Having worked under a gambling corporation for several years, I can tell you a thing or two about odds. Perhaps most important of all is that humans are typically rubbish at them. Probability incompetence is a regular affliction to the human race; from betting and court evidence to management planning.
Which brings me to a common refuge of theism and one of the chief contributers to agnosticism. Pascal’s Wager goes something like this…
I can choose to either believe in God, or not. I grant that the liklihood of him existing is exceedingly slim. However, after considering either consequence, I choose to believe in him:
– If I believe, and am right, I get eternal bliss. If I believe and I’m wrong, I have wasted a few sundays.
– If I do NOT believe and am right, I get away with sins. If I am wrong, however, I suffer eternal suffering.
Given the payoff for each choice (believing or not) and each penalty (real or not), I am far better off believing. Most people would probably see this as a pragmatic bet to take, again, most people being terrible at statistics.
First, we are missing crucial data here. A friend of mine would stress that Pascal is missing a Risk Matrix from his analysis; put simply, the chances of God existing are ASTRONOMICALLY unlikely from mere probability.* This makes taking action, however dire the consequence, totally illogical.
The problem is at its worst because when we describe odds with language, common sense is our enemy, because it tells us a chance is still a chance. While this is technically true, there are some chances that are simply so remote they are basically zero. Ten to the power of a googol (a googolplex) to one against is so fantastically unlikely that it is best thought of as zero. Because thinking otherwise will get you nowhere.
For example, I could say there is an invisible demon outside your window right now that is about to set fire to your house. You’re not going to start throwing water out the window, even though you’re risking your house going up in flames, and even though it would be only minor inconvenience to go get some water, simply because the possibility is so ridiculously unlikely.**
Going beyond statistics, the far bigger question is which religion is the right one? Monotheism by definition is mutually exclusive, so how can Catholicism be a safe bet by the wager, when one will supposedly be burned for eternity upon meeting the God of the Eastern Orthodox Church? Or that of Islam, or Protestants? It is a clear case of Pascal’s upbringing and environment skewing his judgement; there is no doubt in his mind WHICH one is right.
Another key element that is totally ignored is the difference between saying you believe, and actually believing. While saying “I think you’re the best” might well fool your boss, it’s not going to fool an omnipotent being. I don’t think you could argue it’s even *possible* to “choose” a belief pragmatically. You’re either convinced or not. You can’t actually decide something is going to convince you.
Despite seeming to be the best reason to resort to agnosticism, the wager is woefully flawed. It fails to recognise significant weighting of options (perhaps a legacy of the old idea that the God argument is at all probable), the contradiction of countless faiths, nor the nature of belief itself. If it tells us anything, it’s that statistics can rationalise even madness.
I can only hope Pascal never bet on horses.
(*) I’m not sure what holds the record for being the closest thing to zero without actually being it, but this is certainly a contender.
(**) If you are currently filling up a bucket of water, I recommend you check the local parish to see if they have any openings for you.