Philosophers’ Zone Podcast: Martin Buber and Pascal’s Wager

I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand’s two main novels: Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. In Atlas Shrugged, it’s revealed that Rand thought a person should study physics and philosophy. The heroes in her book studied philosophy, physics or both when they were in university. I’ve studied some basic physics but never much philosophy. So I decided to learn some philosophy (whatever that means) by listening to the podcast Philosopher’s zone.

I began with the oldest podcast they had, it was called: Jewish Philosophy: Martin Buber. “Martin Buber was born in pre-Nazi Austria and emigrated to Israel in 1938 where he spent much of the rest of his life. He grappled with Zionism, Jewish thought, secular philosophy and politics and the result is a body of thought very much based on relationships.”

I learned just as much about this man’s world view from his life story as from what his ideas were, probably more. One story was told of how his mother left him as a child and he couldn’t get her to turn around when she was leaving. This had a big impact on him and therefore his philosophy.

Another story told how a young man came to ask his advice one morning and he spoke to him for 30 minutes before work and advised him, but the very next day the young man killed himself. This was portrayed as an important factor in his “relational” sort of philosophy. The guest of the podcast explained how this caused an epiphany in Buber in which he saw the need to connect with things viscerally.

I don’t really I understand what exactly this philosophy is actually about. Can it all be reduced to a few essential quotes? If so then I don’t remember what the quotes were. It’s almost as if to write about it you need to have read or heard something other than the podcast.

Wikipedia says that he is best known for the philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centred on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship. Apparently in philosophy there are two fundamental ways of relating to things in the world: I-Thou and I-It. The wikipedia definitions are very complicated and the podcast didn’t explain it well but essentially it’s the different between how we relate with a thing and an entity. Martin Buber founded this concept.

The second podcast I heard was: Pascal’s wager, betting on god. This was a lot more understandable to me. Basically Pascal who was a famous scientific mind became very religious later in life, Jansenism was his specific sect of Christianity. It was at this time that he described his famous wager, which would later be almost seminal to studies of probability, decision-making and more.

The premise is that there are only two possibilities: there is a God or there is not a God. We don’t really know exactly which is true. If there is a God (and Heaven and everything is true as well) then the best thing to do would be to live in compliance with religious principles so that we may get into heaven. This may involve a lot of abstaining from life’s pleasures but ultimately leads to eternal bliss.

On the other hand if there is no God then the best thing to do would be to live as best we can here. Since there is nothing to look forward to other than this life. However if we do everything we want to do and live an awesome life then we might not get into Heaven.

Thus we have a choice. Do we decide to live as if there is a vengeful God or as if there isn’t one. Pascal argued that it was always better to choose the possible eternal bliss. This is because it’s infinitely greater than the trade-off of a lifetime of religious adherence. If we choose pleasure in this life then that’s a much smaller payoff if we’re correct.

He said that even if there’s an infinitesimal chance of eternal life being true it would always be better to take that chance. I can see how mathematically this makes sense but it still doesn’t make me want to devote my life to religion. Perhaps that’s because I value life too highly?

The main argument to Pascal’s wager was that it was a false dichotomy. In truth we have a lot more than two choices. There are many religions and many variations of religions. The guest’s advise about what conclusions we could make was to think and research (and be wise about what you choose to think and research). I guess that’s pretty common for people that love learning and it seems almost intuitive to me, but I guess not everyone does it so maybe they could benefit much more greatly from this than me.

I believe that from listening and writing these concepts, a new understanding has formed in my brain which by itself is academic and not useful – but I feel that on the whole, it’s abstract conceptual purity has added to my wisdom in general. It may be best to start learning earlier philosophy since later philosophy appears to be based on many esoteric premises.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophers’ Zone Podcast: Martin Buber and Pascal’s Wager

  1. The problem with this line of thinking, either God exists or he doesn’t, is that there are numerous assumptions that have to be made which totally muddy the water. Just ask Epicurus. For example, God could exist but the religious concept of God could totally miss the mark. That is, what if God exists but Heaven doesn’t? Would that change your thought process?

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