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'Pascal's wager'.

Posted by Ward on March 11, 2005

17th Century Philosopher Blaise Pascal formulated an argument that is used anytime the downside consequences of an action or a belief are so extraordinary that the risk cannot (should not) be taken.

"If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing -- but if you don't believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist." Paraphrase of Pascal's Wager.
There was at least one modern application of this philosophy called "Mutually Assured Destruction" which posited that the nuclear powers were in balance with hugh overkill capacity because noone would risk the certain consequence of the earth being destroyed if the first party pulled the trigger.

Pascal's wager works in lots of little ways as well, when you don't take an action because the consequences, although not likely to occur, are too dreadful to contemplate.

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