Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pascal's Wager is Awesome and Misunderstood

Would you take a bet that you only had a 10% chance of winning?  Would you refuse a bet that you had a 99% chance of winning? The answer to both of these questions should be, "it depends."

It depends on what you stand to win or lose. For example, if you had to pay $1 to take a bet that you only had a 10% chance of winning, and for winning you get $5 then you should not take the bet. However, if you had to pay 1 penny to take the bet and stand to win $5 then you should take the bet. Or, if you had to pay $1 to take the bet and stand to win $20, then you should take the bet. Likewise, it can be irrational to take a bet in which you have a 99% chance of success. If you had to pay $10,000 to take the bet and only stand to $5, then it's a foolish bet. You will lose money in the long run taking this bet.

This is probability theory and it is the mathematical law which governs how casinos make money hand over fist, even when occasionally a patron will walk out of a gambling establishment with a million dollars in winnings.

It's a simple concept to understand. Let's say you and I agree to flip a coin, every time it turns up heads you give me $1. Every time it turns up tails, I'll give you $0.99. That is how casinos work in a nutshell. Casinos devise clever and interesting games, which actually are fun, to disguise the fact you are agreeing to the terms described. Every bet a casino ever offers you favors them in the long run.

How does this relate to God, Heaven, Hell, and French mathematician Blaise Pascal? The answer is Pascal's wager. I am sure you've heard of Pascal's wager and almost equally sure you you've heard a misunderstood version of it.

Often times a discussion between an atheist and a believer will end with a bastardized version of Pascal's wager being whipped out which goes something like this.  The believer will claim, "You should believe because it's the better position. If you're right and I'm wrong we both die and nothing happens. But if I'm right, and you're wrong then you will go to Hell forever."


First and foremost, Pascal's wager is awesome. The way most people misuse it is not. We'll talk about how most people misuse it first and then talk about why it's awesome second.

The version of Pascal's Wager which usually shows up in debates is deeply flawed (hereafter referred to as "the flawed wager"). The believer is confident their position is the safe one. If right, reward! If wrong, nothing! But this confidence is built on four flawed premises.

First, the flawed wager assumes belief is the thing which said god is most interested in.  God may exist and has no interest in your belief or devotion, but in your character and actions, for example.

Secondly, the flawed wager implicitly commits a bifurcation fallacy.  "Either my god exists, or no gods exist."  What if you're wrong? What if a god exists who is offended by Republican foreign policy? What if Yahweh is fake and Allah is real? You're going to Hell forever for committing the blasphemy of believing Jesus Christ is divine. The flawed wager errantly assumes that if the believer is wrong, then no other possible gods exist who would be angry at their devotion to the wrong god.

Third, the flawed wager assumes belief is a conscious choice. Belief is the involuntary result of inspecting evidence. We cannot force our minds to believe X or Y. We just do or don't. It's an involuntary process. If you loathe President Obama, you cannot choose to believe he is a good, responsible president like flipping a switch. If I offered you a billion dollars to believe President Obama is a good president, you could not actually believe that he is.

Fourth, even if one could voluntarily change their belief because Hell is frightening, then that belief effectively reduces god to fire insurance.  That doesn't seem very flattering to the almighty creator of everything.

The reason Pascal's Wager is awesome, my friends, is because Pascal never intended the argument to be used as a reason why one should believe in God. Pascal intended it to be a reason why one should take the question seriously. In doing so, Pascal laid the groundwork for probability theory, also known as game theory.

Game theory is awesome. Game theory governs a multitude of complex systems on Earth like economics, competition in nature, ethics, morality, foreign policy decisions, and more. Game theory is the cornerstone of modern economics.  So it's fitting that Pascal, an accomplished mathematician, was the purveyor of such an amazing and mind-blowing area of mathematics with his wager.  That's why Pascal's Wager is awesome (and misunderstood)!