Pascal’s Wager in Reverse (Or, and Yet I Believe)
At the risk of being called resistant to science, fundamentalist, anti intellectual, superstitious, fearful, mired in tradition, self-limiting, credulous, blinkered, deceived or self-deceived, or any number of other things, I do believe.
On that point, I ask myself a sort of reverse version of Pascal’s wager: is there any harm in it?
I believe at this point that the scientific evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis of resurrection, although a number of nagging questions still remain about what did happen. So if we are talking certainty, no, I cannot be certain of the resurrection.
In short, I don’t know.
And yet, this has not prevented me from clinging to the hope that it’s true. It’s a bit of a funny dance, holding onto what I hope is ultimate truth, while holding onto the possibility that it might actually be false, or just a sliver of a greater truth.
It’s also a funny dance with people of other faiths and systems of belief, including systems that they would never classify as beliefs (vs observations), as I reveal my faith over which I’m somewhat helpless, and also nod to the possibility that what they believe is true.
Frankly, I find it hard to truly respect others if I don’t, at least for a moment, look at things from their point of view and acknowledge the truth in it.
But this belief—is it a responsible thing for me to do to hold onto it, despite the lack of evidence?
The philosopher Pascal famously wagered that with the lack of evidence, it was safer to believe in God, even if there were not one, than to not believe, on the chance that there is one. (Never mind that a god who would punish the unbelief of someone who truly didn’t have enough evidence is far from the God in which I believe...)
But on the other hand, is there a downside to believing a God without evidence? I need to do some research on this, but I recently read a philosopher or scientist that posited that it is irresponsible to believe without evidence. I’d like to look more into his reasons why, but I can imagine a few.
On a personal level, the errant believer might artificially limit oneself, restricting some actions, answering to false authorities, giving up resources, suffering from a negative self perception.
Of course, as this is personal, what is it to the rest of us? How is it different from getting lost in any other drug?
But there are other repercussions outside of that. Raising children to believe a falsehood. Convincing spouses to conform. Supporting certain political candidates who promote theocratic policies, and making oneself vulnerable to manipulation by those same politicians.
That said, as I have discovered, the act of forcibly causing oneself to disbelieve on a daily basis is probably no more effective than drinking holy water every day to make oneself believe (and win Pascal’s wager).
One has default beliefs. Although we can commit to keeping an open mind and being affected by what we learn, those frames are there.
But, while we may not be able to keep our beliefs, our hopes, our fears, under control, we may be more facile in controlling how we let those beliefs affect our work in the world.
When it comes to raising children, we can share our tradition with them while being honest about the fact that this is based on tradition and experience, and we do not know. Despite creation, despite the sometimes efficacy of prayer, despite the comfort, we don’t know.
We can approach a politic that is open and libertarian, allowing for each belief system or lack there of to practice without impediment, inasmuch as they don’t infringe in the rights of others.
There are those committed to saying our country is this way or that way, and to them, I would say, do what I’m doing—talk, tell your story, talk about your experiences, proselytize, advertise, spark revelation in others.
But understand that belief doesn’t come by hearing alone. The seed has to take root in experience. And everyone around you is driven by the framework built on their experience. And just as we don’t know we are right, we don’t know they are wrong.
It’s like the joke about all the people of different religions that went to the bar. And they all had a nice time because they weren’t jerks.
It’s not a comfortable way for everyone to live. We like certainty, clarity, patterns, we hate the murkiness of the darkness.
But I know no other way to live honestly or peacefully.
Nor do I see how the God of Pascal’s wager—or any other—could blame us.