My teenage nephew recently told me about an American series (Breaking Bad) centered on a chemistry teacher who suffers from lung cancer and becomes a drug lord out of necessity. He then went on to describe a casual exchange of ideas with his friend regarding contrary paths in life.
Thus, he asked himself what sense it made to endure the hardship of labour instead of taking the easy and dishonourable way out and simply selling drugs to get rich even if these actions may harm others? Apparently, today teenagers are taught to pursue a career and earn a lot of money as a worthwhile goal in life, since school and work life are shaped by the idea of achievement. A good education serves as the foundation and hard work is one of the self-evident and commonly accepted consequences of maintaining a successful life. However, it is not clear whether there will be a reward at the end of the road. So, why not take the easy way out? The freely expressed thoughts of these two young people reflect this conflict brilliantly. In the second year of the pandemic, which particularly affected adolescents, such fatalistic thinking is understandable.
My quick-witted nephew then put forth a new aspect: our ethical responsibility in the eyes of God. What we do in life on earth and how we pursue our own interests, sometimes even to the detriment of others, is our great responsibility for which we must answer to God in the afterworld. But what if I didn’t lead a good life in the eyes of God? What happens then?
I told him about the philosopher, mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) who wanted to show with his famous wager in his Pensées sur la religion (Nr. 418) that belief in God is better than not believing in him:
“If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing.”
According to Pascal, the following possibilities present themselves:
If God doesn’t exist and you believe in God, you will lose very little by your faith.
If God exists and you don’t believe in God, you will lose everything at the risk of spending your eternal life in hell.
If God exists and you believe in God, then eternal life in heaven awaits.
Conclusion: It is rational (because it is prudent) to believe in God.
Thus, in Pascal’s way of thinking it is inevitable to make the choice between believing in God or not believing and he analyses why it is prudent to believe in God. It is not about truth but about prudence. Therefore, Pascal’s argument is not that God does indeed exist, but it serves as a useful guidance for one’s actions as it is based on rational grounds. We determine who we are by what we chose to do qua ratio. Being mindful might thus be prudent. What kind of path in life we take, how we treat other people, whether we are responsible for our actions only in our eyes or in the eyes of God are important decisions that determine who we become as a person and help us to grow as humans. Being able to discuss and to challenge oneself is an important part of one’s self-education and of the evolution of the self. To be a small part in my nephew’s brain gym and growth as a human brings me great pleasure and teaches me new perspectives on life.