When I studied philosophy in university I learned about Pascal’s Wager. Simply put, it reasons from the point-of-view of a rational person who does not know for sure if there is a God or not (the position many of us are in). The gist of the argument is that if in the end there is no God then the fate of the believer and the unbeliever are the same (the bodies decay and that is all) and the difference in life while alive between the believer and the unbeliever is so minute that effectively, if, in the end, there is no God the in-life and after-life experience of the believer and the unbeliever are almost the same. But, if, in the end, there is a God then the fate of the unbeliever is infinitely negative while the fate of the believer is infinitely positive. So, since the fate of the believer is never really worse than that of the unbeliever in any of the possible final outcomes, and in some possible outcomes the fate of the believer is much better, than it is more rational, given the uncertainty to be a believer. This can be expressed in a simple decision matrix where the possible combinations of beliefs and outcomes are matched.
|God exists (G)||God does not exist (~G)|
|Belief (B)||+∞ (heaven)||+1 (moral benefits)|
|Disbelief (~B)||−∞ (hell)||-1 (immoral consequences)|
As wikipedia sums it up, “Given these values, the option of living as if God exists (B) dominates the option of living as if God does not exist (~B), as long as one assumes a positive probability that God exists. In other words, the expected value gained by choosing B is greater than or equal to that of choosing ~B.”
Interestingly, the professor who taught that philosophy course mocked Pascal’s Wager even as he taught it to us. But around the same time, in an operations research course I learned about the concept of Expected Value (which I bolded in the wiki quote). I realized as I studied this – as wiki has correctly pointed out- that Pascal’s Wager was a specific instance of what in probability theory is known as Expected Value. In my Forest Operations Research I was taught to use Expected Values in decision making. Yet in philosophy my professor mocked Pascal’s Wager, a specific instance of Expected Value, that applies to the only one area that each one of us will one day face – our death. (It seemed ironic to me that in marginal life issues such as decisions involving forest fires and insect outbreaks we were taught to use decision theory of uncertainty, but in an issue of direct relevance to all of us, I was discouraged from applying the very same principles though they were based on reason and mathematics.)
Christopher Hitchens, who passed away last week, provides a great example of the efficacy of Pascal’s Wager. He has either stepped into eternity, or he is annihilated. And if he is annihilated, then so has the Apostle Paul – to pick someone who spent his life pursuing the gospel rather than opposing it – and so the outcomes for them in death are the same (as will be for us). But if he has stepped into eternity, then so also has the Apostle Paul (and so will we).
All of us are different. I could never believe based on such a cold, pragmatic reason as Pascal’s Wager. But it certainly motivated me to inform myself. The irony of Hitchens is that though he prided himself on being ‘intellectual’, as we saw in the previous post, he was needlessly misinformed on many basic points about the gospel that are readily verifiable. Pascal’s Wager admonishes us to not be so cavalier on such an important topic. Hitchens, as is true for the rest of us, would have done well to at least have informed himself of the textual reliability of the Bible, the case for the resurrection of Jesus, and the stunning prophetic fulfillments the Bible has demonstrated re. the person of Jesus as well as its eery foretelling of the Jewish people which is unfolding today before our eyes on the news.
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