Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Pascal wager and the Smith wager

Blaise Pascal
Blas Pascal (1623-1662) is known for his activity in mathematics (he devised the triangle of Pascal), physics (he proved the principle of Pascal, invented the hydraulic press and experimented with atmospheric pressure) and especially for his Pensées (Thoughts) one of which contains the first known example of the use of game theory, whose theoretical development had to wait until the twentieth century. This example is the famous Pascal wager, which he expressed thus:
Dieu est ou il n’est pas. Mais de quel côté pencherons‑nous?... Pesons le gain et la perte en prenant croix que Dieu est. Estimons ces deux cas: si vous gagnez, vous gagnez tout, si vous perdez, vous ne perdez rien. Gagez donc qu’il est sans hésiter. 
Whose English translation is:
God exists or He does not exist. Which side shall we take?... Let us weigh the gain and loss, assuming that God exists. Let us consider both cases: if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. So you must wager, without doubt, for His existence.

This is the game matrix, in the twentieth century style:

God exists
God doesn’t exist
Act as though God exists
I win everything
I lose nothing
Act as though God doesn’t exist
I lose everything
I lose nothing
It is evident that the move that produces most benefit is acting as if God exists.
Why does Pascal say that if God does not exist I lose -or win- nothing, in any case? Because, if God does not exist, it follows that there is no other life, so everything ends with death. In such a case, whatever our life has been, there is no gain or loss, because in a million years -to say something- we’ll have been forgotten and it won’t matter how we lived.
Faced with Pascal’s bet, George Smith made his own atheistic wager, which can be summarized as follows:
  1. If God does not exist, atheists are right, but believers have wasted their lives.
  2. If deists are right, God does not care what human beings do, does not reward or punish. Then both postures end in a tie. Believers continue losing, because they have wasted their lives.
  3. If there is a good God, he won’t punish a human being for honest mistakes of conscience. Believers, however, who go against reason (which favors atheism), must fear the punishment of this God, because they go against their conscience.
  4. The Christian God is immoral, because he punishes anyone who doubts him. He is not trustworthy and can also punish Christians who claim to believe in Him, but who, according to Smith, do so only because of Pascal wager, because of their education, or through fear of hell.
I admit that Pascal wager relies more on selfishness than on altruism, but on the other hand it is rationally correct. The same cannot be said of Smith wager, against which the following points may be argued:
  • That reason favors atheism is a mantra, widely used by atheists, but false. I have written a book to prove it. The supposed rational proofs of atheists are plagued by logical fallacies, as I have mentioned in other posts in this blog.
  • The first two points in Smith wager do not take into account Pascal’s statement mentioned above: if there is no other life, whatever our life in this world has been, its global value is zero. I think this argument is indisputable.
  • But even admitting Smith’s viewpoint, his conclusion (that believers waste their lives) is clearly false: modern sociological studies (such as a study conducted in the UK with 300,000 people between 2012 and 2015) show that the index of satisfaction with their life is greater for Christians (7.54) than for atheists (7.24). The same is true of the index of happiness (7.43 for Christians, 7.15 for atheists) and of the index that measures whether life is worth living (7.81 and 7.51, respectively). Where is the supposed waste of their lives, which Smith asserts without proof?
  • What does Smith mean by saying that Christians waste their lives? That they do not kill? That they don’t steal? That they don’t lie? That they do not have promiscuous sex? How does he define a fuller life? Does he mean that one can do all those things without control? I’m afraid that, as is often the case, he just means sex. Those who think this should read the mystery novels in my series The Sleuths of the Spanish Transition (links to the right), to see a different point of view.
  • On the other hand, Smith shows a total ignorance about the God of the Christians. The good God he mentions in the third point is precisely the God of the Christians. Christians have always affirmed that we must obey conscience as long as it is honest, even if it may be wrong, because God will judge us according to that criterion. 
  • Regarding the fourth point, we have never claimed that God punishes anyone who doubts Him. What we say is this:
C.S. Lewis
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does. (C.S. Lewis, The problem of pain, chapter 8).
In the words of Don Camille, the reprobate:
It is in my power to prevent what He wanted to make of me. I know I cannot be replaced. If you believe that every creature is forever irreplaceable, you’ll see that we have the power to deprive the sympathetic Artist of an irreplaceable work, a piece of Himself. Ah! I know that this thorn will always be in his heart! I have found this way to the depths of his being. I am the lost sheep that a hundred others will forever be unable to compensate.
(Paul Claudel, Le soulier de satin, third Act, scene X).
In other words, God does not punish, we punish ourselves.
Smith asserts that all Christians believe in God against their reason, against their deepest convictions and against their conscience. What would atheists say if a Christian said that all atheists deny the existence of God because of bad faith, because that is what they really want? They would be rightfully indignant, wouldn’t they? In my discussions with atheists, I have never questioned their good faith, I just discuss their arguments and point out the logical fallacies they contain, which they certainly had not noticed. That is why, when I am accused of bad faith, as Smith does, I have no choice but to be indignant.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Science and Atheism: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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