Pascal’s Fuzzy Math

If you’ve been thinking of little other than Pascal’s Wager lo these past 24 hours — and I know you have — perhaps even, um, during the melodic, soaring fourth movement of I forget what played by the wife’s favorite activity here in the middle of nowhere, aka, the Minnesota Orchestra under the “inspired baton” (her words) of the incredible what’s-his-name — as I say, if you were thinking of that Wager, as I was, you were distinctly troubled.

It’s not a “proof” — Pascal was way too post-Medieval, post-Occam, post-Reformation to do anything so foolish as to apply naked Reason to the God problem. His Wager is what philosophers call “prudential reasoning,” otherwise known as putting lipstick on a pig. Pascal appeals to reasoned self-interest and says: believe without certainty because it’s a good bet.

Turns out a mountain of literature has been erected on this little bitty platform over the years. The entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia lists over sixty items in its bibliography, from game-theoretical essays to academic books retailing for $71.25. (There’s even a kicky-sounding NookBook novel on the topic, for those who enjoy their fictional philosophy in color.)

I’ll wager Pascal himself would have been surprised by the scrutiny. He didn’t actually finish the Pensees — they’re postcards from the edge. And the Wager (Section 233, titled like a Swedish death-metal song “Infinite — Nothing“) was described by someone who’s handled the manuscript as:

“… two pieces of paper covered on both sides by handwriting going in all directions, full of erasures, corrections, insertions, and afterthoughts.”

In other words, a scholarly orgasmatron. What did he mean?! OMG! WTF! I can smell my own tenure. Oh, wait, that’s your tenure. Mine is sweeter!

What I’ll do for the people is cut through the moaning and summarize the three main objections all the nit-pickers have layered on Pascal’s famous afterthoughts. From least to most convincing they are:

  1. Diderot said, “An Imam could reason just as well this way” — meaning, there could be many Gods, or the Easter Islanders could be right, and we don’t know which one to believe in!
  2. God’s existence could have zero probability — Pascal’s Wager requires that whoever is wagering assigns a non-zero probability to the existence of God; but lots of people are positively overjoyed to assign a zero probability to this state and have plenty o’ zippy reasons for doing so.
  3. This is not Faith — Pascal was trying to convince skeptics to go with the odds, I suppose, but this is no way to run a life and has nothing to do with the reality of Faith, which is a kind of self-transformation.

In the end, friends, I think this Wager is a cute academic exercise that has very little to say about the Big Banana Itself, beyond banging home the fact that INFINITY is a berry berry BERRY big number!


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