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Part Three of a Conversation on the Existence of God Part Three of a Conversation on the Existence of God
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-04-08 10:21:34
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Blaise Pascal: Good morning professor Aristotle, may I also join you on your daily peripatetic walk through the Lyceum’s gardens?

Aristotle: but of course. What’s on your mind?

P. I’d like to suggest another argument for the existence of God based on the practical consequences of belief.

A. By all means, let’s hear it.

P. It is rather pragmatic in the sense that it asks us to consider the consequences of believing or not believing in God by considering results after death.

A. Oh yes, if I read Thomas Aquinas and Dante correctly, after death God offers eternal salvation to believers and eternal damnation to unbelievers. But that already assumes that God exists. But what if the assumption is false. What if God does not exist?

P. In that case there would be no afterlife, nor would there be reward or punishment. It would simply turn out that believers had held on to a false belief and atheists and agnostics would turn out to have been right all along. That in itself is no big deal.

A. So why should anyone be a believer or a non-believer?

P. Well, simply because if you are right as a believer you get an enormous prize. If you are wrong you get no penalty. On the other hand if you are a non-believer, you need to consider the huge penalty if you are wrong and compare it to the little if any benefit if you are right.

A. Sounds like placing a wager.

P. Indeed, and I submit that it is a very good wager.

A. It sounds bizarre to me who admittedly is a pagan even if I have conceived of the existence of God via the First Cause argument. It sounds as if you have reduced belief in God to buying a cheap lotto ticket and hoping that you’ll win. Slim chance but admittedly possible. But have you not also cheapened faith and belief in the process? Reduced it to unpredictable chance? I suppose what I am asking is this: what are the odds with this lotto ticket? If we don’t know that we cannot figure if it a good or a bad bet.

P. Here it doesn’t matter what the odds are. Let’s grant that the odds are very small that God exists, belief can still be considered a good bet since the prize is enormous and infinite and the cost rather low. It’s as if the lotto ticked were free, or one you receive as a gift from a friend. It doesn’t matter how small the odds are, you don’t just throw the ticked away contemptuously.

A. I get your logic: it could be a good bet to believe in God just in case he exists and it is true that you get a reward for belief and a punishment for non-belief, but with all due respect I prefer my own theory of First Cause. I think it is more logical and rational. What seems to be wrong with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that belief is a matter of will, something you can do intentionally when you think it is to your advantage as a good bet. I am skeptical that anybody would buy belief or faith as a commercial transaction of sort.

P. And why is that?

A. Let me show you by way of an imaginary experiment. I’ll give you $50 if you can get yourself to believe that elephants fly. Let me know when you have succeeded.

P. Ok, I have done, please pay up.

A. You must be joking.

P. Perhaps I am. I acknowledge that I really don’t know how to believe that elephants fly; the idea is so obviously false.

A. So let’s modify the experiment, I’ll give you $50 if you can get yourself to believe something  that is not so obviously: that exactly 30 years from now it will rain in New York.

P. I don’t believe it will not rain, but at the same time I can’t get myself to believe that it will rain either. So you have saved yourself $50 but I fail to see your point.

A. The point is simply that believing is not an intentional action to be done on purpose and that’s why the whole idea of reward for believers and punishment for non-believers makes no sense whatsoever. It would make sense if those rewards and punishments were for something done on purpose. That is what is so stupid with the Inquisition, when it went around burning people at the stake for believing the wrong thing. It was not only unethical but quite useless because it appears that belief does not work that way.

P. Without absolving the Inquisition, could it not be that they were forcing religious practice and not religious belief on people? But let’s stick to the main issue. Granted that ordinarily belief can’t be induced by reward or punishment, but belief in God is not like other beliefs as you seem to imply professor Aristotle. While it may be that most beliefs or trusts happen to you, belief in God is an act of the will, something you do intentionally and on purpose.

A. I fail to understand how that works. The problem I see here. Religious belief assume that belief in God is integral part of what makes a person good resulting in an infinite reward; but as per my virtue theory, to do anything simply for reward or to avoid pain and suffering lives little room to the exercise of virtue; it may be downright selfish.

P. I suppose you’d raise the same objection to religion as a motivation for ethics.

A. Indeed I would. In fact I have another objection to your wager theory: this idea that God would reward believers and punish atheists. I think it is a virtue to at least suspend belief till one has found some physical or intellectual evidence for it. We have the example of our mutual friend the agnostic. Following this line of argument, perhaps God will ultimately reward the scrupulous atheist and punish the mindless believer, no?

P. Very clever professor Aristotle but I submit that it goes against the grain of the whole religious enterprise from the very beginning. The whole point of belief, is to believe even in the absence of solid empirical evidence. That is why primitive man buried its dead and did not leave them scattered and unattended in the forest; he believed in an afterlife.

A. And you consider that good?

P. There is much you don’t see as a pagan. For example while Aquinas posits the same First Cause argument that you do, he does add to your practical virtues the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, nowhere to be found in your Ethics, which is not to deny that you yourself have given plenty of intellectual evidence with your theory of First Cause, the Unmovable mover, and the Cosmic Mind (Nous), which would suggest, it seems to me, that there is no scarcity of evidence and good convincing reasons to justify belief in God.

A. Perhaps, but I still think it peculiar to conceive of a God that punishes disbelief and rewards belief. If indeed there is plenty of evidence than plain rationality would lead anybody to belief in God, as indeed it led me and to some extent led Thomas Aquinas. The use of universal rationality is not the sort of thing that justifies a huge reward since it is universal and available to almost everybody. Anybody without a mental defect ought to be able to reach the same conclusions on belief in God, but punishment for intellectual vice seems a weird idea to me. But then, as you say, I am a pagan and I lack the insight of the theological virtues you just mentioned. I need to read St. Paul a bit more carefully I suppose. He seems to contradict the Socratic idea that knowledge is virtue when he mentions another law in him members by which he knows the good but ends up doing evil. But that’s another issue to be discussed when we deal with the problem of evil vis a vis belief in God. Meanwhile we have plenty of food to chew on for the moment. Have a good day Mr. Pascal.  


Part I - Part II - Part III

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Leah Sellers2013-04-09 01:59:00
Judas was also one prone to Wagers. He wagered Thirty pieces of Silver on the Trinity nailed upon an Old Rugged Cross.
He knew the Good and Chose the Evil. As a result, he lost the most Important and Relevant Wager of his Life.

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