فصل 12

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فصل 12

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chapter 12

Place Your Bets

Blaise Pascal

If you toss a coin it can come up heads or tails. There is a 50/50 chance of either, unless the coin has a bias. So it doesn’t really matter which side you bet on as it is just as likely each time you toss the coin that heads will come up as tails. If you aren’t sure whether or not God exists, what should you do? Is it like tossing a coin? Should you gamble on God not existing, and live your life as you please? Or would it be more rational to act as if God does exist, even if the odds on this being true are very long? Blaise Pascal (1623–62), who did believe in God, thought hard about this question.

Pascal was a devout Catholic. But unlike many Christians today, he had an extremely bleak view of humanity. He was a pessimist. Everywhere he saw evidence of the Fall, the imperfections we have which he thought were due to Adam and Eve betraying God’s trust by eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Like Augustine (see Chapter 6), he believed that human beings are driven by sexual desire, are unreliable and easily bored. Everyone is wretched. Everyone is torn between anxiety and despair. We should realize how insignificant we all are. The short time that we are on earth is, in relation to the eternity both before and after our lives, almost meaningless. We each occupy a tiny space in the infinite space of the universe. Yet, at the same time, Pascal believed that humanity has some potential if we don’t lose sight of God. We are somewhere between beasts and angels, but probably quite a lot closer to the beasts in most cases and for most of the time.

Pascal’s best-known book, his Pensées (‘Thoughts’), was pieced together from fragments of his writing and published in 1670 after his early death at the age of 39. It is written in a series of beautifully crafted short paragraphs. No one is completely sure how he intended the parts to fit together, but the main point of the book is clear: it is a defence of his version of Christianity. Pascal hadn’t finished the book when he died. The order of the parts is based on how he had arranged pieces of paper into bundles tied with string. Each bundle forms a section in the published book.

Pascal was a sickly child, and not physically strong at any time in his life. In painted portraits, he doesn’t ever look well. His watery eyes gaze out sadly at you. But he achieved a great deal in a short time. As a young man, encouraged by his father, he became a scientist, working on ideas about vacuums and designing barometers. In 1642 he invented a mechanical calculating machine that could add and subtract by using a stylus to turn dials attached to complicated gears. He made it to help his father with his business calculations. About the size of a shoebox, it was known as the Pascaline and although a bit clunky, it worked. The main problem was that it was very expensive to produce.

As well as being a scientist and inventor, Pascal was a superb mathematician. His most original mathematical ideas were about probability. But it is as a religious philosopher and writer that he will be remembered. Not that he would have liked to have been called a philosopher: his writings include many comments about how little philosophers know, and how unimportant their ideas are. He thought of himself as a theologian.

Pascal switched from work in mathematics and science to writing about religion as a young man after he had been converted to a controversial religious sect known as Jansenism. The Jansenists believed in predestination, the idea that we don’t have free will, and that only a few people had already been preselected by God to go to heaven. They also believed in a very strict way of life. Pascal once scolded his sister when he saw her cuddling her child because he disapproved of displays of emotion. His last years were spent living like a monk, and although in great pain from the illness that eventually killed him, he managed to carry on writing.

René Descartes (the subject of Chapter 11) – like Pascal, a devout Christian, a scientist and a mathematician – believed that you could prove God’s existence by logic. Pascal thought otherwise. For him, belief in God was about the heart and faith. He wasn’t persuaded by the sorts of reasoning about God’s existence that philosophers generally use. He wasn’t, for example, convinced that you could see evidence of God’s hand in nature. For him, the heart, not the brain, was the organ that leads us to God.

Despite this, in his Pensées he came up with a clever argument to persuade those who are unsure whether or not God exists that they should believe in God, an argument that has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager. It draws on his interest in probability. If you are a rational gambler, rather than just an addict, you’ll want to have the best chance of winning a big prize, but you’ll also want to minimize your losses wherever possible. Gamblers calculate odds and, in principle, bet accordingly. So what does that mean when it comes to betting on God’s existence?

Assuming you aren’t sure whether or not God exists, there are a number of options. You can choose to live your life as if God definitely doesn’t exist. If you are right, then you will have lived without any illusion about a possible afterlife, and so you will have avoided agonizing about the possibility that you are too much of a sinner to end up in heaven. You also won’t have wasted time in church praying to a non-existent being. But that approach, though it has some obvious benefits, carries with it a huge risk. If you don’t believe in God, but God does actually turn out to exist, not only might you lose your chance of bliss in heaven, but you might end up in hell where you will be tortured for the whole of eternity. That is the worst imaginable outcome for anybody.

Alternatively, Pascal suggests, you can choose to live your life as if God does exist. You can say prayers, attend church, read the Bible. If it turns out that God does indeed exist, you win the best possible prize: the serious chance of eternal bliss. If you choose to believe in God, but it turns out that you are wrong, you won’t have made a substantial sacrifice (and presumably, you won’t be around after your death to learn that you were wrong and feel bad about all that wasted time and effort). As Pascal put it, ‘If you win you win everything; if you lose you lose nothing.’ He recognized that you might miss out on ‘those poisonous pleasures’: glory and luxury. But instead you’ll be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a good friend, and will always tell the truth. Not everyone would see it quite in these terms. Pascal was probably so immersed in a religious way of life that he didn’t realize that it would be a sacrifice for many non-religious people to devote their lives to religion and live a life of illusion, as they would see it. Nevertheless, as Pascal points out, on one side you have the chance of eternal bliss if you are right, and relatively minor inconveniences and a few illusions if you are wrong. On the other side, you risk the chance of hell, but your possible gains don’t compare with an eternity in heaven.

You can’t really sit on the fence on the issue of whether or not God exists, either. From Pascal’s point of view, if you try to do this it could produce the same outcome for you as believing that God definitely doesn’t exist: you could end up in hell, or at least won’t get access to heaven. You have to make a decision one way or the other. You really don’t know if God exists. What should you do?

Pascal thought it was obvious. If you are a rational gambler and look at the odds with a cool gaze you will see that you should bet on God existing even if, as with tossing the coin, there is only a small chance of being correct. The potential prize is infinite, and the potential loss not great. No rational person would do anything else but gamble on God existing with those odds, he thought. Obviously there is a risk that you bet on God and lose: that God turns out not to exist. But that’s a risk you should take.

But what if you see the logic of this, but still don’t feel in your heart that God exists? It’s really difficult (and perhaps impossible) to talk yourself into believing something which you suspect just isn’t true. Try believing there are fairies in your wardrobe. You might be able to imagine that, but that’s very different from really thinking there are fairies in there. We believe things that we think are true. That’s just the nature of belief. So how does the non-believer who doubts God’s existence get to have faith in God?

Pascal had an answer to this problem. Once you’ve worked out that it is in your best interests to believe in God, then you need to find a way of convincing yourself that God does exist and to have faith. What you should do is imitate people who already believe in God. Spend time in church doing the things that they do there. Take the holy water, have masses said and so on. Very soon you’ll end up not just imitating their actions, but actually having the beliefs and feelings they do, he thought. That’s your best chance of winning eternal life and avoiding the risk of eternal torture.

Not everyone finds Pascal’s argument at all convincing. One of the most obvious problems with it is that God, if he exists, might not look very favourably on people who only believed in him because it was the safest bet. It seems like the wrong sort of reason to believe in God. It’s just too self-interested because it is based entirely on you selfishly wanting to save your own soul at all costs. One risk might be that God would make sure that no one who used this gambler’s argument ever got into heaven.

Another serious problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it doesn’t take into account the possibility that in following it you might have opted for the wrong religion, the wrong God. Pascal presents the option as between faith in a Christian God or believing that there is no God. But there are many other religions that promise everlasting bliss to believers. If one of those religions proves to be true, then by opting for following Christianity the individual who follows Pascal’s Wager might cut him or herself off from infinite happiness in heaven as surely as the person who rejects all belief in God would have done. Had Pascal thought about this possibility, he might, perhaps, have been even more pessimistic about the human condition than he was.

Pascal believed in the God described in the Bible; Baruch Spinoza had a very different view of the deity, one that led some to suspect he was an atheist in disguise.

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