Friday, June 2, 2017

Pascal's Wager, or The Futility of False Dichotomies.

          Blaise Pascal:  mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and theologian—truly a polyglot.  Most of you probably associate him with his laws of fluid dynamics.  As a scientist, he was quite important to the then fledgling enlightenment.  He even had a unit of pressure, the Pascal, named for him.  As a lover of the sciences, he probably would be turning over in his grave if he knew how his “wager” was being misconstrued by many professional “kiruv klowns.”
          The wager can be stated as follows:
1.      Either god exists or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives (nb:  remember this part.  We will get back to this later).
2.     A game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up (like the flip of a coin, where there are ONLY two possible outcomes).
3.     You MUST wager (it is not optional).
4.     Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.  Let us estimate the two chances.
a.     If you gain, you gain all.  (that is, if God exists, and you wagered that he exists, you have some “eternal reward” to gain).
b.     If you lose, you lose nothing.  (that is, if God does not exist, and you wagered that he does exist, then it doesn’t matter, what did you have to lose by acting like he does exist?)
5.     Therefore:  It is better to wager that God exists, because there is an infinite reward to gain, and a finite reward to lose if he does not.  (to use the analogy a Seventh-day Adventist preacher once used in a sermon that I attended, “it’s like betting a paper clip and gaining a house.)
6.     As for those who cannot believe:  endeavor to convince yourself that you believe.

We begin by analyzing the false dichotomy set up by Blaise Pascal.  At best, the wager is a great introduction to “decision theory.”  That is, when analyzing the opportunity cost of any major decision you have to make, when you weight what you have to gain/lose by each decision, assigning it a mathematical probability, you can determine which action is the best to take.
     Of course, the simplest illustration of this is doing a coin toss.  The assumption is that in a coin toss, you have exactly a 50% chance of flipping heads and a 50% chance of flipping tails.  In this situation, there is no advantage to picking either heads or tails.
A more sophisticated example would be the classic “Prisoner’s dilemma.”  There are many ways to approach this problem, so pardon me for dumbing it down for the sake of this exercise.  Let’s say Rueben and Simeon were both accused of committing a crime and were interrogated separately.  Rueben and Simeon have exactly two choices:  They can either stay silent or betray the other party.  The following table shows what happens with each choice.

Reuben stays silent
Rueben betrays Simeon
Simeon stays silent
Both serve one year in prison
Simeon serves 3 years, Reuben walks off with no sentence
Simeon betrays Rueben
Rueben serves 3 years, Simeon walks off with no sentence
Both serve two years in prison

I do not want to go through the many ways to approach this dilemma.  However, I have seen some websites use this dilemma as a philosophical “rock-paper-scissors” type game to see how people would “play each other” if they could recursively reenact this scenario.  Although in reality, there are more than two options, this still serves as a stellar example on how to teach “decision theory.”
Pascal very likely did not intend for his theory to be used as a baseline for praxis at all.   In fact, the only thing this wager could actually establish at all is that one cannot rationalize their beliefs, and in the end, they must resort elsewhere to justify their beliefs—not logic.

Let us look at the first proposition of the wager.  Either God exists, or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two.
          Of course reason cannot actually determine if god exists.  After Pascal’s time, Karl Popper would establish the concept of “falsifiability.”  The fact is, one cannot falsify most theological arguments.  I cannot set up an experiment or test to empirically disprove that Russell’s Teapot exists.  Therefore, for me to decide which of the many possible deities or faith systems are more correct than others, I have to rely on means that are beyond the scope of science and reason.  I must rely on semantical arguments, conjecture, and faith. 
          This is key in understanding the real intention of Pascal’s Wager.  I cannot use logic to find God.  So I must rely on faith.
          And so, since I am relying on faith, Pascal decides to make it interesting.  Let us forget about the fact that Pascal was a practicing Catholic, so he was probably speaking of a Catholic faith system.  Would Pascal have believed that one who practiced Lutheranism also had an infinite to gain?  What about the Jews?  Muslims?  Hindus?  Zoroastrians?  Buddhists?  Jainists?  Find yourself a deity, and assume it exists.
          Remember, you only have two choices here.  Your choices are like flipping a coin—heads or tails.  Either your preferred deity exists, or it does not.
          If you do what that preferred deity says, you have infinite to gain. 
          In reality, there is no universally accepted belief in one deity that will get you and infinite reward no matter where in the world you are. 
          That’s right.  The Seven Noachide Laws?  Nope.  Not if you are a Catholic.  The sixth law, not eating a limb from a live animal, is not an issue for them. 
          What about not eating fish on Friday during Lent?  Jews don’t have a problem with that.
          There are so many laws, rules, regulations, and bylaws specific to each faith system.  Why should a Jew waste their time praying three times a day every day and extra on Sabbath when it might be enough to just receive communion and confess your sins?  And why should a Catholic confess their sins when perhaps what God really might want is for you to shut the f..k up and just meditate for a few minutes each day? 
          I mean it’s one thing to assume that either God exists or does not.  But what does that have to do with Praxis?
          Repeat after me:  JACK and SQUAT.  In that order.

          Final thought:
          There is a simpler problem with Pascal’s Wager.
          Is it better to genuinely disbelieve or disgenuinely believe?
          Let’s say I only keep kosher and pray three times a day because if I don’t, then the scary invisible pink unicorn in the sky is going to kick my ass when I die?  If I were an omnipotent and omniscient being, would I give two shits about whether or not said person actually refrained from eating pork?
          Food for thought.
          “Bring no more vain offerings.  Incense is an abomination to me.  New Moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your New Moons and your appointed feasts, my soul hates them.  They have become a burden to me.  I am weary of burdening them.”
          --Isaiah 1:13-14.
          I believe that the prophet Isaiah hit the nail on the head here.  This can apply to anyone who thinks that life is about kissing some deity’s ass to get into heaven.  If you believe, great, tzeit gezunt.  But If you don’t believe, don’t think that just because you are winging it and feigning devoutness, that the same deity who was quite bloodthirsty in the Old Testament cares about you.
          If you can’t bring yourself to believe, don’t force yourself. 
          Search for the answers.
          Don’t buy into the bullshit of the people who want to impose their beliefs on yours.
          Search for the truth. 
          And if you’re frustrated because you can’t find the truth, don’t take it too hard.  You need to find what works for you.  Consider it a challenge.  Enjoy it. 

          And remember, faith is not a coin toss.  It can be a beautiful thing.  But not if it is forced upon you or disingenuous.