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Of Probability and Faith


Dawn

By Iftikhar U. Hyder

THE contribution of the early Muslims to the development of mathematical ideas is widely recognised among scholars and well documented. From the development of Arabic numerals to the invention of algebra, their contribution is indisputable.

In his landmark book on the development of risk management, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, Peter Bernstein asked why was it that despite early Muslims’ impressive achievements in mathematics and their advanced mathematical ideas they did not proceed to develop probability and risk management. The answer, he believed, lies in their view of the world.

Bernstein argues that the early Muslims largely believed that the future was determined by God or fate and not by humans while the idea of risk management, based largely on the mathematics of probability, “emerges only when people believe that they are to some degree free agents” and “like the Greeks and early Christians, the fatalist Muslims were not ready to take the leap”.

The Europeans ultimately developed probability and risk management with significant contributions from the French philosopher, mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). At age 31, Pascal decided to devote his life to the study of religion. He died at 39.

In 1662, a collection of Pascal’s thought that he had written in a fragmented form was published posthumously. In that book, appropriately titled Pensées (Thoughts), Pascal argued that probability favoured a wager in believing in God. This argument became known as Pascal’s Wager.

In some ways, Pascal was expressing in the mathematics of probability what Hazrat Ali had expounded almost 1,000 years before Pascal was born.

Hazrat Ali was one of the greatest intellectuals of his time. He had reportedly once told a pagan who did not believe in life after death somewhat along the lines of that if there was no life after death, that is, if he (Ali) were wrong and the pagan was right, then he could be at a loss in this world
but would have no loss in the hereafter.

However, Hazrat Ali argued that his loss in this world as a believer would be much less compared to the loss of the pagan in the hereafter for not believing in life after death if in reality there was one.

The eminent French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) once said, “The most important questions of life are, for the most part, only
problems of probability.” However, is the question of belief in God also a matter of probability? One can say there is no belief without certainty. Is belief in God then a matter of certainty and not probability?

In the Pascalian logic, the odds of wagering favour believing in God. Religion is thus effectively reduced to a tool for managing risks after death.

While many people may rightly scoff at the idea of comparing belief to managing risk, the idea may not be that far-fetched.

The American religious philosopher, Huston Smith, has argued that many religiously inclined people may simply “believe in believing in God” rather than “believe in God”.

In an unflattering allusion to the religiously inclined American Christians, he wrote in his book, The Religions of the World: “A nation can assume the addition of the words ‘under God’ to its pledge of allegiance [which] gives evidence that its citizens actually believe in God whereas all it really
proves is that they believe in believing in God.”

Religion, it can be argued, for some people is a form of risk management for the afterlife. The term ‘risk’ can simply be defined as the possibility that things in future will not turn out as expected.

Since no one alive has credibly reported life after death, humans have a propensity to question its existence in varying degrees. They therefore fail
to appropriately manage the risk they face after death that religions allow. It can be argued that people who merely “believe in believing in God” rather than “believe in God” are not managing this risk appropriately.

Whether or not most people realise, people who bet on the existence of God as Pascal’s Wager demands for gains in the hereafter as well as people who merely “believe in believing in God” appear to be fairly common. To be overtly religious is so much easier and probably far more common than to really understand one’s religion, believe in it and also act on it.

Granted, there must be many people who really believe in God without regard to any rewards for doing so. However, most humans are probably not like that. As rational beings, they do not want things to turn out against their expectation after death, especially since the ability to avoid a potentially adverse situation in the hereafter is only available in this life. The duration of this opportunity is also unknown. As they age, most people realise that the opportunity is slipping by and thus may try to make the most of it then.

To be certain of an outcome that is essentially unknowable with potentially adverse consequences is not very prudent. Yet, many people continue to reject God’s existence, a belief that is not really based on any proof. The same can be said for the opposite position as well. However, the level of risk and the gains/losses associated with the two positions may be very asymmetric. Hazrat Ali pointed this out and Pascal demonstrated it mathematically.

iftikharhyder@netscape.net

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