Friday, April 19, 2013

Arguments For God Part 1: Pascal's Wager

      Its been a while since I’ve last written, I know, but I’ve been busy with school and all that. For the last few months or two we have been discussing god in philosophy class and I have had the opportunity to read and discuss some of the major arguments. After hearing both pro and con I figured I’ll share my reflections with you.
      First up will be “Pascal’s Wager”. Blaise Pascal lived in france in the 1600’s, he was a great mathematician, scientist philosopher. His wager comes from a collection of his notes that were published posthumously. I’m not sure if the wager was ever supposed to be a stand-alone argument for religious belief, however it is cited and used by many theologians (and we discussed it in class), so I’ll address it.
      His wager goes as follows:
                   1.Either god exists or not
                   2. God is infinitely incomprehensible, therefore we cannot decide by reason, what, or even if, he is.
                   3.We must therefore gamble.
                   4.If you gamble that god is; then if you are right you gain everything, if you are wrong you have lost nothing

                  5.“Wager then without hesitation that he is…”

      There have been many people who point out the sort of absurdities that follow from his line of reasoning. One popular example is pointing out the fact that this is not really faith, and what kind of god would be fooled by this. Another popular one is that this whole attitude to what should be a serious topic is rather cheapened by is “c’mon, waddaya got to lose?” attitude, like this one, and I will add one of my own at the end. What I feel that they fail to do, is point out exactly where and why he is wrong; more precisely, where is the flaw in his argument. There has been one notable flaw that has been pointed out by many, that being that he is really only saying that either the Christian god as I understand him is true or it is not, and he is ignoring all the other possible alternatives. However I would like to introduce what I feel is his central flaw, it’s his second premise.

      His second premise is an argument in its own right that can be structured as follows. Premise: god is infinitely incomprehensible; conclusion: reason cannot decide what or if he is. This is false, just because something is incomprehensible does not mean we cannot talk about it. Infinity, quantum mechanics, and relativity are three counterexamples that come to mind of things which although we may not be able to comprehend them, we can still decide if they are true, by discovering necessary consequences of these theories. To bring this into the god conversation, imagine that I claimed that god, who is infinitely incomprehensible, exists, has the attributes that were described in the Qur’an, and that god has transmitted his infallibly true word and that word is the Qur’an. My theory can be disproven, all one would need to do is discover one falsehood in the Qur’an and it would be game over for my theory. As soon as we can find one necessary consequence of a theory we can prove or disprove a theory.
Ironically, Pascal grants this. When he introduces the concept of god and infinity he says the following
          “We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of a unit can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is”

      In other words, Pascal must concede that even though something is beyond our comprehension, such as infinity, we can still talk about of it, we can still analyze it, and as later theories in math showed we can say a lot about it, since we can show necessary consequences of it. We need not understand every detail about god in order to be able decide based on reason whether or not we should assume that she does, or does not exist.

      As I promised, here is a funny alternative consequence of his premises 1, 2, and 3.

                   1. God either exists or she does not
                   2. God is infinitely incomprehensible, therefore reason cannot decide what or even if she is
                   3. We must therefore gamble
                   4.  Let us therefore assign probabilities to each option
                   5. Since reason cannot decide we shall assign to each option an equal  50% chance
                   6. If god exists she might be the Christian god or the Jewish god, therefore assign to each one a 25% chance of being true, while the no-god option is still 50%
                   7.  Repeat for every additional religion and flavor of religion

                   8. Wager then without hesitation that she is not…

      Real conclusion: we must always introduce reason, this should not be a gamble.