A Walk with William James, Part 3: Vote

Carrying over from last post, I'd just like to point out, so no one misses them, the very interesting metaphors James deploys in his chapter Habit. Specifically, he states that acquiring character over time is like...

A Tax


A Savings Fund

I find these metaphors deep and delightful. One more quote from James about habit and character:

"Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny."

Moving to a new topic...

Many religious people are familiar with Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. In his book Pensées, Pascal offers his famous wager:

"God either exists or He doesn't. Based on the testimony, both general revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scriptures/Bible), it is safe to assume that God does in fact exist. It is abundantly fair to conceive, that there is at least 50% chance that the Christian Creator God does in fact exist. Therefore, since we stand to gain eternity, and thus infinity, the wise and safe choice is to live as though God does exist. If we are right, we gain everything, and lose nothing. If we are wrong, we lose nothing and gain nothing. Therefore, based on simple mathematics, only the fool would choose to live a Godless life. Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have nothing to lose. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."

Summarizing, the bet is if God exists or not. If you bet YES and live your life as a Christian one of two outcomes await you. Either you are right and reap an eternal reward or you are wrong and are no worse off than any other person.

If you bet NO and live as a godless heathen then one of two outcomes await you. Either you are right and die like everyone else or you are wrong and face an eternity in hell (as punishment for your godless life).

Weighing these payoffs, Pascal makes the following conclusion: If you bet YES you have everything to gain and if you be NO you have everything to lose. Thus, the reasonable bet is to bet YES and live as if there is, indeed, a God.

Ever since Pascal religious faith has often been cast as a bet. Faith is betting on the future and the ultimate configuration of the Cosmos.

I've never really liked the metaphor of faith as bet. It seems too filled with wishful thinking and passivity. If faith is a bet, you could lose the bet. The point of a life might be for naught.

One of the things I like about James is that he uses a different metaphor for faith. James states that faith is a vote. Faith is voting for the world we wish to live in.

I think this is a profound point. Reality dictates to the bet. A vote dictates to reality. A bet waits, passively, for the final outcome. A vote creates an outcome.

Comparing and contrasting:

Reflects reality
Waiting Game
Value is Extrinsic

Creates reality
Engaged in the Now
Value is Intrinsic

Now to some, the metaphorical switch from betting to voting doesn't really get to the Big Question: Does God exist? I agree. But the reason I like the idea of voting is that regardless of the outcome of the Big Question a vote is intrinsically valuable. It is an active engagement in trying to create a better world (that is what a vote is all about). And if we campaign hard enough and get enough votes from our friends, family, neighbors, and citizens (from this nation and from all nations) then we just might succeed in making this world a better place.

I don't like the idea that I'm engaged in a big crap shoot. But I do like the idea that I'm in a political campaign, voting with my feet, voting with my life, voting to make this world better than how I found it.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

10 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 3: Vote”

  1. Richard,

    Both the bet and the vote notions as you lay them out are helpful, but not very nuanced. But Pascal's idea was hardly a big crap shoot (your reworking of Einstein's "God doesn't play dice with the universe"?). Voting as you characterize it sounds too idealized. It seems to me that there is something preliminary to both: the choice. "Choose this day whom you shall serve . . . ."
    And, remember Bob Dylan's "You got to serve somebody."

    It seems to me that Roxanne's earlier post regarding the presence of God working in our lives is missing. Betting and voting seem to me presumptive of strong volitionalism and high individualism. Not what Pascal was talking about.



  2. Richard,

    Regarding James: it seems to me that he is a "conditional" strong volitionist despite the strong currents in his writings to the contrary. From the standpoint of our struggle in and for faith living, all of us modern individualists have a hard time accepting both the individualistic and communal sense of Paul's "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and work God's good pleasure. . . ." (Phil. 2:12-13)



  3. It seems to me that your voting metaphor is better than the idea of a bet, but does it not also imply some passivity as well. We vote for a politician and if they win we expect them to create the world that we want them to create. In America at least we expect them to look out for our best interest with not much further say from us. We typically just sit back and watch to see if our politicians will please us. If he or she does not them we cast our vote for someone else.
    Does God expect us to just vote for him and he will form the world that we want him to form for us. Then we can sit back and watch God and if he does not please us with the way he handles himself then we can vote for someone else next time (Buddha, Mohammed or any other system we think will serve our interests better).
    Maybe voting for a party (God's party) is not enough maybe you have to vote for that party and then actually join that party and work as a volunteer within it.

    Sorry if this sounds critical, it is not meant to be. I really enjoy your blog and just wanted to jump into the discussion.

  4. Pascal's wager has always struck me as a particularly inventive use of game theory, but it has never really sat well with me for some reason. I think actually I have more theological problems with it than everything else.

    I think of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19 "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." While it may be nice to think that we are better off even if we are wrong about the fundamental factual elements of Christianity, this is the mistake of classical Liberal Protestantism.

    The voting idea of William James is a bit more interesting. What is a vote other than a choice? I do think that it captures something that is missing in the Big Question. Rather it explains why it is a Big Question. It is a question that requires a response. The question 'does God exist?' is simply a question about a proposition, but it does not elicit any response from the questioner. Christianity is is not just factual but also normative and our conceptualization of it should reflect this.

  5. Well put Richard. I wonder if we could be more frank about Pascal's wager: it is absurd! If the God of the universe is the type of person who punishes for all eternity those find it unlikely that He exists, or at least people that are quite open to the possiblity that he doesn't exist, then this God is not even worth voting for. Find a better canidate. Lead a revolt on heaven.

    The voting solves this. It says: there is a way to live that is worth living. There are things that I am passionate about and I am willing to live and die for those things. If I die (and I will) and there is a God and that God embodies those things I am passionate about (in other words, that God completes me), then that's fantastic. And if not, well whatever, I won't know that - I'm dead.

    To me this seems so much better than black-mailing people into believing something so that they don't burn.

    Dallas Willard writes, "Love is an emotional response aroused in the will by visions of the good." This view of love (which has been held by so many intellectuals ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Bertrand Russell) can lay a foundation for a life that is voting, not betting.

  6. George,
    Your comments are interesting in that James has an fascinating intellectual history with the free will versus determinism debate. In many ways, his response to the specter of determinism (which was an acute crisis in his life) set the stage for his later pragmatism. Although I can't do him justice here, James is hard to classify as either a strong or weak volitionalist. He really lived in two different worlds. His scientific/psychological side was weak volitionalist (his chapter on Habit for example) but his philosophical writings on belief and truth tend toward the strong volitional.

    Yes, the metaphor can be pushed too far. The metaphor doesn't work well if we think of voting for candidates, but I think it works better if we see ourselves as voting for policies or initiatives, ways we want to structure the world to make it better. That is, voting as a way we create and change society. Bets don't create or change things.

    Thinking along with you on issues of normativity. Bets don't really have normative aspects. True, a bet can be "good" or "bad" but those are based on issues of probability. Voting does, I think, have normative aspects. That is, what kind of world is best/good? What kind of world should I vote for/create? Finally, if God does exist, how does God vote? What kind of world is God asking us to create? More simply: God doesn't want me to bet on him. God wants me to vote with him. (And, just to prevent misunderstanding, "vote" here means "the whole of a life.")

    Yes, this is precisely why I like the voting metaphor. It makes my choice intrinsically valuable regardless of the final outcome. A bet is only valuable if it pans out. And I don't like envisioning the Christian life as a way to hedge my bets or convincing others to do the same.

  7. Great Post.

    I've been reading about postmodern (for lack of a better word) Old Testament criticism and I think it relates to your bet/vote tension:

    In the past, scholars have used history, archaelogy, and science to study the Old Testament, trying to explain the stories from these paradigms with questions such as "How did God cause the Red Sea to divide?," or "when in history did the various tribes of Israel begin to identify themselves as a common people?" This way of approaching the text is Western, locating a reality outside the text and trying to reconcile the two.

    Postmodern interpretation, on the other, is text oriented--readers enter the text world, and cannot judge the text world according to some outside, ontological reality. The text makes its own creates its own reality. In Scripture, God does work within his creation in ways that can be seen, throwing Egyptian horse and rider into the sea, consuming sacrifices with fire, and so on.

    The point is that we can either try to harmonize to radically different worlds or we can leap into the text reality which creates its world.

    The implications are enormous.


  8. Richard,

    I am interested to learn some time what you think about Carl Jung and the effect he has had on us.


  9. Richard, others,

    An observation about wagering in Pascal's wager. Though an accomplished mathmatician, Pascal in suggesting his wager is, it seems to me, not merely logic or mathmatics. His wager is best seen as connected to the social and religious setting of a 17th century shame/honor based society--a society far more aristocratic and communal than 21st century America where written law prevails over minimal shame/honor in maintaining social control. Today's TV celebrity Texas hold 'em or the lottery is not comparable. Wagering, whether on horses, animal or human fighting, or gaming or lots, was a common aristocratic pasttime in the 17th century Europe. Often as today, it was for fun or to chase away boredom. But it could easily involve years in debtors prison as well as matters of life and death, sometimes in the ultimate wager: dueling.

    Following his wager or gambit, Pascal declared: "know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness."

    In the 17th century, a person did indeed wager his very life on religious choice--in France whether to be Protestant or Catholic or some variation or atheist. Pascal was well aware of Paul's words about our pitiful life if for this life only. Pascal's wager, for him, did not ignore Paul. It was not a variation of modern abstract game theory but in an honor/shame aristocratic culture a actual raising of the stakes. More likely, in Jesus' words: "counting the costs." Or as Kenny Rogers says: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, etc."

    Who among us faces death for choosing our faith?


    George C.

  10. No. We do not vote on reality. A majority of Americans and Turks think that evolution did not happen. They are, quite simply, wrong.

    The best metaphor for God (any god) is to see it as a scientific hypothesis. We gather evidence; we look for alternative hypotheses; we decide which hypothesis fits the facts best. Evidence matters. Truth matters.

    In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (I'm just back from IDWCon09) gods are actually created by faith: the more believers a god has, the more powerful it becomes. (This is explored in most detail in the novel Small Gods.) It's a fascinating idea, but few of us, I think, would believe it to be directly reflective of reality.

    The idea that we can vote on reality is as absured as Pascal's original wager. We can vote if we want, but our votes don't matter.


    (Incidentally, could you please get a proper edit box without this horrible javascript which stops me from pasting urls, from deleting, and from using the arrow keys to go back and forward when I want to edit text.)

Leave a Reply