Fear, Loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas: Radical Agnosticism.
Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook 10
By Robert Hanna
211. Fear, loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas: radical agnosticism. Last summer I drove through Las Vegas twice: once going west, once going east.
— Yes, that’s me, standing beside my pink Cadillac convertible.
212. Actually I didn’t stop there for gambling, or even for gas.
Nevertheless driving through Vegas always sets me to thinking about fear and loathing, human folly (e.g., Johnny Depp’s wine-drinking and spending habits), and evil, especially since the mass shooting there in October 2017 —
213. Similarly, the mid-Fall 2018 bad news cycle is unrelenting.
If you don’t believe me, just check out this site, which is entirely devoted to bad news from around the world.
214. So by now it is a self-evident fact, if it hadn’t been already, that natural evil and moral evil exist in this thoroughly nonideal, actual world.
And that self-evident fact, in turn, makes you wonder whether God exists or not.
In philosophy of religion and philosophical theology, this is known as The Problem of Evil.
215. By the concept of God, I mean the concept of a being that is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good).
This is also known, for short, as the concept of a 3-O God.
By theism, I mean the doctrine that a 3–0 God exists.
And by atheism, I mean the doctrine that a 3-O God does not exist.
216. Now the classical Metaphysical Argument For Atheism From The Existence of Evil runs as follows:
(1) Assume that a 3-O God exists. (Premise.)
(2) Assume that evil exists in the world — both natural evil (e.g., disasters and disease) and also moral evil (wicked choices and acts, or just bad things that happen to people). (Premise.)
(3) Then EITHER a 3-O God is responsible for the existence of evil, in which case a 3-O God is Her/Himself evil and not all-good, which is a contradiction with God’s assumed 3-O-ness. (From 1 and 2.)
(4) OR a 3-O God is not responsible for the existence of evil and yet knew that it was going to happen and could not prevent it — so a 3-O God is not all-powerful, which is also a contradiction with assumed God’s 3-O-ness. (From 1 and 2.)
(5) OR a 3-O God would have prevented evil but did not know it was going to happen, and is not all-knowing, which is another contradiction with God’s assumed 3-O-ness. (From 1 and 2.)
(6) Therefore, given the existence of evil, necessarily a 3-O God does not exist. (From 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.)
If The Metaphysical Argument For Atheism From The Existence of Evil were sound, then it would be logically necessary that a 3-O God does not exist.
217. In the classical response of theism to this atheistic argument, it is claimed that it is at least logically possible that God has a sufficient reason for permitting evil that we are either capable of knowing, or else simply incapable of knowing, given our limited, “human, all-too-human” powers of knowing.
Perhaps this sufficient reason is the Leibnizian “this world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds” doctrine (brilliantly mocked in Voltaire’s Candide); perhaps it is free will; perhaps it is moral progress; perhaps it is all of these taken together; or perhaps it is something else completely unfathomable by us.
Let us call this classical theistic response Theodicy.
218. In response to Theodicy, the neo-classical Evidential Argument For Atheism From The Existence of Evil says that even if it is logically possible that God has a sufficient reason for permitting evil, nevertheless it is significantly more rationally justified to believe that God does not exist, than to believe that God exists.
And so-on, and so forth, and scooby dooby dooby, blah blah blah, World Without End, Amen.
But there is another way of thinking about all this.
219. According to my view, human perception and human knowledge are strictly limited to what is within the scope of
(i) our “human, all-too-human” senses,
(ii) our “human, all-too-human” imagination, and
(iii) our “human, all-too-human” concepts — even when these perceptions, imaginings, and concepts are extended by the basic natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, by the basic formal sciences of logic and mathematics, or by philosophy.
Yet a 3-O God, simply by virtue of Its/His/Her very nature as ALL-powerful, ALL-knowing, and ALL-good, falls beyond all possible human perception, imagination, and conceptualization.
Therefore, just by knowing the inherent limitations of all human perception, imagination, and conceptualization, we do know THIS with certainty: that we cannot know with certainty either what’s God’s nature is, or whether God exists or does not exist.
Let’s call this doctrine, Radical Agnosticism.
220. If Radical Agnosticism is true, then not only The Metaphysical Argument For Atheism From The Existence of Evil, but also Theodicy, as well as The Evidential Argument For Atheism From The Existence of Evil, are equally humanly unprovable.
221. Indeed, if Radical Agnosticism is true, then God’s existence and God’s non-existence are equally humanly unprovable: for, as a “human, all-too-human” being, given the inherent limitations of your cognitive powers, you cannot rationally justify a belief in God’s existence and you cannot rationally justify a belief in God’s non-existence.
222. So if Radical Agnosticism is true, then theism and atheism alike are equally rationally unjustifiable.
223. These radically agnostic facts, in turn, put The Problem of Evil in a completely new light.
If natural evil and moral evil both exist, and there is LOTS of evil of both kinds at all times and all over the place, but God’s nature is humanly unknowable and God’s existence and non-existence are equally humanly unprovable, then we can’t just do nothing.
On the contrary, we’ve got to deal with them.
Therefore, natural evil and moral evil are entirely up to us to deal with collectively, that is, they’re sociopolitical problems.
We and we alone, collectively, must deal with natural evil and moral evil, as best we can, by protecting, cleaning up, or fixing up the natural world when it is threatened or breaks down, by responding effectively to even the most horrific and monstrous moral evils, and above all by trying wholeheartedly to respect human dignity in a thoroughly nonideal actual world, as a sociopolitical task.
224. Look at it this way —
Either God does not exist, and then we’re dealing with natural and moral evil for our own sake; or else God does exist, natural and moral evil are both parts of God’s plan for the world, we must do God’s work, under God’s jurisdiction, and then we’re dealing with moral and natural evil for God’s sake.
If Radical Agnosticism is true, however, then we know with certainty that we cannot know with certainty either way.
Nevertheless, either way, we must do something, and dealing with natural and moral evil is a sociopolitical task.
Therefore, let’s leap!, and try to do something about natural and moral evil.
— Call this the radically agnostic leap of faith.
How does Pascal’s argument unfold? Let’s see, plus a few more evocative images, plus my highly informal commentary.
Infinite — nothing. — Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature, necessity, and can believe nothing else.
So, we’re embodied finite rational beings — human, all too human! — in space and time, both of them mathematically structured.
Just look at how pathetic and puny we are, even just in comparison to The Jewel in the Desert.
Unity joined to infinity adds nothing to it, no more than one foot to an infinite measure. The finite is annihilated in the presence of the infinite, and becomes a pure nothing. So our spirit before God, so our justice before divine justice. There is not so great a disproportion between our justice and that of God, as between unity and infinity.
So, as rational human animals, we’re finite beings in the face of the infinite, in comparison to which we’re reduced to virtual nothingness.
God too is infinite.
But our disproportion to God’s moral nature, as the highest good, as the meaning of rational human life, is not as vast as the disproportion between the number one and infinity, since we’re endowed with rational capacities.
We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of a unit can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is. Is there not one substantial truth, seeing there are so many things which are not the truth itself?
We know then the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite, and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.
But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature. Now, I have already shown that we may well know the existence of a thing, without knowing its nature.
Let us now speak according to natural lights.
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.
So, we know THAT the infinite exists, because we know that there is no greatest finite number.
Yet we do know not WHAT the nature of the infinite is, given our finite minds.
But in the case of God, we are ignorant not only of WHAT God’s nature is, but also we are ignorant of WHETHER God exists or does not exist, because God is a non-spatial, non-temporal, non-finite being — the highest good, and the meaning of rational human life, incarnate.
Still, even if we cannot KNOW THAT God exists or that God does not exist, we can still HAVE FAITH in God, that is, BELIEVE IN God, that is, BELIEVE IN a highest good, the meaning of rational human life, without a sufficient reason that would logically justify a claim to knowledge.
Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason? They declare, in expounding it to the world, that it is a foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is in lacking proofs, that they are not lacking in sense. “Yes, but although this excuses those who offer it as such, and takes away from them the blame of putting it forward without reason, it does not excuse those who receive it.” Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not then reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”
So, as far as our knowledge of God’s existence or non-existence is concerned, we must be RADICALLY AGNOSTIC: we know that we cannot know, one way or the other.
Yet our need for FAITH IN a highest good, and our need for rational human existence to have meaning, drives us inexorably to the question: does God exist or not exist, is there a highest good in this world or not, does rational human life have meaning or not, heads or tails?
It’s as if we were forced to gamble literally EVERYTHING that matters to us as rational human animals on a single coin toss, when all that we know is that we CANNOT KNOW what the outcome of our wager will be.
Far far better, then, not to gamble at all.
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see.
So, rational human existence is not a mere game that you can decline to play: the question of FAITH IN God, aka the highest good, aka the meaning of rational human life, or the rejection of all such FAITH IN, existential and moral nihilism, and the intense anxiety that accompanies our need to resolve this question, necessarily drive us to choose one way or the other.
Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. — “That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” — Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.
For it is no use to say it is uncertain if we will gain, and it is certain that we risk, and that the infinite distance between the certainty of what is staked and the uncertainty of what will be gained, equals the finite good which is certainly staked against the uncertain infinite. It is not so, as every player stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty, and yet he stakes a finite certainty to gain a finite uncertainty, without transgressing against reason. There is not an infinite distance between the certainty staked and the uncertainty of the gain; that is untrue. In truth, there is an infinity between the certainty of gain and the certainty of loss. But the uncertainty of the gain is proportioned to the certainty of the stake according to the proportion of the chances of gain and loss. Hence it comes that, if there are as many risks on one side as on the other, the course is to play even; and then the certainty of the stake is equal to the uncertainty of the gain, so far is it from fact that there is an infinite distance between them. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain. This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of any truths, this is one.
“I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?” — Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”
So, at this point, you might try to apply probabilistic, self-interested reasoning — rational decision-theory — to this issue.
But this one of the many ways that oh-so-clever people hyper-intellectualize Pascal’s argument, while also completely misunderstanding his actual point.
Correspondingly, they have generated mountains of mathematical and decision-theoretic bullshit to try to prove that we must have FAITH IN something of which we are completely ignorant, both as to its nature and as to its existence or non-existence.
Pascal’s actual point, then, is that it would be absolutely absurd and fundamentally self-stultifying for me to try to calculate whether it would be more in my rational self-interest to choose to have FAITH IN, or not — after all, it is the eternal salvation of my soul and the difference between
(i) a world with a highest good, morality, and meaning, in it, and
(ii) existential and moral nihilism, that is at issue,
a choice that has essentially NOTHING TO DO WITH rational self-interest and calculation.
What the fuck are these rational decision-theorists taking about?
True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. — “But this is what I am afraid of.” — And why? What have you to lose?
But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.
The end of this discourse. — Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
Here, now, is the bottom line.
In the face of radical agnosticism and the self-evident failure of any attempt to apply probabilistic, self-interested reasoning to the most important question about your rational human existence — as if Pascal’s so-called “Wager” were nothing but a Wacked-Out Weekend in Las Vegas In The Sky, With Diamonds — and in the face of your intense anxiety about the question of God, aka the highest good, aka the meaning of rational human life — and add to that The Problem of Evil — the only alternative is to ACT AS IF YOU HAD FAITH IN GOD, aka THE HIGHEST GOOD, aka THE MEANING OF RATIONAL HUMAN LIFE.
For to act in this way is precisely to demonstrate, by your religiously, morally, and existentially faithful actions, that which cannot be logically proved one way or the other.
Call it a radically agnostic “leap of faith” if you want to, like I do.
— But DON’T call it that, if this means that it’s an IRRATIONAL choice: on the contrary, it’s the ONLY rational thing to do, given your actual situation.
And now to give it an alternative name that suitably mocks the classical label “Pascal’s Wager,” let’s call this “Pascal’s No-Vegas-In-The-Sky Argument.”
“Ah! This discourse transports me, charms me,” etc.
If this discourse pleases you and seems impressive, know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.
Or in other words, Pascal is saying:
Yo, bro: for my No-Vegas-In-The-Sky Argument ALONE, I should be beatified and then canonized.
 See, e.g., B. Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), pp. 65–69.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 200
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