Thursday, January 07, 2010

What if there were proof?

Siobhan told me of a dream she had in which the Pope called to deliver firm proof of the existence of God and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. This being a dream, the proof offered was suspicious but not really logically rigorous -- it might be enough to prove some things, but nothing as extraordinary as Catholicism. What exactly would be proof not just of a god but that very specific God and all the specific doctrine to go with it, that's a good question. But the question Siobhan posed was, what if you had that kind of proof, would you want to believe it and live your life accordingly?

Pascal's Wager never felt very convincing to me, mostly because the "choice to believe" is far from a zero-cost option as Pascal describes it; it also shapes your life, your decisions, your morality, your options, and the character of all of it, the way it makes you feel. And it doesn't take a very big cost before the wager becomes a losing proposition. Just like the lottery: sure, the payoff is huge, but the odds of winning are so tiny that the smallish cost of entry is more than it's worth.

But once you have proof, the terms of Pascal's Wager change completely. The cost of entry, all those effects on your life, may be kind of big, but now you get a 100% chance of the prize, and it's a big prize -- it fills an eternity. So there's no question anymore. How could anyone choose otherwise? No amount of inconvenience, discomfort, deprivation, or even agony in life could outweigh that.

But that's the kind of thing irrationalists are prone to quoting out of context. It presupposes not the kind of proof that they mean when they say "proof" -- some writing that proves a guy named Jesus lived, or the Virgin Mary imagined in a tortilla, or someone recovering miraculously from an antimiraculous bout of cancer. No, it presupposes real, absolute, unshakeable proof. I think those people don't really understand the difference (which is how they got to be the kind of people they are) and thus don't even realize they're quoting out of context.

So no one really talks about that variation on Pascal's Wager. Which is just as well. It's so hypothetical as to be asymptotically approaching irrelevancy.

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