(Written 7/19, updated 7/20)
The Economics of the Lottery
Recently I bought a lottery ticket, costing $2, to put my hat in the ring in hopes of winning a lottery. Why did I do it? What is the economics of this bet? And how does this bet relate to the bet on Jesus’ worldview?
To begin with, I’m a believing — and struggling — Catholic.
Perhaps the top atheist of all time is Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). He has all the up-to-date arguments against religion and is an award-winning professor of biology at Oxford University (The Selfish Gene). Plus, he seems like a wonderful guy who seems very mentally healthy and is living a very successful life. (I met him during a book-signing event.)
Dawkins says that, based on scientific reasoning, the chances that Jesus’ worldview is false is around 90%. “Jesus’ worldview” includes many of the mythologies (1) of current mainline religions, specifically the mythologies — that is, mythologies that religious people believe are true mythologies — that there exists a personal God, that prayers are effective, and that there exists an eternal afterlife.
Dawkins confidently argues that these mythologies can be translated into premises that can be verified by scientific reasoning, and science has proven that there is a 90% probability that these premises are false. He argues that this is not absolute disproof, for a good scientist must always leave open the possibility that he will be proven wrong in the future. Thus he gives religious mythology 10% wiggle-room.
Of course, scientists arrogate their scientific paradigm onto humanity’s mind, neurotically stating this is the only way to perceive reality. Meanwhile some people — like two billion of them — say: “No, I can perceive reality using the scientific method, but I can also perceive some forms of reality using my pre-rational, intuitive senses. Then, I can test these perceptions of reality with my personal experiences and with my own reasoning, including scientific reasoning.
Let’s see, according to Dawkins, there is a 90% chance that Christianity is a delusion. This gives me a 10% chance of going to eternal paradise, if I follow Jesus’ interpretation of reality — specifically, if I believe in the existence of a personal, loving God and the existence of an afterlife, and I put into practice Jesus’ moral guidelines — then I have a 10% chance of eternal life. That’s a good enough bet for me! I’ll take it!
Winning the lottery
Now, back to the lottery. How does Dawkins’ offer compare with Jesus’ offer?
In November 2018 Robert Bailey won a $344 million lottery. He took the lump sum, which resulted in $125 million – cash – after taxes. His chances of winning, according to the New York State Lottery, was 1 out of 292 million. So, when I lay down my $2 in a good lottery, I am taking a 1/292,000,000 bet that I will win $125 million. When I bet on Jesus’ promises, I am taking a 1/10 chance of winning eternal life.
Now, what is the dollar value of eternal life within my values? And what is the value of $125 million if I’m still facing the eventual suffering and death of an ordinary life?
Is eternal life worth $125 million, $1 billion, $100 billion? For me, with my subjective values, eternal life is worth over $100 billion. Thus, by accepting Jesus and his interpretation of reality, I have a one-in-ten chance of winning over $100 billion!
Let’s apply Dawkins’ revered scientific reasoning to this existential decision: what makes more rational sense? What makes more scientific sense?
And remember, the quantum theorists are telling us that all life is based on probability: God plays dice.
Life is but a dream
Historically, I rarely wasted the two dollars on the lottery and, when I did, I felt disappointed every time I checked my ticket and it said, “Sorry, you’re not a winner.” I had the 1-in-300 million irrational idea that I could have won. But I lost. Surprise, surprise.
But now, for whatever reason – maybe it’s maturity — I believe that I’m paying the $2 for a little daydream until I check the ticket. After coughing up the $2, I now spend a few minutes every day daydreaming of what I will do with the $125 million if I win. Then, as days go by, and as I spend another $2 here and there, I periodically I modify my fantasy. Now when the machine tells me I’m not a winner, I don’t feel like a loser. I got my money’s worth in a few pleasant daydreams.
Now onto the economics of the lottery. Millions of people bought $2 tickets and only one person won. But wait……that person has to pay taxes on his winnings. In Bailey’s case he had to pay 63% in taxes and for taking the money in a lump sum rather than annual payments. Thus, the government got around $219 million from all the people who bought the dream, minus the costs of running the lottery, and Bailey got around $125 million.
Then, the chances are that Bailey will invest a significant amount of his winnings into investments which will help the economy. And, no doubt he will give significant amounts to friends, family, and charity. And what would have all those people who lost their $2 have done with their bet instead? Bought a Dunkin’s Doughnut? Bailey may contribute more to American culture than those millions of losers.
Thus, it makes sense to spend $2 in order to have a little daydream, help one person have all his or her financial dreams come true, and contribute to the government, to the economy, and to the American culture.
A better bet
In the same way, it might be a scientific, rational idea to bet on eternal life and to pay the price of the lottery ticket: accept Jesus, give up my grudges, love my enemies, treat those who harm me with goodness, treat others like I want to be treated, pursue meaningful and contributory goals, and try to discern what God wants me to do, and do it. (Hell, it’s practical to do those things anyhow!) And if I loose — and there is no afterlife — I’ll never know. I’ll spend the last few moments of my existence with a beautiful, but false, mythology.
And those persons who didn’t bet on the religious mythologies, but rather believed in scientific mythology, they may end up spending their last few moments of existence being a little angry and depressed. (And they should be. They’re facing extinction!) Then, if the religious mythologies were in fact false, they will never know that they were right.
Blaise Pascal, the founder of modern statistics and writer of Pascal’s wager once said that mine wasn’t a bad bet. Thanks, Blaise.
(1) (I’m using the definition of “mythology” as defined by Karl Popper, one of the top scientific philosophers of the 20th century. He stated that any idea that could not be verified — that is, proven to be true or false — is a mythological idea. It is true by definition, but scientifically meaningless.)
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