Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pascal's Wagered Values

While I really should not be making a blog post right now (busy, busy, busy) something in one of my philosophy classes today sparked a thought. For my own sanity (and success) it'll probably end up being a short post... we'll see, you never really know with me.

We were talking about Pascal's Wager in my Modern Philosophy class today. For those of you that haven't encountered it, the argument (in one of its many forms) goes like this - if you believe in God you have everything to gain (if you are right), i.e. eternal life, and if you are wrong you won't lose anything (or something finite). If you don't believe in God you have everything to lose and only something finite to gain if you are right. Therefore, a wise individual should believe in God. There are a number of problems with this argument that have already been pointed out by a number of astute individuals (many gods, etc.) but I actually want to use Pascal's Wager here to illustrate something about ethics. We'll call it Pascal's circle.

Pascal created the wager as an aid for believers since he did not believe that one could "prove" God existed by reason. Reason was not sufficient to reach God. Pascal's wager is built upon the deontic realm (i.e. the "ought") as opposed to the realm of fact. What ought we to do/believe? As such, Pascal's Wager is within the ethical domain as opposed to the metaphysical domain (the difference between asking "what is?" and "what ought we to do?"). However, Pascal could not leave his wager as an unsupported foundation - if he had, his wager would have been completely unpersuasive. Why should one be persuaded by Pascal's Wager if his ethical system has no justification?

To make this talk more concrete, consider the parts of the wager itself. If, within my ethical system, I do not view my own life as important to eternalize (or if I don't view the self as important to the ethical domain) then Pascal's Wager holds no merit. Why should I care that I could gain eternal life? Here, Pascal slips a bit on the foundation for his wager. Pascal could have claimed that enlightened self-interest should be self-evident enough for one to accept his ethical system that serves as a foundation for his Wager. Claiming self-interest is self-evident seems like a pretty absurd assertion to me. Even if one were to go in that direction though, my guess is that Pascal actually wouldn't want to. Instead, my bet is that Pascal would place God as the foundation for his ethical system. Why is it important to choose God? Because God is important. Of course, now Pascal's circularity has revealed itself, and while Pascal might be right, he is less than convincing.

So why does this thought experiment matter for Momentary Theology? Pascal's Wager reveals that at the base of our ethical worlds are our values. Pascal's Wager functions only if we either already value God or if we already value ourselves (as individuals). However, we can't justify those values with anything like Pascal's Wager (or any other means of gauging utility) since such an argument would, in the end be circular. Which, of course, doesn't mean such values would be "false." It would simply mean that arguments from "utility" ultimately are unconvincing. Pascal's argument would only be convincing to those that already value God as basic for their ethical universe. But why would one need to convince someone to believe in a God that is already basic to their ethical universe?

This thought experiment, though, has not only illustrated another way of looking at our (very) unstable ethical foundations. It also reveals the way our ethical values serve as the heart of our ethical world. Since it was also mentioned in my last post that our ethical system serves as primary for how we function as human beings, our values reveal themselves to be the core of how we function as humans. Our unstable values make us who we are. But what is that nature of these values? How do we choose what to value? What does the world "value" even mean? These are all some of the questions which I will hope to story-tell about next time. Blame the homework (or thank it!) ;)

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