Writer, Dandelion Salad
Rocket Kirchner (blog)
Rocket Kirchner (youtube channel)
February 17, 2014
Stepping into the arena of politics from everything to voting, to becoming an activist, to even running for office has a high risk of chance that that neither you nor I will get out of government what we want. Every pollster worth his salt knows this.
There is an ethical stoicism that goes with seeking to change the world via government that was known in antiquity as arete for the Greeks and virtus for the Romans. This quality of active life seeks to raise itself above the herd. However, it is a very risky gamble, even when putting ones time and money behind even the most noble of candidates. How many times have these high expectations let those who have committed to movement after movement down through history? Too many to count. Only Zogby, other pollsters, and the best historians know.
Considering the fact that there are just so many hours in a day in our lives, and life is short, gambling for something finite to attain something finite, only to most likely be let down again, we have to all ask ourselves: should we continue? Are the odds worth it? And, if we do, how much good old fashion elbow grease should we apply to cause after cause if the outcome mathematically keeps coming up short? For discussion sake, let us call this: The Lesser Consolation, or hope in the political only.
Blaise Pascal was a child prodigy in mathematics in 17th century France. At age 19 he invented the world’s first mechanical calculator. His father and he watched aristocrats (the noblesse d’épée) gamble ferociously in an effort to do what they could not accomplish in battle. The exchange of land and money was literally and vicariously done through their gambling. This is high stakes at its best. The poor on the other hand gambled out of desperation.
In fact, to roll the dice for the aristocrats of the day was challenging fate and the gods itself. It was so important that for one to truly understand the gravity of this one must know that the word for dice is the plural for die, which comes from the Latin word data, which comes from the word dare, which means “to give”. Egyptian inscriptions as far back as 2,000 B.C. depict dice games, as well as the Chinese dating back to 400 B.C.
Smack dab in the middle of all of this high drama is Pascal, the math genius, who suddenly has a conversion experience with Christ, to what he calls his “Night of Fire”. During this Age of Reason, atheists, deists, theists, and Christian thinkers were really going at it. Pascal wanted to express his faith to others, but rejected all of their arguments that used reason for and against the existence of God. He viewed them all as being abstract and anemic. Then suddenly it dawned upon Pascal to present the gospel of Christ as a mathematical wager. Let us call this: The Greater Consolation, or hope in God only.
Pascal’s Wager goes thus: no one can prove that God exists. No one can prove that God does not exist. Reason stands helpless in his discussion. However, the odds are much greater and of eternal consequence when this coin is flipped. The lesser consolations of governmental change and political turmoil has far less an outcome than the once and for all flip of the coin of the existence of God. So Pascal is essentially proposing to wager something finite for something infinite. “What do you have to lose?” asks Pascal.
Pascal goes on in his famous book Pensées in chapter 3 entitled “Of the necessity of the Wager”, to state that if one stakes one’s faith in God and Christ’s gospel is not true, then one has really lost nothing. If, on the other hand it is true, then one has gained everything. The everything of eternal happiness beginning at the moment of the Wager. Conversely, if one bets that God does not exist, and God does not exist, one has lost nothing. But, if God does exist and one bets that God does not exist, one has lost everything forever.
In the world of probability that existed in the high seriousness of gambling at the time, Pascal is not appealing to philosophers, but the Zeitgeist of the Era, as expressed in the vox populi, be they rich or poor. Every player stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty. This is the nature of gambling. Since we are not talking about card games, but only dicing, it is all 100% chance. There is no reason or skill here. Those of us who are progressives active in working to change the world in political ways are staking a certainty to gain an uncertainty. This we do according to our convictions, even if it is quixotic in outcome. I see no reason to stop. Sometimes mountains do move.
Continuing to be political activists and taking Pascal’s Wager are not opposed to each other. Granted, there may be more odds to the Wager, and the outcome is infinitely more rewarding if true, but there is no either/or here, but a both/and. We can change the world politically and take the Wager spiritually. Which brings me to my next point: Many of my fellow activists that I work with daily that are risking more for less, they seem to ignore the Wager that can bring the possibility of a greater consolation. The whole notion of the infinite seems to just get swept under the rug. To me this makes no sense. Why not do both? What have they go to lose?
Pascal already anticipates his critics of his proposition of ultimate seriousness of infinite force. The extremity of infinite distance of either heads or tails, of which one will turn up, he can hear them balking already when he puts himself in their place and says, “The true course is not to even wager at all.” Pascal’s response, “Aha! Yes, but you must wager. You exist. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?”
This begs the question to all of us who seek real change and are not just dilettantes. Do we stop short with the lesser consolation of political action that is mercurial at best, or do we take Pascal’s Wager, meanwhile doing the best we can to change our little corner of the world? The dice are ready for the rolling.
Bruce Cockburn: Call It Democracy
BruceCockburnVEVO | Dec 15, 2011