Chances are... IADVENTURES N PROBABILITY by Kaplan

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Sample text

Nevertheless, by redefining probability from an inherent property of random events to a proportion derived from observations, Laplace helped shape the future of science by prescribing which phenomena it 42 Chances Are . . would choose to observe: those that could be entered neatly into probability calculations. And because he put the mind of the observer, rather than the nature of creation, at the center of science, he broke forever Pascal’s hope that faith and scientific inquiry could sit comfortably together.

Pascal’s real accomplishment was to transform each of these attractive mental exercises into the mathematical language of proof. The question in the Wager is whether to accept faith in God, despite our inability to comprehend Him: A game is being played at the far end of this infinite distance; heads or tails will turn up. What will you bet? By reason, you can do neither one thing nor the other; using reason, you can defend neither . . but you must bet. It is not up to you. You are committed. What do you choose, then?

He seemed genuinely pained that as great a mind as Pascal’s should give credence to miracles. And so, since probability is a matter of what we can see in this world rather than what could happen anywhere, Laplace made quick use of it to bring Pascal’s Wager fluttering down to earth. Here is his reasoning—and as always, the crux of the argument is in its initial setting out. Assuming that our choice is between belief in God or not, how did we know we had this choice? Because we had been told about it: witnesses, from evangelists to parish priests, affirmed to us God’s promise that belief leads to an infinity of happy lives.

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