In the late 1650’s, the French polymath and renowned scientist Blaise Pascal, having undergone a religious experience that transformed him into something of a zealot, suggested the following logical strategy regarding belief in God: If there is a God, then believing in him will ensure you an eternity of bliss, while not believing in him could earn you an eternal sentence to misery.
On the other hand, if there is no God, believing in him anyway will cost you very little, and not believing in him will mean nothing in the non-existent after life. Therefore, the only sensible bet is to believe in God. This has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager.
The wager has a surprising number of applications beyond concerns for a comfortable afterlife. There are many things for which the value of believing something or not can be utilised as a ‘cost-versus-likely-benefit’ wager, often without regard to the actual truth of the matter.
Since science does not profess to have a final truth, and in many areas freely admits its incomplete knowledge, Pascal’s wager can provide a useful method of deciding between two alternatives. In this article it is the validity of the Sars-Cov-2 virus as a causative agent of global illness and the benefit or not of two of the most common non-pharmacological strategies and lifestyle proposals for its related management.
Social isolation or at least reduced exposure to family, friends, colleagues, and strangers via physical distancing is predicated on the principle that viral particulates, especially those of a respiratory tendency need human to human contact to survive and thrive. Using Pascal’s model, we can apply the related decision tree to the application of this policy and related benefit.
To further expand – Pascal’s Wager Adaptation: Pandemic Edition
- You stay home and respect distancing because you accept that the disease is real and very bad, and that is in fact the case, so you avoid infecting and possibly killing yourself and others.
- You stay home and respect distancing because you accept that the disease is real and very bad, and that is in fact not the case, so it is moot.
- You do not stay home and respect distancing because you do not accept that the disease is real and very bad, and you are wrong about that. You run a very high risk of infecting and possibly killing yourself and others.
- You do not stay home and respect distancing because you do not accept that the disease is real and very bad, and you are right about that. You dodged a bullet. (Hint: this is not a possible outcome in the current real-world situation.)
Staying at home and being isolated does not of course have no psychological consequence. The mental health effects of COVID-19 are already visible and even by conservative estimates they are yet to reach their peak and likely to considerably outlive the current pandemic. As such this analogy has limited its impact to transmission and infection risk only.
It may feel that this analogy is stretching the original argumentative structure beyond what is reasonable, but it is the same basic structure as applied to his theological position: a binary choice and a binary of possibilities make four possible outcomes. The following are true statements about both applications of this structure:
- In the first case, you inconvenience yourself to some extent, maximise good and minimise harm done.
- In the second case, you inconvenience yourself to some extent, and it turns out to be moot.
- In the third case, you maximise the risk of a bad outcome, minimising good and maximising harm done.
- In the fourth case, you basically dodge a bullet and breathe a sigh of relief. (Again, this might work with theology, but it will not work with Sars-Cov-2.)
The results suggest you can be responsible and inconvenience yourself to reduce harm overall, or you can choose not to be responsible and participate in (probably) causing various levels of harm. The choice seems obvious, doesn’t it?
Albeit the people who like to attach themselves the Barrington Declaration suggest that isolation of ‘risk associated’ people would mean that inconvenience would only have to extend to the vulnerable. Attractive as this may be to the ‘non-vulnerable’, a similar exercise is occurring post-Christmas in the UK with current lockdowns, and at the point of writing this, the pressures on the NHS have continued to reduce its ability to meet all patient needs as effectively as normal.
Overall death rates are high, and the FT has presented a compelling video explaining why the position is not the same as a bad flu and winter combination.
There have of course been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but you can also apply his wager to the value in mask wearing. Consider:
Note that whilst it has not been conclusively proved that masks work scientifically, a paper out on the 19th Jan 2021in The lancet Digital found that communities with high reported mask-wearing as well as physical distancing are the most likely to be able to control transmission.
Rather, we are doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks correctly would be in our best interest. If this is wrong, then it is a minor inconvenience. But if right, then we have prevented contributing to the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it is better to bet on wearing masks than not to.
Consuming nutrients and following good lifestyle practice for self-protection
As previously explained, supporting an effective integrated immune response with micro and macro nutrients provides a safe and potentially effective way to reduce risk of, and severity of infection, with improved recovery and function. Pascal’s wager can be applied to this model also.
What does it all mean?
If you inconvenience yourself by social distancing, wearing masks supplementing nutrients, doing your best to keep healthy and being responsible about this whole pandemic thing, the absolute worst-case scenario is that it has no impact, good or bad, on the statistics. The other possibility is that it affects things in a good way.
If you refuse to inconvenience yourself or engage in good health practices including the ingestion of foods that favour GI bacterial diversity (an area of increased risk for infection) as suggested, the consequences range anywhere from neutral to abjectly and unnecessarily terrible.
Rationalising Pascal’s wager in these matters can be challenging in the face of competing and often emotionally charged alternatives on social media and by groups with opposing narratives to promote.
It is perhaps worth noting that social media supercharges the mental habits by which people seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.
The proposals recommended here, are safe and likely effective, worth keeping in mind when determining if the alternative proposal you are reading seems equivalently viable!