Saturday, August 01, 2015

Nothing Better to Say

Famous bit of Teutonic humor: Life is so painful that it is best to have a short life, but even better never to have been born. Unfortunately, scarcely one in a million is that lucky. I recall the joke every time I encounter Pascal’s Wager. As you’ll recall, the Wager runs like this: Even if you rate the probability that God exists as small, the payoff for belief is so enormously great—eternal beatitude—that you should opt for religion because of its infinite expected value. Infinity times any finite number is infinity. Lots of people have criticized the wager on the grounds that so calculating a faith could hardly be expected to please God; but the more obvious problem, at least to me, is that there are at least a countably infinite number of equivalent wager arguments of the following form
Even if you rate the probability that n gods exist is small, the payoff for belief in n gods is so enormous that you should opt for the religion of the n true gods because of its infinite expected value. 
It gets worse if you figure that you have to allow for the possibility of an irrational number of Gods* because then you can’t even count the number of arguments. Of course the proposer of the Wager may argue that the other propositions are less likely than the monotheistic option; but, even if you agree, it doesn’t help. You’re just opting for a golden oldie. Infinity times any number is infinity. All the arguments are mathematically equivalent, and that demonstrates how infinities turn moral theories into indefinable nonsense. That’s why we should renormalize talk about how we should act and be by canceling infinities and infinite beings out of our calculations. When religion gets out of hand, i.e., when you take it seriously, it destroys moral reason.
The same strictures apply to talk about the value of existence itself since the alternative to existence is nothing. You can’t measure how much life is worth by comparing it to the state of non being because in so doing you invoke a ratio whose denominator is zero and division by zero doesn’t have a definable meaning. You can’t say your life is worth 3,452,871 units of zip, or rather you can and people do; but the results are pretty much the same as the famous bit of Teutonic humor. As the Buddha pointed out long ago, there are questions that do not lead to enlightenment.  
* Theologians, with the possible exception of certain admirably eccentric devotees of the Kabbalah, seem to have a limited imagination when it comes to mathematics. Maybe there are π distinct persons in the godhead. After all, π turns up everywhere else; and being is supposed to be round.