Apologetics: October 2009 Archives

Puddleglum's Wager

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We've been listening to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles on CD. I read them when I was about ten years old, and I never got around to re-reading them, so some of it is almost as if I'm experiencing them for the first time. When I got to the following scene from the Silver Chair, it struck me as a strange argument, sort of like Pascal's Wager, but something rubbed me the wrong way about it. The main characters were in the Green Witch's underground domain and had fallen under her influence, which was causing them to lose their belief in the above-ground world. Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle then gives the following speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.

What rubbed me the wrong way was that it sounded as if he didn't care whether the world was real. He was going to believe in it anyway, because it's more pleasant to believe in it. How can the upper world be so much better than the underground world that its mere finite value of being better would be worth believing in a lie if it's not true?

When I raised this issue with a friend, he said, "But it's Pascal's Wager!" I said, "No, it's not!" He insisted that the upper world is Aslan's world, which I'd been thinking of as the place at the end of the world that they went to in the previous book, and the upper world was just Narnia, which is the analogue of Earth. But we were interrupted and never managed to finish the conversation.

I realized later, when teaching Pascal's Wager, what Lewis must have been up to, and it's actually a neat trick. If he was seeing Narnia as a placeholder for the eternal reward of Pascal's Wager and the underworld as a placeholder for this life, then you have an interesting argument that isn't quite Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager concedes for the sake of argument that life in this world is more pleasant if you don't believe in God but then argues that the chance of eternal reward in heaven compensates for that in terms of rational decision theory. You shouldn't even need 50% likelihood of God's existence for the wager to be worth it given that the reward is infinite and the cost merely finite if you bet wrong. But Lewis' Wager is different in exactly one way: it doesn't make the concession. It takes the finite value of life in this world to be better if you believe in God than if you don't. So life is finitely better if you believe in God, and the afterlife is infinitely better if it turns out there is one. Therefore, it's a no-brainer. You might as well believe in God. If it turns out you lose the bet (i.e. God doesn't exist), you still end up finitely better off, and if you win (i.e. God does exist) then you get an infinitely better result.

One interesting result of Puddleglum's Wager is that it easily avoids the problem Mike Almeida raises against Pascal's Wager. Mike's problem (which I'm not taking a stand on at this point) relies on its being better in this life not to believe.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

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