A mathematical approach to the question of God.

Remember the guy who showed up back in 8th grade claiming to have invented the calculator? Yes that guy. He was Blaise Pascal, a polymath genius back in his time. Turns out he had a very interesting point of view on the cogency of the idea of god and its relevance to our lives. Pascal, during his time in France, was faced with several agnostics who questioned the traditional Christian idea of god but weren’t satisfied by the explanations given by staunch atheists either. To these people Blaise pascal suggested they hedge their bets just like they would for anything else.

This guy had a highly rational approach towards a question that is often answered in terms like faith and certitude. Pascal, who laid the foundations of probability theory uses the mathematical concept of Expected Value to address this dilemma. He says that in life we take chances each and every day. Each time we take a flight, choose a career path or a partner for life, we’re making a call based on the limited information we possess and could very well be dead broke or heartbroken without a moment’s notice. Just like a professional gambler wagers money on the roll of a dice, in life, we wager all sorts of stuff like money, health, emotional state and life itself. Except, unlike the roll of dice it is extremely difficult to calculate the probability of the outcomes of every other event in our lives owing to the sheer number of variables at play. You may ask … What is a professional gambler actually professional at? Pulling the stick of a slot machine? No, wagering the right amount of money in places that yield a positive expected value. Similarly in life, using the limited knowledge to yield positive expected value in every wager of life is what separates those who fail from those who succeed.

Whether or not to believe in god, pascal says is a similar call that you need to take. He isn’t trying to prove the existence of God or the lack thereof but only arguing that it would be a very dumb decision on your part to not believe in god. Think about it!

If you don’t believe in God and he doesn’t exist…then you die and nothing happens. You rot in a pine box until the sun explodes in a couple of billion years. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and he DOES exist, then you made a huge mistake. A mistake that is going to cost you infinitely. You are now banished to a lake of fire, pushing boulders up a hill for all eternity. Things are not too good for you either way.

The other option is to believe in God. Pascal says if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist…then it’s the same as the first one. You die and nothing happens. But if you believe in God and he DOES exist, then you have an infinite amount to gain. You never have to die! You get to spend eternity talking to people in heaven about how right you were!

Although it may sound like a silly and awful use of tact to answer a very serious and personal question, I believe that pascal’s idea subtly encourages us to take advantage of certain deeply embedded traits of the human psyche. Believing something and repeating it to yourself over and over again will make it your reality. If you spend enough time in this reality of yours it becomes your truth! It rarely matters if the premise was true, to begin with. This is how humans as a species have civilized themselves and made it possible for intelligence to dominate the primal impulses that drove the barbarians. Simply acknowledging the fact that the question of god is too complex to answer with absolute certainty and choosing to err on the side of faith can go a long way in improving your mental strength by assuring you that there’s something bigger than all of us that looks after us, gives our life purpose and holds everyone accountable for what they do in this life as humans.

Of course, pascal’s decision theory based approach is far from ideal. His argument can be extended to any number of bizarre scenarios. What about believing in Santa Claus? It’s okay if he isn’t real but if he is and you’re a nonbeliever, you’re missing out on lots of free candy!

Also, pascal makes no attempt to guide us towards choosing our version of god. Let’s say tomorrow I declare that Donald Trump is a god! I could use a very similar argument to go on and convince you that you’re better off believing in Donald Trump than otherwise.

Lastly, as already addressed, the question of god is a rather personal and deep one for most people, faith has a certain magic to it and does not lend itself to cold logic. Think about the 10-year-old girl on her deathbed, who’s diagnosed with cancer and is not going to live for more than a couple of days. What would you tell her? That she’s going to meet god and have a great time in heaven or that she’s just an inconsequential result of random genetic mutation who, just out of poor luck turned out to be a defective piece that’s just going to die and rot away? Think of the innumerable such situations where you feel just as miserable and helpless and how much a source of hope could assuage you. Faith helps you find courage in the most difficult of circumstances when everything else seems to be lost. None of it might be true and only in our heads, but the question being, does it even matter?

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This is a mashup of ideas on the topic of Pascal’s wager, that I have accumulated over time from various resources. But the most inspiring of them all was the Philosophize This podcast.

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