him doesn't cost us anything either, nor gain us anything. Again, we all just disappear after death.

In this case, it's a wash between believing or not believing. Nobody wins.

However if God does really exist:

--Believing in him gets us into heaven. HUGE reward.
--Not believing gets us into hell. HUGE punishment.

In this case, believing "wins" in a major way.

His logical conclusion is that it's much safer, and smarter, to adopt the Christian faith rather than live as an atheist. Think of it as an eternal insurance policy, just in case heaven/hell are real. I continue to hear Pascal's wager referred to in discussions of faith, and my personal opinion is that this is unfortunate, because I think the wager doesn't really work. At least not for me. And on top of that, I can turn the wager around to justify a totally different approach to faith.

First, the reasons why the wager doesn't work for me:

-- It's entirely uninspirational. Looking at faith as an insurance policy? No thanks. Belief about God is such a deeply personal issue that I have a hard time applying a coldly logical, safety-focused method to determining what I should believe. And even if I applied the logic and decided that it's safer to believe, what kind of life-long behavior will that really motivate? For me, it'd just be going through the motions in the hope that this heaven thing works out.

-- It would seem to lead to extreme legalism. If safety is paramount and should be the top priority, then where do I draw the line on what is "enough" to get into heaven? Maybe belief alone doesn't cut it. Add baptism. And church worship style. And appropriate clothing. And who you marry. And what you eat/drink. You get the picture. Pascal's logic would demand that every single issue, no matter how small, may possibly play out very important in the end, so they all must get large priority.

-- It only works in a Christianity/Atheism context. Bring any other religious options into the mix and it really muddies the waters! How do I pick which option is "safer" in a world with so many religious choices? What if they are mutually exclusive? If I'm a really good Mormon, will that cover me if Islam ends up actually being correct? Would I still get my room in paradise with virgins? Would they be lesser virgins, like a roomful of middle-aged male Star Trek fanatics? Okay, I kid, but the reality of the 21st Century is that not many people are only trying to weigh Christianity/Atheism. There's a lot more to it that would have been difficult to imagine 400 years ago.

I could go on but I don't want to come across as bashing a very accomplished philosopher. He made some great strides for his time, but we live in a different world today.

Now for how I can turn the wager on its head.

Instead of focusing on whether or not we'll receive eternal rewards, how about focusing on how we are viewing God? Pascal's wager demands that we view God as maximally harsh. If we want to be safe, then we must assume that the slightest infraction could merit his wrath. Therefore we should follow the most conservative path to avoid eternal punishment.

On the other hand, my spirit today tells me that God is in fact very loving and very graceful. Jesus said we are to forgive each other without limits, even if they don't ask for it. I figure that if I am to forgive people without end, God does that and more. I assume the very best of God.

The interesting thing is that some Christians look at this as heresy and say that if I think God is too graceful, then his grace won't actually fall on me. Pretty ironic!

So I turn Pascal's wager around. If I am to make an error in judment about who God is, would I rather think of him as too harsh, or too graceful? I'd rather think of him as too graceful. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and if I've overestimated his ability to forgive, so be it. I can live with that error.


Don R said...

"I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and if I've overestimated his ability to forgive, so be it. I can live with that error."

Amen, Michael!

Roland said...

I'd never heard this before, but had heard the argument.

If you go ahead and believe because you "might as well," do you actually believe?

I was recently encourage to "hurry up and decide" before something bad happens. Then I got to hear the anecdotes of trucks crossing over into my lane, pianos crashing down on me, giant asteroids, etc. All the things that could lead to sudden, instant, and even immediate death.

I'd better believe before that happens, right? But, you can't rush it. You can do your research and your studies and try your hardest, but in the end, you still need to BELIEVE.

Since it comes down to faith, using the words "I believe" when you don't is like holding a counterfeit ticket through the Pearly Gates. I'm sure Saint Peter has a UV light right there ready. And a very special type of security guard to whisk you away...

Redlefty said...

I think you nailed it, Roland. People are ready when they're ready. Some may never be ready. But this type of argument doesn't often nurture the process of true faith.

Last year at our church they showed a video skit of a Christian helping a woman whose car was on the side of the road, out of gas. The Christian poured gasoline on her and said, "Are you ready to burn? Because if you don't believe, this is just a sneak preview of the true pain you'll experience forever! Don't wait to get baptized! You might die tomorrow!"

Our teachers then explained how obviously ridiculous this approach is, and that instead we must be loving and patient with unbelievers.

But churches continue to shrink nationwide, so maybe it's time for the gasoline thing?

Pianos and asteroids!

Hal Johnson said...

Great post. Indeed, taking a "logical" approach to believing can leave behind some qualities of faith that are most enriching.

Bob Barbanes said...

Those of us who believe in God already "get" the premise. We know that there's no downside to faith, either temporarily or eternally. However, atheists seem to think there is - that there is a cost - either of our individuality or perhaps our ability as free-thinkers. Which is just foolish. Using Pascal's logic on them probably would not work anyway.

Truth be told, I'd much rather be on a winning team than a losing team, but that is not *why* I believe in God. Pascal's wager is merely a nice bit of reinforcement, but it's hardly necessary.

debby said...

*wanders off, pondering*

Rodolfo said...

Interesting point and I agree with most of it. I have no problems with people of faith. What I oppose is dogma. Dogmatism leads to blind faith and that's what non-religious folks have been railing against the last couple of years. As much good as one can find in faith there is also a lot of bad. Same goes for an atheist. Heck it applies to most things. Take the internet for example. I bet you and I frequent sites that are uplifting and intelligent. We view the internet as a source for good. But the other side of the coin is a bunch of people who use the internet for greed and violence. There's always two ways to look at things. It's more important to find common ground between competing ideologies because societies functions better that way.

debby said...

I've never been able to wrap my head around the idea that someday we'll stand before God and he'll laugh like crazy and tell us that we were studying from the wrong book. I'm a big believer in the idea of the three blind men and the elephant. I believe that we're all holding a piece of something much bigger. Can you imagine how different the world would be if people simply accepted that one truth and stopped arguing about it?

I believe in God. I do not believe that atheists are 'less' than me because they do not. They just phrase it differently, have a different awareness, maybe. Most everyone believes in something greater than themselves. Fate, Karma, 'the powers that be', angels, demons, the hereafter. There's an always some level of awareness, don't you think?

*wanders off pondering again*

Redlefty said...

Bob, I really like your comment that there's no earthly downside. While it may not be true for all specific faiths/denominations, I think in large part it is a valuable concept. A friend of ours (who's been a Christian her whole life) recently commented on how she's missing out on so much fun stuff because of her faith. To me that's a very tragic perspective. Her idea of the fun stuff is actually quite destructive behavior, and if those things truly led to fulfillment, Hollywood would be full of satisfied people and lifelong marriages.

Rodolfo, I'm right with you on dogma. My dad and I recently discussed something along these lines, and I mentioned that no matter what I believe at any given time, in the back of my mind I want to always concede that I might be wrong. That when it comes to matters of faith there is no definitive proof. That's why it's called faith!

debby, yes, from my experience so far, almost everybody seems to have some level of awareness that life isn't solely about molecules in motion. And each of them seems to have something different to add to the picture. I like your perspective!

paul maurice martin said...

What if it turns out that religion, for those with ears to hear, so to speak, has nothing to do with scoring personal points with God and that golden points represents about the same level of religiosity as worshipping the golden calf.

MamaRose said...

Well, I've been 'behind'--but, lastly, I KNOW God did NOT LIKE HIS people worshipping that 'Golden Calf'!!!!!--he punished them 3 TIMES for it!!!!!!

The 2 things I thought were: We are all 'TOLD' to 'work out our OWN salvation WITH FEAR & TREMBLING'--so, we ALL need to be in the middle of doing that!!!!!!!

And, I also KNOW that God KNOWS our HEARTS/minds/souls & that he WANTS us TOTALLY--ALL OUR HEARTS, MINDS, and SOULS--not just us thinking that HE MIGHT BE REAL & 'up there' & getting an ETERNAL HOME READY FOR US!!!!!!!!!

So, as smart as this guy was--that long ago--he MISSED OUT on that part--it's NOT a matter of 'just' an Insurance Policy!!!!!

We HAVE to be genuine & TOTALLY BELIEVE SOMETHING--even though 'that' may change from day to day & year to year--being willing to accept NEW TRUTH is a 'GOOD THING'--not being 'set' in our thoughts/ways.

And, you may ask: 'What's a NEW TRUTH'--the Bible tells us IF we SEEK for 'it', we WILL KNOW 'it' & 'it' WILL SET US FREE"! AMEN!!!!

LOVE YOU BUNCHES!!!!!!!!!!!!! Mom

debby said...

I've been thinking of the Christian friend who feels like she's missing out on the fun. This just confounds me. She has a really twisted view of God...and of fun.

Mostly, though, I've been thinking about 'knowing' God. I didn't believe and, one day, I suddenly did. I 'knew' God. That 'knowing', that understanding, that certainty that this was the truth was not me. Really, I never thought of God much at all until that day, ironically, Father's Day. That 'knowing' was not the result of me, although I believe that I've grown in that awareness. That first spark was not mine. I'm glad for it, but I had nothing to do with it. That convinces me of God's love for me. I cannot conceive of such a great love without forgiveness. I don't think any unforgiving person can love deeply. I know that God loves us deeply.

Redlefty said...

debby, great point -- that reminds me of what Roland said about when people are ready.

I've done a study on the book of Acts in the bible and how you can tell when people were ready for faith, and when they weren't. Although I'm doing a blog post on it at some point, here's a sneak peek at it:

1) The people themselves didn't seem to be in control of the timing of their own faith

2) Other people couldn't influence them into it