December 22, 2010

Pascal's Three Card Monte

For those who don't know, Pascal's Wager runs something like this:

A) If you believe in God, and are right, you achieve paradise when you die;
B) If you believe in God but are wrong, there is no afterlife, so when you die nothing happens;
C) If you don't believe in God and are right, there is no afterlife, so when you die, nothing happens;
D) If you don't believe in God and are wrong, you burn in Hell forever;
E) It is only reward and no risk to believe in God, so why not?

The problem is that this is binary thinking in what is pretty much guaranteed a non-binary system, at least for these choices to be available. Pascal is only concerned with the Christian God in his reasoning, and fair enough given his time and place: he was a Catholic in France in the 17th century, specifically a Jansenist, a group who focused on the "fall" part of mankind. Amusingly, it's stil occasionally used today in misguided efforts to "convert atheists through reason" by people who probably don't actually know who Blaise Pascal was...

I'm going to use the same counter described by Euripides when he thought of this same argument centuries before, and for much the same reason. But first things first: Pascal's assessment of risk.

The assumption he makes is that there are two potions, believing on God or not. To which the proper response is "Which God do you mean?" There is all of one mention of atheists in the Bible, in Psalm 14:

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

...Which certainly puts them in their place, but that's just being scorned rather than punished. No, punishment is saved for those who worship the wrong Gods, or worship God in the wrong way. Boy HOWDY do those guys get it! There are regular wholesale slaughters of people who decide to worship different Gods or in a different way that Yahweh commands.

So given how those who believe in the God of Pascal's faith treats people who believe in him, but do so in the incorrect way (both in the multiple variants of Christianity and in the multiple variants of Islam and Judaism), what chance do the followers of other divine images have? Pascal himself said that the understanding of God is infinitely remote, so no one actually knows what it is God wants. Any one of the hundreds of images of God could be the "right" one!

So let's say Pascal and I both die - bound to happen, really, what with us being the same age and all - and go off to our reward. Then what?

Me, I die and whatever happens I can say honestly and with a clear conscience that I didn't think there was enough proof to support the existence of any God, so I didn't worship at all, sorry about that. Poor old Pascal, on the other hand, clearly believed that God existed and was happy to worship Him... right up until he was face-to-face with Horus. He's going to have a fun time explaining his way out of that one!

Seriously, what if the ancient Eqyptians were right? Or some version of Shinto where the afterlife is nothing but hanging out with your parents for eternity? Or that Mohammed was the last prophet of God, but only the Sufis got it right?

The long and short of it is that the followers of false gods are treated worse than the followers of no God at all. Which means for Pascal, there's a one in ten thousand chance he guessed right; for me, it's straight up 50-50. That, and the very real, very practical benefit of not following any scripture is that I can decide how to live for myself, and can choose to change or adapt my life as I see fit or as I'm convinced otherwise.

I'll take that bet.


posted by Thursday at 2:45 pm


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