Pascal’s Wager in Pluralistic Cultural Context

Blaise PascalBlaise Pascal developed “Pascal’s Wager“, drawn from Thoughts (Pensees) that argues for faith in God over and against doubt or rejection (translated):

Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weight up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.”

The basic argument is essentially game theory. The way to minimize risk is belief as opposed to unbelief (in God). However, William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” quotes Mahdi (not sure which one… “Mahdi” is a title from Islamic Tradition… perhaps he was referring to the one who was part of the 19th century Mahdist revolt in British Sudan.)

“I am the Expected One who God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!”

The argument is essentially the same. However, at least from a Christian standpoint, the argument seems much weaker. The idea that god (as described within the Islamic system) and his messenger should be believed since the gain is much greater than the loss, only makes sense if there is no competing system.

Pascal’s Wager essentially works in a setting where there are two essential positions: Unbelief (or nominalism) in a religious system versus Belief in that same religious system. Things fall apart in a pluralistic culture.

Does that mean that nothing can be said? To me, it might be a solid wager in the broadest sense. There is a basic soundness that believing in God if God exists is of greater benefit then the loss associated with believing in God if God does not exist.

Still I am not sure that Pascal’s Wager is all that useful in missions. Nearly everywhere now, cultures are either pluralistic or are dualistic where Christianity is an outsider sytem. The idea that having religious faith “makes sense” on some level may be comforting to some. However, in a pluralistic society, there are too many options.

Still, we live in a time when the vestiges of logical positivism remain (at least for the moment) so there are still some that feel that faith and truth are at war. Works such as that by Pascal and William James (and the various challenges to naivety of scientific exuberance, “Popperism,” and positivism) help some realize that the realm of faith can be an intellectually safe place to dwell.

It seems to me that Christians should avoid the extremes of placing faith in stark contrast to logic (faith against cognition) on one side and “scientifically proving” faith on the other side.

With the growth of post-modernism, faith is given more respect (as long as it is tinged by doubt). Faith is necessary (even unbelief takes a certain amount of faith of one sort). The growing challenge is that faith communities must learn to welcome both “thinkers” and “feelers.” Both are made by God and both have a place in His church.

Some Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

Religion, spirituality, and faith all relate to aspects of power, which means that they are at risk of being abusive. That is because abuse is essentially the (selfish) misuse of power.

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_12823374″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Spiritual Abuse I” target=”_blank”>Spiritual Abuse I</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>PowerPoint</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>

Belief vs Doubt vs Disbelief IV

Cover of "In Praise of Doubt: How to Have...
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I was doing some lookups on doubt on the Internet. Very little good information is available. I took a class called “Faith and Doubt” at Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary. Our two main texts were “Doubt: A History” by Jennifer M. Hecht and “In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic” by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld. Both were interesting books, although neither was really good at categorizing types of doubt (at least in a clear fashion). The Internet doesn’t do a good job either. Perhaps this is because of the general disinterest in the topic.

Religionists reject doubt commonly. But anti-religionists commonly do as well. At most, doubt may be seen as an unpleasant transition towards the more positive state of belief or disbelief. After all, disbelief is simply the belief in the antithesis of what someone else believes. Doubt tends to dissatisfy disbelievers and believers alike. True believers (or True disbelievers) are often likely to be more angry at doubters than those who truly oppose them.

There seems to be a need for better categorization of doubt. I think this is well beyond me, but I can list a few common categories and a few ideas. Maybe something will develop from there in future work.

1.  Methodological Doubt: Cartesian Doubt. Starting from a position of doubt in an reasoning argument. In philosophy, one seeks to separate between the dubious, the probable, and the certain. Such doubt may not say anything about the beliefs of the individual… it is simply a position to start from in a logical argument. This can be a useful tool in analysis. Sometimes it bothers people. I have an Apologetics Study Bible. In it, it argues for the authenticity or reliability of the Bible. Often it will argue from historical, textual, or logical positions. Some react to this. “The Bible says it! I believe it! That settles it!” But that is not good enough for some people, so the writers of the study Bible develop arguments from a starting position of doubt to make their arguments relevant to a broader audience.

2.  Existential Doubt: The values and meaning I have… are they what I SHOULD have? This is axiological. What OUGHT I believe, think, value, and do? Paul Tillich considered existential doubt as foundational to faith. Major changes in one’s values and motives (such as in a religious conversion experience) requires existential doubt. It is necessary most likely for 2nd order changes… ones that involve basic change of belief, not simply change of method or action.

3.  Skeptical Doubt: I never did find a great definition of this. Seems to be more of an attitude than an actual doubt. Doubt that pushes one to disbelief. Of course, disbelief simply means belief in something else.

For example, if one goes to the website for Sceptic Magazine:

The Skeptics Society is a scientific and educational organization of leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors and teachers. Our mission is to investigate and provide a sound scientific viewpoint on claims of the paranormal, pseudoscience, fringe groups, cults and claims between: science, pseudoscience, junk science, voodoo science, pathological science, bad science, non science and plain old nonsense. “

It is clear here that the Sceptic Society has a large number of things that they have sceptical doubt (not just methodological doubt) about. But they also have some areas that they have very strong beliefs about. The name “The Skeptics Society” seems to be at least 50% misnamed.

4.  Pathological Doubt:  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is often called a “disease of doubt” because it involves an inability to distinguish between what is possible, probable, and unlikely to happen. Doubt can be healthy but at least some doubt needs to ultimately be resolved.

5.  Radical Doubt:  Term coined by Arne Unhjem and is defined as “the recognition– often implicit, rather than explicit– that there is no truth and no meaning that deserves man’s unqualified acceptance.” It seems to be true that man needs meaning in life. Radical doubt, whether justified or not, hardly seems to be healthy… not how we were made.

6.  Guilty Doubt:  I made up this term… but I am sure that the term exists, or a similar term exists for this. Like “skeptical doubt” this is an attitude or response. Doubt can generally be healthy, but some feel that it is wrong to have doubt. This can be exacerbated by systems (religious, cultural, academic, corporate) that seek conformity of view. Often guilt or shame is used within the social structure to deny doubt. Guilty Doubt can lead to conformity of members and the maintaining of the oppressive structure. Paradoxically, it can result in a complete rejection of the original belief. Two reasons: First, the person who finally acknowledges their doubt may feel that doubt is the same as disbelief. Second, the system does not set up a healthy environment for addressing doubt.

I am sure there are other categories worthy of listing, but if one looks at this list, the first two are certainly beneficial in faith (or at least can be). However, there are other ways to look at doubt. One way would be to look at it from a position of source.

A.  Cognitive Doubt would then be doubt of facts. This is an intellectual doubt.

B.  Emotive Doubt would then be a feeling of doubt. Perhaps the doubt can’t be put into an intellectual form.

C.  Volitional Doubt would then be a feeling of doubt about choices (kind of like existential doubt).

Perhaps one could add something like Self-doubt. We think of self-doubt as negative, but in this case, I mean the recognition of our own limitations as a human (limits in time, space, knowledge, wisdom). From this perspective, self-doubt is very useful… even necessary. Failure to recognize these limits is the realm of the fool and egoist.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts. Would love to hear more on doubt and categorization of doubt.

Belief vs Doubt vs Disbelief III

42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Lif...
42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life according to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Русский: 42, Ответ на главный вопрос жизни в произведении Автостопом по галактике. Deutsch: 42, die Antwort auf die große Frage nach dem Leben, dem Universum und dem ganzen Rest, bezogen auf Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis von Douglas Adams. Italiano: 42, La risposta Fondamentale alla Domanda sulla Vita secondo la Guida galattica per gli autostoppisti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Summarizing. Doubt is a necessary and healthy part of faith. Doubt is necessary because faith is necessary. Faith is necessary because we are finite and no knowledge or logic is, in itself, compelling. At some point in time we have to bridge the gap from “reasonable” to either belief or disbelief (at least in some things). Faith that is not empowered by doubt will not likely stand the test of intellectual or cultural challenge (if it would even be correct to call it faith). Loss of faith in God often comes when doubt is squelched instead of addressed openly.

A challenge here is obvious. If faith is necessary, even a common part of human existence, how can it be the determining eternal existence? One challenge is that we are dealing with faith on two levels… a logical level and a Biblical level. Biblical faith includes the logical level but goes further.

Faith, as a logical concept, is the necessary bridge between a reasonable idea and a personally compelling idea. Of course, faith has to have an object. One does not simply “have faith.” One must have faith in something. For example, one might consider using their credit card on an Internet purchasing site. There is clearly a risk of sharing information that can be abused with strangers. Yet there are reasons to trust the system as well. In the end, one must decide one side is compelling. This is faith. The object of that faith is belief in trusting or not trusting a website for financial transactions. There is clearly an active component to faith. Faith gives direction.

So far then,

  •      Faith is universal. It bridges reasonable and compelling
  •      Faith, in its essence, is volitional rather than cognitive
  •      Faith must have an object.
  •      Faith demonstrates itself in action.

This is logical faith. Biblical faith is built on it, but…

  •      The object of faith is trust in God

So Biblical faith is the reasonable (but not undeniable) conclusion that one can live a life trusting God, as God is revealed in History and the Bible.

One should never apologize for faith. Everyone has faith on one form or another. In “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams, we discover that the Ruler of the Universe, is a man in a shack who has no faith. He comes to essentially no conclusions about his own thoughts or sensory inputs. A very difficult way to live.

Faith in God has been found reasonable by lots of people throughout history. Faith that is unprepared by doubt to handle the rigors of opposing beliefs and arguments is a weak faith. Such a faith, perhaps, one might feel a bit apologetic about.

Religious leaders should never seek to instill that type of faith in its members.