Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why I Believe in God: Part II - Pascal's Wager

(to read Part I click here)

Back in the late 1980’s my brother and I had an in-depth discussion in my sister’s kitchen one day. The topic: Did God exist or not? I must have been 23 or so, because I’m four years older than my brother and he was in college at the time.

It was not an antagonistic conversation, but it was most certainly a debate; I was making the case for the existence of God, while my brother – who was a philosophy student – was taking the opposite stance.

(Some might question at this point which “god” I’m referring to; there are, after all, more than a few to choose from. At this point, simply understanding God as a “higher power” (i.e., the antithesis of evolutionary doctrine) will suffice. Explaining why I believe in the Christian God of Abraham as opposed to others is another discussion entirely, though there is certainly a reason for that too.)

As we went back and forth, each presenting our “evidence” for or against the existence of God, I wound up stumbling upon (and verbalizing in my argument) a realization that I have never forgotten: There either is a God or there isn’t, and you either believe in Him or you don’t.

I’ve always thought of this in my mind as the “Four Outcomes”, because it lays the groundwork for understanding that there are only four possible paths – and therefore only four possible “outcomes” – that are open to us.

Outcome #1: God does NOT exist / You do NOT believe in God.
If you are an atheist, this would be the outcome that justifies your existence. The big “win”, if you will. You were right all along. But it’s an interesting “win” if you dig into it a little.

First of all, you would never even know that you were right. Upon your death, consciousness would abruptly end and you would simply cease to exist. No thoughts, no realizations, no “I told you so”. Certainly no parades or celebrations. You would never even know.

And before that, what kind of life would you have “knowing” that there is no God? “Knowing” that when someone that you love dies, that’s it for them; too bad, so sad, they’re simply gone? “Knowing” that you are completely alone, with no one to talk to, no one to listen, and no one to help? Your life is an accident, and it has absolutely no meaning or purpose whatsoever.

And hope? Hope in what? It’s just you. Hope for what? There is nothing else.

It’s important to know that if you are an atheist, this is the best case scenario for you. This is as good as it will ever get; your “value proposition” for denying God, if you will. And this is what you’re telling other people that they should want as well.

I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t sound all that good to me, especially when you consider the alternative . . .

Outcome #2: God DOES exist / You do NOT believe in God.
I don’t think there needs to be a whole lot of elaboration here. As before, your life would be just as meaningless and hopeless as if God did not exist, only this time, the end of it would be very different.

You wouldn’t just “fade away” into nothingness at your death; instead, you would have thoughts, you would have realizations, and you would understand that you were terribly, terribly wrong.

Not a situation I wish upon anyone.

Outcome #3: God DOES exist / You DO believe in God.
Again, not a lot of elaboration is necessary. If you’ve ever been to church, you’ve heard the message: no more tears, no more pain, just an eternity in heaven.

Outcome #4: God does NOT exist / You DO believe in God.
This one is a little more interesting, and it is the scenario that a lot of atheists seem to get very upset about; that people would believe in a God that does not exist. How foolish and silly. But look a little closer.

Again, just as in the “best case” for an atheist, if God does not exist, I would never even know. I’ll go through my life believing in God, and then, when I die, I would simply cease to be. I’d never know that I was wrong.

But before then, what a difference! A life filled with meaning, purpose, and hope. Facing my own mortality without fear. “Knowing” that when someone I love dies it is not the end, and being able to hold that hope in my heart for the rest of my life. “Knowing” that I am not alone; that there is someone watching over me, listening to my pleas, and helping me when necessary.

“Knowing” that I am loved in this world.

I have to ask, even if it turns out that I’m deluding myself, so what? Why should that bother anyone?

What’s interesting to me too, is that this would be the worst case scenario for a Christian, and yet, it seems to me that it is a far better outcome than the best case scenario for an atheist.

And, of course, all of this assumes that I'm wrong, which I don't believe I am.

This was all pretty deep stuff for me back in my early twenties, and I’ve carried it around in the years since thinking that I was pretty wise for being able to lay it all out like that. But you know what they say about pride, and as you might imagine, I eventually wound up eating a couple slices of humble pie when I discovered several years ago that – big surprise – I was not the first person in the history of the world to unearth this concept.

Solomon wrote that there is nothing new under the sun, so it wasn’t really a big shock for me to find out that Blaise Pascal outlined the same thing in almost the exact same way back in the 1600’s (and undoubtedly so did many others before him). The concept is commonly known as “Pascal’s Wager”, and there are some very interesting viewpoints & discussions on it if you should choose to run it through a search engine.

And if you do read some of the commentary about Pascal’s Wager, you’ll eventually see (roughly) the same “fatal flaw” that my brother made to me over 20 years ago in my sister’s kitchen: You can’t just decide to believe in God the same way that you would make a business decision.

My brother was absolutely right. Belief is not something that you can turn on or off with the flick of a switch. But if that’s true, then why even mention this at all, whether you call it “Four Outcomes” or “Pascal’s Wager” or anything else?

In and of itself, Pascal’s Wager proves nothing. It’s not a foundation to build anything on. It won’t make you believe or disbelieve anything.

But for me it was incredibly important because it was the first time I realized what the “playing field” looked like, and I was able to understand with all clarity that there are not an infinite number of possibilities available to us.

There are only four: There either is a God or there isn’t, and you either believe in Him or you don’t.

Once I understood how simple the playing field was, the search for the truth became a whole lot easier.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. – Matthew 7:7
(to read Part III, click here)


Tony Dye said...

There's sort of a parallel line of thinking, not quite a corollary, that's equally simple and profound: it doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what God believes. So many times, the atheistic (or non-believer) response to the God debate starts with the phrase "Well I believe..." If you believe there is no God, and there is a God, your belief doesn't really matter, does it?

Thanks for your series Blaine; I hope you'll continue and drill all the way down to "Why Christianity?"


Kelly said...

There is ethical reasoning for God from a civilization viewpoint, or for Karma for that matter. I do have my beliefs and they involve J.C. and salvation and remission of sins through baptism, however karma and the force you project upon the world does seem to seek balance. Yin/Yang and all that. J.C. is the way and the light, but can you just write off everything else? It's all about doing the right thing and perhaps the church (whatever flavor) has gone corporate for a more mass appeal. Not much profit and power for self improvement as espoused by eastern religions. Just an observation