Friday, April 1, 2011

Daunting Answers

Quite often on sites like YouTube or Facebook you will find Atheists and Theists battling. There is a lot of fire and smoke on both sides and the end result is usually a stalemate, for one reason or another. Rarely, though, is it because of both sides being on equal ground. More often than not it is because one side or the other (or both) does not understand what their opponent is actually saying. The question is understood, but the answer is not. Today we will be focusing on one such situation. This is one of the most asked questions posed to Atheists, and is also quite old.

"What if you're wrong?"

About what? The usual Atheist response is that they have nothing to be wrong about. Agnostic Atheism, a lack of belief in gods, is quite dominant amongst Atheists, and really has nothing to be right or wrong about. On occasion, though, you will come across Gnostic Atheists, and I believe this question is geared more toward them. So, the rest of this will be answered from the perspective of a Gnostic Atheist.

First thing I should point out is where this question comes from. Whether the Theist presenting it realizes this or not, this is not a new question. This question was first posed to the public at large by the french philosopher Blaise Pascal in his notes, published as Pensées (thoughts).

  1. "God is, or He is not"
  2. A Game is being played... where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. It is not optional.
  5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (...) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. 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.

Basically, what Pascal is saying here is that if you wager that God exists, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. On the other hand, if you wager that God does not exist you have nothing to gain and everything to lose. So why not believe in God? The main problem with Pascal's Wager is that it incorrectly identifies the possible outcomes as well as the available choices.

Let's look at just his example for a moment.

Table of Payoffs Believe in God Don't believe in God
God doesn't exist 0 0
God does exist +∞ (heaven) -∞ (hell)

The problem here is that you don't know which god is real, if any. If the Christian god was the only god available, then I could see this wager working. It would be quite logical. However, there are thousands if not millions of gods proposed by Theists around the world. Most of them are not at all like the Christian god. In fact, in the infinite possibilities we find ourselves faced with, it is possible that there is a god that supports Atheism.

So now the chart becomes this:

Table of Payoffs Believe in God Don't believe in God
God doesn't exist 0 0
Legalistic religious god exists +∞ (heaven) -∞ (hell)
Anti-conventional god exists -∞ (hell) +∞ (heaven)

Now there is no gamble. your chances are the same no matter what you believe in.

In response to questions such as Pascal's Wager, Atheists have come up with their own gamble. Basically, the Christian god, as well as most gods, is considered benevolent. There are a few malevolent ones out there as well, but the majority seem to reward good behavior more than actual faith. Essentially, most gods have their system set up where you get your reward by being good despite your loyalties. Those that condemn you despite how benevolent you have been to others would be considered a malevolent deity.

With this in mind, the chart now becomes this:

Table of Payoffs Good life Evil life
Benevolent god exists +∞ (reward) -∞ (punishment)
No god exists +Finite -Finite
Malevolent god exists -∞ (punishment) -∞ (punishment)

With this in mind, there is no reason to believe. All you need to do is live a life of good and whatever happens happens. You can believe whatever you want, as long as you don't try to harm anyone and try your best to help others.

So, to answer the original question: "What if you're wrong?" Nothing will happen. Whether we are right or we are wrong, as long as we have lived a good life we should be fine. If we have lived a bad life, whether or not we are right or wrong, we will experience problems. If we are wrong, and the deity is malevolent, whether or not we do good or not we will have severe problems.

Since the consequences either mirror actual life or don't correspond to the situation at all, we live as though this life is all we have. To us, this is it. We don't know if there is anything after this life, so we don't even think about it. We live life for now, not for then. That's all it takes. We live a good life now we are rewarded now. If we get rewarded later, that's good too. Gnostic and Agnostic Atheists both live their lives this way.

If there is a god, and it is benevolent, we will be fine. Who cares if we're wrong?