Betting Against the Mayan Apocalypse: Should You Keep Working, Even if the End May Be Near?

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Nostradamus was wrong and the world did not end or get trashed at the beginning of the new millennium (although, sadly, his prophesied cataclysmic “fire that will fall from the sky” occurred a year later in September 2001—mentioned in case being approximately and partially right counts for something).

Now, we’ve supposedly got an ancient Mayan calendar to worry about—which has prompted the concern that somehow the Mayans predicted the end of a cosmic cycle culminating in global cataclysm on December 22, 2012 (or December 21st, depending on your time zone and whose calculations you trust).

Two Job Bets to Place as ‘Pascal’s Wager’

So, should we adopt some variant of what is called “Pascal’s Wager” and continue working, even if convinced the end is near, or stop working, even though we are not convinced the end is nigh—in effect, betting on something we don’t believe in, namely, in this case, “(no) business as usual” after December 22nd, just in case we are wrong in believing we are all (not) doomed”?

In the 17th-century philosopher, inventor, physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal’s take on this kind of question, this amounts to an agnostic’s or atheist’s betting on the existence of God, a judgment day and afterlife, in Hell or Heaven, just in case his doubts about their existence are mistaken, since disbelief is likely to get you sent to Hell if your doubts are erroneous.

To answer this question—whether it makes any sense to work at all or to stop working, if you take or do not take the Mayan scenario seriously—requires considering how sensible it is to accept Pascal’s Wager in any circumstances at all.

Take the case of God: Pascal’s idea is that it is prudent to bet on the existence of God, even if an agnostic or atheist, just in case your doubt or conviction to the contrary is wrong, since apparently you have nothing to lose by doing so.

This is the way Pascal framed it in his Pensees (Thoughts), 1660:

 “Let us then examine this point, and say, ‘God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here… What will you wager?…Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

You Want to Bet That Pascal’s Wager is Foolproof?         

That idea is seriously flawed in many ways, as critics such as Richard Dawkins (in his critique of religion, The God Illusion), have argued.  (One interesting analysis identifies three weaknesses—another analysis, six more—in Pascal’s Wager, e.g., in religions that feature “predestination”, what humans believe is utterly irrelevant to their salvation.)

As a minimum, I would point out that if the “bet” involves forcing oneself to convincingly believe in the existence of God or the imminence of a December apocalypse, placing that bet is both difficult and risky.

It’s difficult, because behaving inconformity with belief is one thing; behaving with sincere belief when one doesn’t really believe is a far more difficult other thing. It is also risky for lots of reasons, including because believing in the existence of one God may offend jealous, equally punishing and rival gods, should they also (or instead) happen to exist.

Betting as Contingency Planning vs. Sincerity of Belief

Remember, in both the God and the Mayan scenarios, “betting” means behaving as though what you disbelieve will happen or exists will, nonetheless, happen or exist. But have you really bet on either if you merely “behave” as though they are real? Sure, you can quit your job, start telling the truth, give all your money to a church, go to that church’s services daily for salvation, be nice to everyone, etc., in an attempt to place both bets—one on the existence of God and judgment day, and one on the imminence of that judgment day, viz., December 22nd. But that may not be enough.

Clearly, some forms of Pascal’s Wager require merely adapting one’s behavior to information that you actually doubt, but allow for, as part of rational contingency planning. However, a more stringent version of the wager also requires adapting one’s mind in sincere conformity to a belief or doctrine that is actually resisted.

Moreover, there can be some conflicts of core interest in adopting Pascal’s approach to two separate strongly held beliefs (and to their offsetting contingency bets)—in this case, belief in the existence of a punishing and demanding God and also belief in a Mayan Apocalypse.

For example, some, believing in both the Mayan apocalypse (which renders work and its rules pointless) and in the existence of God, should Pascal-style, bet not only on the possible non-occurrence of Doomsday, but also on the non-existence of God, since the Wager Principle, to the extent that it is a rational rule, suggestsalways hedging your bets, making contingency plans and allowing for the possibility and consequences of all of your beliefs being wrong. Why would such a rational contingency wager be warranted only for beliefs about the existence of God(s)? Why isn’t making that kind of wager prudent for all beliefs about everything and anything, if, indeed, it is supremely rational to make such a wager in the case of beliefs about the (non-) existence of God?

So, contrary to their core beliefs, and instead betting that the Apocalypse won’t happen and that God does not exist, these apocalypsist theists should rationally conclude that, as a hedge and contingency plan, it’s OK to break at least one of the Ten Commandments in anticipation of a post-December 22nd intact workplace: the coveting of thy neighbor’s wife-who-works-in-the-office rule. This is clearly a conflict of two vested interests and related strongly-held beliefs: preparing for Mayan Apocalypse work exemptions and preparing to meet one’s Maker.

The Opportunity Costs of Pre-Apocalypse Quitting 

Fortunately, quitting your job as a precaution before a possible Apocalypse, as a behavioral form of accepting Pascal’s Wager, does not require sincerely believing it is coming and therefore frightening yourself. No, it merely involves contingency planning, just in case the end really is near–a bit like carrying an umbrella just in case it rains, without cringing in fear of lightning, or more like maintaining your bomb shelter after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, such Pascal-style precautionary quitting does entail the risk of a much more substantial opportunity cost—giving up the opportunity to continue having a job on, about and after December 22nd, just as Pascal’s Wager (betting that God does exist) does, e.g., the lost opportunity to spend the rest of one’s life unconcerned about the whims and decrees of any gods.

A Guide to Preparing for the (Non-)Apocalypse

Those who, unlike these deniers, are truly convinced that the Apocalypse is at hand have an easier gambler’s ride ahead of them: In their case, hedging their bets, as Pascal would recommend, means merely continuing to work in a business-as-usual way, despite their conviction that it’s pointless.

Unlike the perversely Pascal-inspired Apocalypse deniers who nonetheless hedge their bets by quitting their jobs and becoming looters, pillagers or layabouts, the conventional deniers who therefore keep working will risk only lost opportunities (to loot, pillage or merely relax without working), rather than very harsh consequences (in the form of poverty, hunger and/or possible homelessness) for having quit the job in a world that turns out not to have ended on December 22nd.

Given these considerations, my advice to all of you on this possible Eve of Destruction is simple:

  1. If you really believe the doomsday interpretations of Mayan astronomy, accept Pascal’s Wager, hedge your bets and keep working. If you have anything to lose, at least it won’t be your job.
  2. If you really disbelieve those interpretations of the Mayan calendar, again, hedge your bets, accept Pascal’s Wager, and quit your job now.

But don’t use that freed-up time to go on a Viking rampage or to lazily sip Zombies on a tropical beach somewhere.

Spend it looking for another job.

By Michael Moffa