probability

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Book Review: “Taking Pascal’s Wager” by Michael Rota

tpw-rotaMichael Rota’s Taking Pascal’s Wager is an introduction to the defense of Pascal’s Wager, one of the most maligned arguments for the truth of Christianity.

One of the things that makes Pascal’s Wager most intriguing is the fact that, unlike many theistic arguments, the Wager seems uniquely suited for reasoning with the skeptic. That is, it is intentionally put forward in such a way as to convince the skeptic that Christianity is a good idea. Rota highlights this aspect of the Wager, particularly in two places: first, where he analyzes the probability behind the argument to demonstrate that, on the whole, the Wager is more beneficial taken than not, and second, in the last section of the book which shows practical outcomes of taking the Wager.

The sections on the probability behind the Wager are excellent. Rota condenses down a lot of probability theory and philosophical reasoning based on probability in ways that are easy to understand. This alone makes the book worth a read because it will allow those interested to explain and defend the Wager much better than they may otherwise. Rota also addresses some of the most common objections to the Wager, noting that things like the many gods challenge fail to make a convincing case against the Wager.

The last part of the book utilizes people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to highlight the practical consequences of the wager. Bonhoeffer lost his life in the pursuit of Christian faith. Was it worth it? Rota’s examples give insights into lives that readers might not otherwise know about, and show that even lives that are full of sorrow are worth it, supposing God does exist.

I did think that the book somewhat seemed to get off track in the middle section, as Rota proceeded from speaking of Pascal’s Wager into discussion of various reasons to think Christianity is more likely true than not. I understand that this was part of his project, but given the amount of works that have been offered with a general introduction to things like the moral, cosmological, and other arguments, I think the space would have better been filled with a deeper look at Pascal’s Wager and the probability theory behind it. Further, more space dedicated to objections to the wager would be helpful.

Taking Pascal’s Wager is a worthy read. It introduces readers to the strength of Pascal’s Wager while also providing–uniquely, I think–a look at the practical outcomes of taking that wager. Although it could be improved by a deeper discussion of the probability behind the Wager and various objections to it, I believe this is an important book for anyone who wants to become more acquainted with one of the most unique arguments for Christianity. Readers interested in Pascal’s Wager ought also check out Jeff Jordan’s phenomenal Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God.

The Good

+Real-life examples of the cost of discipleship highlight message
+Solid analysis of probability theory behind the argument
+Provides broad-spectrum defense of the Wager

The Bad

-Uses endnotes instead of footnotes
-Not quite as focused as one might like

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Source

Michael Rota, Taking Pascal’s Wager (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).

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The Past, Probability, and Teleology

This post has been expanded, edited, and published in the journal Hope’s Reason. View it in full here.

I have run into the idea more than once recently that we should discount things like the teleological argument due to the fact that it happened in the past. The thinking goes that, because an event (the existence of the universe, for example), has happened, the probability of that event happening is 1/1. Thus, people like Dawkins can say, “The fact of our own existence is perhaps too surprising to bear… How is it that we find ourselves not merely existing, but surrounded by such complexity, such excellence, such endless forms so beautiful… The answer is this: it could not have been otherwise, given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all and of asking questions about it” (here).

There are a number of ways to take such sentiment. The first is quite trivial. Of course, if an event e happened, the probability e having happened is 1/1. That’s, as I said, trivially true.

The problem is when people try to use this thinking against something like some forms of the teleological argument. Statistically, some people assert, the odds that the universe would be life-permitting (like the one we observe) must be 1/1, because, we are here, after all, to observe it!

Now, imagine the following:

d: The chances of any one side coming up are (granting a fair die and surface) 1/6. I toss a die (I really just did here) and get a 1.

Now, the equivalent claim of saying that the universe must have been life permitting because we are here to observe it is saying that d must happen, given that it is what did happen. Some people have no problem with asserting this, and indeed say that this should be the case. The fact that something is true, they may argue, means that the probability that it would happen was 1/1.

We can, in fact, reduce this whole discussion to symbolic logic. It is the case that:

□(pp)

Which tells us that, if p is the case, then necessarily p is the case. Those who are arguing as above, however, need a much stronger conclusion, namely, □p. But this simply doesn’t follow from reality. It is the case that p, therefore, necessarily, p. But it is not the case that necessarily p.

The distinction is a simple de re verses de dicto fallacy. It is an elementary error philosophically, but it is easy to commit. I’ve done so in the past (see here for a post in which I caught myself in this confusion). Now, de dicto necessity is “a matter of a proposition’s being necessarily true” while de re necessity is “an object’s having a property essentially or necessarily” (Plantinga, v). De dicto necessity ascribes necessity to a proposition, while de re necessity argues only that each “res of a certain kind has a certain property essentially or necessarily” (Plantinga, 10).

Returning to the idea of past events, such as the universe coming into existence or rolling a die and having it come up as a 1, we can see where this error occurs. Those who deny with Dawkins that we can work out the prior probabilities of the universe being life-permitting because “it could not have been otherwise” are actually committing this basic error. They have assigned the proposition that the universe exists de re necessity, when in reality it is only a de dicto necessity. It is, in other words, true that whatever has happened, necessarily has happened. It is not true that whatever has happened has happened necessarily.

(This post is a very miniature version of a journal article I have under review for Hope’s Reason right now.)

Sources:

Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford University Press. 1979.

Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God-dice.jpg

Thanks to Dr. Timothy Folkerts and Dr. Stephen Parrish for some enlightening correspondence on the above points.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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