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.

 

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The Gamble

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. Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and 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 he 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 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 delights 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.

Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.

Can Reason Rule?

Pascal tells us that the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing about. David Hume added that reason is a “slave of the passions.” I used to think these men were simply wrong and I resisted their claims because as a philosophy professor I was determined to try to help young men and women think more clearly about complex issues. After all, what’s the point of thinking clearly if, in the end, a person is just going to be ruled by emotion (the “passions.”)?

But as I grow older I have come to the conclusion that these men were right. Ultimately, our decisions — the important ones — are determined not by what we think, but what we feel. We accept or reject claims not based on their reasonableness, but on whether or not they fit into our belief system. (Strictly speaking, our beliefs do not form a “system,” as George Elliot reminded us. They are a rat’s nest of conflicting feelings and hunches mixed together in chaotic fashion to protect us against a fearsome world.)

This is why even though it is certain that there will be an earthquake of mammoth proportions in California along the San Andreas fault, thousands of people insist upon living there. It is why thousands also continue to live in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, even though it is certain that there will be another eruption that will kill thousands. We believe what we want to believe, and while in extreme forms this amounts to denial, for most  of us it amounts to little more than ignoring the facts or looking the other way, keeping reason in neutral while being ruled by their emotions. Don’t hassle me with the facts, I want to live here!

I taught ethics for nearly forty years, including business ethics.  I realized even as I taught those courses that what I was teaching wasn’t really making a huge difference in the lives of my students. In the end I could teach them a few rules and we could discuss ethical principles and methods of approach to ethical issues, deontology or utilitarianism, for example. But in the final analysis, whether or not they did the right thing in a certain situation depended on the kinds of people they were. Hannah Arendt thought it was a matter of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. If a 20-year-old student was dishonest by inclination and character, taking a four-credit course was not going to turn him into an honest man.

In the end, I sided with Aristotle and determined that ethical choices are a matter of character and character is formed early in a person’s life and doesn’t change much as we grow older. But what a course in ethics could do, even business ethics, is to help us sort things out, work through our inclinations and sift through the mud of hunch and prejudice, and determine what ethical principles were at stake and what the best course of action might be in a specific situation. Whether or not in the end the person chooses to do the right thing, again, is a matter of character — or what Hume called “passion — but the path to that decision could be made smoother by careful thought. Reason may be the slave of passion, but without it we grope in the dark and stumble around from notion to hunch and frequently regret later that we didn’t think things through.

There are any number of key issues facing humans today and while it is certainly true that reason cannot dictate what choices we make, it can make clear which paths have been tried before and which are the most likely to prove fruitful in the future. Reason will tell us, for example, that whether or not we accept the fact that the human population is exploding out of control and heading us toward calamity, the continued growth of human populations, taken together with the finite amount of food it is possible for us to produce, will inevitably result in a clash at the intersection of these two trends. The earth has only so much carrying capacity. So even if at present we could solve the problem of starving people in Third World countries by figuring a way to get surplus food to them, at some point it will no longer be a matter of logistics. It will be a human tragedy. Which means, that reason would lead us to the conclusion that if we are to avoid a human calamity on a scale hitherto unseen on this earth, we should plan now and take steps to not only maximize food production and improve delivery systems, but also do what we can to reduce the number of mouths that will have to be fed.

Whether or not we choose to do that will not be determined by logic and reasoning. It will be determined by “passion,” or  “character,” the kind of people we are. But reason certainly demands that we start thinking about it now.