Thursday, 21 April 2011

Pascal's Wager and the King's Jester

Last week I went to New Word Alive, I may post some stuff about how that was, but it gave me a ripe load of profound material for posting on here. There were several highlights, and one of the most interesting was a session in the morning on Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian, given by Carl Trueman.

Denise has already addressed this, but I'm my own man, so I'm going to write about it too!

Two interesting thoughts came out of Trueman's account of Pascal. Pascal is significant for his analysis of the way human beings tick, and he planned to publish this in a great work on apologetics. He died before its completion and his notes are published in his Pensees.

The first interesting point was the misunderstood nature of Pascal's Wager. The Wager is traditionally thought to state that people should believe in God because if they do believe in God and they're wrong, they just die and don't lose out, whereas if they don't believe in God and are wrong then they're in deep trouble. However, this interpretation of the Wager a) does not agree with the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 (that if Christ is not raised we are of all men the most pitiable) and b) does not actually square with the other writings of Pascal himself.
Rather than this interpretation, actually Pascal was trying to expose a human inconsistency. As a mathematician, Pascal noticed that humans make decisions in life based on a percentage game. Humans, Pascal says, calculate the percentage risks involved in various courses of action and choose actions in an attempt to minimize the negative risk (for example we wait to cross the road until the probability of getting run down is the lowest). Ask any Game Theorist and he will tell the same story, human beings are risk averse. However, despite our claim to rationality in the matter of God, Pascal uses the Wager to show that if we were simply playing our usual percentage game that we use in the rest of life, we should believe in God. Yet we don't. Pascal argues that we are inconsistent and this exposes that our beliefs about God are not just intellectual - they are moral choices.

The second insight from Pascal was in his posing the question: Why do Kings need Jesters? Most people have to spend their time worrying and working to live, worrying where money and food will come from. The king, however, does not have these worries to occupy his thoughts. Indeed, if he is left to his own thoughts, his mind starts to dwell on the only thing over which he has no control whatsoever - death, human mortality, and what comes after. Thus the king needs jesters and courtiers to entertain him, to keep his mind busy.
This, Trueman points out, is why we are willing to pay so much money to footballers and film stars, and comparatively little to the politicians who run the country. We are subconsciously declaring the truth - that we consider entertainment to be more important than government, because it is entertainment that keeps us distracted from our own mortality (this is also, Trueman suggested, why people today are so apathetic towards God - because entertainment is so readily available, there are numerous ways to hide).

So there you have it; a misconception busted and a penetrating insight into the human psyche.
Up next: a cat does something funny!


  1. Ugh, Pascal's Wager - one of the least appealing arguments >.<. Interesting observation though - at some point I shall have to look up the actual text.

  2. I'd also have to question Pascal's assertion that we take a course of action to minimise negative risk. Generally that's probably true but I can think of many examples where that is not the case.

  3. I think the reason the Wager is unappealing is that most people don't understand that it in itself is not an argument (as such it is unappealing) but he is simply trying to make a point about the way we think about belief in God.

    I guess the point about risk could be that human beings regularly show themselves to be risk-averse, so in a case where there are clear risks we choose the least risky. Without making a list I would say the times we don't use those factors (such as in love) we don't claiming complete rationality - but rather claiming something stronger overriding rationality, and Pascal is trying to say that people reject God because they want to - rather than as a purely rational decision.

  4. Gosh it's worse than I thought then >.<.

    Firstly, Pascal presents a false dichotomy - there are numerous gods with numerous end results. This makes the probabilities far more hazy. For his observation to apply, you would have to equally embrace all options in case one of them was right. Of course with conflicting claims, this is impossible.

    He also does not apportion cost to belief. I think it causes great harm and therefore the choices are not clear cut. As an example, I don't think you would think it unfair of me to assert that the majority of anti-gay rights rhetoric comes from religious quarters.

    His argument would also seem to be premised on the idea that you cannot assess the claims of the religious. If it cannot be said whether the claims are true or false then yes, we are left with a 50-50 gamble. From my perspective however, I have surveyed the claims and have found them to be lacking. It would be madness to then subscribe to these claims. It would be like me saying you will be damned if you don't run naked through the streets singing rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. You know damn well that won't happen but according to Pascal's observation, it may well be rational to heed me!