21 September 2013

Are Beliefs Just a Gamble or Can They be Tested? Pascal, William James, and Religion

The cashier at Trader Joe's confessed his pessimism about life to me, and the fact that he didn't believe in God. He said, "You don't choose your beliefs. Your beliefs choose you." And if he's right - and he just may be - than the following ideas may be fairly irrelevant, assuming as they do that people actually have a choice about what they believe.

Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662) and William James (1842 - 1910) were products of two very different centuries, but both took a thinking man's approach to religion. It is - perhaps unsurprisingly - James' approach that still has relevance.

Blaise Pascal was still a teenager when he invented the first mechanical calculator and before he died in 1662, he made great advances in probability, math, and science. Probably his most famous intellectual innovation, though, came in a rare field we might call theological probability, in the form of Pascal's Wager.
Pascal's 17th Century Calculator

Pascal might have been the first to defend a belief in God through an appeal to probability. His calculation was something like this:
(Probability of God's Existence) X (eternal bliss) is greater than (1-Probability of God's Existence) X (temporal joys of this life).
He said that we could not prove God's existence but felt that even a small probability of his existing meant that nothing in this life could compare. Life is short (Pascal proved this by dying just weeks after his 39th birthday) and there is no pleasure in this present world that could compare with the promise of eternal bliss, no matter how low that probability is. The latest innovations (probability in particular, which Pascal helped to pioneer) only confirmed ancient wisdom: it was worth believing in God.

But this equation has been made obsolete in the same way that his calculator is now obsolete, for at least two reasons.

First, Pascal was a good Catholic. He dismissed even the Protestant's religion. He would have scoffed at the notion that the religions of American Indians, Hindus, Muslim, Jews, Cathars, Scientologists, Mormons, Baptists, Amish, Hare Krishna, Wiccans, and thousands of other denominations and religions would have had any validity. As it turns out, their claims of unique access to eternal bliss (at least the religions that offer that prospect) are equally hard to prove and, if like Pascal we're simply accepting claims as having some probability greater than zero, then we would have to include them all.

Second, this temporal life is actually evolving towards something longer and more luxurious than what poor Pascal could have imagined. There are people who claim that we'll soon hit an inflection point, what Aubrey de Grey calls Longevity Escape Velocity. de Grey argues that advances in longevity are increasing at an exponential, not arithmetic rate. Last century, life expectancy increased by 30 years; that works out to an increase in longevity of about 8 hours every 24 hours. If we could increase that rate of increase in lifespan by 24 hours every 24 hours, we'll have hit de Grey's escape velocity and effectively deferred death. It's like immortality. Add to that an increase in joy one could take in life as we become more prosperous and better understand human psychology, and suddenly the expected value of the joy of this life goes up.

Pascal's great-great-great-great (roughly 10 to 20 generations later) granddaughter, using exactly his logic and approach would have to update his equation as this:

(Probability of any one religion being right) X (eternal bliss) has an uncertain but possibly lower value than (1-Probability of any one religion being right) X (temporal joys of this life).

Pascal's calculation has given way to William James' paradox. Like Pascal, James didn't think there was any way to prove any religious claims about life after death or access to heaven. What James did believe, though, was that you could objectively measure what belief did for people's joy in this life, how much it changed their levels of empathy and compassion, their ability to be good neighbors and family members.

Belief changes people. If you believe that what it means to be a child of God is to show compassion on people who have no way to ever repay you for kindness, you might actually raise the level of joy in this lifetime, for you and the recipient of your kindness. You might yourself feel more calm about a universe presided over by a loving God who never gives us burdens bigger than we can bear. And your belief that you'll be judged after this life is over might cause you to make decisions on behalf of a future you won't even experience (whether risking your life to save a child from a burning building or giving to a charity).

We can't just assume probabilities over zero and proceed towards religious belief. Pascal's wager in modern times just invites skepticism. But we can judge the relative impact of different beliefs.

Ultimately, a good society depends on good beliefs - only some of which can be proven outright, or even within our life times. To drive onto the freeway is an act of faith. James' believed that the efficacy of beliefs could be assessed and after a period of depression, he made a choice that showed his belief in beliefs.

In 1870, James famously declared himself for free will. In a diary entry for April 30, he wrote, “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s [French philosopher Charles Renouvier, 1815-1903] second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

It seems to me that in a similar way, a person can choose to believe that her life makes a difference and then observe what difference that belief makes. What we believe in may not be real but beliefs are real, and they can have real consequences. James' paradox of belief might be to post-20th century believers what Pascal's wager was to post-17th century believers.

And I guess that I'll side with the beautiful human being William James and say that we do have a choice about our beliefs. Regardless of whether beliefs include God or not, it's probably worth taking James' approach and looking for the proof of what we believe in the difference it makes in our day to living.

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