Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Win – Win – Lose x Infinity


I spent a great deal of time in Shul this weekend davening. But there was something that kept repeating in my head over and over again. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. All I could think about was the fact that Blaise Pascal must have been a terrible mathematician. Sure, Pascal’s triangle is a cool doodle during a boring class, Pascal’s Law is great for shooting water through your nose, and his contribution to Euclidean geometry has its points of interest. However, his ability to make a wager lacks a complete understanding of the variants involved, at best.

For those who are unfamiliar, Pascal’s Wager is the idea that you may as well be religious, because if you are right, you’ll enjoy immortality on a beautiful cloud in heaven and if you are wrong, at least you’ve lived a decent life. This is a great way of hedging your bets. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that all available possibilities are not nearly all that binary. You see, Pascal assumes that the two possibilities for someone who follows religion are that you either:

  1. Follow religion, which makes God happy. You die, go to heaven, and spend the rest of eternity enjoying grapes on a barca-cloud; or
  2. Follow religion, which does nothing incorporeal because there is no such thing as God, do tons of good things, and die knowing you lived as a really awesome person.

The corollary of this of course is a non-religious person has two possibilities as well:

  1. Not follow religion, spend eternity condemned to hell, which I can only imagine is something like a DMV which nobody notices is on fire; or
  2. Not follow religion, which does nothing incorporeal because there is no such thing as God, party a bit, and die having accomplished nothing and being a good for nothing jerk.

Ah, but any good statistician knows that true binary logic, in the real world, is actually somewhat rare. You see, beyond a flip of a coin, there are usually multiple scenarios and potential outcomes. In fact, possibilities on a cosmic level are rarely ever practically finite. But Pascal’s Wager is about religion and how we choose to live our lives, so let’s stick with that discussion. Let’s say I choose to keep religion based on Pascal’s Wager. I can’t go wrong because either I get into heaven or I live a decent life. It’s a win-win, really. Except it isn’t.

You see, there are infinite possibilities, so let’s try a thought exercise and discuss the most likely possibilities I can come up with:

  1. There is a God, he loves what you are doing with that life of yours, thinks it is absolutely spectacular, and when you die, you will get the red carpet treatment in heaven.
  2. There is no God, you really enjoy chulent, and everyone will think you are wonderful when you die, so at least there is that. Oh yeah, then there are the other possibilities…
  3. There is a God, you got everything entirely wrong, and that REALLY pissed Him off! Oh boy, should have tried atheism.
  4. There is a God, but He is scratching his head, wondering why the heck you thought that building a hut outside your house is a good idea. Don’t you know some kids in Africa could use that hut?! And really?! You are going to gorge yourself for three days straight?! Have you considered maybe having a sandwich and then sending the rest of the money you spent on that brisket to Haiti? Lucky for you, God is a decent Guy and will likely forgive you for misunderstanding your role in the world.
  5. There is no God, and gosh, you could have had a blast in your life. Too bad you are not going to get to experience all that awesome stuff. You were too busy worrying about paying to ensure your children’s belief in that God that doesn’t exist.
  6. There is no God, you wasted your Saturdays eating animals killed for your pleasure, praying to a God that doesn’t exists and taking naps while children starved. You could have been helping those starving children, but there are no Shuls in South Sudan and you need that money to pay your Synagogue dues. Also, there is probably something immoral you are doing that history will look negatively upon you for. After all, during Pascal’s time they had slavery and that is generally frowned upon today, so you may be a terrible person and not even know it. Some decent life you are living!
  7. There is a God, Maimonides’ 13 principles are right, but you were hedging your bets, so you didn’t have perfect faith. You just gave up your right to immortality and an afterlife. So much for your plan, you infidel!

These are only a few possibilities. There are many more, but these are enough to give you the idea that hedging your bets doesn’t work. Your religion could really be getting God angry. That should be enough of a reason to worry. But even worse, if you are wrong, your religion could be making you a bad person and you may not even realize it. You could be spending your time on one of your two days off in Synagogue talking to yourself, gorging yourself on food, and sleeping when you could be doing something good with your time, like seeing the world or helping people. You could be spending your money to feed the hungry instead of on Yeshiva education and Synagogue dues. You might be anti-gay because the Torah says so and all you are doing is making someone else’s life miserable with no payoff for you, or you could simply be looking past the truth because you are too busy dealing with the thing you think might be right.

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