Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Mathematical Reason to Believe in God

There are many people who have unquestioning and unwavering faith in Something. And there are many who have a militant belief in Nothing. I'm not either.

I consider myself to be a "questioning believer." I have faith in God and hope for salvation and, more selfishly, a earnest prayer for a pleasant hereafter replete with reunification with those beloved. In my opinion, only those without a heart (or a soul?) could believe otherwise, at least about the hereafter. To be nakedly honest, nothing is more likely to push me into the Pit of Despair than the prospect that the only time I'll have with my children is the here and now.

All that said, it takes a lot of work for me to believe. Faith requires the constant nurturing of hope and the acceptance of things that cannot be explained. This goes against my very pragmatic nature and demands an exhausting amount of regular introspection.

So, imagine my relief when I found mathematical (scientific!) justification to believe in God in the form of Pascal's wager! Although that URL does provide a thorough explanation of Pascal's argument, a more digestible version may be found in the book I'm presently reading, "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea," paragraphs of which I'll share with you here. Surely I'll break all sorts of copyright laws by sharing some of this content, but hopefully the Penguin Group (and Charles Seife, the author) isn't as militant about enforcing its rights as the RIAA.

So here's how this theory works, with content from the book very liberally paraphrased.

Imagine you have two envelopes, marked A and B. Envelope A may or may not have $100 in it. Envelope B may or may not have $1,000,000 in it. Theoretically, there may be money in both envelopes, one envelope only, or neither envelope. You just don't know. But, you need to choose one envelope to open and you get to keep the contents. Which envelope do you choose?

Obviously, Envelope B! You could win $1,000,000 with B, whereas the most you could possibly win with Envelope A is $100. It's a no brainer. This is explained using a tool from probability theory called expectation (the expected value of the envelope).

So, this is how it would look mathematically:

Envelope A:
1/2 chance of winning $0 1/2 x $0 = $0
1/2 chance of winning $100 1/2 x $100 = $50
Expectation = $50

Envelope B:
1/2 chance of winning $0 1/2 x $0 = $0
1/2 chance of winning $1,000,000 1/2 x $1,000,000 = $500,000
Expectation = $500,000

It's perfectly obvious that if you're given a choice between envelopes, Envelope B is the one you should choose. The expected value is 10,000 times the expected value of Envelope A (and the probability is the same no matter which envelope is chosen). Pascal's wager is exactly like this game except that the envelopes are replaced with God and no God/god. And here's where I'll go to quoting the book verbatim.

"If you are a faithful Christian and there is no God, you just fade into nothingness when you die. But if there is a God, you go to heaven and live for eternity in bliss: infinity. So the expected value of being a Christian is:

1/2 chance of fading into nothing 1/2 x 0 = 0
1/2 chance of going to heaven 1/2 x ¥ = ¥
Expectation = ¥

After all, half of infinity is still infinity. Thus, the value of being a Christian is infinite. Now what happens if you are an atheist? If you are correct -- there is no God -- you gain nothing from being right. After all, if there is no God, there is no heaven. But if you are wrong and there is a God, you go to hell for an eternity: negative infinity. So the expected value of being an atheist is:

1/2 chance of fading into nothing 1/2 x 0 = 0
1/2 chance of going to hell 1/2 x -¥ = -¥
Expectation = -¥

Negative infinity. The value is as bad as you can possibly get. The wise person would clearly choose Christianity instead of atheism."

I am now greatly relieved that my belief in the Great Cosmic It is not as irrational as sometimes feared. There is no need to struggle to resolve the warring dichotomies fighting for ownership of my cranial tissue. Faith is mathematically justified.

Next, I'll focus on resolving the issue of intelligently designed evolution.

Citation: Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Viking, 2000.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hello, My Name Is Willowbottom...and I Have a Problem

The Twelve Steps to Recovery

1. I admit that I am powerless over my addiction to home improvement projects. My life has become unmanageable and obsessed to such an extent that performing even simple tasks (removing a fork from the cutlery drawer, for example) result in me thinking of new home improvement projects (buying a belt sander to re-finish the cabinets, grease the drawer rails, and seal the shelves against humidity).

2. I believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. Consequently, I have consulted a home color consultant, watched HGTV, and prayed to St. Thomas the Apostle (patron saint of builders). My prayers range from wishing for a perfect home to a prayer for more money to remodel this house into the perfect home.

3. I am making a conscious decision to turn my life and my will over to God as I understand Him. In this case, God is not Lowe's, Home Depot, the local remodeling company, or any of the other temptations that litter my path.

4. I have made a searching and fearless inventory of myself, which has resulted in me recognizing that no home can ever be perfect because a home is a reflection of ourselves and we are imperfect beings.

4a. Recognizing that I am an imperfect being, I'm considering turning my home improvement efforts into self-improvement efforts. Look for me in the self-help aisle of the bookstore reading, "Shaping the Perfect Toenail: You Can Do It Too!" and "Afraid No More: Overcoming Your Fear of Dogs to Become a Mail Delivery Person".

5. I have admitted to God, myself, and to other people (via this blog) the exact nature of my wrongs. My wrongs include choosing the wrong color of paint for our kitchen (the first time), not painting the ceiling in the utility room when we painted the walls, and buying an insufficient amount of bark and top soil resulting in me having to place a second order and not benefiting from any economy of scale.

6. I am entirely ready for God to remove all defects in character. If God could please help me have better color and design sense, I would be much obliged.

7. I humbly ask God to remove all of my shortcomings. Those shortcomings include my apparent laziness which is the only reason I can think of for the hallway being unpainted after more than a year.

8. I have made a list of all those people I have harmed and am ready to make amends to them all. To my children, I'm sorry you ingested all those paint fumes in utero. To the former owners of this house, I'm sorry I cursed you for being raving incompetents and idiots of the greatest exponential. I'm further sorry I alleged that anyone with a hammer and a piece of drywall considers himself to be a builder, although I still suspect that to be true. To my family, I'm sorry for all of the calls at all hours when an answer was "absolutely needed" that "very minute" because I was at the home improvement store and wanted to make a decision. To my husband, I feel that I should apologize to you for something but really, since we're married for "an eternity", I feel that you're to blame by half for everything we've done time you're awake until 3am working on tiling, it's up to you to stand up to me and say "no more!" (and then deal with the resulting consequences which will be severe). To my son, I'm sorry I told you that paint would make your brain rot and your toes fall off which is why you couldn't help me paint any more.

9. I'm supposed to make direct amends to all I've harmed except when to do so will injure them or others. So...let's just say I did this and call it good.

10. I will continue to take personal inventory and admit any wrong-doing promptly (unless it's really not my fault because it "needed" to be done to the house).

11. I will seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God as I understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for me and the power to carry that out. Consequently, I ask for the spirit of St. Martha (Stewart) and the producers of HGTV to descend upon my tortured soul, salve it with the unguent of frugal inspiration.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, I will try to carry this message to other home improvement addicts through copious forwarding of this link. I furthermore promise that I will stop remodeling my home before it resembles the Winchester Mansion and I develop an unsettling resemblance to Sarah.

In summary, please join me in prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (like supporting beams, massive structural changes, and highly costly kitchen remodels),

the courage to change the things I can (like painting, decorating, and landscaping),

and the wisdom to know the difference (generally indicated by price tag).