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Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Big Gamble

When I first entered my profession, I was in my mid-twenties. As a brash young man, I remember being irritated by the requirement that I should begin to save for retirement. For one thing, I was young, and young people never think much about being old. I thought I might well even be dead long before my investment came back; I certainly had no assurances I would not. But more importantly, as I was starting out in life, I knew I could make good use of that sizeable portion of my income that was going to be carved out for the retirement plan, and there was no way to get at it.

I would have if I could have.

It was not, I hope, that I was greedy. I knew that my employer was going to pay me well, and increasingly so as I aged, so survival was not much of a problem; but at the time it seemed to me very worldly and shallow to be squirreling away money that could surely be used better in some spiritual work. What possible good could it do to have no access to money I’d already earned, money that could better be employed when I was young, money desperately needed in the support of some spiritual initiative or the financing of some missionary project? I was keen for sacrifices in those days, and sacrifices that would only be a problem in the long run were the best of all. I felt that it might be an act of faith to spend all right away, and leave my future security to whatever the Lord would eventually decide.

But it wasn’t optional. A mandatory retirement package was written into my contract. I could thin it a bit, but I could not eliminate it. I don’t remember who convinced me to stop fussing and leave it alone. But whoever it was, he or she gave me enough self-doubt to wonder if maybe, just maybe I wasn’t being a bit short-sighted. I ended up leaving things as they were.


Now I’m a lot closer to retirement. I’m not obsessing about that or hastening that day, for sure; but being now married and a little more responsible, I’m somewhat more grateful for my employer’s foresight in forcing me to save for the day.

But I guess I’m in good company when it comes to being unthrilled about retirement plans. I now read that most people don’t have nearly enough to retire. The median American household has just $3,000 in retirement savings, and the average near-retirement household has just $12,000. In Canada, the situation is apparently a little better (probably due to there being more compulsory plans here), but still, among those over 50, three quarters say they have 25% or less of what they will actually need. The average Brit is said to be likely to run out of money less than halfway through his or her projected retirement years.

On the whole, then, recognizing the economic realities of the future seems to be something we do rather poorly. Retirement may not be a certainty but for many of us, it will turn out to be a reality. And failure to take that into account seems certain to launch a great number of people in the West into precipitous economic decline just at the time when their personal powers and their options for work are at their lowest.

I’m not plumping for you to work on your savings. What I am saying is that we human beings seem rather poor at visualizing it when there’s a train coming at us from the end of the long, dark tunnel of the future. We are all about the now, the present problems and opportunities: we don’t think nearly so clearly about the long-term. And about unpleasant future realities, we hardly think at all.

The Long Run

Maybe this is part of the explanation as to why so few people ever seem to think about their eternal state. Even as they age, they become less and less willing to consider that, as the saying goes, “two things are inevitable: death and taxes”. Of course, the second is actually a joke: really, there is but one inevitable thing.

And about that thing … well, we don’t even want to consider that.

I can’t imagine a world without me. None of us can. And yet, we know that barring the return of the Lord, there will be a world without me — or you — in it. It’s inevitable. But how can I even get my head around that? Everything I know, everything I have ever experienced, has me at the center of it. I feel as though I am my own inevitable fact. And yet, there was a time when I was not: when the world went on without me, and went on for a very long time. What was then can surely be again.

And I must plan for that, because I simply cannot avoid it. As Hamlet says, “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all”. So ready I must be.

But how? For my retirement plan, I can consult the actuarial charts prepared for me by accountants. But where is the actuarial chart for eternity? How shall I calculate my best advantage for the Great Certainty ahead?

Blaising Illumination

Fortunately, such an actuarial chart does actually exist. No, really: it does. It was first proposed in the 17th Century by the master mathematician Blaise Pascal. Yes, the guy who came up with the famous triangle in geometry and the famous philosophical treatise, the Pensées, was also a theologian. And in his theological reflections he came up with a chart for calculating the one’s own best interests in the event of the onset of eternity.

Pascal focused on the alternatives available in regard to the possible existence of a Supreme Being. Basically, as he saw them, they were as follows:
  1. God might exist, or he might not.
  2. You might choose to believe he does (and presumably do something about it), or you might not.
From this, he derived four simple variables: the pairing of either belief or disbelief, and the alternate truths that either God exists, or God does not exist. Then he arranged them in a simple way, so as to show beyond any doubt what was in a person’s interest, given the inevitability of death.

Below, I have provided you with a simple illustration, using a basic tool known as a decision matrix. It lists the possible alternatives, and then shows you by quadrants what would happen if you chose one or the other alternative. For our convenience, I have listed the alternatives by the names you are most likely to recognize them.


If God does not exist…

A happy, deluded Christian life, but death ends all.

I can live as I want, but death is the end of everything.

If God does exist…

Eternity with Christ.

Eternally Lost.

Now, said Pascal, you need to look at what is in your best interest. Of the four possible outcomes, three are at least pretty good. For example, as you can see, if we believe the gospel but (counterfactually, of course) it turns out there is no God after all, we’ll never know. We’ll die, and that’s the end of it. Meanwhile, we might very well live a more meaningful, fulfilled, moral and happy life under the delusion of Christianity than we would if we were not Christians. But even if not, we are really no worse off than the atheist: for his end is just as certain and meaningless as ours, and his consolations may indeed be fewer.

However, if we Christians are right, then we have really won the big lottery. We have lived a better life than we might have, have experienced the blessed hope of seeing the Lord, and then have had all our sweetest dreams fulfilled at the end. It’s an incalculable win! Nothing can compare to it.

However, Pascal points out, there is one quadrant that is quite different from the others: the intersection that brings together the real existence of God but the refusal to believe on our part. For that quadrant, Pascal says, is a loss of absolutely incalculable magnitude. It’s a disaster so epic, so huge and so final that any rational person would surely take any measure he or she possibly could to avoid it. For nothing, but nothing can compensate a person for getting that calculation wrong: and there is no way back from such a loss.

The Big Retirement

The logic is so simple. Death is inevitable. Our best interests are clear. What keeps people from realizing it?

I think that maybe Pascal’s Wager is just too straightforward, too obvious to compel some people. Why do I say that? Well, because like retirement, death is off in the future. People have not experienced it personally, and personal experiences are far more powerful than future hypothetical projections — no matter how clear. And for most people, Pascal’s logic seems a little too abstract, a little too neat, perhaps. In our day especially, people don’t tend to like things that seem too straightforward, too exact: they fear something is being glossed over or missed. However, sometimes things are neat because, well, they’re just straightforward. Pascal’s Wager is one of them. It’s as clear as it looks.

Yet there are other objections. One is that Pascal doesn’t take all possible religious alternatives into account. Where are the Buddhists and the Hindus in his scheme, and where are the Taoists, the Sikhs and the practitioners of Shinto, to say nothing of various polytheistic or animistic traditions? But that isn’t really much of an objection, is it? Of course, Pascal was only concerned with the Christian view: why would someone who was truly convinced other views were largely false (though perhaps capable of being right in some details) feel obliged to include them in his calculations? But if we actually set out to do similar calculations for other religious alternatives, we end up with the same sort of outcome: it’s just never better to be an atheist, no matter what assumptions you happen to take. There’s no win for the atheist on that point.

Some think, though, that this might imply another criticism: namely, that since the conception of God required by his diagram is not specified he has perhaps not adequately defended his own view. But if they expect Pascal to spell out all the details of his view of God in this place, they are asking much more than the Wager requires in order to do its job. To win, Pascal does not need us to believe in the particular nature of the God in question, only to consider the possibility, contra materialism, that something more exists. And that he does.

The skeptics are really confused about the order of thought here. After all, the existence of God is the primary question, and the nature of God is what we call a secondary question: not “secondary” as in “less important”, but in the sense that we can only ask a secondary question once the primary one has already been solved. If no God exists, we surely cannot even ask, “What is he like, then?” That wouldn’t be cogent. Only when we have already conceded that existence can we pose the secondary question. Since Pascal was only concerned with the primary question in his Wager, we can’t fault him for not solving the secondary one in the same stroke. In fact, he had a definite view of the nature of God: but his Wager is not the place where he sought to make his case about that.

A last objection is that Pascal does not offer proof for the existence of God, but rather only a reason to believe in God if it turns out he does exist. That’s true, of course, but is also trivial. Pascal would freely admit that his wager is not, per se, an argument for the existence of God, and that it is instead an argument for the reasonableness of belief in God.

Now, the critics might jump on this, adding that it would always be unreasonable to believe in something that simply did not exist. Quite true, of course. However, Pascal’s point in return would be that we do not know this. Thus, for the atheist, it is not so simple as saying, “I don’t happen to believe in God, and therefore he doesn’t exist, and therefore I don’t have to listen to Pascal”, because that second “therefore” simply doesn’t follow logically from the first. There are plenty of things around that we may not believe in at the moment, but which could — or even do — exist. For example, I have never been to Bosnia: but you would rightly call me irrational if I insisted that therefore Bosnia did not exist, or that I would never need to take its existence into any account. One day a Bosnian might punch me in the nose for my temerity: I’d better be ready for that.

And that is Pascal’s real point: be ready. You don’t actually know what is true or not true about the existence of God, if you don’t happen to know God yourself. True, for those that actually do know God (granting such exist) the matter would be nicely settled. But if you’re an atheist, you don’t have nearly the assurance you’re right as someone who knows God could have. You are in a high-risk situation, gambling with the ultimate stakes, and a great deal against you. Whatever else may be the case, you’re not being very prudent in your own interest.

Prudence, Not Proof

You see, Pascal’s Wager is a prudential argument. It is not an argument of proof for (or against) the existence of God. It does not attempt to back its case by way of empirical evidence. As such, it is not quite in the same company as the various Ontological Arguments (which work on language or pure reason as a basis for deducing the existence of God) or the Cosmological Arguments, which base their work on mathematics, probability and cosmic observation. Nor are they of-a-piece with the various Design Arguments that use nature and observation to argue for God’s existence. Those are examples of the many evidences there certainly are for the existence of God; but Pascal’s Wager is not aimed at doing precisely the same thing those other arguments do.

The Wager does not prove to you what IS the case; but only what you would be smart (or prudent) to believe, regardless of what actually turns out to be the case. In plain words, it does not attempt to show that God exists; only that you’d best believe he does.

It’s like your retirement plan.

You can ignore it if you wish. You can pretend the end will never come. You can claim there’s no evidence for it. But one way or another, you’re going to find out.

Dodging the Bullet

I’ve looked around the web at the various arguments atheists offer against Pascal’s Wager. You can check them out for yourself. They’re not very good, it seems to me. A lot of them are just one form or another of the major ones I’ve listed above, and I think we’ve dealt with them. Some of them are just deliberately misdirecting: that is, they’re worded in a sort of insulting or irrational way, so that by being distracted by the implied insult we may more easily get off the realization that Pascal is really right. My overall impression is that their rejoinders are so poor that they really don’t have a comeback.

And that means that whatever they may say, the truth revealed by Pascal’s Wager will still carry weight with them.

Grim Facts

Among the most famous atheists — the so-called “Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse”, I’m tempted to observe that one is missing lately. Christopher Hitchens, so long a strident member of that set, has been removed from their number for some time. I wonder what he thinks of Pascal’s Wager now.

Perhaps he doesn’t think of it at all, because the moment his cancer precipitated him beyond this life he was instantly liquidated into the blackness, from which his consciousness can never emerge again. If so, I hope he died happy: for that is all there will be. But, on the other hand, I wonder if that is really the case. If Jesus Christ is to be believed, then he would rather be in a different position, and quite well able to reassess Pascal’s Wager in a wiser light.

The Translation of Saint Christopher will surely be followed by the Revelation to Saint Richard (Dawkins), the Summoning of Samuel (Harris) and the Great Dawning of Daniel (Dennett). But we should wish them better. The question with which Pascal leaves us is how many of their followers are willing to take the gamble that they themselves are so blithely taking.

Exposing the Odds

The Lord asked, “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul, or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” He phrased it as a risk-calculation, just like Pascal did. Anyone who considers the question ought to know what’s in his or her own interest.

If spelling out the odds helps us show them what a terrible gamble it is, then I say let’s do it. Maybe Pascal’s Wager will help us do just that.

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