Sunday, July 9, 2006

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager (7/9/2006)

We have a choice as to whether or not to believe in God. I have chosen to believe in God, and one of the reasons I have chosen to believe in God is somewhat similar to an argument made by the mathematician Blaise Pascal.

Blaise Pascal was a gambler as well as a mathematician, and invented the mathematics of probability so that he could win more often when gambling. He was also a philosopher, and got caught up in discussions of "proofs" of the existence (or non-existence) of God. Briefly, Pascal proposed to his friends that, if an absolute proof was not possible, the mathematics of probabilities would suggest that you should wager your soul on the existence of God, rather than the non-existence of God.

Pascal presented the question of whether or not to believe in God as a kind of a choice, with pros and cons, and the choice you make depends on how you value the pros and cons. If you chose to believe in God, you must follow the dictates of the Christian church and give up the sinful pleasures of a sinful world, but your ultimate reward is a place in Heaven and eternal life after death. If you choose not to believe in God, then you get to enjoy your life without guilt, but you may suffer eternal torment in Hell.

Pascal’s reasoning was that, if there is any possibility of eternal life, no matter how small, the reward of eternal life is so overwhelmingly great that the finite pleasures of a finite life are insignificant by comparison, and you should "bet your life" by believing in God.

My disagreement with Pascal is not so much in the mathematics, but in his assumptions. His assumption was that a belief in God requires giving up pleasures and live a joyless life. I believe the opposite, and that it is the life without faith that is joyless.

My belief in the existence of God has led me to believe that I am loved by God (along with all others), and has also led me to believe that my primary function in life is to be loved and to give love in return, not only to God but to those who are loved by God, which is everyone else. (These are the "two great commandments" taught by Jesus: that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.)

When I have not believed in God, my life has been full of fear. I have been alone and unloved, and my life has seemed short and meaningless. When I have believed in God, I feel that I am part of something large and holy, I have felt loved, and my life has seemed to be both eternal and essential.

The "sinful pleasures" that many believe that God commands we must give up are not really that sinful or that pleasurable. Neither sex nor alcohol are prohibited by the Bible, which only seems to counsel against excess and an excess of almost anything leads to more pain than pleasure. Excessive alcohol produces hangovers, sexual license leads to shame and regret, uncontrolled gambling leads to bankruptcy, gluttony makes us fat, avarice (and "workaholism") makes us tired and lonely, etc. In short, it doesn't look as though God is denying us any real pleasures in life, but only discouraging obsessive or self-destructive behaviors.

So, "Pascal's wager" seems to be no wager at all. If I believe in God, I automatically "win." Why would I want to "bet" any other way?