Pascal’s Wager

I am re-blogging a (slightly modified) post from over a year ago in light of the fact that our president-elect is convinced that global warming is a hoax and the Wisconsin D.N.R. has declared that global warming is merely a “subject of scientific debate.” Both of these positions are irrational and, worse yet, a gamble with the lives of countless folks who will be affected if and when the scientific community is proven to be correct. In the meantime, I argue here that we should all err on the side of caution: it is the only sane position to take in light of the probable consequences of being wrong about a situation that is so deeply serious to us all.

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming (both of which are extremely unlikely), we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. If we are unwilling to do these small things, and continue to deny the evidence that is considerable, the consequences will almost certainly be dire.

Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet and if we turn out to have been wrong (or the science was wrong) it has cost us little. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and 97% of the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which the mathematician/philosopher recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would still lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the joys of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional. . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.



30 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager

  1. Hugh, thanks for revisiting. By the way, China announced yesterday they will be investing US$360 Billion more in renewable energy in the hopes of meeting bolder goals by 2020. With their efforts thus far, they may be able to meet the goals by 2018. In their press release it was noted the fast pace of job growth and falling prices of solar and wind.

    We have discussed that if the US backtracks on its role as a co-leader in renewable energy, China will pick up the slack. Someone may want to share a few facts with our President-elect about the average double digit annual rate of US solar jobs over each of the last five years, as contrasted to the retrenching coal jobs.

    If you were an investor, where would you spend your money? A utility will unlikely build a new coal plant as it the return on investment will be less over time and they have been converting to natural gas and investing in renewables.


  2. On the Other hand, Pascal’s Wager can be compared to a Descent into the Shades of Belief that may well b(l)ind a person to an inevitable Purgatory for the Fallacy of believing misbegotten Objects of Faith (sheer Personal Conceit). Such a Doorway may well be likened to Dante’s Door of No Return: “”Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” Funny how Dante chose a Pagan to be his Guide in the underworld, as if Christendom had not provided adequate Patronage…say, in the Icon of his age: Aquinus.

    • My understanding is that Dante chose Virgil precisely because he was a pagan. Beatrice takes over in Paradise. But Dante wouldn’t have wanted a Catholic saint leading him through Hell!

      • Conventional, indeed. The esteem afforded Virgil as Guide, as a Pagan, and as someone Condemned by the usual Dogma at the time, appears as an implied Criticism itself of the same Conventional Catholic Dogma of Dante’s age. Purgatory, after all, is a Means of Purification for those with Imperfect Faith…less so a kind of Limbo of the Righteous Pagan…unless we are to Invent a new Dogma on that score. Beatrice, on the Other hand, is a Real inspiration from the life of Dante having NOTHING to do with Dogma, Faith or even Moral Purity, but a mere Romantic Idea of his own, in life quite out of his Reach and Station. I think the underlying Metaphor on Both accounts is telling, having rational consequence for the assumed “Catholic” faith of the poet himself.

      • I do think Beatrice is Dante’s muse and an inspiration that has nothing to do with the Church of Rome. Bit I also suspect that Dante was a better Catholic than you give him credit for.

      • It may yet be that Dante was Aware of the Argument between Aquinus and Durandus, that the Judgment of God did NOT depend upon a necessary example upon Mankind; but that it enjoyed the virtue of having been shared by the Son/Sun of God, thus making Mankind a partner and friendship along the way. Unfortunately, Aquinus won-over the day, mostly out of fear of the kind of Milton that would come, and others whose proficient Criticism would tear down the Old World, and remake it to the coming devices of the New.

  3. In fairness to my argument, I suppose I should add what it is I believe Beatrice meant to Dante in his Ascent to Heaven. Having said what his Idea is NOT, I would add that it appears that Dante’s notion of a Guiding Light to heaven would be a Natural Affection in the Experience of Beauty…as it appeared to him, as a Revelation, quite apart from any Dogma of the Church. There. I said it.

      • Your Book arrived today, Professor, without the dust jacket, Mellon Press, volume 75 Phil Studies series, 2004. Could have cost me twice as much in almost All Other Options. My anticipation in receiving your admirably-suggested-reading prompted a closer look beforehand at “Experience and its Modes,” (Michael Oakeshott) 1933, Cambridge Press. I note particularly his Conclusion, which dives deeply and diverges widely from traditionally, conventionally reasoned ethical arguments. I’ll have to turn now to his various Modes in ultimate defense of the philosophical life he defends and promotes. I’m keen on his idea of “arrest” and will hold these two Works together as I proceed the next weeks, over the course of my 50th year. 1967-2017 (AD). My Meditation for the Hours.

        (as an aside, I found MO’s treatment 2 B Personal and endearing, if a bit exasperated by the implications rendered of ‘disciplines’ he so well critiques. What he wrote here, me thinks, is an Apology for HIS practice of those very principles of Perspective he found most assertive in the Options, ‘superseding’ others’ diminutive or countervailing ‘arrest/s’)

        An incredibly interesting piece of Historical Criticism as I understand the matter. I can suppose this New Arrival must make a worthy Companion of my Attention these days. Thanks for the Heads-Up.

  4. I might add that I discuss Dante at lengths in MY book: The Odyssey of Heart: Birth of the Sojourner.” They are calling me: The American Dante throughout Europe, particularly among the neo-Norseman. But THAT would be to occult for this audience, yes?

  5. Just an aside…but I lived in St. Paul the year I graduated from Metropolitan State 2011 in an apartment near the River, with a woman…Designer assistant professor at Stout in WI. A big girl, kinda nutty. I fell down into her kitchen window one nigh after showing off, levitating, and that was kinda the end of that. She said I was a Danger to myself, and didn’t want any part of my Monkey Business. Nice Romance, right?

    So. It’s ALL about Imagination here. Bound to History, Concurrence of Type, Echo among common Voice. Prophesy, and the Spirit of “The Anointed.” NOT a xtian notion.

  6. Alas…were I to pick a Pontiff from any Saint, I would chose Francis of Assisi, or John of the Cross over Aquinus. Yet his kind…rationalists, have vaunted over a Conservative See from Inquisition and Crusade to the sack of Southern and Central America till virtually this day. They became Disciplinarians and rule-makers of the severest manner, that spread throughout the Empire ignominious report, till the Jesuits were decommissioned. By then, the conquered had learned the clever scholasticism of the sophists, propelling the naked and dishonest ambition of vicious men into every conceivable sin that argument may invent, masquerading as innocence but demonstrating conquest. No wonder that THIS Pontiff has made so much Apology on that score.

    (Aquinus may have written a Death Bed “Consurgens” possibly exonerating him from his professional career’s trajectory…some have argued as much)

  7. Sketched Musings on a first read through.

    The sweep of the Great Conversation is impressive and could be generalized even further in some clever respects, as much of this History can be pushed further with different cultural idioms and iconography, whether mythological or speculative or presumptively ratio-linear, as to Traditions interpreted with whatever cohesion and cogency. Not all ‘language’ is rational, in fact, very few specialized jargons really qualify as rational, making leaps and bounds of assumption that would stagger the medieval mind, as you so aptly characterize here…I want to say “mostly” on your own account, but with myriad citations that rather send this student to the “Home of the Bewildered” in terms of tracking your own view, entirely; but I see you note the sketchy or limited scope in places. Need to look for those next run-through. I’ve never seen a sketch that couldn’t be sharpened in detail or purpose, depending on the time one has for the efforts and return, I suppose. This is a fun piece of writing, all told, even a bit of self-deprecation, which is rarely dishonest whenever, whomever practiced at least once.

    Which puts me in mind of the Other work I have in hand these days, already mentioned in my mailing arrivals of recent, quite the sole proprietors of my coffee table, along with my newest computing edition. I have, at my finger tips, something many times larger and even richer than the sum of many ancient libraries, better organized than any encyclopedia sometimes formerly attempted, and better-well cross referenced than even today’s exhausted and unabridged dictionaries of the first language ‘order’ principally operational on Culture now. Maybe exaggerating on the last account…they’re pretty impressive, baring comparison of direct connection to neural pathways and program technologies deployed in
    semblance of these organic organizational structures, i.e., what I think you may be comparing with the architectonics of Dante’s ideational and symbolic world. What we have here is just another form of language or meaning idiom, methinks…not more or less ‘cultured’ necessarily than other disciplined experiences of the Species, whether comparing literate Irish Monks with today’s studied and proficient mechanic down the street…one with the tools of memory directed at abstract concepts (objects) of projected thought (symbolism), the other compiling registers of functional dynamics upon a world that sweeps him away in chariots of smoke and fire, Both living an experience moslty undreamt by the other, but neither the more compelling in the idiom of meaning from which their existence derives and elaborates, to whatever end.

    How much better then to be Both Monk and Mechanic, and many men more, in an eon where Memory is vaster than ever before, and peering forward like never before (likely), reaches a breadth of Vision so inclusive as to grasp All in the flash of one awareness in time. Would that qualify as experience for the human species, or but the symbolic projection of a current world not quite yet realized? Hopefully the library of discovery and advances remains an Open Book, and not the squandered treasure of privileged foes who forbid and conceal knowledge to their advantage.

    As to symbolic thinking, one might, for instance, say that Plato and Aristotle could stand-in with argument to suggest that all of Science History moving forward would exemplify in two (at least) or many more elaborations of two essential ‘directions’, as from their First Principles, so to speak, a certain or apparent dichotomy would emerge to contest the discipline in so many ways, still today heard in the disputes for which it might be said that THEY were authors. And yet themselves admitted that such a Projection of Science would be a practice of Memory, as if the discerning mind and the Form that its operations must adopt for awareness are but acute sensory intuitions already embedded in the framework, skeletal boundaries and architecture of symbolic thinking from the Word: Go. The logos, somewhat unwelcomed by various devotees of the “romantic revolt” who chaffed to keep company with absolutes, dogmas or even uncertainties?, but more-so, considering the World War period…existence itself for mankind might well despair for the stupidity and brutality men; so among compare, the Existentialists are scarcely anything but Modern, despite some endearing theological moorings that have a steady and genuine ring about them that might seem familiar as day to many familiar with the names of renown writers of the last three centuries, A worthy complaint and evident sorrow that was capable of achieving, and often suggesting, simple cares and affection for and endearing model of personal relationship, extending to the environment about as a nurturing hen her brood. I loved that endearing melody of ideas, and recall it most at times in the likes of Wordsworth and company for that era, and in Emily Dickinson’s little bird, or love letter to the world, even some minnows burbling in the stream of Keats. Gestures of such tender affections, one must take time to consider carefully, and feel-through the “earth-trace” that is the stuff we truly move about in, and have our being. The Romantic Movement, appears to me, the very essential Compliment of the Classical varieties…and they shared sectarian characteristics, not all agreeing within their own ranks about some emphasis or the other, save for those who just “miraculously” created Art for the sheer expression, as Beauty is its own excuse for being.

    And so, this First Read takes me on a nice ride through many associate thoughts and keen interests I take in the subjects’ matter. I look forward to another run through your little but compact book here. think about how Jung plays a role in the formation of argument appearing, and have found him to be eminently cite-prone in a few compelling assertions over the years, mostly admired for his insights on symbols, in whatever important direction he took. Ciao.

    • Many thanks for the comments — and for taking the time to read my little book. It could have been longer, but I have been taught that brevity is central to clear thinking.

      • The Professional you are, seems requisite or partnered with clear thinking so necessitated (what about hobgoblins of consistency?). I mostly prefer the muses, whose round-and-about approach to invention seems more cordial to my tempo of sentiment. Time to sort out the remaining on the Way to later on, methinks. Not 5 days into the 21 I dedicated to you book. Only just warming up.

      • The hobgoblins of a FOOLISH consistency. Emerson was deriding those who insisted on being consistently wrong, I think. Like those who continue to support Trump despite growing evidence of his various pathologies.

  8. So, the foolish consistency America’s new President in assuming upon the intelligence or awareness of the people and is growing obvious and painfully obnoxious? Eeks*…so glad I’m tucked away in my little Island enclave, carving runes and drafting a new kind of geometric elaboration of Kells, primary colors and compass withal. I have an Original birthday gift to draft and derive on paper yet for my honey girl (golden locks and pink as a newly born house mouse). Living in the Romance of Ideas and Personal Affairs here, not to be disturbed in my study or distracted by distinct worlds of experience not my own. But good luck with that polity, thingy.

    Seriously, over the 3 weeks before/after and now during my 50th, I’ve taken to refuge among a couple books, like a scribe, enlisting my attention over and over again upon the finer details of complex relations among types, for me here being philosophical, moral, historical and speculative forms of cognition, with a touch of theology in seeming contests of judgment. I only so much as dropped-in to witness your observations here these last 6-7 days since my “little exercise” began. NO present outside worlds’ disruptions or observation.

    Just a quick call from way, way the other side of Campus, still deploying your “little book” for my keener sentiments of honest living, hoping, in the moment, undisturbed as a little sparrow against the cold and wind and rain of elemental severity the worlds of men seem bent to plunge-upon these days…peace be unto you, all.

  9. Out of present Curiosity, Professor, allow me to ask you one question on Jung: if the Inhabitants of his “collective unconscious” qua Symbols, are the Archetypes of cognition, genetically imprinted across the Species, couldn’t it be asserted that these are precisely like the Ideas of Plato, and that unlocking the ‘find’ of cognition by means of them, is the very secret of Memory, however and to every extent determined? Man imagines himself an object, then aims to hammer upon the nail. Alas…for every hammer, there are ONLY nails.

      • The way you speak of Jung, throughout this Work of yours, speaks of a certain Sympathy I cannot locate in your Arguement otherwise. It’s like you use him as a science “psychological ‘prop'” to your argument. I must say: that’s disingenuous, at best. Faults on your Argument abound, like Landslides.

  10. Ever heard of the “two second” rule of Friday? It’s a quick riddle…only those who answer it within the first 3 seconds are eligible for the Crowns of men. Ready. Set. GO: How many Fridays are there in the span of 3 weeks?

  11. Beware of those who ever play reindeer-games only among their own mountains, for it is these who lose and complain most when their own wish has run out-of-room for believing, left alone to contemplate their bit of Fortune.

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