As a student of philosophy the endless debate on global warming brings to mind the brilliance of an 18th Century mathematician who answered to the name of Blaise Pascal. This is the same Pascal who gave his name to a unit of pressure and a law in hydrostatics. He also invented the mechanical calculator, and made ground-breaking contributions in economics and actuarial science where he cleverly tackled such issues, so currently prevalent with the environmental crisis, like uncertainty, risk, decision-making, and an individual’s and society’s ability to influence the course of future events. In short, Pascal was a run-o’-the-mill genius.
But there was something that deeply tormented his over-developed scientific brain. It was the one thing he could never prove for certain – does God exist? No matter how he searched there were simply no facts for him to work with. So, like any good mathematician when faced with such insurmountable odds, he abandoned science altogether, and went gambling.
Since hard evidence couldn’t help him on whether or not God exists, Pascal figured he had two choices, a right answer and a wrong answer. It was a risky gamble like choosing red or black on a roulette wheel but like any good gambler, Pascal wanted to improve his odds. He needed some raw philosophy. Delving into the basics of the twin philosophical theories of Probability and Decision, which assists one to make a choice when faced with uncertainty, Pascal then jotted down this two-by-two table based on the following basic suppositions: either God exists or he does not, and since you cannot prove or disprove his existence you must either hope that God exists or you do not.
Existence of God:
God exists God does not exist
You believe in God infinite reward something finite
You do not believe in God infinite punishment something finite
Pascal’s point is, if God exists, believers will enjoy eternal bliss, and atheists will suffer eternal damnation. If God does not exist, then believers will enjoy a finite existence before they die, as will atheists. Bottom line: Believe in God. It’s the safer bet because it’s either eternal bliss or nothing, which is better than the atheist option of eternal damnation or nothing. As you can see, no scientific facts are required, just plain philosophy…and a penchant for playing the ponies.
One can see how easily we can translate Pascal’s Wager into anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Since, neither side of the debate has been able to prove whether or not AGW exists beyond irrefutable doubt, you have to take a wager, but which is the safer bet? I even had my denialist father-in-law crossing over to our side with this little game.
AGW exists AGW does not exist
You believe in AGW global catastrophe averted nothing happens
You do not believe in AGW global catastrophe nothing happens
The great thing about philosophy is this line of enquiry is a priori. In other words, it is based on pure deduction, no facts needed. Looking at the above table, if we assume that global warming is not anthropogenic, we are fine and we can all carry on spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
But if we happen to be wrong… and that’s always a possibility, no matter how remote the denialists think it is, then we are in for a global disaster of epic proportions. If the world takes a wager based on Pascal’s odds and argues that global warming is anthropogenic and we do something about our collective carbon emmisions, we avert a catastrophe. The worst we do, if we are wrong, is waste the effort cutting global emissions. That’s hardly catastrophic, is it? So, believe that global warming is a human phenomenon and do something about it, it’s the safer bet.
By the way, our man Pascal is credited for the invention of the modern Roulette Wheel.