Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager

24 Feb

Prof. Richard Dawkins & Archbishop Rowan Williams“Flight BA7102 with destination Sydney, Australia, is now ready for departure. We wish to advise all passengers that there is a 1.43% chance that this plane will experience fatal engine failure and crash en route. Please do not be alarmed, as this still gives the flight an acceptable 98.57% probability of arriving safely. We would thus invite our business class passengers, passengers with small children, and other passengers requiring assistance to commence boarding immediately via gate 27…”

Would you board that flight? And if you were the pilot, would you pull away from the jetway with 400 passengers on board? Judging by yesterday’s debate at Oxford University that, apparently, is what Prof. Richard Dawkins is asking us to do — not on an earthly journey but with regard to beliefs that relate to eternity and the existence of God.

Chaired by philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, the debate on “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin” was streamed live and managed to generate a flurry of activity on Twitter as proponents of each side tossed arguments backwards and forwards. It is not very often that the #dawkinsarchbishop hashtag will be seen, much less in the top trending topics. Overall it was a respectful and disciplined affair, albeit a little predictable in its content and general direction of argumentation.

For myself, one of the more interesting themes looked at human “self-reflexive consciousness”. The archbishop’s contention that we are unlike other creatures in that we are able to engage in intellectual reflection on ourselves and our role and purpose in the universe is a powerful one, pointing to the image of God in humanity. Even Prof. Dawkins seemed to be stuck for words — or ideas — at that moment, finally acknowledging that it was indeed “deeply mysterious”.

Whilst not as curious as Prof. Dawkins admitting to having found himself singing a hymn in the shower that morning, what has most caught the public eye is the confession from “the world’s most famous atheist” that he prefers to think of himself as an agnostic. Why? Because he cannot be certain that God does not exist. “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low,” he said. And just how low is low? I am not sure how he was able to arrive at a figure for this, but he did; apparently he is “6.9 out of 7” certain of his beliefs. In other words, or numbers, 98.57%.

98.57% certain that we are the product of pure chance, that there is no creator, and that we are thus not morally responsible to anyone outside of this world. 98.57% sure that we do not need to worry ourselves with such issues and should simply get on with the job of making the best that we can in this purely material world in which we live. And just a 1.43% chance that the answer to the question “Is there anyone out there?” is, in fact, affirmative.

Now, 98.57% are pretty good odds for most undertakings. With that chance of winning I think that even I might buy tickets for the UK National Lottery — an institution wonderfully described by Lancashire poet Les Barker as “not a prize I don’t win, but a tax I don’t have to pay”. But are these odds you would be prepared to bet your life on? And your eternal future?

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher, might have had something to say about that. When faced with the question of the existence or not of God, impenetrable to human reasoning alone, he proposed his famous wager or gambit:

“‘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? […]

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.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées Nº 233, available at Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm).

Richard Dawkins with an "Atheist-Bus"Evidently, it is not quite as simple as that, as if we could generate faith “just in case”. But he has a point. To reject the notion of God even on a 98.57% probability is not the best way to face a potential eternity. Even if God “probably does not exist”, if I were you, Mr. Dawkins, I’d like a higher probability before betting my all and inducing others to do the same.


One Response to “Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager”


  1. Hide and seek « eating with sinners - July 6, 2012

    […] Hawking has just lost a bet. Nothing to do with Pascal’s wager this time (see Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager for that one). Nor is eternal destiny at stake – it is a mere $100 that has changed hands. The […]

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