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pascal's wager
a geek chick takes on cynicism
by maigen thomas (@Maigen)

There is a phenomenon known as the Gambler's Fallacy, and it occurs when a person who is gambling in one form or another - and losing - chooses to believe that he is "due a win", based on the idea that luck would develop a bias the other way, to compensate.

The Gambler's Fallacy is often relied upon in accordance with a variation of the Law of Small Numbers – mistakenly assuming that a small sample of actions or examples is indicative of or accurately reflects the proportion with which any given action will occur. Combined, it’s a mindset that facilitates a false supposition that a particular event is more or less likely to occur because it has or has not happened recently.

The great mathematician Pascal dealt with something very similar at a crucial point in his life. He sat down to meditate one day – reports record it as something between a ‘meditation’, a ‘coma’ and a ‘trance’. That day he had a “revelation from God”. Upon waking from this trance, two hours later, he denounced mathematics, stating he had been granted a ‘vision of the futility of worldly life’.

He says: “Suppose you concede that you don’t know whether or not God exists and therefore assign a fifty percent chance to either proposition. How should you weigh these odds when deciding whether or not to lead a pious life?”

This is Pascal’s Wager.

If there is a 50% chance of God existing – and basing the decision on the texts available (the Bible) indicating what the results of a pious/non-pious life were – here’s how I translate the math-heavy theorem breakdown.

If Pascal leads a pious life and God DOES exist =
Heaven! He wins!
If Pascal leads a pious life and God DOES NOT exist =
nothing lost, nothing gained*
If Pascal leads a non-pious life and God DOES exist =
Hell! He’s screwed!
If Pascal leads a non-pious life and God DOES NOT exist =
nothing lost, nothing gained*

*”nothing lost, nothing gained” can be viewed as an economic trade-off: The cost of leading a pious life is merely the value of what could have been enjoyed by leading a non-pious life, as Pascal had previously enjoyed his work in the fields of mathematics, gambling and drinking. Also, in leading a pious life, Pascal apparently gave away all of his money and worldly goods, which doesn’t seem terribly enjoyable, but it *is* pious.

In Pascal’s reasoning, he decided it was better to lead a pious life based on the mathematical probability that God might exist, because in his view, the arguments against did not outweigh the arguments for. If fifty percent of the outcomes fall neither one way nor another, that means that twenty-five percent of the outcomes are really bad and seventy-five percent of the outcomes are either good or neutral, therefore a conscientious man would choose exactly as Pascal did. Maybe.

I’m not facing any sort of deep mathematical or religious conundrums, but I am dealing with how I feel about my own life, and how I make decisions on any given day. Recently, an interesting conversation I had with a friend regarding self- and world-views really pushed some buttons, though I tried to keep an open mind about it. It was a challenging conversation, one to which I have no argument. For all intents and purposes, this person has seen some of the more ‘real’ aspects of life outside of America, and has developed a cynical view. I’d almost call him a nihilist, but it depends on the day.

According to dictionary.com, a Cynic is a person who is characterized as being bitter and pessimistic. A Nihilistic view is one which argues that it doesn’t matter what you do, the world is what it is. Good and Bad have no bearing. You can never actually make a difference, so why try?

While I can academically appreciate these ideas, I personally feel that – regardless of spiritual or religious beliefs, and despite failures, despite setbacks, despite negativity, despite adversity – the power of Karma is real. I do good things, good things come to me. It’s not that I believe nothing bad will happen, because it does. I don’t do good things just to earn karma; I do them because I enjoy doing good things. Still, in terms of probability, I think there is a greater chance of good things happening IF I’ve done good, and vice versa.

In this passing conversation, a random comment surfaced about geek chicks seeming to come out of the woodwork (now that it's 'cool' to be a nerd, I think Geek Chicks are the new Lipstick Lesbian, but not as ubiquitously obnoxious as Fucking Hipsters), I made a joke about us ‘real’ geek girls being an endangered species. Then I took it a step further and said that I, myself, am an endangered species. I happen to think I'm pretty one of a kind, and I was willing to argue the point.

"You have a perpetually American desire to define yourself, to be a unique snowflake, Maigen, and you refuse to realize that because everyone is a unique snowflake, NO ONE is a unique snowflake. You’re more typical than you think. It’s an American commercial business to build personalities. Only the first astronauts were exceptional, and even then men have been dreaming for thousands of years about space. So in that, they are typical.”

"But I'm proud to be me, I define myself how I like, and I think I'm smarter ‘than the average bear’. I have my own issues and idiosyncrasies, so I feel like I play by different rules than most people do."

"Don't we all? We all play by our own rules. To each person there are only a few common institutions we hold dear, and there are another set of rules that we each create for ourselves."

"But in my experience, the average person is so afraid of what happens when they don't follow the rules, societal or otherwise, that they end up being generic. I haven't come across many people who aren't trying to be something they're not."

"Everyone has their own story. Follow it long enough; it's bound to break away from normality. What is trying to be something you're not, but the act of striving for something greater?"

"Is faking who you are to impress others striving for something greater or living a pretense?"

"What is faking? Everything is real. Everything is perfect.”

“For the cynical person you usually are, this openness and acceptance is a surprise.”

“To be cynical, you have to be accepting. Accepting that life is the way it is. There is no right or wrong in the traditional respects. Things are perfect the way they are. Forest fires are beautiful and perfect, and they kill people. Famines are the same. Broken relationships are perfect. It’s our expectations not aligning that makes things hurt. Come to this convergence of ideas and the world simplifies and expands. The point is: understanding is the key. I'm simply bringing into perspective that taking the path that you like means facing what you are made of and your lot in life and accepting it. You are both unique and not. You are both an individual life, and an ant on the face of a rock that is relatively insignificant. The balance is to understand both and live with it. Fundamentally, the key to being happy is: ‘don't try to be anything, just be’.”

What I try to do every day is use that same wager Pascal made: If I am a good person when it matters, Good! If I'm a good person when it doesn't matter, Neutral. If I'm a bad person when it doesn't matter, Neutral. If I'm a bad person when it matters, Bad.

That's it, ultimately. A nihilist would argue that it doesn't matter either way. A cynic would say that there's no immediate reward or punishment, because no one is keeping score.

Personally, I think that the point is to have the integrity to do the right thing even when Karma may or may not be keeping score.

One example of why I think good karma works and just letting the world be doesn’t: on a recent day, I left my apartment in New Haven late, and I barely made the train. On that train to New York, I got flirted with by a really cute younger guy (who assumed I was 23, and I wasn’t inclined to disabuse him of the notion), despite not wearing any makeup and feeling less than usually attractive. When I stopped at a coffee shop, I got a free cappuccino and cookies from the guy that usually flirts with me. Then, I couldn’t find my tickets for the bus to JFK, and I had very little cash. The lady behind the counter sold me a ticket at a student rate.

In my opinion, there are two theories at work here: Either what positive or negative energy I put out in the universe DOES have a cause/effect on what happens, in return, to me – OR – I *am* unique, because this kind of “good luck” doesn’t happen to everyone.

How else can the day be interpreted? Well, as it turns out, any way you like. If you are a cynic, you see it one way. If you view everything with rose-coloured glasses, you see it another. If you have the self-possession to accept it and let it be what it is, then you’re farther along the path than I am.


Maigen is simple. is smart. is wholesome. is skeevy. is spicy. is delicate. is better. is purer. is 100% more awesome than yesterday. She';s traveling the world and writing about her experiences with life, love, yoga, food, travel and people. Mostly people. Because they';re funny. hear more of her random thoughts @maigen on twitter.

more about maigen thomas


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published: 8.25.10

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topic: general
published: 12.20.10


dirk cotton
9.28.10 @ 11:13a

This is a great column. I like your thought process and you tie it all together nicely in the end.

A couple of discussion points. First, I don't think the outcomes of Pascal's Wager would work out any differently if we assumed the probability of God's existence to be 1% or 99% instead of 50%. Who wants to take even a 1 in a hundred risk of burning in hell? (Other than atheists, but no probability would dissuade them.)

Second, as you are probably aware, there is no mathematical Law of Small Numbers, it's a humorous reference to the Law of Large Numbers, which does exist in statistics, but most people use it incorrectly. LLN is a theorem that says that the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials gets closer to the expected value as the number of trials increases. Most people use Law of Large Numbers as a synonym for the "law of averages". Law of Averages, like LSN is a fallacy, not a law.

Statistics aren't always intuitive. Somehow, most people just cannot accept that after tossing heads 10 times in a row, the chances of doing it again are still 50%, so how are they going to understand that switching their choice after Monty Hall opens one of the two remaining doors doubles you chance of winning?

Regardless, you put it all together to create an interesting and fun column. Nice work.

maigen thomas
9.28.10 @ 2:13p

Thanks, Dirk!

I think that's an interesting take on the probability theory - regarding the existence of God; but what about people in these modern times, would the same risk/probabilities exist when applied to Karma and being a Good Person?

Also, I actually am aware that the law of small numbers does not, as such, exist (though you can find a little more exploration here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_small_numbers) and I first heard about it when reading "Drunkard's Walk, how randomness rules our lives" by Leonard Mlodinow (which also referenced the choice switching/Monty Hall example!). I do find it amusing, though, how many people confuse these "Laws", but no one really wants to put through the effort required to really put the Law of Large Numbers into practice!

I read a really apt quote the other day regarding the coin tossing and learning how to accept true randomness: "Probability theory says that the next time you flip a coin, your chances of losing are just as good as mine: fifty-fifty, because Lady Luck has no memory at all." Can you tell me the book?

Thanks for the feedback! I enjoyed this column. It was one of the more difficult ones I've attempted, but it was subject matter that was FAR more interesting than I've tried!

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