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NewsReal Sunday Discussion of the Day: Pascal’s Wager

November 15, 2009
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From Chris Rowan’s “Leftists in Congress Wage War on Catholics” post:
2009 November 14
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Stupak won’t last through the Senate. This is defense; the Catholic church has been at war against humanity and free-thought for centuries.

Good luck popping that balloon. Till then, I’ll be laughing and clapping with joy at each and every push further to the Left.

  • 2009 November 15
    Elaine B permalink

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    The intelligent and commonsensical thing is to believe and act on that belief. You lose nothing and gain everything.

    Conversely, if there is a God and you choose not to believe, you stand to lose everything.

    • 2009 November 15
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      Elaine,
      Correct me if I’m wrong but it appears you’re articulating the sentiment of “Pascal’s Wager.”

      The problem with the wager is that belief in a theistic God is not a zero-sum game. The choice is not “Do I believe in God or don’t I?” The choice is “If I believe in God (or gods) which one do I believe in?” Because belief in one God requires the rejection of belief in untold numbers of possible other Gods — and this is even within the Christian tradition. If you believed in one version of the Christian God then you’d be rejecting other versions of the Christian God. Across Christianity the character and rules of the god which different Christians embrace is so different that one cannot even really consider them the same god.

      Understand my point here? Not only is the the wager easily taken apart, it’s a logical argument to use to try and convince people to do something which is illogical. Faith is not a logical concept — and that’s not an insult to those of faith. Faith is contradictory and transcendent — our logical maps are inadequate to try and contain it.

David Horowitz also wrote about Pascal’s Wager in The End of Time.

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25 Comments
  1. Marylou permalink
    November 15, 2009 8:59 pm

    How about different understandings of the One God?

    I do agree that it’s a leap of faith, or perhaps a reasoned decision (as was my experience). I do also find the question of how much choice we actually have in this matter quite intriguing. The Word of God seems to infer that we do have total choice.

    • November 16, 2009 5:26 am

      Actually the Word of God states pretty clearly just the opposite, that man is utterly lost and dead in sin unless first acted upon by God. If the Bible is clear about anything it is that no human chooses God unless first chosen and changed by Him

      • Marylou permalink
        November 20, 2009 12:00 am

        There’s plenty of encouragement for people to assert their own free will, too, as in make a decision. Much instruction about choice of what a person will do and say.

  2. Paul Cooper permalink
    November 15, 2009 9:54 pm

    Pascal’s wager is so weak that they take it apart in intro. to philosophy classes – now that’s weak! Besides, you’re right about it trying to make faith a logical equation. It’s not faith if you are just going with the best bet. Real faith is the only kind of faith that matters.

  3. November 15, 2009 10:43 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by mathematics in general, and probability in particular. I learned to play cards and other gambling games at a young age, so when I first came across “Pascals Wager,” I was delighted.

    I saw Pascal’s wager as playing the odds with God. A cosmically wonderful challenge in my mind: There are two ways to place the bet: 1) Should you choose to believe in God(regardless of your concept of who or what that is), what is there to gain in such a belief? And what is the likelihood of achieving that gain? 2) You don’t believe in God. What is the penalty or downside to that? How likely is that?

    If the bet were up to me, I think I’d just “check,” and let the next player risk their own chips. I don’t have a good read on whether or not God is a good bluffer.

  4. Cas Balicki permalink
    November 16, 2009 1:46 am

    The cynic in all of us demands that we prove faith if for no other reason than those that do not share our faith demand such proof. Uncomfortable with the fact that there is no proof, we look to the logic of Pascal’s wager to justify a faith-based position as the smart bet. As Einstein famously said in relation to quantum theory, “God does not play dice with the universe.” So perhaps neither should we dice with faith.

    Each one of us has a modicum of faith. Indeed, faith and its handmaiden hope are so vital to the human condition that none of us would survive for long without them. Even one of the world’s most famous atheists proselytizes in the hope that he will move theists away from what he deems a superstition and toward rationality. To be purposely provocative, Richard Dawkins is a missionary for the cause of atheism. It is not good enough to charge that his is only a quest for the financial rewards that accompany book sales and speaking engagements, as the very same charge could be laid at the doors of any church or synagogue in the world. So let us, for the sake of argument, agree that both the theist and the atheist are acting for altruistic reasons. The problem with altruism is that there is no good scientific explanation of it.

    Much has been made of soldiers falling on hand grenades in the hope of saving their buddies. The most prominent use of the example lately was made in reports of the demented Major Hassan, who compared suicide bombers to such brave soldiers. But to name Major Hassan is to raise questions about the nature of altruistic sacrifice and the morality of such sacrifice. We accept a brave soldier’s actions as heroic, but reject a suicide-bomber’s as an infamy. The difference between a heroic and an infamous act is the morality applied to the situation. But if morality is a social construct or if it is purely situational then by switching perspectives Major Hassan’s logic is proven true and the soldier and the suicide bomber are equally heroic to their respective audiences, this because my socially constructed morality is not his socially constructed morality. Alternately, if morality is situational the facts of the situation itself can be interpreted to accommodate a specific moral prejudice thus rendering morality immoral. Yet, none reading this can accept that argument for there is in our mind a clear difference between a sacrifice that saves innocents and one that takes innocents. We see the difference because we all know innocents and we will not allow situational or socially constructed morality to move us to the illogical contention that there are no innocents. In other words we logically accept the existence of innocents who must be protected for altruistic and highly illogical reasons. Thus the innocents in our midst move morality beyond situation and construct and into the realm of belief to be accepted by faith alone.

    What has all this to do with Pascal’s wager? Well, Pascal’s wager denies faith in favour of probability. What is important to recognize is that neither probability nor faith is proof, even though probability pretends to proof. As an example, the probability of drawing a spade from a deck of cards is one in four, but there is no guaranty that the next card drawn will be a spade. The scientist either has faith in man’s ability to solve the problems that come man’s way or he does not. The religious either has faith in God or he does not. Just as science demands of the scientist a complete acceptance of the scientific method as a means of constructing proof, religion demands the complete acceptance of God’s existence without proof. For to prove God’s existence would be to destroy free will just as surely as to accept Pascal’s wager would destroy God’s existence independent of a desire for heavenly reward.

  5. November 16, 2009 3:05 am

    “The problem with altruism is that there is no good scientific explanation of it.”

    Dawkins wrote about this at length in “The Selfish Gene.” You might not agree with it, but it is a good scientific explanation, as explanations go.

    “the probability of drawing a spade from a deck of cards is one in four” only in a deck composed of 4 spades.

    • Cas Balicki permalink
      November 16, 2009 6:15 am

      There are 13 spades in a 52 card deck, the probability of drawing a spade is 13 out of 52 or 1 in 4. The probability of drawing a spade from a 4 card deck composed of 4 spades is 4 in 4 or 100%.

  6. The Inquisitor permalink
    November 16, 2009 5:20 am

    The Inquisitor’s Conjecture: If there is a god, he will condemn to eternal hell those who believe in him with no evidence, not to mention a proper definition. He will do so, because they have abused beyond redemption their god-given brain.

    • Marylou permalink
      November 16, 2009 11:56 pm

      where do you get this idea?

      • The Inquisitor permalink
        November 17, 2009 5:18 am

        Marylou, I got it from an old book that’s been handed down for centuries. Everyone swears that it speaks the truth.

        • Marylou permalink
          November 20, 2009 12:01 am

          kinda hard to recognize….sounds pretty harsh.

  7. November 16, 2009 5:28 am

    If one ponders the order and rational predictability of the elements of nature or the intricacies of the human body, does one not see intelligence and order in how all of creation displays itself? Study of the the human body alone with its ability to heal itself and all of its inter-related functions and cells, and membranes, etc. would cause one to be convinced that there is indeed a benevolent God.

    • November 17, 2009 9:51 am

      Kathy, I am afraid you are wandering into territory where a lack of specialized knowledge almost certainly leads to “common sense” conclusions that prove nothing but the speaker’s lack of a full picture.

      It is always fatal to reason to only listen to one side of a controversial issue. In the case of evolution (of the universe and life) unless you are willing to learn several interrelated subjects and make your own judgments you will be prey for sensible sounding snake oil salesmen.

      I could never understand why some people struggle so against the idea that a “Creator” merely needed to set the rules in motion and wait for something like us to appear.

      The miracle of our reality is not a magical cartoon God that violates His own laws, it is the utterly simple rules that our reality grows out of like a rose grows from plain dirt, water and sun.

      Life is amazing in its complexity and fantastic flexibility, but to take that and jump to assume an intelligent designer is to miss out on many things that do NOT support the theory.

      Just a few off the top of my head:

      Would an intelligent designer make it so women are MUCH more susceptible to certain infections because they have an opening that leads directly to the inter-abdominal spaces? Would not an intelligent designer enclose the ovaries and prevent this design “flaw”? In an Equal Opportunity vein; I get that the testicles need a fairly constant temp but I do think that a designing God could find a better way to solve the problem than to hang them outside the body!

      If our Designer understood what a tool user Humans would be would our reflex for breathing be triggered by a surplus of Carbon Dioxide instead of a lack of Oxygen? In our present “model” we can walk into a room full of nitrogen and no oxygen and not feel a thing until we pass out and die. On the other hand if there is plenty of O2 but too much CO2 it is not harmful but can cause us to hyperventilate and panic.

      The most amazing thing to me about the study of Life is not how unlikely it is to occur. As you learn about the rules of chemistry and molecules and how they do and do not interact it becomes clear that life is not unlikely or improbable! It is INEVITABLE given the right temps and environment. I fully expect that as inhospitable most of the Solar System is we WILL find life under the ice of some of the moons of Jupiter. All the elements are there, all the energy needed is present, and oceans of free water!

      • Cas Balicki permalink
        November 17, 2009 1:44 pm

        All of nature tends to entropy, but life is inevitable? Methinks we need a definition of “inevitable” before this too, too solid flesh melts and resolves itself into a dew.

        Speaking of dew, what I like about the laws of nature is their consistency. Take, for example, water, simple H2O, the stuff that is along with O2 most necessary to life on earth. Every other element and mix of elements contracts when cooled, water expands. So forget about sexual organs and explain in view of nature’s “overall consistency” why this one molecule acts as it does. After that we can move on to scrotal temperature regulation and the inevitability of life on other planets.

        • November 17, 2009 4:07 pm

          Cas wrote:
          “All of nature tends to entropy, but life is inevitable? Methinks we need a definition of “inevitable” …”

          In any CLOSED system the TOTAL entropy of that system TENDS to increase over time. The “law” of entropy is violated routinely on the small scale.

          A simple example is the Sun radiating energy like mad while a small bit of it is used to drive the growth of all life on Earth. All of the complexity and “reverse-entropy” demonstrated by life on Earth is tiny compared to the increase of entropy represented by the Sun.

          So, there is nothing at all about the concept of increasing entropy in the universe overall that prevents a LOCAL decrease to as close to zero entropy as you care to have. Just imagine what a LACK of entropy the human brain, represents.

          I agree that the consistency of natural law is amazing. And I also agree that water is fascinating stuff. A truly unique molecule. But then there are many, many unique molecules that are even more intriguing than simple H2O.

          That is what I was talking about before (sorry about the Head Heretic ID instead of my usual) about life being inevitable. We exist in a finely tuned universe fitted to produce Human life.
          Given that quantum mechanics shows ALL possible sets of rules represented by separate universes linked at the beginning of time, it is no surprise that we look on a reality that seems “tailor-made” for us.

          But God or Evolution, it doesn’t make a difference. Evolution would produce beings uniquely fitted to their particular reality and God would not put beings in a universe they were alien to. I can’t see the whole anthropic argument as anything but a non-issue.

  8. Janet permalink
    November 16, 2009 6:12 am

    “If you believed in one version of the Christian God then you’d be rejecting other versions of the Christian God”. I’m not accepting that statement, David. I have been a Catholic Christian all my life and although I know the various non-Catholic Christian Churches differ from us and each other in many ways relative to what one should do to remain in God’s favor and ultimately gain eternal life, I personally don’t know of any Christian sect which does not believe that Jesus Christ, both human and divine, is the Son of God the Father and, together with the Holy Spirit, form the Blessed Trinity, a concept which is considered a mystery, not to be understood in this world. So yes, different churches have different rules and regulations, customs and traditions, most of which followed the reformation, but, as far as I know, and I do not presume to know a lot, the definition of a Christian is one who believes the New Testament of the Bible and accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.

    • November 16, 2009 3:48 pm

      Do you and Fred Phelps believe in the same God?

  9. Jack Samwell permalink
    November 16, 2009 6:44 am

    Pascal’s “Wager” was written to demonstrate, contrary to the assertions of those in the sciences and secular society, that religious faith can have a sound logical basis within the realm of natural reason. Faith in this view isn’t merely the product of fear, genetics or deluded thinking, but of mathematical reasoning applied to statical probability.

    David is quite right to say that this isn’t ultimately why people believe in God. Nor would Pascal as his pietism posits that a belief in God is trans-rational. So i don’t think that the “wager” was written to convert as much as to defend the rationality of faith in the supernatural against its athiest critics.

    It isn’t the best arguments of this type. Aquinas gives a better and more comprehesive treatment of the arguments for God’s existence by pure natural reason.

  10. Rhodi permalink
    November 16, 2009 10:33 am

    Janet,
    I agree with you on the points that for genuine Christians, there is only One God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son and the Holy Spirit–and each of these testify as witnesses to each other (1 John 5:7,8)…

    But in addition, I do not believe that the vast majority of those claiming to be Christians in this country, are genuine. They may believe they are, but Matthew 7 makes it very clear that salvation is through faith alone in Christ and repentance (change of heart and mind) and that repentance is demonstrated by the “fruit” that comes from someone’s life, whether good or evil. “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father Who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, , ‘Lord, Lord (people who profess Jesus Christ as their God), have we not prophesied in your name and driven out demons in Your name and done mighty works in your name?’ And then I will say to them publicly, ‘I never knew you; depart from me you who acted wickedly [disregarding my commands]’. vs: 22-23

    We know we are “in the faith” by “examining ourselves”–reviewing our life in accordance with God’s commands. And sadly, many Christians will be surprised at the end when Christ says that He doesn’t know them. We must always review our own lives by the Word; “when they judge themselves, by themselves, they are not wise.”

    I say this because it was mentioned a while back on one of these blogs as a criticism that Christians think they can do whatever they want and still get to heaven because they claim, ‘Jesus is Lord’ OR ‘I believe in God’. Satan believes Jesus is Lord. The belief that ‘I am saved bc I said a prayer one time’ is one of the greatest fallacies in American Christianity–and having been to other nations where that would be considered heresy–Christians CANNOT do whatever they want and get away with it. God is not a joke.

  11. November 16, 2009 1:05 pm

    Cas said:

    “As Einstein famously said in relation to quantum theory, “God does not play dice with the universe.” So perhaps neither should we dice with faith.”

    I think I get the point Cas is making but it should be pointed out that Einstein was wrong when he said this:

    Einstein spent the latter half of his career trying to disprove the counter-intuitive aspects of quantum mechanics. He failed completely. The best idea he ever proposed for testing it by experiment has been carried out (by Alain Aspect in Paris in the ’80s)and shows that q.m. is right not Einstein in its most counter-intuitive predictions.

    But as far as I know general relativity also has never been found wanting when tested, so the Einstein fans can put their sharpened slide rules back in their pockets.

    But my real comment is that the whole idea of Pascal’s wager has always been silly to me. IT seem like a classic example of trying to put a transcendent deity into a human created “personality”.

    God is MORE incomprehensible to us than we are to ants; I believe that is fairly well agreed upon.

    A person might discard (kill) or damage(torment) ants if they failed to be “trainable” to that person’s standards. But that person cannot claim to “love” the ants or have “mercy” on the ants while they do so. They would do it callously, without guilt or much feeling at all.

    They certainly would not be hurt or offended by the ant’s “rebellion.” In fact an intelligent person might think that it was their clues to train the ants that were at fault instead of the poor, innocent ants.

    Over an over again we are taught that God does not think of Humanity that way at all.

    Instead we are taught about a god that loves and hurts for our lost ways. How could any god so described condemn any human for ignorantly but sincerely following any path at all?

    I have faith, I have faith that the love that God put in me is real, and that the worst “torment’ God could ever inflict for believing wrongly would be to let a poor ignorant human understand just how wrong they were. That faith certainly does not require me to enslave my reason to any man-made church doctrine.

    Or we can just do what so many “Church” leaders have done before; eject the whole concept of humility amongst humans in the face of God and replace it with our own prejudices. Call me silly but I do not see that that has worked out all that well in the past.

    You hold the gun, I hold the wound, and we stand looking in each other’s eyes.
    Both think we know what’s right, both KNOW we know what’s wrong; and we tell ourselves so many, many lies.”

    “You’ve all been shown many times before, messiahs pointed to the door, but no one had the guts to leave the Temple.

    (Pete Townshend)

    • Cas Balicki permalink
      November 16, 2009 2:17 pm

      Guy, I agree Einstein was wrong with regard to quantum theory, but, and perhaps too carelessly, I used the line more as segue than fact. That said one of the major puzzles in physics today is quantum theory itself. At this stage of the game quantum theory may be more (metaphor alert) black hole than theory, but then that may just be my prejudices leaking out.

      Also, you will not find me disagreeing with your take on Pascal’s wager, this even though Jack Samwell has provided the most compelling argument in the wager’s favour.

  12. November 16, 2009 2:32 pm

    Don’t get me going about black holes, that is my main subject for research lately. There are a few things I need to clear up before I write some of my ideas about them that might be original but also might be wrong.

    That said, I am interested in your take on quantum theory. I see it as a gateway to breaking away from humanocentric theology to a new (but old) understanding of God. Call it a path to defining the intuitive by counter-intuitive means. (trust me folks, if you get into quantum theory that is one of the least silly things you will hear, the problem is that it all WORKS whenever tested.)

    I am currently beating the idea over the head under the working title of “Quantum God.”

    You should drop me a line on my heretics crusade blog’s email. I am very interested in more detail about your thoughts on the subject.

  13. Janet permalink
    November 17, 2009 5:05 am

    David,
    I’m sorry to have to say that I’m not familiar with Fred Phelps….so I had to Google him. At just a quick glance (I will go back and study him further)my reply is admittedly uninformed. I think that Mr. Phelps is one of many who purposely or otherwise misinterprets Scripture in order to reconcile their own agenda which is anything but Christian, aka Christ-like. Catholics of my generation are seldom Bible students and that includes me, but paraphrased “when asked how to gain eternal life, Jesus said ‘you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul and you shall love your neighbor as yourself'” Now from my quick Google read I would say that Mr. Phelps does not appear to be doing that. But also in order to be a good Christian, “one should not judge another so that he too will not be judged”. I take that to mean, David, we are all sinners but our Dear Lord Jesus is a most loving and infinitely forgiving God. Hopefully, Mr. Phelps will come to realize that and shed his prejudices before he leaves this earth.

    The fact that their are many who claim to be Christians but who don’t appear to be at all Christ-like is simply human imperfection.

  14. Janet permalink
    November 17, 2009 6:13 am

    I would like to add that I agree for the most part with Rhodi. There is a “heresy”: faith alone is sufficient to gain heaven. I hope those who embrace it, will nevertheless “love God with all of their being and their neighbor as themselves”. In so doing, one will still occasionally sin, but will also be repentant.

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