Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pascal's wager sends chain email

People who send chain email are complete idiots. No, Microsoft will not give you money for forwarding this email. Nope, there isn't a kid with cancer who needs strangers on the Internet to lift his spirits. If you don't forward this email, you are still a good friend to the people that you are a good friend to. That isn't the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe.

But, you know, it only costs you a couple of seconds of your time to forward whatever nonsense to everyone in your address book. You might as well, why not?

(Facebook applications are even worse, but that's another story.)

Some people advocate belief in God on the same terms. Who knows if there's a God or not, but if belief in God will let you into heaven, you might as well believe, why not?

Pascal's wager can be read on a handful of levels, depending on what Pascal thought was necessary for salvation. If what Pascal meant by belief was inauthentic intellectual assent, then, yes, Pascal's wager is entirely sensible. Perhaps Pascal thought that God would be impressed with a profession of faith, walking down the aisle at a big tent revival, maybe that would make the difference between heaven and hell.

Pascal thought that it is impossible to know if God is real or not. If Pascal thought that true saving faith cost anything weighty, then his reasoning is dangerous and foolish, given his thoughts about God's knowability. If reason is truly useless in determining God's existence, and if that's because God isn't real, I have one life to live. Why would I spend it chasing an imaginary friend?

I want to live by a reverse Pascal's wager. Pascal's reasoning assumed that it was impossible to know whether God is real or not; I think that a God that is unknowable is cold, standoffish, irrelevant. Instead, I'm interested in a basically Biblical conception of God, who seems to want to be known, but who is harder for the rich and powerful and prideful and greedy to accept.

Simplicity and love and humility are things that I aspire to; they matter to me, regardless of my mood. I don't think I'm so simple or loving or humble that it's worth noting, and I don't think I could ever be so simple or loving or humble that God would be impressed. I don't know why God is hard to know, but these virtues seem to have something to do with knowing God, and even if God isn't there, I'd like to have them, regardless.

Pascal showed cleverness in this one aspect of his wager: he realized that the outcomes of a matter of chance are just as important, if not more so, than the probabilities.

Pascal's wager is cheap if it's about a God I'm indifferent toward who requires me to just nod my head.

I'm not indifferent towards God, I want him to be real, I truly want to experience Jesus. I suppose it might cost me a lot to find and follow Jesus. However, the way in which I want Jesus makes me want to be like him.

I don't think that God exists, I don't think I have a good reason to believe. However, if I were to know for sure, one way or the other, whether God is real, I don't know that I'd change anything about my routine. I follow Jesus because I like Jesus, everything about Jesus, the honesty, the love, the jokes, the way he tells people that they're wrong. If I knew he were real, that might focus my devotion. If I knew he weren't, I see no reason why I'd abandon his teaching. I still like him.

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