Monday, August 8, 2011

Pascal's wager part 2

Pascal's wager is often misunderstood, because he never meant it to be taken on its own.  Last time, I mentioned that it's simply a cost-benefit analysis, and doesn't weigh in at all on actual evidence for Christianity.  But to boil the wager down really quick, if you believe in the God of the bible, you risk little (usually seen as a life lived "the way you want to") in order to gain an infinite amount (spending eternity in the presence of God).  If you don't believe in the God of the bible, you risk an infinite amount in order to gain little. But infinites are hard to imagine, so for the sake of argument, let's just say that it's not an infinite amount.  Let's say its a large amount, orders of magnitude more than the "little" that you might give up.  Now, if we're not talking about Christianity, would you take that bet?  Would you put money down on that line?

The way these sort of things work in Vegas, when you encounter a wager that would gain you much when you risk little, that wager is a long-shot.  The bookkeepers in Vegas make sure that type of wager is only possible when you face long odds.  For example, betting on the Cubs to win the World Series.  You can wager only a small amount on that, and if you are correct, you can get a big payoff, because it's such an unlikely occurrence.

Or betting on a horse that faces 1:1200 odds of winning the Kentucky Derby.  But that means if you put a dollar down on that horse, you stand to win a substantial amount if that horse actually won.

Another way to look at is winning the lottery on your first try.  You wager a buck, and get 8 million when you win.  

So, if the Vegas bookies were somehow in charge of such a wager, where you risk little to gain a lot, then you can surmise that wager would be so unlikely, it's not gonna happen.  Those kinds of payoffs only exist on bets whose odds are like winning the lottery.

You get my point.

So, back to Pascal's wager.  Again, let's not think about infinity, but only focus on the payoff being orders of magnitude larger than the risk.  If the odds that the bible is true are even, then that's a pretty good bet!  If the odds that the bible is true is one out of a hundred, that's a pretty good bet!  If the odds were even so low as to be one out of a million, that's still a pretty good bet!

Of course, most people don't think that way, and that's because there's a probabilistic (or maybe economic) fallacy buried somewhere in there.  We'll get to that next time.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal was a really, really smart mathematician and Christian philosopher.  One of the things he came up with was this "wager" regarding putting your faith in the God of the bible.

The wager goes like this.  Let's say you don't know whether the God of the bible exists or not.  But you do know that belief in him results in eternal reward, although it would also require you to sacrifice as well.  So you give up some things, like pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power, etc., in order to have an infinite payoff.  In this way of thinking about it, Pascal's Wager is just that: a wager.  What are you putting into your bet?  What do you stand to win if you hit the jackpot?  If someone asked you to take a bet like that, would you do it?

This is more like a cost-benefit analysis than an actual reason to believe in God.  I could say that you will inherit eternal reward if you believe in the "flying spaghetti monster," but you would have to sacrifice $100 dollars to the church of the flying spaghetti monster in an indulgence.  You give up little, and gain an infinite reward.  But that says nothing about my truth claim that this monster is real.

So it seems that this "wager" doesn't mean much all by itself.  So does it have any utility at all?  I think so, if you use it in conjunction with other arguments.  But first, we'll dig deeper into putting such a wager into a more every-day context.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Emerging from the days early fatherhood

As my son is now almost three months old, I am now starting to feel like a normal human being again.  Let me just say that being a parent is a wonderful thing.  The love and joy you have at seeing your little infant is great.  But, as I am an emotional guy, sometimes I get teary-eyed thinking about times when he'll grow up and get hurt, or be mean to someone.

I also think about passages in the bible where God declares that he is a jealous God.  These passages have been under much ridicule from atheists like Dawkins, who said, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it."

When I think about these passages, and think about them in the context with which they are supposed to be read, they make perfect sense to me now.  It's funny that atheists malign and discredit the bible when taking it out of its context.  In order to judge a worldview, a religion, or just about anything, you really must judge it from within its own confines.  In particular, the context of God's claims to jealousy is embedded in terms of either a father-child relationship or a husband-wife relationship.  Since this post is about fatherhood, I'll focus on that one: God is like a loving father who has sacrificed greatly to raise his child.

In the context of this analogy, I think about my son growing up, when we're trying to raise him to teach him manners, discipline, etc.  Let's say we let him play video games, but limit the amount of time he can spend on them.  Let's also say that he has a friend, and whenever he goes over to his friend's house, his friend's parents let them spend as much time playing video games as they want.  How do my wife and I feel when our son comes home and says he loves his friends parents more than us, because they let him play video games for longer?  I'd be pretty jealous, and I'd also probably be pretty angry.  I'd probably think, "Don't you understand what we've done for you, son?  Don't you realize that our limiting your video-game-playing is for your own good?"  Of course I wouldn't say any of those things, or act out of my anger, but I would be both jealous and angry.