Democrat and Independent Thinker..."The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." -Nietzsche

Commenting on many things, including..."A government more dangerous to our liberty, than is the enemy it claims to protect us from." - Keith Olbermann

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Pascal's Gambit (or Wager)

"Pascal's Pensées sits among the most profound and beautifully written masterpieces in the history of the world. When commenting on one particular section, Sainte-Beuve praised it as the finest pages in the French language. Will Durant, in his 11-volume, comprehensive The Story of Civilization series, hailed it as "the most eloquent book in French prose." In Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace. Rolling these into one he develops Pascal's Wager.

Pascal's Wager
Pascal's Wager (also known as Pascal's Gambit) is Blaise Pascal's application of decision theory to the belief in God. It is one of three 'wagers' which appear in his Pensées, a collection of notes for an unfinished treatise on Christian apologetics. Pascal argues that it is always a better "bet" to believe in God, because the expected value to be gained from believing in God is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief. Note that this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather one for the belief in God. Pascal specifically aimed the argument at such persons who were not convinced by traditional arguments for the existence of God. With his wager he sought to demonstrate that believing in God is advantageous to not believing, and hoped that this would convert those who rejected previous theological arguments.

Explanation
It states that if you were to analyse your options in regard to belief in Pascal's God carefully (or belief in any other religious system with a similar reward and punishment scheme), you would come out with the following possibilities:

  • You may believe in God, and God exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • You may believe in God, and God doesn't exist, in which case your loss is finite and therefore negligible.
  • You may not believe in God, and God doesn't exist, in which case your gain is finite and therefore negligible.
  • You may not believe in God, and God exists, in which case you will go to hell: your loss is infinite.

From these possibilities, and the principles of statistics, Pascal deduced that it would be better to believe in God unconditionally. It is a classic application of "game theory" to itemize options and payoffs and is valid within its assumptions."

Via Theopedia, for those who have apparently never heard of such reasoning until just recently.

Intellectual vacuity is not a term I've heard used in relation to anything ever put forth by a mind such as Blaise Pascal, albeit paraphrased by a somewhat lesser mind, no doubt, in this particular case.

More at Wikipedia:

"The Wager posits that it is a better "bet" to believe that God exists than not to believe, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing. In Pascal's assessment, it is inexcusable not to investigate this issue:

Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.[1]."

I have no further comment to add, especially in regard to the preference of the Christian God to any other concept of God. I am aware of many of the criticisms of the Wager, but none that I consider wholly valid as counterpoints to the bare bones of the argument itself.

2 comments:

thad said...

I just thought that you might find this particular response to Pascal's Wager interesting:

http://www.thadguy.com/arguments/response-to-pascals-wager/28/

Best,
thad

BlueKat said...

Hi Thad

Thanks for visiting Demokat. Interesting post but I'm afraid that it does not disprove Pascal's Gambit really.

For it is based on certain assumptions, and one primary assumption is that God is good and rewards believers with heaven and punishes non-believers with hell.

You cannot change the assumptions in order to disprove the wager.

You can think of it this way:

If you believe in God, and he does exist, when you die, God does whatever he wants to do with you, and the possibilities are infinite.

If you believe in God, and he does not exist, then nothing happens, and the possibilities are nil.

If you do not believe in God, and he does exist, when you die, God still does whatever he wants to do with you, and the possibilities are still infinite.

If you do not believe in God and he does not exist, then nothing happens, and the possibilities are still nil.

Either way, the odds are always in favor of the House (or God), because our belief or non-belief in him has no bearing whatsoever on his existence or non-existence. If he exists, he holds all the cards.