Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Pascal’s Wager, and the Risks We Take

October 7, 2021


Matt Nelson sat down with Dr. Joshua Hochschild to discuss the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Pascal’s wager, and risk management as it may be applied from a Christian perspective, especially within the realm of religious belief.

Dr. Hochschild currently directs the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program at Mount St. Mary’s University. He is serving as President of the American Catholic Philosophical Association for 2020-2021. In addition to scholarly publications in medieval philosophy and the history of ethics and social thought, his essays, reviews, and commentary have appeared in First Things, The Wall Street Journal, Commonweal, and Modern Age. He is also coauthor of a practical guide to spiritual discipline, A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction.

Matt Nelson: What is risk management in basic terms?

Dr. Hochschild: Risk management is strategizing about avoiding bad things: What are the risks, how important is it to avoid which ones, and what steps are reasonable to take to avoid them? The key to risk-management thinking is that we often have to act without having complete and sufficient information. We might know probabilities (odds that something might happen), but we might not even have that. We might be aware that there are factors that are intrinsically unknowable and yet have to figure out how to act prudently anyway.

To take a very basic example, you might come upon a frozen pond in the winter. Given the risk of falling in, the very safest thing to do is not go out onto it. But let’s say you want to (because you want to go ice fishing) or even need to (to rescue something stuck out on the ice). Obviously, there are steps you would take to maximize the chances that it is safe to walk out on the ice, and reasonable efforts to take depending on the level of urgency. For example, we’d like to know how long the temperatures have been below freezing, and it would be nice to ask people with local experience; we could test the ice first; we could spread out our weight as we venture out; make sure we have a buddy or a rope; etc.

 I want to ask you about how risk management might be applied in the realm of Christian apologetics. First, let’s consider the thoughts of Blaise Pascal. Many are familiar with Pascal’s famous wager. But to refresh our memory, can you explain what it is?

Pascal is a great example. Often, when Catholics think of reason supporting faith, we think of reason being able to prove things or to defend dogmas against objections. But reason is also at work when it is conscious of its limits, when we act in the face of ignorance. Pascal doesn’t prove that God exists. He doesn’t try to show we can know that God exists or even that it is likely that God exists. Instead, he uses a kind of mathematical, probabilistic reasoning to show that, in the face of uncertainty about whether or not God exists, the most prudent thing to do is believe. The believer doesn’t risk losing much if he’s wrong, but he has everything to gain if he’s right; the unbeliever risks losing everything if he’s wrong, and he doesn’t gain anything even if he’s right. It’s a bet, and practically speaking, nobody would stake their lives on atheism.

 Many of today’s skeptics scoff at Pascal’s wager. In your opinion, does it still have relevance in contemporary philosophy of religion?

Yes, I think Pascal’s wager is still relevant (and so does Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI!). It is a valuable counter to the totally unrealistic rationalist standard of Descartes, that one should believe only what is certain and that anything uncertain should be treated as untrue. The value of Pascal’s reasoning is that it reminds us that thinking about religion is not an exercise of pure logic, but of action, engaging our will: we must choose what to believe. I say this as someone who defends actual proofs for the existence of God; but those proofs are highly theoretical, metaphysical, and depend on a level of intellectual advancement.

Pascal’s argument engages the whole person. It is more intuitive. If Aquinas’ five ways appeal to the “head,” Pascal appeals to the “heart,” or what C.S. Lewis called the “chest.” We realize that there are stakes involved; Pascal engages our sense of dignity, and the difference between rashness and courage.

 You have written about the contemporary author and guru of risk management Nassim Nicholas Taleb. First of all, who is he, and when did his work first strike your professional interest?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a kind of self-educated theorist of risk. He theorized only after learning first by doing, playing the high-stakes game of financial trading. Realizing that he had an intelligence about trading that many theorists lacked, he read widely in various disciplines and in history to help articulate what he already knew in his gut. I was initially attracted to his writing because it is spirited and engaging. By now, he has had intellectual influence on a lot of people, mostly outside of the academy. While his books connected to things I knew in the history of philosophy, they excited me for a freshness of voice and for making new connections between things often divided by academic disciplines. He writes with a distinctive style, and his books are very different from what I would normally read as an academic scholar of philosophy.

How can Taleb’s work be applied by Christians today when proposing religious beliefs to nonbelievers?

I have found Taleb’s perspective valuable for showing the reasonableness of things that are sometimes taken to be a matter of faith. We’ve already talked about Pascal’s practical approach to the existence of God. More basically, take some things that are often emphasized in Catholic social teaching, like the principle of subsidiarity. We can say it is rooted in “natural law” (which it is), but we can also point out that it makes pragmatic sense, given that human beings have free will and live in community: as social animals, we need to find ways to participate maximally in the governing of our communal lives, a problem that becomes more intense in the nineteenth century as state and economic power are concentrated to an unprecedented degree.

Or take Catholic teaching about sex and marriage. Barrels of theological ink have been spilled about Humanae Vitae and what kind of theological anthropology would justify the Church’s position on artificial contraception. But at the end of the day, that encyclical can be read as an exercise in what I call “cultural risk management,” simply pointing out what is at stake for the institution of the family and society in general, if one introduces a new kind of technological power in the intimacy of marriage. In general, you could say a risk-management perspective helps one see the prudence of respecting tradition—not as blind obedience to “what has been done” but as a default respect for “what has been proven to work” in scenarios where we don’t always see ahead of time what small changes could lead to cultural catastrophe.

 Any books or other resources you especially recommend in these areas?

I love recommending Taleb’s books—they make up a set now, called “Incerto,” but I would start with Skin in the Game for the easiest entry into his thought or Antifragile for the most substantive, theoretical exploration. An approach to Catholic social teaching that resonates with what I’ve described is in Edward Hadas’ recent book Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking through Catholic Social Teaching. Taleb has been influenced by the Stoic thinker Seneca, and you can find a strong Stoic influence in the Christian tradition—for instance, in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Philosophy professors focus on particular “issues” in the book (faith and reason, time, providence), but really it is a deeply personal book from someone investing energy in a problem of highest personal stakes. It is a book about how to manage one’s spiritual life in the face of great uncertainty and misfortune.