PASCAL’S WAGER: To Believe or Not Believe in God. Or?
Yesterday (9-28-15) there was an excellent opinion article by philosopher Gary Gutting in the NY Times on Pascal’s wager. I think my reflections on it, emailed to Professor Gutting, might spark some interesting thoughts.
PASCAL’S WAGER: the argument that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise.
Dear Gary Gutting, Date Composed: September 28, 2015
I greatly liked your opinion piece in the NY Times today, as I discovered you had described the essence of my own pragmatic approach so well. You might be interested in my similar formulation from an essential science perspective.
I’m a psychologist and former radio engineer who has focused on building bridges between the best of spirituality (basic experience rather than concretized religious doctrine) and the best of science (genuine empiricism and open-mindedness rather than a commitment to absolute materialism as if it were Revealed Truth), drawing on research in altered states, psychology and parapsychology, as well as some personal work in various spiritual growth systems. I’m one of the founders of Transpersonal Psychology, a small branch of psychology that takes the spiritual as at least partly about something real and important, not just some weirdness suitable for study in only abnormal psychology…
The rough outline of my current working approach is
1- Recognize that, like just about everyone, I have strong hopes and fears in this area, and these may affect my perception and thinking even though I’m not consciously aware of them. Try to be objective, be on the lookout for biases…
2- People have powerful personal experiences, often “more real than real,” that they interpret as spiritual experiences, and their lives often then drastically change
3- If that was all, these experiences would still be worth much study as they are more powerful than many, if not most, change agents
4- But also rigorous experiments in scientific (not popular) parapsychology powerfully argue for the existence of processes like telepathy, remote viewing, psychic healing, etc. (details in my last book The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together), so spiritual experiences may be more than merely subjective experiences. There is an enormous amount of irrational resistance to accepting any of these psychic phenomena as real, however, with the degree of resistance being, unfortunately, directly proportional to the denier’s ignorance of the actual scientific literature, so I will not emphasize psychic phenomena more here.
5- We humans have powerful drives to understand and explain everything, so spiritual experiences get turned into Doctrines, Tenets, Beliefs which, over time and as social and psychological forces work on them, become too fixed
6- In my pragmatic approach to science (and life in general), it’s fine to develop working hypotheses about the meaning of these experiences, but psychological knowledge (and common sense) tells us that too much attachment, making them True Doctrines, can lead to a lot of trouble and suffering
7- So my version of Pascal’s wager is that lots of evidence (not much personal experience for me) points to the importance of and some kind of “reality” of “spirit,” so while trying to clarify what these spiritual experiences are and mean is vitally important, there’s a lot to be said for trying to live by the values implicit in such experiences
8- As one specific example of my personal wager, I have a working hypothesis that the evidence for some kind of postmortem survival of consciousness is strong, so really long-term improvement of my personality and action is worth investing in, rather than deciding “I’m 78, probably won’t be around much longer, it all disappears with death, so there’s no point wasting my energies on self-improvement…”
And if death truly is the extinction of consciousness, I run no risk of being embarrassed about my incorrect beliefs about survival… 😉
As to denying the existence of any spiritual beings or God, I don’t have a big enough ego to declare that I am the smartest creature in the universe and can thus confidently say there couldn’t be any creatures smarter than me… Although I will admit that that Jehovah fellow from the Old Testament doesn’t meet my criteria for godliness, but my emotional denial of his particular existence is more of a childish “Nyah nyah!” than a reasoned position… 😉
As I usually sum up in my The End of Materialism, the idea that science has somehow proven there is no reality to the spiritual is factually wrong, and when you actually review the empirical evidence and its implications, it is reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s approach to life. While exercising lots of discrimination, as there’s certainly plenty of nonsense associated with the spiritual (as there is with all areas of life).
Unfortunately, I’ve found that very few people are interested in applying a pragmatic/scientific approach to spirituality or religion, we’re too attached to the apparent security our hardened beliefs give us. Science is nice when it seems to validate our beliefs, but science also allows all hypotheses and theories to be doubted and questioned, and it’s too scary to think of what that openness to questioning might do to our precious doctrines. So no science allowed!
I assume you have similar problems in getting anyone to think philosophically about religion and spirituality… ;-(
Again, thank you for an excellent article!