My dad and my dad’s dad were Lutheran ministers, and my dad’s brother taught theology at a Lutheran seminary. Lotta preachers on the paternal side of the tree. (Lotta teachers on the maternal side; mom and sis among them. I grew up with preachers and teachers.)
All of which gave me something of an insider view of religion and the organizational church. It also provided a cornerstone I’ve built on through much of my life: a reconciliation between the Yin of my science side and the Yang of my spiritual side.
One interesting place the two meet is Pascal’s Wager.
In this Wager, rational analysis meets ineffable belief. They don’t mix; they coexist in tension as Yin-Yang pairs do. The Wager is also a bit Zen-like: it’s a rational analysis of why a rational analysis isn’t useful when it comes to God.
The first premise of the Wager is that God either exists or doesn’t. Implicit, however, is the possibility that God judges our actions and rewards or punishes us in some meaningful way. It’s a whopper of a hidden assumption, but it’s one a large fraction of the world’s religious do make (certainly, Christians and Muslims; 56% of the world in 2020).
The second premise is that reason cannot decide the matter. God’s properties are beyond our ability to know. No logic can demonstrate God’s existence; the fact of the matter can neither be denied nor confirmed.
The third premise is that an intelligence capable of apprehending all this, of asking these questions, inevitably wagers on the outcome of this existential coinflip. We either allow ourselves to surrender to some form of faith in mysticism or we pin our hopes on potentially understandable physicalism.
Pascal’s Wager involves the costs either way.
Given some pair of yes-no choices, there are four possible outcomes: yes-yes; yes-no; no-yes; no-no. Those comprise all four possible combinations of two yes-no choices.
One generic way to show such outcomes is with a truth table — which can accommodate any number of yes-no questions — but when there are only two questions, a four-square diagram, such as Figure 1, offers a simple, clear, and effective presentation.
The upper and lower rows flip the God coin. Upper row for heads — God exists — lower row for tails — no God. The left and right columns flip the faith coin. Left column for accepting it, right column for denying it.
The columns are critical here. The left column offers the perhaps improbable infinite reward, but also offers the possibly greater chance of ending up with a bit of egg on your face. The right column, on the greater chance offers being right and whatever material gains one might make against the tiny chance of an infinite cost.
Basically it’s a matter of weighing an outside chance against infinite payoff. Pascal’s main point isn’t that you should logically believe in God — that isn’t possible. But one might want to consider living their life as if that outside chance is true… just in case.
However, there are a lot of caveats to this Wager.
For one thing, a Bayesian approach places God’s possible existence at 50/50 odds — a coin flip. Under such odds, the argument is a lot more compelling.
But many would place God’s existence at much lower odds. Strong-line atheists place it at zero. In contrast, strong-line theists consider it a certainty. Everyone else falls somewhere on an agnosticism spectrum somewhere between the gnostics. Modern culture is increasingly secular, yet many non-religious people retain mystical beliefs of some kind (ghosts, astrology, crystals, copper, etc).
Anyone not taking a strong-line view has some threshold of maybe-yes-maybe-no. The force of the Wager depends somewhat on the probability one assigns God’s existence.
There is also that the bottom row of the square is a bit irrelevant. If God doesn’t exist, those consequences, which only apply after death, never apply. The chagrin of mistaken theism or the satisfaction of correct atheism are things we can never experience.
On the other hand, and this is Pascal’s point, the far greater chagrin of mistaken atheism is a pretty huge bummer. The alternate, the payoff for correct theism, is an equally huge reward.
The Wager is founded on the idea that something of us persists after death. If one is utterly convinced death is the end, the Wager has no force at all.
A key question is whether belief is necessary. Some religions not only require belief, but even distinguish genuine faith from going through the motions.
Christianity is among the religions that ask for faith — explicitly in Christ — but there has always been the theological question about those who antecede Christianity or who exist outside its reach. A requirement of faith would seem to unfairly exclude them. (And what about life on other planets? Do they have their own Jesus?)
Pascal assumes the Christian God, a jealous theistic ruling deity who insists we behave according to His code and who punishes those who don’t. And He may even require faith.
But that’s just one (very human) conception of God. The Jews don’t see God that way and neither do many other religions. For example, Buddhists and Hindus have Karma, a type of automatic justice. It’s individual, but more like game points given and taken by the system — your “score” determines the quality of future lives.
The Jews don’t believe divine justice exists. Good in this life is its own reward, and evil usually reaps what it sows, as well. Yet part of their view is that sometimes evil flourishes while good suffers. The sun shines on all. Such is life.
Pascal’s Wager mainly has force under theism. The less one frames their metaphysics on a deity, the less force the Wager has.
Still, it’s interesting to me that Christianity and Islam are the two largest religions (31.1% and 24.9%, respectively), and karmic religions (Hindus and Buddhists comprise 20.1%) also have a strong standing. At the very least we’re apparently wired to want the scales balanced — we’re wired for fairness.
So are many animals. They can have a strong sense of “fair share” when it comes to food or play. It has always been possible that humans are evolutionarily wired to see a Creator in the patterns of nature. That we have some sort of “God circuit” in our brain. (One apparently engaged by hallucinogens and other mind-altering experiences.)
Or maybe all this didn’t just happen, and there is something behind it, and our universal sense of a Creator is a valid apprehension of something real. (And hallucinogens, as the hippies always said, are a path to a greater apprehension of that reality. So also, perhaps, are fasting and other ways of tapping into areas our minds don’t usually go.)
Which I quite agree is an outside chance that seems like giving in to some primitive brain bias towards seeing metaphorical tigers in the metaphorical tall grass. But I can’t help but think, damn, if this huge universe just happened and has no purpose or meaning, what a waste of space and energy.
The bottom line makes a good bumper sticker:
The Theist problem: It might be false.
It’s impossible to say for sure, and it seems the case that the only way we ever can know is if it’s true. And it takes dying to find out.
Faith isn’t something that comes from logic; it has been referred to as a deliberately irrational act. We can’t seek faith, only surrender to it.
Many who do find joy and comfort in it. Even if it isn’t true, acting like it is brings with it community and an explicit moral code. Those aren’t bad things. And as with all our powerful notions, faith can be misused or misdirected. Bad things can happen then, but faith also accounts for much good in the world.
I think a fair accounting probably makes it, on balance, a good thing for humanity. Contrast that with some of our other powerful tools, politics, finance, nuclear power, the internet. Big pros and cons for all, but the balance? These things may be no better nor worse.
At least religion usually has a great deal of joy, love, and music.
Those who just can’t ride that train are still faced with the challenge of determining how to live life. In fact, there’s the initial choice, the zeroth choice, of determining whether to live life intentionally and thoughtfully at all or just take it as it comes.
Assuming one does choose an intentional thoughtful life, Pascal’s Wager suggests it might be worth considering a life that mimics a religious life just in case all those crazy Christians turn out to have been on to something. Certainly the moral statements that lie at the core of most religions are worthy life guides.
One can’t, and shouldn’t, pretend faith, but one can follow a similar path.
Or at least a similar direction.
As an aside, positing an ineffable God is one way to fix the ‘turtles all the way down’ problem. A problem for physicalism is determining the axioms beyond which one has to stop asking ‘why?’ At what point must physicists accept ‘this just is.’
With some form of God, there’s a metaphysical hard stop. By definition God is unknowable and the ultimate answer to ‘why?’ While that might seem an unsatisfying, too magical, answer, is it that much worse than forever chasing turtles?
More to the point, Yin-Yang style, why couldn’t an ineffable God create an effable reality for us to inhabit? I don’t see it as an either-or question, an exclusion, but as a wholeness.
Stay wagering, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.