The Skeptic's Wager


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August 9, 2007

In his 1660 work, Pensees, philosopher Blaise Pascal posed a timeless question: If we do not, and cannot, know whether there is a God, and the pleasure of Heaven is infinitely better than any benefit we might gain from a life of sin, then isn't it smart to live piously, just in case? If we sacrifice a little bit of pleasure, and are proven wrong, then it will be a pity. But if we indulged ourselves, and lost our opportunity to experience the bliss of salvation, it would be incomparably worse. This proposition has been named Pascal's Wager.

Though Pascal didn't put it this way himself, his wager could just as easily be structured to assess the proper reaction to the risk of hell. Given the infinite suffering entailed by a trip to the underworld, and given our uncertainty about the possibility of such a trip, Pascal would reason that we would be foolish not to take the necessary precautions.

For a number of reasons, Pascal's Wager has been largely set aside as an interesting episode in philosophical history, and nothing more. But it has found new life in a most unexpected place: the global warming debate.

While many environmentalists certainly qualify as shrill alarmists, embodying the 'Stop inevitable global warming at all costs!' mentality, others seem to fall much closer into line with Pascal's brand of reasoning. They allow that we aren't sure exactly how large of an effect CO2 will have on the global climate, but they point out that there's a chance that the results will include catastrophic rises in sea levels, deadly heat waves, and hurricanes so pumped up that they could hold their own on the Tour de France. Faced with such risks, they reason that it would be stupid not to do something to mitigate the negative effects of climate change, even if we aren't sure that they will come about. The similarities between this argument and Pascal's Wager are undeniable.

But remember, Pascal's Wager has been relegated to the philosophical attic, not having succeeded in proving the indisputable necessity of religion. So perhaps we could learn something about the global warming debate by examining the reasons behind the rejection of Pascal's argument, and trying to apply them to the issues surrounding global warming.

One important objection to Pascal's account is that it gives no evidence for God's existence, and therefore demands blind faith. Pascal's argument could just as easily be advanced in favor of wearing garlic necklaces to ward off vampires, or sleeping in scuba gear in case the next Great Flood strikes at night. Pascal's claim that reason tells us to prevent something that reason specifically does not apply to seems to ring hollow.

And no doubt, many would argue that the uncertainties surrounding the global warming debate give us the same reason for rejecting the necessity for action. But we should be cautious here, because there is a critical difference between the existence of a vengeful God and the existence of harmful climate change.

While the existence of God is an all or nothing proposal based only on an unsupportable assertion, the fears about global warming are based on scientific principles. As Nobel laureate Thomas C. Schelling writes, 'It has been known for a century that if a glassed chamber of carbon dioxide is subjected to infrared radiation'the radiation by which earth's heat, perpetually renewed by sunlight, is returned to space to keep our temperature even'the energy output is less than the energy input in direct proportion to the rise in temperature of the gas in the chamber. The greenhouse 'theory,' as it is sometimes disparagingly referred to, is established beyond responsible doubt' (2).

So how is this different from Pascal's Wager? Think about it this way. The environmentalists can assert with perfect confidence that a heat-retaining atmosphere exists, and that additional carbon dioxide contributes to its ability to retain heat. In order to have as strong of an argument as the environmentalists, Pascal would need to have indisputable proof that there is an afterlife, and that our piety will be somehow relevant in determining the quality of that afterlife.

But Schelling continues, 'There is serious uncertainty about the quantitative parameters, and there can be doubt whether the experienced warming in recent decades is entirely due to the 'greenhouse effect'. . . .' (ibid). So while the scientific theory behind global warming concern is a valid one, the amount of danger in higher levels of CO2 is still up in the air.

In the same way, Pascal's argument is vulnerable to the criticism that we don't know how much God cares about our piety, and therefore we don't know whether changing our actions will produce worthwhile results. Accordingly, one might argue that just like people who believe in God are allowed to decide individually how much they fear hell, we ought to be able to determine for ourselves how to react to the risk of climate change.

But something stands in the way of accepting of this parallel. In Pascal's Wager, my choices affect only me. If in the future global warming turned out to be harmful, and I had chosen to ignore the risks, my actions will have affected countless others. And given the uneven distribution of risks associated with global warming, I might be putting others in much greater danger than that in which I'm putting myself.

How does this impact our choice regarding the risk of global warming? To put things back in Pascal's terms, we know there is an afterlife, and we know that our piety will be somehow involved in establishing the quality of that afterlife. We have no way to know how important it will be that we lived a pious life, and it could even turn out to be almost insignificant in the determination. But we also know that our piety may have an impact on the quality of others' afterlives as well, and that some people will be affected more by our decision than we will.

So what is the right way to react? To me, the answer is unclear. But looking around at the libertarian community, I hear a lot of people arguing that since the science about climate change is still up in the air, we have no choice but to wait until everything's settled for sure. And perhaps waiting is the best policy. But given our discussion here, this seems far from obvious.

Many of the proposed solutions to the risk of global warming entail great sacrifices of liberty, the empowerment of the state, unachievable goals, and the destruction of the world economy. Needless to say, I am extremely hesitant to endorse these prescriptions. But I wonder if maybe there is a solution out there that doesn't require us to abandon our principles and our common sense, but still allows us to take the risks of our behavior into account. If there is, then I can think of no more intelligent, talented, and thoughtful group of people than the libertarians for finding it. And if there turns out to be no good solution, then so be it. But I think that we owe it to ourselves to at least think about what we're really choosing when we choose to do nothing.

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Danny Shahar's picture
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Danny Shahar is an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education.  He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to begin work on a PhD in philosophy in the Fall of 2009.  Danny's research generally falls within the fields of ethical, political, and economic philosophy.  He writes a blog called Back to the Drawing Board.