Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What Can We Learn From Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher during the 1600's. He famously stated a thesis that has come to be known as Pascal's Wager. It states essentially that since one doesn't lose anything by living as if God exists one should strive to do just that.

It has been widely criticized through the years even by contemporaries of Pascal, but can we learn anything from it today. Or is it merely a weak attempt at a bare-bones case of apologetics.

I got to thinking about this topic the other day, when I overheard some of my fellow vendors having a discussion about living your whole life for something, only to find out it was wrong. When I asked what they were being so philosophical about so early in the morning I was told they were discussing whether or not it made sense to believe in God. One of the guys was expressing his lack of desire to follow the rules of a billion dollar industry.

I immediately said that's Pascal's Wager, does it make sense to believe in God, in the face of a lack of proof. It's a topic I have wrestled with somewhat myself. Let's just say there is a reason I love the name Thomas. When I read the story of Thomas's unbelief at the Resurrection I see a lot of myself in that tale.

First let's take a look at Pascal's intended audience, he was a skeptic writing for skeptics and yet he comes away from this argument taking the view that it is strong indeed. He finished his argument with this thought: "this is conclusive, and if men are capable of any truth, this is it."

Peter Kreeft one of the preeminent apologists alive today used a series of examples to demonstrate the near absurdity in not taking Pascal's Wager, writing the following:

Suppose someone terribly precious to you lay dying, and the doctor offered to try a new "miracle drug" that he could not guarantee but that seemed to have a 50-50 chance of saving your beloved friend's life. Would it be reasonable to try it, even if it cost a little money? And suppose it were free—wouldn't it be utterly reasonable to try it and unreasonable not to?

Suppose you hear reports that your house is on fire and your children are inside. You do not know whether the reports are true or false. What is the reasonable thing to do—to ignore them or to take the time to run home or at least phone home just in case the reports are true?

Suppose a winning sweepstakes ticket is worth a million dollars, and there are only two tickets left. You know that one of them is the winning ticket, while the other is worth nothing, and you are allowed to buy only one of the two tickets, at random. Would it be a good investment to spend a dollar on the good chance of winning a million?

No reasonable person can be or ever is in doubt in such cases. But deciding whether to believe in God is a case like these, argues Pascal. It is therefore the height of folly not to "bet" on God, even if you have no certainty, no proof, no guarantee that your bet will win. (From The Argument From Pascal's Wager)

Mind you as Kreeft points out, even Pascal realized this was a low ladder, but perhaps a necessary one for those on the fence. For if you live the faith without having it you may one day realize you had it all along.

Anthony Hopkins priest character in the film The Rite has a couple of great lines on skepticism and faith. One in which he talks about more or less walking through the darkness lost, then he feels something like the fingernail of God scratching away the dark and bringing him back into the light.

The other one is: "You know, the interesting thing about skeptics, is that we're always looking for proof... the question is, what on earth would we ever do if we found it?"

Chalk that one up as another amazing line in a career full of them for Sir Anthony. 

Pascal's strongest piece of his argument hits the skeptics hardest. In dealing with the idea of agnosticism he comes out blasting. Kreeft again has perhaps the best summary of Pascal's argument against agnosticism likening us to ships needing to pull into port in a storm (God) or waiting for the weather to clear so we can be sure it is the right port. Kreeft rightly says we cannot sit at anchor we are actively moving in the stream of life decisions must be made. There is no room for agnosticism's measured know-nothingness.

Pascal implores those reading his argument with a simple philosophy toward accepting it:

"If you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God's existence but by diminishing your passions. You want to find faith, and you do not know the road. You want to be cured of unbelief, and you ask for the remedy: learn from those who were once bound like you and who now wager all they have. . . . They behaved just as if they did believe."

It is this last that even today nearly 400 years later still holds a lesson for us. Whether you already believe or you doubt act as though you do believe and in time you will likely find that you do in fact. Whether or not you have multiple proofs of the existence of God. 

Even if you merely act according to the moral precepts and ideas of what C. S. Lewis once called Mere Christianity you will be a step ahead. Because in living a Christian life you will inspire others to be better people.

Not to get all let's gather in a circle and sing Kumbaya, but seriously what is so foul about trying to fashion your life to more closely resemble the example Jesus gave us all.

Perhaps that is what we can learn from Pascal's Wager, that it doesn't take all that much to live up to the Christian ideal and it sure won't cost you anything. But could in fact benefit you beyond measure.

No comments: