Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 5)

You lose nothing by having faith, but stand to gain everything.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal attempted to apply the science of decision theory to the choice of whether to believe in god and came up with the argument now known as Pascal’s Wager (or Gambit), which I shall paraphrase here:

God either exists or he doesn’t. It is not possible for man to know for certain whether god exists or not, and we are already in the game of life so we are forced to bet on one possibility or the other. So we must play the odds against the benefits. If god exists, the benefits for believing are infinite, and the penalty for not believing is severe. If god does not exist and you believe you have lost nothing. Therefore it is prudent to believe.

I’ve heard variants of this argument used by several people, some of whom were unaware that Pascal had got there before them, or that it is easily refuted. There are several problems with Pascal’s wager. Firstly, the premise that it is not possible to know for certain whether god exists or not. This is by no means proven; just because no one has yet proven the existence or non-existence of a divine creator does not mean it is not possible to do so. However, this is the least of our disagreements with Pascal, since if this premise were replaced with “We do not currently know for certain the status of god’s existence.” we could continue reasoning from there. The major problems with the logic are the assumption of unspoken presuppositions, the first of which is unfounded unless we already believe the bible to be true, and the second is just plain wrong even if we do:

· God (if he exists) values and rewards belief, and punishes non-belief.

· Belief in god costs nothing.

Let’s examine each in turn.

God (if he exists) values and rewards belief and punishes non-belief.

If we are starting from the position where we are uncertain about the existence of god, there is no reason to suppose any of his characteristics. In order to believe this statement, we must already believe that the bible is the true and inerrant word of god, thus leading us back to our old friend the circular argument. Suppose we instead assume that god values moral actions and rewards or punishes accordingly regardless of belief in him. You might then think that those who act upon a morality arrived in a rational manner unfettered by barbaric bronze-age or medieval thinking are more likely to enter the kingdom of heaven than those who adhere to the doctrines present in so-called holy books written in antiquity. This kind of thinking has arrived at the Atheist’s Wager:

You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him.

My favourite question to ask those who assert that faith in god is a requirement for entry into heaven goes something like this: “If your god is genuinely benevolent, would he deny heaven to a man who had followed all of his rules but did not believe in him, but permit it to someone who murdered and raped but had been absolved through Jesus on his deathbed.” Often with the addition of “If he would he’s a fucking petty-minded shit-head.”

Belief in God costs Nothing

This is patently nonsense. Many churches demand tithes, donations etc. even if they don’t, most belief systems demand at the very least that time and effort are spent in devotion. The problem is that if the non-believers are right, and there is no after life, and we’ve spent this one slaughtering goats in order to fix broken aeroplanes, or waiting for a child-molester in a frock to put a wafer he believes to be the flesh of his dead god in our mouths, we’ve wasted a portion of the only life we’ve got. We would have paid a significant price for our unwarranted credulity. Not least because that time we’ve wasted could have been spent doing something that is actually beneficial for mankind. Even staying at home and melting our brain by watching execrable drivel like the x-factor or big brother would probably be more productive; at least it wouldn’t be in support of organisations who teach pernicious falsehoods that cause genuine harm.

There are a couple of other problems with Pascal’s Wager, and they both hinge around the potential consequences of us agreeing with Pascal and deciding to believe in god. First, if we decide to believe in god, we have the question of which of the many permutations of faith should we subscribe to. Since we’re playing odds games, if we pick any one, due to sheer number of religions available to us our odds of being wrong are enormous. I can see the scene at the pearly gates (or local equivalent) “Ah fuck, the mormons had it right? That shit with the gold tablets being dug up in upstate New York just seemed too incredible.” Or maybe “Shinto? You’re shitting me right?!”

Second if we don’t believe and we take the bet and decide that we should, it’s simply not possible to suddenly make ourselves believe something we don’t, and believe me I’ve tried. If we are starting from unbelief, we need to reason something out or have it proved in order to start believing it. Of course we could say “well, I don’t really believe, but I’ll go through the motions for the possibility of eternity in paradise”, but if god is omniscient, and rewards belief, do we really think he’ll fall for that? Christopher Hitchens has prepared his response to god should he confront him about his lack of faith after his death: “I presume, divine sir, that you have some respect for intellectual honesty and to moral courage and that you would look with more favour on somebody who made an honest profession of unbelief than on someone who acceded to belief in you in the hope of a handout.” Terry Pratchett offers us a slightly more humorous illustration. In his novel the Hogfather, a man reasons out the potential risks and benefits in a manner very similar to Pascal’s wager and decides that he should therefore believe in the existence of the gods: “When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said ‘We're going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts...’”

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