Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, where I aim to expose the academic underpinnings of my thoughts on story-telling and writing. In this series I make no attempt to give a comprehensive view of any of the philosophers I tackle, but instead pick out and explain what draws me back to their works again and again.
For the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the tenuous relationship between faith and reason in a sub-series I’m calling “Expecting Ambiguity“. My aim is to explain how philosophical arguments for the existence of God are not as concretely determinate (and thus as easy to dismiss) as they are often cast, but that they instead offer as much insight into the limits and powers of subjective human knowledge as they do into religion.
PASCAL: Born in 1623, Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, inventor, theologian, and philosopher until his death in 1662, when he was just 39 years old. He is known for his work in the invention of calculation machines, his development of mathematics, and notably, both his defense of the scientific method and his defense of religious belief – two things which are now painted as diametrical opposites – and by far his most famous contributions to the Western philosophical canon is his view of faith as a wager.
Pascal’s wager is essentially the theory that believing in God is a sure bet, not necessarily because you are guaranteed to win, but because you’re guaranteed not to lose. His premise is fairly simple: it is rational to believe in God because even the possibility of being wrong causes no harm, where as deciding not to believe in God may turn out alright, but might also be devastating in the long run. Belief in God carries with it both the greatest potential pay off, and almost no chance of losing anything, whereas denying the existence of God may result in no loss, but could cause you to lose everything. Essentially, the decision to believe in God (or not) comes, for Pascal, down to decision theory.
|Options:||God exists||God does not exist|
|Belief in God||Infinite reward||Nothing gained or lost|
|Denial of God||Infinite punishment||Nothing gained or lost|
In Pascal’s words:
“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (Pensees, 1660)
Now, it can get a bit more complicated than that; the IEP does a wonderful job laying out three different versions of the theory that have gained traction in the tradition, as well as prominent academic critiques, and I highly suggest you read through the linked page for a full understanding of the argument and its merits and faults.
I, however, am going to stay on the surface and boil it down to a pair of simple claims: that belief can be a matter of rational choice, and that rational choice can be inherently a gamble. Taken together, these claims reveal a surprising tie between reason and ambiguity. Reason is often spoken of as a system for dealing with empirical data, or as an internal system of axiomatic truths, but this view opens up a new understanding of reason as pure possibility – a gamble, but not a guess. And this says as much about our human intellect as it does about God.
No matter how well we reason things through and how much evidence we have available to us, there will always be at least a little bit that we don’t know for sure. And more often than not, there will be a lot we don’t know.
Following this, one could say that when we believe in scientific theories, we have a good reason to do so – but we’re still making a choice to accept the evidence as it is given. According to Richard Feynman, there’s always something missing from any scientific account, and thus always something more to know. The good scientist is one who holds on to doubt and skepticism. In this way, accepting a scientific theory, no matter how sure it is, still involves a choice to believe it while still be open to the possibility that the theory is potentially limited, incomplete, or even wrong.
This would, of course, be a very zoomed in version of Pascal’s wager. The personal stakes of being right or wrong are potentially lower (your life, perhaps, instead of your immortal soul) and the jump from probability to knowledge a much shorter distance (the gaps closed by empirical evidence), but in many cases the wager is the theoretically the same. If we only zoomed out half way between the close lens of the science and the wide lens of Pascal, we might find a similar model of decision making in those who rely on science, but know little about it, including those who work with chemicals, anyone taking medicine or having surgery, people operating heavy machinery, and those relying on safety equipment. They would have some knowledge, but would still be making a choice to believe based on the potential costs and benefits.
This makes me think perhaps that all knowledge involves a choice and a gamble, even when we’re not dealing with something as much of a leap as the existence of God. Even if Pascal’s bet on God isn’t in itself convincing, it still opens a wide range questions about what knowledge and belief require, and suggests that perhaps they’re not quite as distinct as we would like to think.