Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Blaise Pascal Casino

So I picked up a copy of Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” the other day. Quite literally, in fact, as my neighbour had left out on the lawn a box saying “Free Books” and containing said tome tucked in alongside owners manuals for old cars, V.C. Andrews books and Audobon Society birdwatchers’ guides.

So I didn’t actually have to pay any money for this groundbreaking testament to the Christian faith and modern classic of the French language. Which is, you know, about the right price.

I never knew the format and structure of “Pensées”, which is: a compendium of bits and scraps of ideas in an only vaguely organised fashion. It’s kinda like Confucius’ “Analects” except if every other one of them trailed off somewhere in the middle of the thought. It’s hardly an easy read.

I really, really wanted to give Pascal the benefit of the doubt here. See, as a mathematician and scientific philosopher, Blaise Pascal is amazing. There’s no doubt that he’s got a talented mind. He’s the kind of scientist for whom respect is universal, and warranted.

So I really wanted the chance to see his infamous ‘wager’ in his own words, and to see the context in which it’s placed. I was hoping for something that said, “Yes, people have reduced my thoughts into a tidy, simplistic and ridiculously pat formula, but the real words I wrote are much more nuanced and intelligent.”

Verdict? Um, well… fifty-fifty, so to speak. The section containing the so-called ‘wager’ is better developed and more coherent than most of the rest of the book, which is nice. A true mathematician, he engages in a lot of nice talk about infinity and how we can acknowledge that an infinite number must exist without knowing what that number is; ergo, we can acknowledge an infinite being without knowing any of his nature. A neat trick. It doesn’t, of course, mean anything, but at least it beats most of the doggerel to be found in the “Pensées”. When he gets into game theory, though, things don’t really rise much above the schoolchild-mentality of the wager as it’s commonly stated.

Simply put, for those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager approaches belief vs. disbelief from a kind of game-theory perspective. It claims that, since God’s existence is truly unknowable (an interestingly agnostic position for an apologetic to hold), the question of whether to believe or not can be approached as a comparison of possible outcomes. The idea is that if you believe, the two possible outcomes in store for you are heaven or nothingness but if you don’t believe the two possible outcomes for you are (presumably) hell or nothingness. Thus, if you were to wager (as in bet in a casino), you’d be better off believing in God.

The holes in this theory are many. Firstly, it’s what they call a ‘false duality’ in that it implies there are only two possible alternatives, wherein there are theoretically a million (i.e. those of other religions). I had originally presumed that Pascal, being from pre-modern Europe, perhaps had limited or no knowledge of non-Christian religions and thus didn’t consider them. Yet the “Pensées” are filled with references to other religions, and in fact mention Muhammad in the first sentence, sooner even than Jesus. Essentially he repeatedly cuts down other religions more or less out of hand while trumpeting the obvious fact of Christianity as the ‘one true religion’. Which hardly makes the remainder of his treatises worth much consideration.

Additionally, it implies that ‘belief is enough’, a curiously Protestant view for a French man to hold. If there is more to the heaven/hell equation than mere belief, if life sacrifices are required, then the wager is incorrect because it implies all things being equal during this life. Richard Dawkins, nutty guy he is, asked what it would mean for Pascal’s Wager if there were a god that rewarded disbelief (i.e. atheists went to heaven, Christians went to hell).

For me, though, the biggest problem with Pascal’s Wager is the implication that belief is just some switch up in your head that you can turn on or off at will: i.e. that you can choose to believe. Those who parrot Pascal’s Wager often state that it’s easy, which is a curious thing to me, because I find believing in God impossibly difficult, and something I’m entirely incapable of convincing myself to do. I honestly wonder if there is anyone in the planet who has genuinely not believed but who has, despite that, successfully been able to force themselves to believe (for cynical cover-your-ass reasons, nonetheless).

And if there is, if there is a god in the man-made pantheon that would fall for it.

1 comment:

newplasticsmell said...

If one wants to follow Pascal's Wager, I would suggest researching the deity who is the most wrathful (this may take a while), and "choosing" to believe in and worship that deity. But of course, if a deity is wrathful, it's likely that deity is sadistic, and chooses to be completely unknown to its creation, so that its creation will "send themselves" to Hell for not believing and worshipping. It makes as much sense as a deity sending its creation to Hell for being created with a brain that is incompatible with belief in said deity.