You Betcha

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? Those ideas have meaning – are true – locally, in context. We can’t parley them into larger, certain truths.

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

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.

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3 thoughts on “You Betcha

  1. Reblogged this on Morality sans Religion and commented:
    This is an excellently written post that is about Pascal’s wager. In short, the wager is that there is no way of telling if an infinite being or deity actually exists because they are infinite, and we have a very little base of knowledge in comparison. Therefore, the logical decision is to believe in God because hell is a much worse outcome than nothingness. The author eviscerates this logic much in the same line of thinking that I would use, only much more eloquently and professionally spoken than I could ever hope to achieve. It really is worth the read!

  2. Jared C says:

    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.

    Pascal must be dead right in the observation that the ground of existence is incomprehensible, and that it is completely audacious to believe that any sort of relation to that is equally incomprehensible.

    I think that Christianity can be reasonably seen as is a complex mental game that gins up the obstinate defiance you point out in the face of suffering and absurdity. My guess is that Pascal thought that God only becomes relevant when supernaturally discovered in the Christian path of love and defiance and that whatever sacrifice was made in defiance of the world was no sacrifice in the first place.

    Keeping this in mind, the wager is less a proof of the validity of the Christian path, as an enticement. Elsewhere in his pensees, Pascal talks extensively at the human desire for excitement, diversion, and chance. He saw that putting life in terms of a wager was a way to make it seem pleasing. He explained. “Take away probability, and you can no longer please the world; give probability, and you can no longer displease it.”

    By proposing a wager, he hoped to spark the feeling that would lead to a particular path, not necessarily an argument. He explained:

    ““The reason acts slowly, with so many examinations and on so many principles, which must be always present, that at every hour it falls asleep, or wanders, through want of having all its principles present. Feeling does not act thus; it acts in a moment, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling; otherwise it will be always vacillating.”

    The wager he proposes simply opens up the probability of success. Defiance is strongest when we ignore that failure is certain, that there is some probability of success but not certainty.

    At the end of the discussion of wager, Pascal affirms that he does not think the path of Christian defiance is a risk:

    “The end of this discourse.—Now, what harm will befall you in taking [the Christian] side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

  3. keithnoback says:

    I am simply disagreeing with Pascal. Even if you choose to push your worldly chips to the middle, you still stand in defiance of eternal and timeless existence, being a creature in time who’s every attachment and reference is temporally derived and dependent. Hope of meaning and purpose from the incomprehensible is, as you say, ginned up from within, where it lay all along. We do ourselves no favors by pushing it outside ourselves and calling it precious.

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