Oh you set your course for the furthest shores
And you never once looked back
And the flag you flew was a pirate cross
On a field of velvet black
And those landsmen who you but lately knew
Were left stranded on the lea
Don't call on them when the storm clouds rise
On the dark and the rolling sea
My teenaged son pondered the extremists who have taken America hostage.
He asked, “How can they not see how crazy they are? How?”
I mean, they must know, right?
Surely, if a seventeen year old high school student can see it, they must be able to see the bizarre folly of their ways, yes?
We’re months into the crippling effects of sequestration. The government has been shuttered for two weeks now. Americans become ever more restive, the financial markets grow ever more fearful, the nation grows ever more afraid. All for the vainglory of an uncompromising few.
Now they attempt to extort us with default, with a near certain return to recession and an economic disaster that threatens not just our own nation but the economic stability of the entire world.
They must see how insane they have become.
How could they not?
How can they not see how crazy they are?
The answer is this: it’s all part of a set piece.
Consider the following argument from Christian Apologetics:
Either God exists or he doesn’t.
It’s like flipping a coin: heads, God exists and he’s up there like Ceiling Cat watching you right now; or tails, it’s all just a cosmic accident.
God is the ultimate Schrodinger's Cat, his existence is a quantum state. There is no proof either way. Science can neither prove that God exists nor prove that he doesn’t. For that matter, neither can religion.
According to the rules of the thought problem, there can be no agnostics, you have to call it, heads or tails.
Before you decide, consider the possible outcomes:
a) If you call heads, i.e. God exists, and you live your life according to Christian requirements and it turns out that you’re right, you win it all: salvation, eternal life, so on and so forth.
b) If you call heads and live your life accordingly, but it turns out that God doesn’t exist, you lose basically nothing. In the end you’re worm food, but you lived a virtuous Christian life so you still win.
c) If you call tails and you’re wrong, well, then you’re screwed. No matter how you’ve lived your life, it’s brimstone and eternal damnation for you. You lose, big time.
d) And, finally, if you call tails and you’re correct and there is no God, you get to live your godless purposeless life however you want and then you die and the worms eat you.
Your stake in the game is finite, but the pot may be infinite.
The risk of gain and the risk of loss are equal; in other words, you calls the toss, you flips the coin, and you takes your chances.
Therefore: Given the stated conditions and possible outcomes it would appear that even though you can’t possibly know one way or the other until you die, you should choose to live your life as if God does exist – because there’s everything to gain and nothing to lose when weighed against eternity.
In other words: Given the basic precepts of Evangelical Christianity, when you die you’ll either end up with infinite reward or a finite loss. Those are the only two options. Therefore a rational person (“rational” as defined by Christian Apologetics) would, of course, live as though God does indeed exist. And even if you don’t actually believe that God exists you should pretend to believe in him anyway and live a Godly Christian life.
In the end, if it turns out that God doesn’t exist, you lose nothing other than a few paltry earthly pleasures.
But if it turns out that God does exist, you win it all.
This thought problem, one of the first formal uses of Decision Theory (or more specifically, Game Theory), is commonly referred to as Pascal’s Wager after its author, the 17th Century French mathematician, philosopher, and Christian Apologist, Blaise Pascal.
When examined in detail, the wager is a complex logic puzzle in probability that can easily lead the analyst down the rabbit holes of existentialism and other even more esoteric philosophies of human existence and purpose.
However, as game theory, there are some significant problems with the wager as Pascal formulated it.
And there are even more problems with how perversion of this thought problem shapes certain modern worldviews.
Hopefully you, being the smart and savvy readers that you are, have already spotted the more obvious flaws.
First and foremost, the Wager is unabashedly biased in favor of the Christian deity, and in point of fact assumes that the God of Christian fundamentalism is the one true God and that there can be no others – the given outcomes of the problem make no sense otherwise.
Pascal limits your choices. You must call it, heads or tails. The Wager rigidly confines you to black or white and disallows the many infinite shades of grey in between.
The wager specifies only four outcomes – or more correctly, only two. In Pascal’s original formulation as detailed in Section 233 of his posthumously published Pensées (“Thoughts” or his working notes), the wager specifies only the first two options: a) you chose to believe in God and he does exist, or b) you choose to believe in God and he doesn’t exist. By its very nature, the wager doesn’t allow a “rational” person to choose non-belief. The additional two outcomes, c) you choose not to believe and God does exist, or d) you choose not to believe and God doesn’t exist, are inferred from the context. In reality, of course, there are many, many other variations of these four basic outcomes, in fact infinite many, unless you specifically limit the problem to the existence of only the Christian God – which is why the wager was biased in this fashion in the first place.
In the problem, statistically, the risk of gain and loss may be equal, but the value of the pot is strictly subjective, i.e. the possibility of life everlasting in Christian heaven may be the ultimate reward for a believer while a life unconstrained by religion may be far more attractive to a person of lesser or differing faith (or none at all) or those with radically different views of how the universe works.
Also, there’s that bit about faking it.
Unfortunately, for many Apologists the infinite complex details of Pascal’s Wager, and its glaring flaws, are often lost, and the entire argument is often simply summed up in a single declarative statement as such:
It’s better to believe than not to believe, even if you have to fake it.
Essentially: the appearance of faith is more important than actual faith … and apparently God can’t tell the difference.
Ultimately Pascal’s Wager is often misused by Evangelical Christianity to justify belief, rather than as an exercise in examining why you believe in the first place.
Pascal postulated his wager as an exercise in reason. However, far too often Pascal’s Wager is used today to avoid thinking.
The problem with ignoring the complexities of Pascal’s Wager, the problem with disregarding the flaws and limitations, the problem of reducing decision theory to a single stock argument, is that it stops being an exercise in thought and becomes nothing more than mindless religious dogma.
It is human nature to question our existence, but the answers – when there are any – are often complex and ambiguous.
There are many, infinite, human responses to the uncertainty of our existence.
Some people, like me for example, revel in that complexity, in the unanswerable uncertainty of our existence, and we cheerfully charge off ass backward into the unknown grinning like maniacs. For us, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
Some, the pragmatists, simply don’t care, life is what happens. If something comes after, they’ll know sooner or later, and that’s good enough for them.
And some people, such as Blaise Pascal, regard that uncertainty as a challenge, as a complicated puzzle to be taken apart and reassembled and solved through science and/or religion (In Pascal’s time, there was little difference. Both science and religion are attempts to explain how the universe works).
But for many people that uncertainty is terrifying.
They don’t want to live in a world of complex infinite uncertainty. They don’t regard existence as either a playground or as a challenge. They want answers, simple, direct, explicit answers. They don’t want to have to think about it. They want the rules spelled out and they want everybody to adhere to them.
That’s the purpose of Apologetics, to spell out the rules, to define the dogma.
For these people, they don’t need to know why, they only need to check the proper boxes, they only need to follow the recipe. They only need to obey. They aren’t interested in or equipped to examine the infinite details of Pascal’s Wager, they just want it summed up into a single simple statement.
For them it is indeed better to believe than not to believe, even if they have to fake it.
And that, right there, is the answer to the question posed by my son.
Oh I have no need of a chart or creed
You told your waiting crew
For the winds of chance, they will bear us straight
And you spoke as though you knew
So you paid no mind to the warning signs
As you gave your words so free
Don't change your tack when the timbers crack
On the dark and the rolling sea
Dogma makes you inflexible, robotically responding to the world according to an unwavering punch-card program from which you cannot deviate no matter the overwhelming evidence that you’re embarked on a foolhardy and untenable course.
When you reduce the complexity of human existence to simple dogmatic belief it cripples your ability to reason.
This is the ultimate problem with fundamentalism in any form.
This is the problem with fanatics.
This is the problem with young earth creationism, for example. When you dogmatically believe that the earth is but 6,000 years old you are forced to ignore nearly every provable facet of reality in order to maintain that belief. Once you start believing in magic fairy dust it affects all of your thinking, all of it, it affects your reasoning ability (if that phrase has any meaning here), your ability to compromise, your empathy, your ability to admit error, your ability to rise to a challenge, and your ability to see the world with new eyes. It warps your existence. Once you start thinking that way, it becomes easy to buy into any form of faulty reasoning from birtherism to various and myriad flavors of denialism to the idea that crashing the government and defaulting on the national debt is somehow a good idea.
Dogma doesn’t answer the questions, it only allows you to ignore them with smug self-righteousness.
The insanity that has taken our government hostage should come as no surprise, given that the most dogmatic of the congressional obstructionists are self-declared Evangelical Christian Apologists who are determined to stay their foolish and disastrous course no matter all evidence that they are profoundly wrong.
Public office is an amplifier, when you elect extremists no matter how small, you get extremism. Every single time.
As the public opinion of the GOP plunges to levels never seen before, as their own personal popularity and support evaporates, as the government grinds into deadlocked rigor mortis, as the economy teeters on the edge of collapse and world markets tumble, these same dogmatic fanatics ignore the myriad warnings all around them and say, “I don’t believe the experts, I don’t believe the scientists, I don’t believe Wall Street, I don’t believe the stock markets, I don’t believe public opinion, I don’t believe the press, I don’t believe the polls, I don’t believe the opposition or even the moderate and reasonable and experienced members of my own political party, I don’t believe the lessons of history, I don’t believe the evidence of my own eyes, I don’t believe that it will be all that bad.”
To quote their own dogma, there are none so blind as those who. will. not. see.
Despite the obvious self-destructive folly of their current tack, the extremists within the GOP refuse to change course.
These are the same kind of deluded fanatics who honestly believe that they can pray away a child’s diabetes or a ruptured appendix.
When the fever of smaller government struck them, instead of seeking the preventative medicine of real budget reform and actual negotiation, they held to their uncompromising dogma and literally raised up prayers to heaven – and the treatable fever flared into the malignancy of sequestration. Like a man with a slowly growing cancer, they got used to the malaise and the hobbling weakness and grimly announced that their prayers were being answered. But despite their faith-healing claims, out of sight the sickness was growing day by day, sapping the strength of the nation, using up scarce reserves, driving us ever closer to crisis. When nothing horrible immediately happened, they ignored the ever increasing warning signs and gleefully shut down the government like a gravely ill patient rejecting actual medicine for a Mason jar of snake oil.
And now? Now they threaten us with default.
GOP strategists once hoped to take the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, suddenly they’re saying that it would be worth losing both of those dreams along with losing the House – if it will allow them to get their way now.
These are not the actions of sane and reasonable people, this is the dogmatic insanity of glassy-eyed religious extremists.
These are the kind of fanatics who seized upon Pascal’s flawed wager and reduced it to little more than rigid inflexible dogma.
For them, it is indeed better to believe than not to believe – even if they have to fake it into destruction.
Now the thunder rails in the great mainsails
And the stars desert the skies
And the rigging strains as the hands of rain
Reach down to wash your eyes
And your oarsmen stands with his knife in hand
And his eyes spell mutiny
Don't call my name when your ship goes down
On the dark and the rolling sea…
- Al Stewart, The Dark and the Rolling Sea