26 May 2011

Pascal's Wager

During the Enlightenment, when agnosticism and atheism were fashionable among the intellectuals of the time, Voltaire and other contemporaries noted that the brilliant mathematician Blaise Pascal was an observant Catholic.

When asked, Pascal observed that there were just two possibilities:

1. God exists.
2. God doesn’t exist.

As a precursor to the philosophy of pragmatism, Pascal contended that it was better to be a faithful Catholic than an agnostic or atheist.  He explained that in the case that God exists and you do what is expected of Him - you win.  In the case that God does not exist, and you attend your services, you gain social benefits by a support system that exists in virtually all religions.  Like insurance, it buys you peace of mind.  In either case you win.  This was the first formal use of decision theory.

As Pascal put it: If reason cannot be trusted, it is a better wager to believe in God than not.

Of course there are some glaring holes in this logic, including:

- what if God exists and realizes that you are only making a decision-tree bet on Him?
- what if God exists, but he’s the Mormon God?  Then you are doing everything all wrong by belonging to any other religion.  (Interchange your preferred God here, as long as it isn’t a secular value system like power or money, in which case you lose all bets.)

Well, then - how does one know?

There are really two answers here:
1. “By their fruit ye shall know them” - who seem to be happiest, to have the best-raised children who contribute to society, who live longest (you’ll need to do a statistical average here)?
2.  If you’re a Mormon and believe in it, then an accumulation of continuing personal revelation that consistently pans out brings with time a growing conviction, and an abiding inner peace.  A coincidence can be explained as a coincidence - maybe even two or three.  But not 2,648 coincidences in a row.

It also helps to keep a list of these things (e.g., a personal journal).  The decision-tree I used that ultimately brought our Family to Venezuela for a three-year tour, with all the branches (any one of which could have derailed the move) makes one very interesting list.  It was like flipping a coin 15 times - and it always came up heads.  The pay-off - what was gained - is rippling through several generations already, both here and in Venezuela.  The fact that I survived at least 36 near-death experiences counts for something also.


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