Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How Will You Wager?


In our lives, we have to make decisions constantly. These range from small, relatively unimportant decisions like choosing between Coke and Pepsi, to critical life decisions like the choice between going to college or heading straight into the workforce, marrying or remaining single, and one side of a moral debate and the other. One decision that is more important than any other by its very nature is the decision of whether or not to believe in God. I say "by its very nature" because the decision has eternal repercussions.

From France With Wisdom

One of my favorite books is Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft, which deals with this most important decision by outlining and explaining the Pensées (Thoughts), by Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a French-Catholic philosopher, scientist, and apologist who lived during the 17th century. He was a contemporary of Descartes, and until the 19th century was the only philosopher who didn't jump on the ideological bandwagon misnamed the "Enlightenment." Contrary to common misconception, he was not a Jansenist (the heretical group condemned by the Church during his time), at least in terms of his own theology, although he was associated with Jansenists. He was, however, a great physicist, mathematician, and inventor; he invented the first working computer (the Pascaline, a mechanical calculator), vacuum cleaner, and public transportation system. In the area of philosophy, Pascal is best known for his "Wager," which is an argument for the reasonableness of believing in God. The argument is not in any way a proof for God's existence; it is more of a thought experiment that approaches belief in God by a cost-to-reward analysis. Many philosophers and theologians throughout history have believed that the existence of God can be proven with varying degrees of certainty. For the sake of the Wager, Pascal assumes that you cannot prove the existence of God by reason alone, using philosophical arguments. Pascal instead wants you to consider what you can gain or lose by choosing to believe in God or not.
Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.  Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.
Not Wagering is Not an Option

Many people are turned off by the idea of "betting" about God's existence.  Isn't is selfish and low to believe in God "just in case" He exists so that you can go to heaven (or not go to hell)? Of course it is! Okay, then wouldn't it be better to just remain an honest agnostic? No. Why not? Why not just choose to not wager at all? "...you must wager," says Pascal, "There is no choice, you are already committed." All of us are like ships embarked on a journey. We see a port through the fog, and we have the choice of putting in to that port or not. Eventually though, the ship will run out of fuel, and the opportunity to put in to the port will be lost. Intellectually, it is possible to be agnostic, to say, "I don't know whether or not God exists." However, it is impossible to actually live as an agnostic (I know from experience)––you're either going to live as if God exists or as if He doesn't exist.

Love Stoops to Conquer

The Wager does presuppose some things. For example, it assumes that belief in God is necessary for salvation. However, this assumption is a basic tenet in most major religions, and there are very good theological reasons for believing it. Any religious ideology that includes both salvation and free will must also include the possibility of damnation (For more on this topic, see my post, "A Door Locked from the Inside"). Furthermore, Pascal never claims that the belief resulting from a selfishly made "bet" on God's existence is in any way sufficient for salvation. However, God is not a cosmic dictator; He is more like a lover, and love stoops to conquer. God will accept the less than ideal motivations a person has for believing in Him at the start of their journey, but that doesn't mean that He will be satisfied with them. In the book Christianity for Modern Pagans, Peter Kreeft offers a beautiful analogy for this. He says that God is like a parent watching their child learn to walk––pleased and filled with joy at the toddler's first clumsy steps, but not totally satisfied until the child is running around the yard with other children. God loves us the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.

Motivation––Not Proof

The Wager cannot convince a person that God exists (it isn't intended to), but it can convince them that indifference and agnosticism are not reasonable options. There is an epidemic of apathy in our world today, especially in our country.  Apathy is like an infection that is resistant to all antibiotics, the antibiotics being rational argument, and the person's appetite for the truth is like their own immune system––both together work to kill the infection. Upon hearing about Pascal's Wager, many skeptics object: "I won't believe in something just because I can gain something if it turns out to be true. If God exists, knows everything, and wants me to believe in Him, then He knows exactly what it would take for me to believe. Since I don't believe, God must either not exist or not care enough to reveal Himself to me. In either case, why believe in Him?"

Seek and You Shall Find

I am completely sympathetic with the skeptic's objection. The only reason that anyone should ever believe anything at all is because it is true. However, I disagree with the skeptic is in his assumption that God has not already done what is necessary to convince him to believe. Jesus says, "Seek, and you shall find" and through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). When you seek me with all your heart. The question is, are you really seeking God with all your heart? Are you really laying down your weapons––surrendering your passions and opening your heart and mind to the possibility that God is real and He loves you, or are you arbitrarily setting your criteria for belief at a level which you know that God probably will never accommodate, so that you can fool yourself into thinking your unbelief is justified? "Unless x, y, or z happened, then I will not believe in God." When a person sets an ultimatum in this way, they are demanding that God overwhelm their decision to live apart from Him. God cannot do this without undermining the person's free will.  
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't (Pensées).
Pascal divides people into three groups: Those who have sought God and have found Him, those who are seeking God and have not yet found Him, and those who neither seek God nor find Him. Those in the first group are reasonable because they have sought, and happy because they have found; those in the second group are reasonable because they are seeking, but unhappy because they have not yet found; those in the third group are neither reasonable nor happy, because they are not seeking and so they have not (and cannot) find. Notice that there is no fourth group consisting of people who find without seeking.  If you decide that you don't want to know or love God, He will not override your decision – God is a lover, not a rapist. He invites, He doesn't coerce. When two of John the Baptist's disciples asked Jesus where He was staying, He replied, "Come and see" (Jn 1:39). If you've already made up your mind that the Christian God is unreasonable, oppressive, childish, or even just too good to be true, and that nothing will convince you otherwise, then you can rest assured that God will leave you alone.

Momento Mori (Remember Death)

We all have a terminal illness called mortality. Every second that passes brings us closer to that moment when we will face our death. To live in a way that ignores this fact is seriously delusional, which is why atheists who seem happy and content with facing their death are in such a dangerous position. God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4) but if your heart is set against God and the truth, then there is no way for Divine Mercy to reach you. That is why it is so important that we pray for all those who do not believe in God, and especially those who do not even seek Him. I hope you will join me in this prayer, and thank you for reading! God Bless!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

In an age of hope men looked up at the night sky and saw "the heavens." In an age of hopelessness they call it simply "space." – Peter Kreeft
Frequently, when I'm having a conversation with someone who is either a non-believer or just having doubts, they will make an objection to religious belief that goes something like this:  "Once you understand how unimaginably large the universe is, it makes you realize how insignificant we are. We humans think we're so important, but really, we're nothing in the big picture. If there was a god who cared about human beings, then he wouldn't make them such an incomprehensibly small speck in a universe that is almost completely cold, dark, and lifeless." The size of the universe use to intimidate me as well, so I can sympathize with this mentality. However, further reflection and study on this idea has settled my mind, and so I'd like to share my thoughts here.

"The Universe is Really Big" – Compared to What?

This may sound silly, but the universe (or if there is a multiverse, then the multiverse) includes everything in physical reality, so there's literally nothing else to compare it with! Size is a relational property; nothing can be described as being large or small without using something else as a reference. Have you seen other, smaller universes to know that ours is particularly large? Often the response to this objection is, "Well, it's really big compared to us." Oh, so we're the standard of size and mass that everything else should be compared with! In this case, the objector is guilty of the same human-centrism that he accuses religious people of. Also, the argument has the weakness of being based on a matter of degree. How small would the universe have to be for human beings to be significant? One-half of the size it is now? One-thousandth? One trillionth? Human beings have known for literally thousands of years that they are very small compared to the great expanse of nature around them, and this was hardly an obstacle to their believing in gods. What difference does it make to know that there are billions of galaxies out there if you already knew that you were a measly 160 pounds of flesh within an entire solar system, or even just planet Earth? The size of the Pacific Ocean alone is enough to make me feel like a grain of sand in comparison.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you should be mindful of him, and the son of man that you should care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4).
Size ≠ Value

The argument makes the assumption that value or significance is somehow determined by size or mass. This I find particularly strange, because in everyday life this standard is almost never used. Is 16 million pounds of scrap metal in a junk yard somehow better than a 16 million dollar fighter jet? Is a sequoia tree (the largest species of tree on the planet) more important than a cow? Is a golden retriever worth more than a seven-year-old girl? Is a mountain range more valuable than the native villagers who live at its base? Is a 40 ton boulder more significant than a human embryo? Clearly, the difference between all of these examples is one of kind and not simply degree. In other words, the difference between them is qualitative, not quantitative. When you try to compare things that are qualitatively different, there is no use in trying to multiply one to make it comparable to the other – it doesn't work. This is especially clear in the examples comparing inanimate (nonliving) matter to animate (living) matter, and those comparing unconscious living things (trees) to conscious living things (human beings). Here, the dedicated materialist will object that there really isn't any qualitative difference between, say, the boulder and the human embryo – both are only the products of the laws of nature working on matter, even if one happens to result in an evolutionary process that produces beings who are capable of a "phenomenon" where they "seem" to be conscious. I say seem because it is very common (and actually, consistent) for materialist philosophers today to deny human consciousness and thought, since they are ordinarily defined as immaterial realities, and therefore, impossible within the materialist worldview. Rather than questioning his or her own consciousness or ability to think, the person hearing claims like this should question the sanity of the person making them! However, philosophy of mind is admittedly a deep and highly complex area of study that I plan on spending more time studying and hope to write about in the future. Suffice it to say for now that, even among prominent unbelieving philosophers, the understanding of the human mind is a highly debated and controversial subject. Take this statement from the well-established agnostic philosopher Thomas Nagel for example:
My guess is that [the] cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.  One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind (Nagel 130-131).
Big God, Big Universe – What's the Big Deal?

How does the creation of a (relatively) large universe count as evidence against the God of classical theism, who is understood to be infinitely powerful? The Psalmist joyfully wrote that "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament (sky, expanse) proclaims his handiwork" (Ps19:1). I wonder, if the entire universe somehow consisted of only our planet and sun, would the same person not object that "an all-powerful God wouldn't create a universe so small?" It seems as though God has already been ruled guilty from the outset of the trial in the objector's mind, and so now everything must count as evidence against him. The fact that the same feature of reality counts for God to the believer and against Him to the unbeliever may simply be evidence that the objections come from the disposition or desires of the objector, rather than from any actual contradiction within either the concept of God or Creation. The creation of a single atom from literally nothing is as demanding of infinite power as the creation of an entire universe, since in both cases there is, metaphysically speaking, an infinite chasm to cross – the chasm between being and non-being. The idea that the universe's largeness, emptiness, and lifelessness is evidence that humans have no value also presupposes that God is limited in His resources, an idea that no believer would agree with. In addition, the theory of evolution requires millions and millions of years in order for the planet to give rise to life and for that life to evolve. Therefore, given the laws of nature that exist, the size of universe can really be considered a necessity if lifeforms were intended by the Creator, since the size of the universe is a result of the amount of time it has been expanding since the Big Bang.

Mind Over Matter

Of all the trillions upon trillions of stars, planets, and other cosmic bodies in the universe, none of them is looking back at us, wondering what we are. Why does it matter if a planet is millions of times more massive than me if it is not aware of the fact? Also, if humans have immortal souls, as proposed by most major religions, than we will continue to exist after the entire universe reaches "heat death," the complete reduction of all ordered systems to a state of disordered equilibrium, as dictated by the law of entropy. True meaning or significance can only exist in something eternal. Why? If something existed for a time, and then ceased to exist, and eventually all of its effects ceased to exist, then we would say that thing has literally no meaning. Actually, we wouldn't say anything about it, because we would have no way of even knowing that it had no meaning. The same could be said about the universe its self:  
If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning. -C.S. Lewis
Say there was a book written by a man who lived in a small village. One day this book was destroyed in a fire, and the man who wrote it later died, and then eventually all of his friends, family, and fellow villagers who knew about him and his book died, and every single piece of evidence that the book ever even existed was destroyed. It would then be impossible to say that what had been contained in that book had "meaning." No quark, atom, molecule, rock, planet, tree, or even animal can ever be the subject in a sentence, can ever say the word, "I." This reality of the self, which has been the most puzzling fact since the dawn of human thought, is what makes us worth more than an entire universe of inanimate matter. I give thanks to God my Creator for giving me my very self, which is not reducible to matter, and therefore worth more than all the matter in the cosmos combined, even if there is more of it than I can wrap my mind around. Thank you for reading, and God Bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer

Sources

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version,                     Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.             Print.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper: San Francisco, 2009. Print.

Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. Oxford University Press, 1997. pp. 130-131.