Friday, April 16, 2010

Pascal's Dangerous Idea

I am officially mad. Not mad (thank heaven) in a mad hatter sort of way; though that may come in time. I’m angry.

It’s a rare news story that angers me anymore, and that’s a pity, because rage makes for quickly written blog posts. (Whether those posts are the best blog posts is another question.) Politicians and celebrities can do and say outrageous things all day long, and I remain unmoved. I expect them to be outrageous; and I suspect that I have the good company in my expectations of most of my fellow human beings. (Note: The term “human beings” should not be construed as including anyone actively choosing to reside in Europe, any male over the age of forty who still wears a pony tale, and any female of any age who prefers Brad Pitt to John Wayne.)

What continues to anger me, despite my otherwise ubiquitous apathy, is the tendency of experts to talk as if their field can explain the universe at large. This tendency becomes especially galling when the field in question is genetics. Genetics almost invariably comes with some Darwinian spin. I am not going to knock Darwinism, mostly because I have no opinion on evolution; but I have no qualms at all about knocking the widespread application of Darwinism to sociology and anthropology and, thereby, to all of human culture and life. The great problem is not with Darwinism itself, which is a scientific hypothesis like any other—probable enough, but unproven as yet—but with the reductivist applications of Darwinism that threaten to demolish every human motive for action and belief, which effectively eliminate free will.

There is nothing more dangerous, politically or morally, than the denial of free will. The sinful assertion of free will can be deadly, but the rejection of free will has consequences almost more terrifying. If we are not free to choose our actions, then who can blame us when we act outrageously, stupidly, scandalously, murderously? And who can blame Them when They (whoever They are) decide that the only way to control us gene-bound slaves is by force? How could we be trusted to govern ourselves rationally, with only our DNA in charge?

The Wager

The seventeenth century was a bad, bad time. If the thirteenth could be argued the greatest of centuries, the seventeeth might well be the nastiest. It began with the burning of Giordano Bruno, followed by the trial of Galileo (not good publicity, guys), and included the Cecils; Richelieu; Cromwell; Bacon; Descartes; Locke; Hobbes; Leibniz; Spinoza; the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London; the Irish Rebellion; the Gunpowder Plot (just bad, whoever did the actual plotting); the Time of Troubles in Russia, ending with the establishment of the Romanov dynasty (remember how that turned out?); the Deluge Wars of Poland (c.f. Sienkiewicz’s great trilogy); the Thirty Years War; (most of) the Eighty Years War; the Commonwealth and the Restoration (pick your poison); and an eruption of Mount Vesuvius for good measure.

On the positive side, those eighteenthers did finish the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome, and some guys called Pilgrims landed at a place called Cape Cod. (At least, that might have been a positive. Since those Pilgrims went on to found Harvard (1636) and conduct the Salem witch trials (1692), maybe not.) There’re also Isaac Newton and Christina of Sweden (not so bad) and Henry Purcell and the young J.S. Bach (be still my beating heart), not to mention Vermeer, Bernini, Cervantes, Donne, and the later part of Shakespeare. Maybe the century was a mixed bag after all. Ice cream and logarithms. The first public opera house. The first calculation of the speed of light. In every rain some sun must shine . . .

The eighteenth century also saw the life and death of Blaise Pascal, child prodigy, brilliant polymath, and amateur (in every sense) theologian. It is worth pointing out that Pascal was not an expert—that is, he was good at more than one thing. (So Pascal and I have a lot in common, except that I am not good at anything.) Pascal’s most famous contribution to the field of theology was his posthumously published Pensées; the most famous (or infamous) part of the Pensées is the Wager. Pascal wrote:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separate[s] us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? . . . Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. . . . But your happiness? . . . Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. . . . But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so . . . you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against . . . an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain.

For it is no use to say it is uncertain if we will gain, and it is certain that we risk [the pleasures of this life] . . . [I]f there are as many risks on one side as on the other, the [ordinary gambler’s] course is to play even . . . And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

Put it this way:

You go to Las Vegas, and the black jack dealer tells you, “I gotta new game.”

“Yeah?” you say. “Tell me about it.”

“I flip a coin,” he says. “Heads, you win; tails, house wins.”

He offers you the coin, and you flip it a few times to make sure it’s good. Just to be certain you ask if you can use your own coin, and he flips it a few times, and says it’ll do.

“OK,” you say, “so how does this work?”

“I own the casino,” he says, “in fact, I pretty much own Las Vegas. Strike that, I could buy the next presidential election if I wanted to.”

You are suitably impressed. He’s either rolling, or a lunatic, or he thinks you are. Whatever.

“OK,” you say; “and?”

“How mucher yah worth?”

You mutter something and start to walk away. He follows you.

“No, no; c’mon, how mucher yah worth? Six figures, right? Two-hundred a year? Two-fifty? Make it four hundred, counting the investments? Before taxes, of course; nothing sure but death and taxes!”

You laugh, but he’s kind of creeping you out. “Look,” you say, “tell me about the wager.” You figure he won’t stop plucking your sleeve till you let him have his say.

“S’OK,” he says. “My wager, is this.” He leans forward conspiratorially, and you notice his New York accent for the first time. “Heads, you get to be me. The casino, the city, the country.”

“The next presidential election?” you say.

“Sure, why not? Barring the Tea Parties, yah know.” He waves a hand. You nod, seriously. You can’t predict that stuff.

“And . . . what about tails?” you ask.

“Oh, tails!” he says scornfully. “Tails, I get fifty.”

“Fifty what?”

“Fifty percent of your income. For life.”

“You’re crazy!” You start the march out.

“Hey bud!” he calls.


“Yah left your nickel.”

You go back for the nickel, and he leans in again.

“Think it over, mister. Fifty percent of six figures? That’s peanuts, compared to what I offered you.”

You stare at him. “Yeah. So what gives? You some kinda nut, or something?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. Maybe, I am betting no-one will take my bet. Maybe I just liked your face. Maybe I am tired of the responsibility of picking the last five presidential elections. I mean, look how they turned out.” He spreads his hands in friendly frustration. “You could do better’n that.”

You nod your head, just reaching for the nickel. You draw your hand back. “What’s the catch?”

He shakes his head. “No catch. Swiss bank. Diversified portfolio. Every kind of tax shelter you could name. Loyal employees—and I mean, loyal. Oh, yeah—I forgot. One thing. If you win, you owe me half your current salary.”

“Per year?” you ask.

“You didn’t think it was so much a minute ago,” he says.

You reach out your hand for the coin again. You stop.

“OK,” you say. “Go ahead. Flip the coin. Heads, I win . . .”

He grins. “Some kinda nut, or something.”

Of course, this fails to even remotely capture the advantage that eternal happiness has over earthly. But it gives you a vague idea of the stakes in question. Many of us would not, in fact, make the wager—either the casino owner’s wager, or the religious equivalent. We are too emotionally tied to what we experience as certain (our steady salary; our worldly—perhaps a little too worldly—pleasures) to risk them for what may, after all, turn out to be the ravings of a lunatic; to gamble them on the flip of a coin. But statistically, it’s a darn good bet.

Pascal’s imaginary atheistic gambler, faced with the mathematics of the situation, pleads with him:

“But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards? . . . I . . . am forced to wager, and . . . am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”

. . . Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You . . . would like to cure yourself of unbelief . . . Learn of those who have been bound like you, . . . who know the way which you would follow . . . Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.—“But this is what I am afraid of.”—And why? What have you to lose? . . . You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing. (Section III:233, Pensées, Dutton 1958)

Pascal in essence says that God is the cosmic Santa Claus: you can’t prove he exists, but neither can you prove that he doesn’t. He asserts further that the evidence for his existence and against is either fairly even or indeterminate (“Reason can decide nothing here.”)—an assertion with which I and many others on both sides of the debate disagree; but there it is: and our very disagreement lends support to Pascal’s claim. Reason, however, tells us that three-score-and-ten-odd years of finite pleasure is hardly worth more than the eternity of infinitely greater pleasure that the Christian religion promises “to those who love [God].”

The truly fascinating thing about the wager is that it uses reason to reject reason. Those who make the wager desire to believe, since they see intellectually that it is the more advantageous course, but they are “so made that [they] cannot believe.” Pascal recommends that they put their reason to sleep. “Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pascal goes on to point out the advantages the truly religious man will accrue—in this life as well as in the next—advantages which are indeed worth far more than the irreligious man can imagine. And it is just possible that on this hook a soul or more might be converted, and become faithful in truth.

But the wager is dangerous: first, because Pascal uses reason like a lackey. He begins by denying its puissance, and concludes by demanding its silence. Secondly, and perhaps even more dangerously, he baits his religious hook with a very fat, very selfish worm. We are not encouraged to believe in God because He exists, or to obey Him because He is good, or because He loves us, but because—well, it’s the best bet. It’s the best investment for your money. Gold is looking up right now—and hey, even if the gold bubble bursts, you’ll have lots of pretty bricks to play with.

I think not.

Granted, Pascal’s hope and belief is that the man who begins by taking holy water out of a purely rationalistic calculation of advantages, will eventually come to take holy water out of real faith, real belief in God. But it is a fair question whether such a transition will be likely to occur in one who has begun with nothing but personal advantage in mind. Pascal thinks it can happen; and perhaps it can—but I don’t think it likely.

Try Religion! (It Works)

In any case, Pascal’s wager paved the way for what can only be called the indenture of religion. He legitimized a whole slew of virtues by pointing out how advantageous they are. Honesty is the best policy. Clean living is long living. Charity wins hearts.

These would not necessarily be bad points to make. After all, honesty, clean living, and charity do oftentimes produce advantages for those who practice them. The difficulty is that when the practitioners of virtue approach virtue with an eye first of all to its Machiavellian advantages, they are never likely to practice virtues well. Honesty will be discarded for the appearance of honesty, clean living will go unwashed behind the ears, and charity will begin wherever others are watching.

To be sure, Pascal is not to blame, certainly not wholly to blame, because we the people are hypocritical. He lived in an era when reason seemed to have lost its power of defending virtue, and he did what he could to salvage ethics and morals in the teeth of a bad situation. But his solution consisted not in the rehabilitation of reason and virtue, but in a pragmatic—a reasonable, one might even say—acceptance of its new, dhimmian status.

For some time the consequences of Pascal’s pragmatic take on reason and revelation (a take that became increasingly popular as the enlightenment rolled on) were unapparent. Then came along a man named Charles Darwin.

Enter Darwin, Pursued by King Kong

Darwin’s theory of evolution, perhaps not surprisingly, met with a great deal of initial opposition. Who wants to be related to an ape? (I mean, really—have you not been in a monkey house recently?) On the more serious side, there were those who saw Darwin’s theory as downplaying God’s role in creation—a grave charge indeed. This made Darwin quite popular with atheists and agnostics, then and now.

Religious people eventually evolved (pardon my language) three basic views towards Darwin’s theory.

View number one: Darwin’s just wrong; God created species through Intelligent Design; and now that Ben Stein’s made the movie we don’t need to be embarrassed about this anymore.

View number two: Hey, Darwin’s probably right; but so what? God can create people any way He likes, directly or through natural processes (provided He adds in a soul at the last minute). He’s still the first mover, and He still loves us; so it’s all good.

View number three: Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii . . . don’t know about evolution. ID sounds kind of out there, too. But I believe in God, and the polls say most of us still do; so what’s the big deal?

The big deal, my friends, is this.

In Which I Read the Wall Street Journal

Darwinism could have been treated as a mechanistic theory, a likely story about how we humans came to have the physical attributes we currently possess. In the immortal tones of Jackie Torrence, “It wadn’t.” It became a philosophy of human nature—indeed, a philosophy that insisted rather vehemently that there was no human nature, since we were all a continually evolving, constantly changing mess of characteristics, inherited at random from some of the less savory islands once floating the primordial stew. Like atheists insisting with quasi-religious certainty that there is no God, these anti-naturalists insisted with all the dogmatic assertiveness of those founding a new school of human identity, that there was no human identity. Generalizations about “(wo/)man” were not possible.

Except, of course, when they were. Among the more embarrassing generalizations that the sociologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary researchers turned up, was the fact that, um, well, most people most places at most times have worshiped some sort of God. We also tend to live in family units, wear clothes, use tools, respect taboos, enforce gender roles, produce representative art, tell jokes, and do a whole lot of other politically incorrect stuff. It was this impossible yen for the transcendent, however, that was most troubling to the professors; that, and the apparently coupled and equally inexplicable existence of altruistic behavior—i.e., behavior helpful to another, but damaging, at least short term, for oneself. Why, in a combative, struggling universe like the one Darwin had painted, would any successful mutation be found possessing two such unhelpful traits?

Enter The Wall Street Journal, and the reason for my frustration.

One week ago today The Wall Street Journal published two pieces under the titles “Why Belief in God Is Innate” and “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate”. This is apparently what counts as balanced journalism. The arguments in the latter article (author, Gregory Paul) are worth looking at, but beside the point here. The arguments put forward by Michael Shermer (suggesting an innate belief in God) are, quite frankly, far more scary.

I quipped above that “this apparently counts as balanced journalism”. One might assume from the titles (alright, I’ll be honest: if one were naive and lived in a box, one might assume) that one of the articles would be pro-religion and pro-God, and the other opposed. Fair and balanced, right? (Oh, wait, that’s Fox.) In way, the articles were balanced: Shermer’s takes a fairly benign view of religion; Paul’s concludes bluntly that “Faith is proving unable to thrive in well-run democracies, and its abandonment can occur with startling speed when conditions become good enough.” Even if the rest of the article weren’t there to tell, the “good enough” makes it quite clear that, for Paul, religion is only a crutch that we humans will abandon when, thank God, our material well-being achieves the height it has already achieved in God-forsaken Europe.

Of the two articles, however, it is Shermer’s that is the more irreligious. Shermer begins by providing the reader with some by now fairly familiar and respectable statistics: 84% of the world’s people belong to a religion; 92% of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, etc. Oddly enough, as Shermer notes, “even 21% of those who identified themselves as atheists . . . expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit.” I guess it takes all kinds, huh? Like the Unitarians. Moving right along . . .

Shermer goes on to ask the rhetorical question, “Why do so many people believe in God?” His answer: “such beliefs are hard-wired into our brains.” Shermer notes that, according to Darwin, belief in God has the evolutionary advantages of producing for a tribe “members who, from possessing . . . patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good,” which led to the tribe’s victory over its neighbors. In Shermer’s world there are no atheists in foxholes, only because the atheists are too dang reasonable to go there in the first place.

Shermer goes on to credit religion with creating ethical codes “even before the invention of government,” and describes God as having “evolved” in this period “as the ultimate enforcer of rules.” OK, Shermer’s God evolves. Shermer’s probably an atheist; but at least he’s a friendly atheist.

All the way up to the present day, explains Shermer, human beings have “a strong genetic predisposition” for “belief in a supernatural agent . . . because it is hard-wired into the brain.” He notes evidence which supports this belief. Identical twins separated at birth are more likely to be about equally religious or irreligious than are fraternal twins. Researchers have concluded that without “a genetic predisposition [to resonate positively with religious sentiments], the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.” He then goes on to offer another reason for the origin of our belief in the supernatural.

Long, long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far, far away . . . you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. [Thus] . . . there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, intelligent designers and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

Shermer’s analysis of our belief is in fact little different from Paul’s. We believe in God because we inhabit a dangerous world. The only difference between the two is that Paul thinks our belief is kind of kinky and will go away as soon as the world gets a bit safer, and Shermer thinks it’s kinda cool and will probably “always be with us” because it’s been “hard-wired into our brains”.

Shermer is the more frightening of the two. He gives us an apparently easy and rather condescending answer to the problem of belief. (His last section, from which I will not quote, is particularly offensive, managing to subtly compare believers to children who think the sun is a person, etc.) Religious people aren’t dangerous, he says; they’re really rather quite nice in a Paleolithic sort of way. They’re normal; and those of us who haven’t inherited that pesky gene, like Mr. Paul, really ought to be more charitable towards them. They can’t hardly help believing. More to be pitied than censured, you know.

Mr. Shermer, you make me mad. A week later, you still make me mad.

Why Genes Don’t Matter

Allow me to present, therefore, a brief list of reasons why I don’t buy the implications of Shermer’s essay, and the hundreds of other essays like it.

First of all, as one of the comments to Shermer’s post so eloquently put it, “maybe God hardwired our brains to believe in . . . God.” Indeed. Even assuming an evolutionary advantage exists in favor of belief in God (and there are those who think such belief is in fact a disadvantage), it hardly follows that the belief is unwarranted. That logic is like using the Lake Wobegon syndrome to prove that several individuals are below average. True, not everyone can be above average, and almost everybody thinks he is; but who’s to say that these particular Lakers are wrong? Likewise, the atheists may have been deselected because the lions ate them, but that hardly proves that God didn’t send the lions.

In the second place, I wonder very much about the fringe cases. What about the identical twins, one of whom does turn into Mother Theresa, and the other into Christopher (OK, Christina) Hitchens? This should be a grave embarrassment to the Genies. If genes do not always determine what or whether one believes, then what else does? Reason, perhaps? Religious experiences? Hmmmmmmmmm?

Interestingly enough (and we are now into the third place), Shermer notes that genetic research also ties religious belief to personalities that were generally traditional, respectful of authority, etc. This is oftentimes presented as a bad thing, as if the people without guts (the “weaker” ones, as one of Mr. Pauls’ “strong-willed” respondents calls us) were the ones more likely to succumb to religious blandishments. But why not look at it from the converse direction? The rebels, the people more likely to engage in sociopathic or otherwise damaging behavior, the snotty teenagers, etc.—are the ones more likely to end up as atheists. Which, come to think of it, explains a lot. Poor Mr. Hitchens—and Mr. Paul and even, yes, Mr. Shermer—may be more to be pitied than censured.

Incidentally, the whole idea that religious people are somehow more likely to bow to authority is, frankly, nutsy. Islam, anyone? Huguenots in France? Catholics in England? Christians in the Roman Empire? JPII? Benedict XVI? Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton? Catherine of Sienna? Joan of Arc? Rita of Cacsia? Sts. Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecelia, Anastasia, and all the rest? Not to mention James and John, those “Sons of Thunder” (does that or does that not sound like a rock band?); Jerome; both Augustines; the various Dominics, Thomases, Francises . . . I could go on. Misguided, we may be. Wrong-headed. Soft-brained. Hardwired, even. But we are hardly bucklers-under to authority. If anything, we kind of like to stick our tongues out at Big Brother now and then—to the point where our organized leaders tell us to tone it down. Sure, we’ll bow to authority. But we make distinctions in deciding which authorities merit our adherence, and when. My Maker, always. My church too, since I believe (with good reason) that my Maker guides it. My government—not so much. (After all, it didn’t make me: I made it.) Newspaper columnists, political pundits, university professors . . . you must be joking, surely.

Well . . . this post took longer than I’d planned. Maybe I’ll go put mah tar and feathers away fer now. Mah guns’ll stay oiled alright. Be prayin fer y’all when I march in them tea-drinkin, tree-scarrin, book-burnin militias.

Seriously, guys—if you’re gonna knock religion, try and do a better job than this.

Oh, and, uh, you up there? Yeah, you, M. Pascal. Don’t give up the first ditch for us next time, hm? It’s what General Anna might call “lousy strategy”.


  1. Wow, that's a long post. --And it had a lot of references only a few people will get these days. (General Anna? ;-) )
    Anyway, I agree with the spirit, and you put it on paper (or the virtual equivalent) better than I could have anyway.
    You need to be an editorial writer somewhere.
    It is absolutely true that the greatest harm is done to truth and true religion by those who profess to be on its side but aren't really. (Few people seriously pays attention to the Richard Dawkins of the world.)

  2. Hah! Yes, I do need to be an editorial writer somewhere. Isn't that everybody's dream job? (But thank you.)

    Of course, the fun of obscure references is that a few people DO get them. It's like using long words.

    I hear things went well in your defense. Hoping for the full story at some point . . .

  3. FYI-
    I had heard of this one before

    and a quick google search reveals these and probably many more ;)