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.