Pascal's wager: should you act based on the consequeces or the probabilities of events?

I have recently seen a good video on fear by Ajahn Brahm


One of the stories he tells is of people in Singapore being afraid at one time of some infection (and thus not wanting to attend a Buddhist event out of fear - or perhaps prudence). Ajahn Brahm argued that this was completely irrational since, based on the available statistics, the probability of falling ill and dying from that infection was very low.
That story made sense to me when I first listened to it, but I am not completely convinced any longer. I have been thinking about Pascal’s wager, which basically means that when events have huge consequences (like dying) you should act based on the consequences of these events (no matter how improbable) instead of probabilities. Since for Buddhists the consequences of dying before you become a stream-winner are that you might always be born in a lower realm, even in Hell (c.f. the Danda Sutta), it probably does make sense to miss a Buddhist event if there is some risk that you will catch a deadly infection.
By the way the actual reasoning in Pascal wager was that it was rational to believe in God. If you believed and it turned out there was no God, the price was modest—a few boring sermons you had to endure. But if you didn’t believe and it turned out God existed, the price was much higher—an eternity roasting in hell. I am not arguing in favour of this version of the argument applied to the existence of God, but I am wondering about the validity of a way of acting and decision making which gives weight to the consequences and not only to the probabilities of events.
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If you truly think, “No matter how improbable,” I’ve got bad news: there are an infinite number of improbable occurrences that can happen to you at any time that end in your death.

The Buddha dharma teaches us how to relinquish fear; holding it tighter is a step in the wrong direction. When Ajahn Lee was targeted by a raging elephant, he at first ran away, but a voice told him, “Whoever’s afraid to die will have to die again.” So he went back, and faced his fear of death. (Of course, he survived, and went on to be a great teacher of the dharma).

Cultivating fear with “rational analysis” of how situations can kill you is merely playing into the illusion even more. It was what led people to the fearful prayer to spirits and to do things like blood sacrifices to appease gods in the first place.

Hence, why the Dharma is a true treasure; we can be free of such irrational and reflexive nature, and instead rely on ourselves to be free of fear and to find happiness. :relaxed:

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Citazione If you truly think, “No matter how improbable,”

Thank you for pointing this out. I didn’t express this correctly; I meant even if the probability is low. I was also thinking more in terms of prudence than fear, i.e. like you say try to act rationally rather than based on strong emotions.
Btw one of the reasons I thought of Pascal’s wager was because of the risk of some parts of the space station Tiangong crashing over the area where I live. I thought about taking a trip for the week-end but then dismissed the idea since the probability seems to be ridicoulously low. So if events are really improbable, I agree it makes sense to ignore them.
I agree with what you say about Dhamma being a true treasure, but like I say if you die before you have practiced enough Dhamma you are at the risk of being reborn in a realm where you won’t be able to practice and perhaps you’ll not find the Dhamma again for a very long time and many future lives…

I think that’s why the Buddha taught that we should practice even more zealously than if our clothes were on fire (SN56.34)

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The probability of dying is 100% percent though. How many act as if they knew this to be true?

What about things like slipping in the shower, driving a car or just a bad diet and lack of exercise? As far as I can tell, these are much more probable to cause death to occur sooner.

In any case, from a Dhamma perspective it seems we should fear doing unwholesome actions of body, speech and mind much more than death :slight_smile:

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If you truly think this, then why are you behind a keyboard chatting about practicing the dharma? You should then be practicing, if your fear of death is truly wise. Instead, thus far, it seems like your fear of death is actually self-serving, and you’re using it to justify whatever habits you already have.

Stream-entry is a guarantee for a good birth, yes, but it is not a requirement. One can still make merits and do good deeds to make one born again in a good birth.

With your constant fear and concern at the uncertain (and nothing is certain), you set yourself up for birth as an animal. Rather than being afraid of improbabilities, I say you should work to fix them. Otherwise, you will be arrested in your single state for the rest of your life, and the next life will be even worse.

The practice of the dharma is about facing our fears, facing habits, and facing things that make us uncomfortable. Why? Because these are the points where we still have defilements, delusion, and attachment. We have to own up to them eventually, and free ourselves from them.

Do you think you can keep running away from the eventual end by calculating “probabilities?” Did you ever think about the many things that you do not know about? You only think you know things.

There are an infinite number of ways that we can die that we can not predict in time to save ourselves: meteors, earthquakes, lightning strikes to name an obvious few. Tiangong crashing down? That’s a cute fact, but you’ve distorted it and turned a trivia game answer into a nightmare.

You will die eventually, so what’s there to fear? Ajahn Chah says, “Death is inside of you.” You can not run or hide, because it always will be there. If it always will be there, then what is there to fear?

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Thank you for your feedback. I think I did not write my post clearly yesterday, because with due respect what you write has little to do with the questions I was considering.

I was asking about prudence and a rational way in decision making; Ajahn Brahm wrote somewhere that Ajahn Chah was afraid that the communists would kill his monks, so prudence seems to be a good quality.

I mentioned Tiangong because it’s in all the media here, so I started thinking about it in connection with the safety of my family and myself; and when I quickly realised that the probabilities are ridicoulously low, I thought it’s not worth worrying about it. Yet the event evoked the thought of Pascal’s wager, which I thought would be interesting to share here.

You are right that we are both here chatting about the Dhamma instead of practicing. For my part, I wish I could practice more at the moment but I can’t because of other duties. On the other hand when I spent Vassa in a monastery recently and was practicing full time, the teacher actually adviced me to set aside some play time and not to be excessively serious about practice, so as you see everyone is different - in my case the problem seems to be that I am too eager to practice.

Considering your sentence

Stream-entry is a guarantee for a good birth, yes, but it is not a requirement. One can still make merits and do good deeds to make one born again in a good birth.

That is not in agreement with Ajhan Brahm’s interpretation of the Danda Sutta, which you can find in his book ‘The art of disappearing’.

I wish you all the best with your practice.

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I understand your central idea concerns Pascal’s wager, however in terms of an answer to your question, I don’t think you need to resort to trying to remember Pascals wager and apply it to every situation that occurs in life. Making decisions and acting on them needs to be more spontaneous than that.

The Buddha tells you to think clearly about the consequences of your actions before you act - something most people fail to really ever do before acting, thanks to a lack of mindfulness. They are only aware they have acted after the fact, they do not think through the consequences and potential outcomes, they just act on instinct, emotion or conditioning - automatic pilot. It’s how most of us act, most of the time.

In order to do what you want to do - consider the potential actions open to you, the outcomes of those actions and the probabilities of the various potential outcomes - requires thinking about not only the required actions and potential consequences of any act (including not just the intended consequences but also the unintended - which you can never really be sure about) but also requires considering the likelihood of any particular outcome actually occurring from low to high.

Trying to do that in real life is probably not going to happen. You will have to find some way or develop some mental process or system of thinking to work it all out logically and in reality you are not have the time to think through all the probabilities through properly for starters and there will always be something you haven’t considered, something from left field at the time, but obvious in hindsight.

The answer however lies in the Buddha’s teachings. Develop mindfulness in all postures. While sitting, lying down, standing, walking, eating, talking, shitting, showering, etc. You get the picture.

If you develop the mental discipline of mindfulness to that level then you can always act mindfully in the moment and you will no longer ever act on automatic pilot again, you wont time waste and drift away lost in mental reverie or unfolding day dreams, your mind will stay anchored in the ever unfolding present moment, remaining poised on the cusp of the future but firmly anchored in the present.

By doing this you will always be aware of what you are doing and can act deliberately with consideration of the potential outcomes. You can remain aware of the present moment and also be aware of impending tasks or required actions (i.e. other tasks like the washing up or mopping the floor) - or other non complex things you also have to do - you can act without directly thinking of them, remaining centered in the present.

For more complex tasks, allow the task itself to become the object of focus and awareness. Your mind has room to do all this when it is not occupied with the never ending stream of mental commentary and inner dialogue. You turn that off by practicing mindfulness until it is an automatic habit.

Through making your mindfulness strong and constant you will then be able to develop strong samadhi while sitting in meditation, so from having strong mindfulness - especially if you can maintain it at all times, then when you sit in meditation you will be able to develop strong samadhi. From having strong samadhi you will be able to gain powerful insights from practicing vipassana - from asking the right questions of the mental stillness you learn how to act in difficult situations without gaining any negative karma.

Therefore (in short) to end a very wordy reply, to find a practical way of weighing up the options to you need to consider in any situation that you could apply Pascal’s wager to in real life, perhaps the best option available to you is simply to do what you are already doing - to further develop your practice of the path. :smile:

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One might as well say Pascal’s Wager copied these words of the Buddha from the Kalama Sutta, whether intentionally or unintentionally:

"‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him.

"‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him.
Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry

thank you for this interestesting point. I had also thought of that. However as far as I see, in the Kalama Sutta you have a win win situation (i.e. you win whether there is an afterlife or not) whereas in Pascal wager if there’s no afterlife you’d actually be worst off (you’d have endured a lot of boring sermons and wasted many Sunday mornings for nothing) but the potential benefits are far greater than the drawbacks.
As general remark, I think it is common to the Suttas to have win-win situations in which the choice is quite simple (e.g. if you act ethically you’ll be better off and others will be better off too etc) and as Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi once remarked, perhaps they lack discussions of more complicated situations where a compromise has to be made.

According to Pascal, even if there is no afterlife, then a virtuous life is its own reward.

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ah ok. It’s been ages since I read the original argument, but according to Wikipedia (please see Pascal’s Wager - Wikipedia) if there is no afterlife, the believer will actually endure a loss (the idea that morality makes you happier is part of Buddhism but not so much of Christianity):

Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell)

Please also keep in mind that Pascal’s Wager was an argument for those on the fence, who might already be leaning toward Christian belief but are still unsure about it.

While Pascal didn’t believe that one can logically convince someone into faith, he did use historical arguments to help others get closer to believing that the New Testament presents a trustworthy testimony that Jesus is the risen Lord.

If Pascal were alive today, I wonder if he would still find the New Testament to be a reliable record:

If anything, there’s more evidence for the historical Buddha than for the historical Jesus:
http://www.budsas.org/ebud/whatbudbeliev/17.htm

This is not an anti-Christian post. I am only discussing here the historical reliability of the New Testament, without attacking good-willed Christians as people.

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