In yesterday's post I described an argument that reminded people of something called Pascal's Wager.
In a nutshell, Pascal was a dude who argued you should consider Christianity because if it's true, the downside of not believing is eternal Hell. But if you become a Christian and there's no God, all you've lost is your Sunday mornings. (Here I am simplifying.)
Many of my blog readers left comments alluding to the well-known "flaws" in Pascal's argument. Here’s a handy list of them.
Chief among the alleged flaws in Pascal’s argument is that you still have to pick the correct religion among many, or else you go to Hell anyway.
Sure. But picking any religion that promises salvation slightly improves your odds over picking an option that doesn’t. You're still probably doomed, given your bad religion-picking skills, but a one-in-a-million chance of reducing the risk of eternal Hell is a move worth taking, mathmatically speaking.
Another noted "flaw" in Pascal's wager is that you can't rule out the possibility that only skeptics are spared from Hell. Perhaps, it is argued, God loves the spunky fact-loving personality of skeptics and saves them alone, or saves them in the greatest percentage.
That argument passes the math test, but does it pass the sniff test? It’s a viewpoint that exists only as a debate tool. While we can't rule it out, surely it is the worst bet if you must pick a theory of God. No rational person on earth, including skeptics, has concluded that God prefers skeptics over believers.
Personally, if I were more rational, and less focused on immediate gratification, I would become a moderate, peace-loving Muslim. My reasoning is that Islam has the best chance of becoming the dominant world religion in the future, and therefore probably has God’s backing, if he exists. The Muslim belief that death is sometimes a good thing is a huge advantage in a future where weapons are improving, and the only thing keeping people from using them is fear of death.
If you believe God exists, the smart money says he’s backing the team with the best strategy and long term viability. Based on what I see today, I’m betting on Islam being the only religion in a thousand years. Once you can build your own nuke from stuff you buy online, don’t be betting on the Buddhists.
I realize it's unscientific to try and compare one absurdity to another. But if you assume our perceptions are often flawed, you have to allow the possibility that some apparent absurdities are due to our limited powers of perception. So, for example, while the notion of a loving God who allows eternal damnation seems absurd, it is less absurd than assuming the world is run by invisible unicorns, or that God discriminates against those who believe in him.
The God theory has built into it the assumption we are not bright enough to understand the mind of an omnipotent being. That sounds reasonable. Hey, if God exists, and he does things different that I would, just maybe the problem is on my end. If you believe in God, the apparent absurdities have a reasonable explanation, even if wrong.
But what’s the reasonable explanation for God preferring skeptics? If God appreciates reasoning skills, he can’t be too impressed by the fact he created the entire Universe and skeptics still can’t find any good clues he exists. God would only be impressed by skeptics if God did NOT exist. You can’t top that for absurdity.
Back to Islam. It also has the most satisfying answer to the multiple prophet issue. If we assume God speaks through prophets, as all God-oriented religions do, then how can you be sure the last prophet finished the job? Islam gives us Mohammed, the "seal of the prophets," and promises that God intends him to be the last one. That’s a tidy package.
All the other religions seem to leave open the possibility that God has a few more prophets up his sleeve. If you bet on one of those other religions, you can't know for sure if you're living by God's first draft or his finished manuscript.
Picking the "right" religion is a long shot no matter how hard you try. But if rational thought has any value at all, it's in narrowing down options and improving our odds of making good choices. Rational thought hasn't led anyone to conclude that there's a God who only saves people who don't believe he exists. We can't rule it out, but can't we rate its likelihood compared to a God who prefers that his lumps of clay hold him in higher esteem than their own eye crud?
I’d prefer to make all of my decisions on the basis of peer reviewed science. But I don’t have that option when considering the great beyond. So I settle for looking at the competing absurdities and picking the one that seems relatively least absurd.
There are other arguments against Pascal’s wager, but none of them looked any stronger than the ones I mentioned here.
Pascal's wager was designed to make people consider the importance of grappling with the question of a Christian God. That's not my argument. I simply borrowed the math part of his argument and followed it to its logical conclusion: The most rational worldview is moderate Islam.
And since I am not a Muslim, I must conclude that I am not rational. I sure hope God likes moist robots.
I wrote this at 3 AM. I won’t even pretend it makes sense.
[Update: Early commenters are noting that someone who only pretends to believe, to get into heaven, won't fool God. But the science strongly supports the notion that going through the motions of believing will, in most normal people, turn them into believers in fact. It's the same principle as why people who join a political party start to believe most of the positions of the party. -- Scott]