Friday, October 24, 2014

Pascal's "Wager" (Intro to Western Philosophy)


Explain Pascal’s “Wager.” (Kenny, 238 ff.)

1.    Pascal is a skeptic concerning the powers of human reason.

Pascal had a low view of the powers of human nature (reasoning).
“Pascal was skeptical of the value of philosophy, especially in relation to the knowledge of God. ‘We do not think that the whole of philosophy is worth an hour’s labor’, he once wrote.” (238)
At best philosophical reasoning can prove the existence of the “god of the philosophers,” but not “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

2.    Pascal said there is a “reasoning from the heart.”
Pascal is contrasting intuitive knowledge with deductive knowledge. “It is the heart, he tells us, which teaches us the foundations of geometry.” (239)
“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
As Pascal sees it, it is reasonable to acknowledge limits to reason. “Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it”
Pascal had a transforming mystical experience in 1654.
"The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, day of St. Clement, Pope and Martyr. From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve, FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers nor of the Wise. Assurance, joy, assurance, feeling, joy, peace...Just Father, the world has not known thee but I have known thee. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy." (Found sewn into the lining of Pascal’s coat.)
Pascal argued that belief in God cannot be defended by means of the usual apologetic arguments. The very nature of what is believed in - namely, an “infinitely incomprehensible” being – leaves these arguments necessarily inadequate.

3.    Pascal’s Wager.

Pascal was one of the founders of “game theory” (theory of probability).
Pascal uses probability theory to show this (game theory).
 “Either God exists or not. Which side shall we take? Reason can determine nothing here. An infinite abyss separates us;  and across this infinite abyss a game is played, which will turn out heads or tails. What will you bet?” (Quoting Pascal, 239)
Pascal thought that reason is neutral with respect to the question of whether or not God exists.
Pascal thought agnosticism was not a rational possibility.
Because not choosing to believe is equivalent to choosing not to believe. If you do not choose for God, you in effect choose against God.
On what basis, then, should one decide?
The solution, Pascal argues, is to weigh the potential rewards of believing in God against the potential rewards of failing to believe in God—i.e., to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the relative merits of “wagering” for or against God's existence. The options, as Pascal construes them, can be outlined in the form of a table:

God exists
God does not exist.
Infinite Gain
No (or Finite) Loss/Finite Gain
Infinite Loss
Finite Gain

Of course, in the case of God, it is hard to determine what the chances of a successful outcome might be: we cannot justifiably assume, for example, that the likelihood of God existing is equal to the likelihood of God not existing.
But that is okay, Pascal argues, because the payoff if God exists is an infinite payoff.

Thus, the potential for infinite gain makes it rational to bet that God exists, however slim the actual chances of this might be: as long as one is willing to grant that there is “one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing,” it is a better deal to bet on God.