A Fighter Pilot’s Take On Risk And The Ultimate Gamble

October 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last Friday, I had a job interview in Los Angeles––terrific opportunity, fits well with my experience, good group of people––and I’ve surrendered the outcome to God.

PascalThy will be done!

On my trip home, the radio off, my mind was traveling as well. I was driving to Solvang, but my thoughts were crisscrossing time and space looking for something to chew on. As it turned out, the evening’s food for thought would be a seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist––Blaise Pascal.

Candidly, I could have lingered a bit on USC football or the merits of satire in Catholic writing or even sushi versus sashimi but Pascal, in all his rational charm, won out.

Confession. Pascal has a special place in my heart. He helped me find God.

To assist me with the following mini-dissertation, I’ve enlisted the help of the woman in my life––Lani, my beloved American Labrador Retriever. She negotiated a good wage––a belly rub. Her comments are italicized.

Here we go.

I’ve sat in boardrooms, attended conferences, or met in executive offices and I’ve sometimes wondered what these smart, generally sophisticated people would say about the Ten Commandments. What would be surprising to me is if someone articulated the primordial importance of the Decalogue with conviction and clarity as the moral path to salvation and eternal life.

What prompted your speculation? Were you just daydreaming or witnessing an orgy? Somebody counterfeiting money? MBAs carving up a lawyer for fondue?

“Good one about the lawyer. Maybe that’s the way to God’s grace.”

I’m guessing, but many and perhaps most consider the Ten Commandments an interesting set of religious rules that have varying amounts of relevance in their lives. They would be hard pressed to name all ten, they might scoff at the idea of an ancient covenant that has validity today, and they might be surprised if I characterized the first three as love of God and the other seven as love of neighbor. Naturally, I would have to assume that some would consider the Commandments as nothing more than grist for Demille-ian story telling.

Each one of the Ten Commandments has articulated theological layers and an incredible richness of thought. They are also supremely relevant to modern life. As an example, let’s consider the fifth commandment, “Thou shall not kill.” Human life is sacred because God creates it so God alone is the Lord of life. We can’t assume any rights that lead to the destruction of an innocent human life. This commandment also relates to the critical issues of abortion, euthanasia, suicide, respect for the dignity of persons, respect for health, respect for the person and scientific research, respect for bodily integrity, respect for the dead, safeguarding peace and avoiding war.

As people learn of my journey from atheism to faith, some ask me about God. I’ve often thought that an interesting first step in talking about Him, although it’s quite simplistic, is to bring up the idea of Pascal’s Wager.  Granted, his argument stirs up heated debate, but that’s the beauty of it. Atheists, in particular, hate it. Their first objection might be “which God?” I’ll let the PhDs duke it out––but for me, Pascal’s premise has merit.

“God is, or is not. There is an infinite chaos separating us. At the far end of this infinite distance a game is being played and the coin will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?”

As a former Marine fighter pilot, I know all about risks and the precariousness of life. However, Pascal’s gambit is the ultimate bet. Heaven or hell? You choose.

His premise was even though God’s existence can’t be determined by reason then one should probably wager on the existence of God because one would have everything to gain and nothing to lose. On the matter of God and reason, St. Thomas Aquinas would, of course, disagree––he suggested five proofs for God’s existence.

Let’s look at the variations of Pascal’s argument.

“Lani. If I wager there isn’t a God and live a life unaccountable to any moral or ethical framework, and lo and behold, God doesn’t exist…”

No harm no foul, I guess. And I think you’d be wearing a black hat.

“Right. In matters of God, heaven, hell and eternal playgrounds, nothing gained and nothing lost. But I’ll have enjoyed a hedonistic, sensually overpowering life.”

Lucky you!

“However, if He does exist-”

Talk about a major oops at the pearly gates!

“My negative bet and unsavory life will cost me the eternal farm. I gain nothing but lose everything. An unimaginable loss like no other; eternal separation from God. In other words, hell.”

That’s not good. Actually, that’s downright awful.

“Now let’s put on a white hat. What if I live a moral life believing in God and He doesn’t exist?”

Spiritually, nothing gained or lost. Am I right?

“Well done. Even though I was a good citizen and a stalwart example of man at his best, which has to have some sort of intrinsic value in a Godless universe.”

Wait a minute. Are we still talking about you?

“Cute. And if He does exist and my life is exemplary?

Yahoo! The best outcome.

“That’s right. Extraordinary gain, no loss. Eternity with God in heaven. Paradise, irresistibly mysterious, as promised by Him.”

In these various situations, the glaring observation is that the worst-case scenario, hell, results from an immoral life and unbelief in God. Conclusively, Pascal declares the better bet, the less risky one, is to have faith in God and behave accordingly.

Pascal’s wager is the argument that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise.

Okay, pretend I’m a bulldog. Summary, please.

“You got it.”

  1. Bad life and no God – no heaven, no hell.
  2. Bad life but God – no heaven, but hell! (Most risky, only situation where hell in play.)
  3. Good life and no God – no heaven, no hell.
  4. Good life but God – heaven! And no hell! (Best bet, only situation where heaven in play.)

Richard Dawkins, an atheist, suggested an interesting counter to Pascal. “Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on His not existing, than if you bet on His existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping Him, sacrificing to Him, fighting and dying for Him, etc.”

Ignore God? Is that what he’s saying? That’s cheeky.

“Yep. Acknowledging that God might exist, he’s suggesting you ignore Him altogether and manage your time with all pursuits unrelated to God. The disavowal of Godly things and all associated responsibilities equates to a complete life in his view.”

As Lani succinctly pointed out, if God is a possibility, is it wise to ignore the greatest of his Commandments? Matthew 22:37, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”

You like using your noggin on this stuff, don’t you.

“The ability to reason. We all have it. I don’t think this wager on God should just be an academic exercise over a cognac or two. I think it merits consideration by everybody.”

“The ingenuity of Pascal’s argument is that it emphasizes the practical necessity of making a choice. This necessity is imposed by death. The apatheist and the agnostic refuse to choose when there is no option to abstain. So the refusal to choose becomes a choice—a choice against God.” Dinesh D’Souza – What’s So Great About Christianity.

As for me, I like the idea of living every day knowing there will be consequences. Of course, I didn’t need Pascal to remind me of this.