Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Pascal's The Wager

One idle moment a week or so ago, I sat around pondering Pascal's "The Wager". For those unfamiliar with the idea, the Wager is an attempt by Pascal in his Pensées to prove that belief in god is more reasonable than nonbelief. His argument has an elegant simplicity, which can be summed up with the following box (forgive the crude formatting):

God Exists ::::::::
God Does Not Exist

Win infinity ::::::::: Status quo ::::::::::::::: Believe in God

Eternal misery ::::: Status quo ::::::::::::::: Do not believe in God

Basically, if you believe in God and God does exist, you win eternal happiness in the afterlife. If you believe in God and God doesn't exist, no harm, no foul. And if you don't believe in God and God doesn't exist, still no big deal. But if you don't believe and God exists, you will be severely punished. It's a clever argument, basically, he's saying that you should play 7-2 offsuit since you're playing a game where you're putting in $1 to win $3 gazillion if you hit.

The problem with Pascal's formulation has always been for me the Christian cosmology that's assumed by Pascal (why must belief in God automatically lead to eternal afterlife? Why must an all-powerful God, if one exists, be so vain as to assign their eternal place based on belief rather than, oh, doing good works? Essentially the main flaw, after thinking about it is the insistence that God here necessarily means belief in a Christian God. I thought, "what if God was my Chinese-made imitation Patek Phillipe watch"? What then? If I don't believe in my cheapo watch, I'm forever damned to eternal hell? There are infinite possibilities of "God" manifesting itself, and the Christian model appears to me no more likely than God taking the form of Ted Williams' bat from the 1946 All-Star game. Even assuming that Vanity God exists and cares about a subject's faith, there's no basis for choosing the Christian God over the 4 zillion other possible Gods, at least on a rational level.

While I was pretty impressed with my own debunking of The Wager, I knew there were far better rebuttals out there. Today, I Googled "Pascal Wager" and found this article, which not only discusses my rebuttal, but advances a dozen more. Quite interesting -- the reasons laid out basically demonstrates that faith in God defies reason. Which is why Kierkegaard has it right: if you're a Believer, faith has to be a wholly different (and higher) category distinct from reason.

On a related note, I recently picked up Richard Dawkins'
The Blind Watchmaker after its appearance on several book memes. In this book the hardcore atheist Dawkins apparently presents a strong case against the idea that universe manifests "intelligent design" (i.e., God). I've only read the forward thus far, but in reading it, I realized that I am not very interested in proving or disproving God's existence. What's far more interesting is the question of values. Is God the source of values and meaning, or can one find better values in the absence of a God? Nietzsche pretty much answers this one for me. It makes far better sense to me to derive values from a respect for the natural world and civil society rather than from some supernatural machination that inspires its believers to aspire to non-worldly goals. There are obviously many positives that can come from devotion to the otherworldly, but the latter thinking can also lead down a path of destructive, anti-worldly fanaticism of the sort which is motivated by thoughts like "God told me if I blow up Americans 72 virgins will blow me 24 hours a day in the afterlife." Think about the real world, motherfucker, and maybe you'd make better choices.

Also: I've been very impressed with most of the Wikipedia entries I've read. The Nietzsche entry linked above avoids many of the common mis-interpretations of his work and describes the main tenets of his thought succinctly and correctly. And this guy clearly knows the history of the World Wrestling Federation/WWE.