A life-changing challenge: Guided by Pascal’s Wager

If the Gartner Group issued a Report on Recommended Behavior of Fortune 5000 Corporations with Respect to the Existence of a Power Beyond our Reckoning, surely they’d back up their ecclesiastical recommendation using a 2×2 diagram where the best place to be is up and to the right.

Silly, and yet, that’s precisely what genius mathematician/physicist/inventor/everything-else Blaise Pascal did in his pithy argument for the existence of God:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Or in modern lingo:

If you act like God does not exist, and he does exist, you’re eternal toast. Whereas if you act like God does exist, you can’t fail, because if he in fact exists, good on you, and if he doesn’t, no biggie. Thus the only logical action is the one where there’s no significant downside — to believe in God.

However, if I were drafting a PowerPoint slide for the Gartner Group, I would rip off Wikipedia’s excessively-technical crowd-sourced analysis:

Actually this isn’t a rational argument for the existence of God, it’s a rational argument for acting as if God exists, because it seems like the bet with the highest expected value.

It’s often occurred to me that we’d all be better off if we applied Pascal’s Wager to other things in life.

We react to most things from a position of scant knowledge, especially when we’re running a startup where essentially every decision, every day, is a guess. An educated guess, but not terribly educated.

You have to make assumptions of course, but Pascal points out that some assumptions work better regardless of reality, whereas others only sometimes result in positive outcomes. Surely we should choose the behavior that maximizes our expected value as Wikipedia suggests.

Sounds obvious but we don’t do it. For example:

Folks call up WP Engine tech support nearly always from posture of accusation. They’re blameless (“I didn’t do anything!“) and we screwed something up. Occasionally that’s true, but most of the time, either they’re ignorant of something or they actively messed it up, hoping we’ll come to their rescue. (Which we will.)

Now, look. Support people are human fucking beings. Not mechanized automatons impervious to rude language and assumption of incompetence. They’ve also chosen a field in which they help people.

Meditate on that for a second. They’ve chosen to help people…. for a living. Is that how you’d define most of your day? Is that not a noble profession? And what thanks do you think they get, call after call, day in and day out?

So if you open up the conversation from a posture of helplessness, they’re inclined to help, even if it’s your own fault. And if turns out not to be your fault, imagine how sympathetic they’ll be to your cause — here’s the nicest person on Earth, blaming themselves from the get-go, and yet it’s our fault! Imagine how readily they’ll personally fight to remedy the situation.

But that’s not what you do when you’re on the phone with tech support, is it?  No, you’re angry and frustrated because something is wrong, and you unfairly take it out on whomever you’re talking to, even though they’re your only link to salvation. But then how do they feel about helping you? Of course it’s their job to help you, and there’s metrics and such which hopefully punishes them if they don’t do their job. But still… is that the way to get most out of other people? Is that the way to live your life?

You can’t fail if you assume you’re ignorantthat you’re missing information, that you’re ready to learn, that you need help to understand.

It’s just Pascal’s Wager again: Being humble cannot fail; being arrogant can.

This isn’t specific to WP Engine support, of course. It’s everyone, any time, especially if you’re communicating over email where emotions are hard to convey and text is misread. Tech support, vetting a new idea, arguing with your spouse, or exchanging emails with a stranger.

But how often do you act like that?

What would happen if you acted like that constantly, in every situation?  Would you discover you’re wrong more often and about more things than you thought?  That you misread or read between lines that aren’t there?

And, in the cases where you are in fact correct, that people respond in a more positive way, that they learn too, that they go out of their way to make things better? Could the simple act of being humble be life-altering?

You should try it for a week.  Then report back here with the results.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying. Like Pascal.

  • I love the conclusion. Hate the argument.

    > Pascal points out that some assumptions work better regardless of reality

    Pascal assumes the only possibility is to believe in God or not.  He does not discuss *which* God to believe in and believing in the wrong one can allegedly deliver you to the hot place. This is a famously flawed argument.

    Sometimes it’s best not to assume anything. I find that’s the case with people.

    If you expect the best in people, you will sometimes be disappointed. If you expect the worst, you will never be disappointed. Best is to expect nothing and enjoy each moment without judgement.

    > You can’t fail if you assume you’re ignorant

    I’ve seen more than a few fail because they continually search for new information without making a decision or taking action. I would guess you’ve seen this as well.

    Janice Fraser quotes this all the time and it’s appropriate here: “strong opinions, weakly held.”

    > in the cases where you are in fact correct, that people respond in a more positive way

    I’ve always hoped this to be the case and try to act according, but have often noted that some people’s communication styles equate humility with admission of defeat and assume you are incorrect. It’s unfortunately, but worth noting.

    Of course, that is their problem and sometimes the best solution is to avoid those people, but that is not always an option.

    > Could the simple act of being humble be life-altering?

    100% agree and kudos.

    • I can go with your thoughts except for one thing.  You talk about expecting nothing from people and enjoy each moment without judgement.  That works fine if you are acting like an island and don’t care about you effect on others.  But if you are trying to lead, to help lift others and to make a positive impact on the world your approach dies.  It sounds more like the attitude of someone that has been burned and can’t find the energy to try again more than wisdom.  Yes, expecting the best from people will lead you to disappointment at times.  But from my experience expecting the best from people has two advantages that far outweigh the downside: 
      1. When you expect the best from people, they will more often give it to you than when you expect nothing (or expect the worst).

      2. When you expect the best the overall results that occur end up being better than when you expect nothing (or the worst).

      In other words, you can help the world more with the attitude of believing the best in others.  

      • That’s definitely better than expecting the worst!

        I disagree with not judging others as being a burnt out attitude. Leading by example without judging others is not “acting like an island.” It’s an aspirational philosophy preached in various forms by people like Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Jesus. They certainly said it better than me, so perhaps my phrasing is off.

        • If we’re talking about leading by example I’m all in!

  • The problem with Pascal’s Wager is that acting as if God exists without actually believing might be the one thing that infuriates Him and you’re eternal toast.  

    • Samuel Falvo II

      Umm, no.  It doesn’t work that way; in fact, the Bible actually states explicitly nothing will happen to such people.  The Bible reports that one should beware of false prophets, but simply acting like you believe in God does not automatically pigeon-hole you as a false prophet.  A false prophet, on the other hand, takes it upon himself to speak for a false god.

      What does apply, however, is the commandment to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  Also of relevance is Jesus Christ’s sermon advocating restraint in proselytizing.

      The absolute worst thing that can happen to a human being who pretends to believe in God but actually doesn’t is he’ll remain in purgatory.  That’s not eternal toast; rather, it’s closer to being eternal Wonder Bread.

  • c0ff

    Pascal’s wager works the same way as a lot of other arguments for the existence of God. The premises are rigged, and the argument itself is just an exercise in misdirection.

    In Pascal’s wager, the rigging is about which columns and rows you choose to include in the table. There are many religions out there – why not add a row and column for each? Also, what if the real god hasn’t been revealed to us yet, and will choose to punish those who were misled by false gods? Does that option also get a row and a column? What if I make up the claim that people who wear jeans will be infinitely punished, but those who wear shorts will be infinitely rewarded? Row and column too?

    Religious people will scoff at the idea of including the shorts-vs-jeans claims in the table, and will find it natural to include their idea of God. And that is exactly the point: you are building a custom table to fit your existing beliefs. Really, it is just another circular argument, albeit more cleverly concealed than some other variants.

    PS.: Other arguments for God rig the premises in different ways. They may say that God is the only entity exempt from the constraints of irreducible complexity, the only uncaused cause, the only “something” that gets special treatment in the “Why is there something rather than nothing” argument, etc.

    • I actually agree with your argument.  But I would imagine Pascal wasn’t trying to prove that you should believe in the God of the Bible.  Maybe I’m wrong (as I haven’t studied his works), but I imagine he was beginning a multi-phased argument that would go something like this:

      1. It makes more sense to assume God (any God) is real.

      2. From that assumption of God being real, you should then look into who that God is and what God wants from you.  (Because if God does exist and your eternity hangs in the balance there is nothing more important than figuring this out.)

      3. Here is the evidence that God is the God of the Bible.  

      Like I said, maybe I’m wrong on this but it doesn’t seem that a man as intelligent as Pascal was would make this kind of blunder in an argument this monumental.  

      Can anyone let me know if Pascal did, in fact, follow up this argument with parts 2 and 3 of this process?

      By the way, Jason, I loved that you found two things seemingly worlds apart and brought them together so well.  Great writing.  (Even if the comparison may throw people off the point a bit.)  

    • thesecond

       Pascal considered other religions and dismissed them as incoherent and silly.

      What say [the unbelievers] then? “Do we not see,” say they, “that the
      brutes live and die like men, and Turks like Christians? They have their
      ceremonies, their prophets, their doctors, their saints, their monks,
      like us,” etc. If you care but little to know the truth, that is enough
      to leave you in repose. But if you desire with all your heart to know
      it, it is not enough; look at it in detail. That would be sufficient for
      a question in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake.
      And yet, after a superficial reflection of this kind, we go to amuse
      ourselves, etc. Let us inquire of this same religion whether it does not
      give a reason for this obscurity; perhaps it will teach it to us.

       He goes into other religions elsewhere, explaining why he thinks they are as silly as your jeans thing and also explains in detail why Christianity is his preferred religion.

      Another important lesson from Pascal. If you wish to argue against someone read their argument rather than just arguing based on how you feel. A lot of people go into a customer service line with a clear idea of their viewpoint and they stick to it regardless of what is said to them. Better to try to understand the person’s perspective (and here’s it’s easy to do that with wikipedia) rather than wading in with your viewpoint.

  • I completely agree with not starting a conversation with a support person in anger. You can always resort to that if they don’t help you (which I’m sure doesn’t happen at WP Engine).

  • Peter Harkins

    I think the real problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it bring in such a huge topic that it overshadows your point about being nice to people.

    (Not that I’m undistracted, myself.)

  • Dale Ting

    I think the down side is if you come in with a position of helplessness, and the tech support is a snob and thinks you’re a moron. Or the tech support person blames it on you and you can’t return the product or get compensated for something that isn’t your fault. Of course I’m sure none of this happens at WP Engine :).  

    • That’s under the assumption that no matter what happens to you, you should never use new information to change your behavior.

      The only question is how you approach something fresh, not that you shouldn’t react to what happens next.

  • Artie Gold

    Pascal wagered within his context. Let’s shift it just a little.
    Is karma real?
    Don’t know. 
    Would behaving as if it *were* real make this a nicer planet to be on? 
    Yeah, quite likely.
    …then why the hell not??!??

  • vlasta2

    OK, I understand the article is not about God but about the method for choosing the best option, but I think one thing is omitted.

    In the example above, being in heaven is assigned + infinity. There is no reason for this. Maybe it is just +10, maybe it is only +0.1. Filling the table correctly is quite important as it influences the result.

    Similarly, being nice to the support person may just be too hard for some people. People are not emotionless machines and conquering one’s feelings is not a “free” operation. (Not that I want to question the fact that being polite usually pays off, but it is not so black and white.)

  • Rob

    I love this post, for so many reasons, one of which is that my profession and business are within tech support : )

    I think the point though is to think first, be pro-active not re-active.

    The crux of the post isn’t about God, or which religion, or which tech support guy, those are specific moments in which you can apply this behavior, but not the point.

    The point is to think first, and question what the best likely way to operate is in within the context you live in, your business, your relationship, your spiritual relationship, etc.

    If you operate in a way that at least glances at what would be in that table for your situation, you’ll act differently. You put the points where they need to be, but look at the table first, I think humility will be a natural by-product in a majority of the cases.

    That’s a game changer in life operation. Love the challenge, thanks Jason.

  • JodyApap

    Thanks for the post.

    Related to the customer service wager is the wager of whether I know more or less about a subject than the person I’m talking to…

    If I assume I know less, I will be more open to listening and gaining new knowledge.

    If I assume more, then I will spend my time ignoring their advice while composing my “words of wisdom” that I will say when it’s my turn in the conversation.

    This is something I’ve been working very hard to change in myself.

    The upside of one is gaining new knowledge and appearing teachable, at the cost of seeming “ignorant” or “stupid” (which most people consider a much bigger downside than it actually is, if it is, in fact, a downside at all).

    While the upside of the other is appearing really smart and impressing the other person, with the downside of not giving myself the chance to learn more, and worse yet, letting the other person know that I think a lot of myself (warranted or not) and am not really interested in what they have to offer.

    Thanks again for the great post.