Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pascal's Wager

I wrote a bit on Pascal's famous wager here.  The gist of it is that the upside of beliving in God is so much better than the downside that it should be an easy choice to make.  The argument is brilliant.  Live a Christian life and you either go to heaven or find out that you were wrong and there is no afterlife.  Live a faithless life and either have no afterlife or go to hell.  Given those choices, who could do other than believe in God, right?
Well, not so fast.  There is one rather large flaw in Pascal's reasoning here.  Faith is not a volitional thing.  One can't simply flip a switch and believe anything.  Faith requires some deeper conviction.  On some deep level you must be convinced of the things that you truly believe in.
Pascal does answer this:
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 possesions. 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. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.
This isn't bad advice but it's not as certain as Pascal says it is.  Otherwise we would never see long time church goers lose faith and fall away.  We would never see frauds in the church because over time their frauds would be converted by the proximity and totality of their actions.  Even worse, according to Pascal's own life story, he went back and forth from faith to doubt until he got what he felt was an unanswerable sign from God.
I'm sure that many would be converted if they had a visit from the divine in a dream.  It's easy to have faith in angels when you actually meet them.  It's much harder to simply say that if you try to believe in them, eventually you will.
In my middle teens I first read Heinlein's 'Time Enough for Love'.  The story is an attempt to pry loose 'nuggets of wisdom' from a man who has lived for nearly 3000 years.  In one of the 'notebook' sections he writes this:
There is no conclusive evidence of life after death. But there is no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough you will know. So why fret about it?
Pascal would have hated that thought.  Heinlein is saying that we really don't know one way or the other what happens after you die.  Elsewhere he makes the point that competing religions make promises of an afterlife but they differ on the route to get there.  If we don't have any concrete knowledge, how can we even begin to know which way to bet?  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and Pascal is openly saying that the proof isn't the way, only faith is.
My logical mind agrees with the Heinlein approach but not completely.  We don't know, we can't know.  That doesn't mean that the question isn't important.  It certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't fret about it.
But it sure would be easier with a visit in a dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment