Friday, April 11, 2008

Pascal's Wager

Great article on "Pascal's Wager" by Dinesh D'Souza, author of "What's So Great About Christianity"

The Power of Pascal's Wager:

Skeptics say that we cannot know whether God exists, and in a sense they are right. The Bible says in Hebrews 11:1 that faith is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." If the believer knew, there would be no question of faith. Consider this: I don't have faith that my daughter is in the seventh grade; I know my daughter is in the seventh grade. I haven't been to heaven, and so I cannot say that I know there is such a place. But I believe that there is. Faith is a statement of trust in what we do not know for sure.

But is such faith reasonable or is it, as the atheists frequently allege, "blind faith"? This central human conundrum is the subject of Pascal's famous wager. Pascal did not invent the wager. It was offered by the Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali in his medieval work The Alchemy of Happiness. Pascal was familiar with Ghazzali and probably derived the argument from him. But Pascal gave the wager its current classic expression, and in doing so he places an unavoidable choice before all believers and unbelievers.

Pascal argues in his Pensees that in life we have to gamble. Let's say you are offered a new job that may take your career to new heights. It looks extremely promising, but of course there are risks. There is no way in advance to know how things will turn out. You have to decide if you will go for it. Or you are in love with a woman. You have been dating for a while, yet you cannot be certain what marriage to her is going to be like for the next several decades. You proceed on the basis of what you know, but what you know is, by the nature of the matter, inadequate. Yet you have to make a decision. You cannot keep saying, "I will remain agnostic until I know for sure." If you wait too long, she will marry someone else, or both of you will be dead.

In the same way, Pascal argues that in making our decision about God, we will never understand everything in advance. No amount of rational investigation can produce definitive answers, since what comes after death remains unknown. Therefore we have to examine the options, and we have to make our wager. But what are the alternatives, and how should we weigh the odds? Pascal argues that we have two basic choices, and either way we must consider the risk of being wrong.


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