A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the late Kenny Rogers’ song, “The Gambler” and those iconic lyrics, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” I talked about this in the context of my family history. As I said, I come from a poker-playing family, although mainly because of my life circumstances, which includes being a clergyperson, I didn’t exactly follow the family path.
By the way, with everyone wearing masks these days, and likely will be when the casinos open back up, I’m pretty sure folks won’t have to worry about whether they have a good “poker face. This puts everyone on a level playing field, or rather a level card table.
This morning I would like to talk about another famous “gambler,” although I don’t think he played poker. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologians. With those credentials, I bet he would have made a really good poker player!
The reason I call him a “gambler” is because he came up with what we call “Pascal’s Wager.” This is a philosophical argument that claims we humans bet with our lives that God either exists or does not exist.
His conclusion was that a rational person should live as though God exists and that we should seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, he says, then people who have chosen to believe in God might “lose” only a few things, such as a few hedonistic pleasures or unnecessary luxuries. On the other hand, if God does exist, and we believe in God, then the “pot gets sweeter” (to use a poker term). If God exists and we believe in God, then, says Pascal, we will be infinitely rewarded (meaning heaven) and we will avoid infinite losses (meaning hell).
In other words, its better to be safe than sorry.
I remember when I was a young man, still working for my parents in their little grocery store in West Texas, having this conversation with my best friend at the time. I was a new “convert,” and I was most definitely getting on my friend’s nerves, constantly trying to get him to “see the light.” Without knowing what I was doing, I used the “better to be safe than sorry” argument on him. This was several years before I was introduced to Pascal’s Wager, but I guess all 17th century minds think alike (because that’s about how sophisticated my thinking was at that time).
By the way, my friend eventually moved to California and became an evangelical Christian, which is an odd turn of events if you ask me.
Well, here we are in the 21st century, and I’m not really a big fan of applying Pascal’s Wager to God because I think his theology is a little too fuddy-duddy for me. The notion that if people can’t make themselves believe in God, they will land in some kind of eternal punishment is not exactly an enlightened view of God, even if many Christians still believe that. I choose to believe that God is not quite so petty.
Nevertheless, I do think Pascal’s logic in his famous “Wager,” which I simplistically call the “better to be safe than sorry” argument, can be applied to other things in our place and time. Not long ago, for example, I used Pascal’s Wager to suggest that we need to get behind the science of climate change.
I’m not the first to do so. Since at least 1992, some scholars have applied Pascal’s Wager to decisions about catastrophic climate change. In fact, some would say that the argument works even better for climate change because while there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God, there is plenty of evidence for the reality of climate change. And, as Warren Buffett once said, “If there is only a 1% chance the planet is heading toward a truly major disaster and delay means passing a point of no return, inaction now is foolhardy.”
For all the climate change deniers out there—and there are too many in my opinion—isn’t it better to err on the side of caution? The argument goes like this: A rational person should believe that climate change is real (and dangerous). If catastrophic climate change proves to not actually exist, then people who have chosen to believe it exists might have to give up a few hedonistic pleasures or unnecessary luxuries, such as relying on fossil fuels rather than sustainable resources.
On the other hand, if climate change is real, we believe it is real, and we act on that belief, then the potential reward is great: a healthier sustainable environment. If it is real and we choose not to believe it is real, then the potential consequences are disastrous. We have everything to gain and very little to lose, in other words, if we choose to agree with virtually every climatologist about climate change.
The same argument could be used in our debates with an interesting group of people known as “anti-vaxxers.” Again, drawing on Pascal’s Wager, rational people should take the advice of science and have their children vaccinated. There is little or no evidence that vaccinations are harmful, but there is enormous evidence that vaccinations have saved millions of lives. We have everything to gain, and very little to lose (maybe a little “ouch” when we get the shots).
Now we have another health crisis, and once again there are people that are willing to wager that it, the pandemic, doesn’t really exist, or if it exists, it’s not a big deal. To these people, I think Blaise Pascal would say, “You’re making a terrible bet. Stay away from poker tables because you will get your clock cleaned.”
It is not a good bet to ignore what the scientists and epidemiologists are telling us because the potential upside of going back to business as usual does not outweigh the potential downside of a very real pandemic.
By the way, the word “pandemic” ought to be a clue to those who do not think this is a big deal. The Latin word “pan” means “all” and the word “demos” means “people.” (You can see where the word “democracy” comes from here.) So, “pan-demic” literally means “all people.” “All people” means, as the signs in people’s yards tell us, “We are all in this together.” There is no excuse for folks out there making bad wagers on the health and wellbeing of themselves and others by not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.
So, my friends, let us combine our inner 17th century philosopher, mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and theologian with what our 21st century scientists are telling us and stop wagering on bad poker hands.
Thanks for listening. If you have an idea for a topic you would like for me to talk about in the coming weeks, please let me know. Just make sure it is a topic that will not get me fired. Take care.