We’re either all going to Heaven or we ain’t.
– Sonny Steele
When the end comes to this old world,
The righteous will cry and the rest will curl up,
And God won’t take the time to sort your ashes from mine,
Because we zig and zag between good and bad,
Stumble and fall on right and wrong,
Because the tumbling dice and the luck of the draw,
Just leads us on.
– Dave Lowery
Pascal’ wager is an oft-dismissed argument for belief in God. On the face of it, the wager in question does look pretty silly. It also seems like a real statement on risk assessment, on the face of it. It is neither.
Pascal’s wager is an argument about knowledge and its relationship to truth, and by extension, an argument about the potential relevance of belief in God. The bet is this: if we can’t know whether or not God exists, then we might as well believe that it does, because belief in God’s existence is the more consequential option.
The wager admits the God-concept only as a possibility. That is, it is something we can construct from our logical conventions in a rudimentary way. Whatever else you may think of God, it is a concept served by conventions like time and location – or at least, their corollaries, and it is a convention itself in cosmology. We experience a world which permits logic and also surprises us. God provides a possible means of describing our experience. The terms of the wager then bypass the question of God’s actual existence, for reasons which will become apparent.
The bet turns instead to the question of consequences. What do you stand to gain or lose when you bet on how you talk about what you know? If there is an actual infinite, timelessness or universality, we won’t notice. Nor will we bat an eye over the truth of our more conventional conventions. In physics, we use meters and seconds to tell the story of motion. You may claim that meters are bogus, but I will still see you standing one meter away from me if you stand one meter away from me. You want to say we can’t do without seconds, that they are written into the universe, fine. Time will still seem to pass for us, but not for the tunneling electron. The case remains the same, even when the conventions appear to make the whole story. In painting, brush strokes serve the role of meters and seconds in physics. The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa due to the genius of Leonardo’s brush-work. But if you claim that there is no true art without Leonardo’s technique, the fans of pointillism suffer no calamity. All bets on the absolute truth of our conventions are bets with play money. We may feel the effects of the adequacy of our depictions as a whole. An astronaut may be quite concerned that our meters-and-seconds story about motion makes a good prediction. An admirer of the Mona Lisa can make a pretty good case that it is better art than a child’s stick figure. But the meters, seconds and brush strokes themselves, cut from the story and laid on the table? Those are fluff. Go all in with them. Who cares?
But the mechanics of the bet are only half the story. Because, Pascal’s Wager can be taken not just as a commentary on our grasp of truth, but as a description of what we actually do. It accuses us of being vulnerable to its appeal. We have the gall to reasonably expect the posited base of all being to consider our existences in a way which is at all comprehensible to us.
If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, he has no affinity to us. We are incapable of knowing either what he is or if he is…Reason can decide nothing here.
Pascal recognized the absurdity of the situation. Yet, with his (very French) apprehension of the absurd, he recognized the license which absurdity grants. Staking a claim on the incomprehensible is just as insane as declaring war upon it. Our hope in God’s grace is absurd, but hope is something to have, as opposed to everything else at issue in his wager. There is something to gain after all.
The real problem is: hope is merely a Pollyanna story. It’s the sunny substitute for a more troubling, and more complete, description of a quality which we really need. We can find some clue about the true nature of what hope papers over in hope’s intransigence. We admire the cancer patient’s noble ability to endure horrible treatments in the name of a brighter future which may never come. The same hope has nestled in the hearts of all those who ever proposed a war to end all wars.
Somewhere on the edge of a North African desert, a mother loads her infant on her back, takes her small child by the hand, and sets off from her barren village for another country. This person is not motivated by hope. Her situation is too absurd. Her children will die in her hut, or they will die in the desert. What she exhibits is defiance. Her walk is an empty gesture, an expenditure of life with no other reason behind it. The admirers of hope only flirt with the deep truth of human psychology which she has found at the end of all options.
Defiance moves us, though we are loathe to acknowledge it. We can’t gussie-up defiance like we can hope. Defiance is not smart, not sublime, and not rational. It is myopic and has teeth. We can’t blame Pascal and his fellow religious adherents for preferring hope when offered it in lieu of the whole truth. But hope is finally an inadequate convention and not something to have. It is arrogant, and brings the errors of arrogance with it. It makes the woman’s walk into the desert quaint. It readies us for the next war to end all wars.
So, we must abandon Pascal’s hope. It is not a worthy prize, for it will betray us in the end. In the light of a wider window on ourselves though, there is another bet to make. Either our existence is somehow concordant with some incomprehensible entity or it is not. If it is, then we live in defiance of an eternal other, and incomprehensible, existence which is our final fate. If it is not, then we live in defiance of an incomprehensible judgment. Either way, we carry on as we were, in defiance. Our best bet is that God is irrelevant.