Thursday, December 29, 2005

Pascal's Wager

Over Christmas, my family decided to have a four-on-one argument with me for about six hours over our political and religious disagreements. During this discussion (I will not call it a “debate” since I was the only one engaging in any kind of logical discussion) my sister unknowingly challenged me with an old argument for why one should choose to believe in God (particularly the Christian God) called Pascal's Wager.

In its simplest form, Pascal's Wager tell us that we should choose to believe in God because if God doesn't exist we lose nothing by choosing to believe in Him, but if we choose not to believe and are wrong, we suffer eternal punishment.

There are a number of flaws in this argument. For one, it assumes that there are only two choices: belief in God or disbelief in God. But, in practice, even within Christianity itself, there are dozens and dozens of choices of exactly which God to believe in, and choosing incorrectly generally dooms one to eternal punishment just as much as atheism does. So, the odds aren't very good even if we choose to believe.

In addition, Pascal's Wager assumes that one's temporal existence in this world is either better or the same if one chooses to believe in God, whether or not He exists. As indicated in many of my earlier posts, I believe this to be false. Believing in things without sufficient evidence leads to things like the Crusades and flying planes into buildings. If no one believed that there was an infinite reward awaiting him or her after he or she died, no one would go on a crusade, fly a plane into a building, or become a suicide bomber. In addition, if one spends his or her life focused on an afterlife that never happens, he or she ends up missing out on much of what this life has to offer.

I explained these objections to my sister. When I returned from Christmas, she sent me a link to this defense of Pascal's Wager. The bulk of this post is my response to this illogical and ill-reasoned defense.

First off, the author claims:

The point with the wager is that sometimes you have to overcome intellectual
barriers that keep people from looking farther into the idea that God exists.

Um... no. That's not the point of the wager. On the very same page as the author's defense is an explanation of Pascal's Wager which includes the following statement: "Based upon mathematical probability, he formulated an arguement [sic] to show that it is rational to believe in God and irrational to deny Him." Intellectual barriers are another term for rational barriers. That is to say, by this definition, the point of Pascal's Wager is not to that we should set aside reason - overcome intellectual barriers - in order to choose to believe. Rather, the point of Pascal's Wager is that reason and intellect should actually lead us to believe. The author has misunderstood his subject matter on a fundamental level before he even begins his defense.

The author also claims:

[W]hen I debunk the fact that [refutations of Pascal's Wager are] flawed, then the normal cop-out is to move the goal posts by saying something to the effect of: "Gee, do you really think God would want people to believe in him out of fear of going to hell?" or "Do you think God wants us to gamble on the best religion?"
But then goes on to say:

Certainly no one should believe in God so as to obtain a form of fire insurance.

First off, the whole point of Pascal's Wager is that one should believe in God as a form of fire insurance! In his own words, Pascal tells us:

"God is, or He is not." ...A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up... Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least.
"Which interests you least" means, which choice does the least for you? Which one gives you the least insurance of a good outcome? According to Pascal's Wager, not believing.

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you gain, you
gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He
As we can see, according to Pascal himself, we should believe in God because belief is insurance of a good outcome, ie, a form of fire insurance! In fact, the author is not only wrong when he claims that asking if God wants us to gamble on Him is "moving the goal posts," Pascal's Wager, by telling us we should believe in God as a form of insurance, specifically begs the question of whether making such a gamble is, in fact, what God wants us to do. Pointing out that an argument begs the question isn't "moving the goal posts," but rather discussing a weakness of the argument itself.

The author then goes on to dismiss the basic point of Pascal's Wager by arguing:

The reason most atheists point to, in order to dismiss the wager, is they claim
there are more than just two choices. (a.k.a. False dilemma). But what they are
doing is sort of sneaky and subtle, but it is there none-the-less [sic]. They are
pretending to view the wager as if they are a theist. But they are not. They are
borrowing our theistic paradigm, in order to dismiss the analogy. because if you
are an atheist, then it is silly to say "how do I know if God is the right one,
what if zeus is right, or what if the pink fairy god is the right one.." because
you lack belief in all of them, why would you suddenly pretend to believe in the
plausability of many just because someone mentions one of them?
No, no, no. The point of Pascal's Wager is that we will definitely win by choosing to believe. That is to say, we risk losing (being subjected to eternal punishment) by choosing not to believe, but that we cannot lose if we choose to believe. in Pascal's own words: "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing." But the multiplicity of choices of Gods to believe in gives lie to this claim. In truth, we can still lose (be eternally punished) even if we choose to believe but choose incorrectly.

As such, this analogy put forth by the author does not work at all:

I guess if we were trying to get you to play the lottery. And you said "I don't
believe any number combo will win, I think it's fixed." and we said, hey, pick
these 6 numbers. And you were like, 'why these six numbers?' why not this other
set of numbers or this other set? But earlier you said you didn't think any set
would win, so why are you lobbying for some other set? If you think the game is
rigged, then simply say "nope, I don't believe your set of numbers will win, nor
any other." My set of 6 numbers should rest on their own merit. They should not
be compared to another set of numbers that you've already pre-determined cannot

Because, you see, Pascal's Wager doesn't say, "You can't win if you don't play, so you should play," it says, "You cannot lose if you play, so why not play?" Therefore, it is certainly a valid critique of the Wager to point out that, due to the multiplicity of Gods to choose from, you actually can play and still lose.

In other words, Pascal's Wager claims that we cannot lose if we choose to believe, regardless of whether God exists or not. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to point out that it is, in fact, possible to choose to believe and still lose. The author has seriously misunderstood Pascal's Wager by failing to understand that it is argument is meant to stand whether or not we "think the game is rigged" or "don't believe your set of numbers will win, nor any other."

The author then continues to demonstrate his lack of understanding of Pascal's Wager by claiming, "If you make no wager what-so-ever [sic], then you automatically lose." A thousand times, no! Pascal's Wager simply claims that we can lose by failing to wager (failing to choose to believe), because we will end up in eternal torment if God does exist. However, the Wager, despite the author's claim, does allow for the fact that we can win by choosing not to believe, if it turns out God does not exist.

In his next sentence, the author claims, "However, if you at least wager on one god then you have a chance." This argument is not in any way a defense of Pascal's Wager, because Pascal's Wager allows that "you have a chance" even if you choose not to believe, as noted above.

And you can increase those odds by going with the God of the Bible since He
is recognized by the big 3 religions in the world. Billions of people. This is
one case where you can appeal to the masses. If you have ever participated in
paramutual wagering, you will usually see which horse or which dog has the best
chance of winning just based on the fact that 70% of the people are picking that
horse/dog. Maybe they know something, maybe they are just being lemmings. But
you certainly don't want to wager on the mutt with a gimp leg. That's what all
these other 'gods' are. Mutts compared to God.

This, of course, has nothing to do with Pascal's Wager, which assumes that there is only one God to choose to believe in. In addition, this argument makes little sense. The "[b]illions of people" who believe in the author's so-called "God of the Bible" don't agree that they all worship the same God, and, in fact, go to the lengths of killing each other over the differences in their Gods. There is no all-encompassing "God of the Bible" we can believe in that will cover us whether God turns out to be the Jewish God, the Christian God, or the Muslim God, nor is there a generic God of each religion that all sects of each of these religions accept. Fundamentalist Christians believe that Catholics believe in the wrong God and are doomed to hellfire, for instance, though both groups consider themselves Christians and claim to worship the Christian God.

On top of this, the fact that "[b]illions of people" believe in something is no indicator of truth. Most people who have lived on Earth, and perhaps most people who live on Earth now, believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. But that doesn't make it true. Despite the classic saying, billions of Chinese people can be wrong, have been wrong, and will be wrong. Picking one's beliefs by popularity is no guarantee of picking the correct beliefs.

And still others say, well what if there were a conceivable god who would reward
the unbeliever and punish the heretic? Number one, this is borderline solipsism.
Descartes said "How do we know we are not dreaming?" This has been viewed by
most intellegent thinkers as an absurd way to think.What if worms had machine
guns. Analysis paralysis. Do nothingism.
Since there is no evidence that God exists, let alone what the characteristics of God might be if He exists, it is far from absurd to propose that a God or god[s] might exist other than Christian God assumed by Pascal's Wager. If one cannot defend the assumptions of one's argument, then the argument fails. Until and unless Christians can offer sufficient evidence that we should accept their definition of God, then that definition is no better or worse than any other.

It would be solipsism to claim that evidence doesn't matter. Pointing out that Christians lack sufficient evidence for us to accept their definition of God, and that God could therefore be entirely different than they (and Pascal's Wager) assume, is entirely different and entirely within the bounds of reasonable argument and discussion, despite the author's claim.

If your wager is to not wager, in the hopes/belief that there is a god that
will reward your unbelief in any gods, then are you still an atheist?

The author once agains utterly fails to understand the argument being made. The reason an atheist might point out that, if a God were to exist, He might be one that rewards unbelievers, is to challenge one of the assumptions upon which Pascal's Wager stands. The atheist isn't pointing out that there could be a God who rewards unbelievers because he or she is hoping "that there is a god [who] will reward [his or her] unbelief [sic] in any gods." The atheist is simply attacking the assumption that the only God that could possibly exist is the Christian God.

If we make the assumption explicit, Pascal's Wager would read something like, "Assuming that God, if He exists, is the Christian God, who sends believers to Heaven and unbelievers to eternal damnation, then let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you gain, yougain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is." As such, we can easily see that atheist is simply pointing out that Pascal's Wager doesn't work if one does not accept the Wager's basic assumption on the nature of God, for which there is no evidence given and which the atheist has no reason to accept. In order to counter the argument that any actual God might not correspond to the Christian concept of God, the Christian must provide evidence that the Christian concept of God is the most likely God to exist, which neither Pascal nor the author have done.

The author then goes on a long-winded rant about lions, an Emporer [sic], and a coliseum. I won't go into great detail picking this absurd analogy apart except to say that the debate isn't about what one should or should not do once in the coliseum, whether or not we might have to fight lions in the coliseum, or what weapons one should use to fight those lions.

The debate is whether we the coliseum, the crowd, the weapons, the lions, and the Emporer [sic] exist in the first place. A better analogy is that the author and I are standing in the middle of a desert with no one and nothing else around. The author then claims that I should get ready to fight the Emporer's [sic] lions in the coliseum. When I ask the author why he thinks so, he says, "That's what I believe." When I ask for evidence that lions are the biggest threat we face rather than, say, dehydration, he fails to provide any.

If we were standing in a coliseum as the author describes, there would be sufficient evidence that we are going to fight lions for me to prepare for such a fight. The problem is that the author expects us to prepare for a lion fight despite a complete lack of evidence, as would be the case if we were in the middle of the desert rather than in a coliseum.

This is why I said it is solipsism, it's the same as asking how we know we are
not part of someone else's dream. I mean I suppose anything's possible. But do
you live the other aspects of your daily life thinking like a solipsist? Do you
not slam on your brakes before a wreck, deciding that since you can't be sure
your brakes won't fail, you have just as much chance of the car in front of you
being a hologram, or a hallucination? NO! You jam on the brakes with both feet!
Because it has the highest chance of success. Inaction does have a chance of
succeeding, albeit very slim to none, but why bet on a limping horse?
Anything is possible, but some things are much more likely than others. It is more likely that the world exists than that it just my dream, therefore I accept that the world exists. It is not, however, less likely that universe has no creator than that an omnisicent, omnibenevolent, ominpotent being created the universe, which somehow contains evil despite the omnibenevolence of its creator, and that this being incarnated as a first-century Jewish carpenter in order to somehow save humanity from sins committed by our distant ancestors, and that if we fail to believe that this carpenter died for our sins, this omnibenevolent being has no choice but to eternally torment us.

As for slamming on the brakes, we slam on the brakes because we have sufficient evidence, from past experience, that they work, and that collisions between fast-moving objects often cause our bodies great damage and pain. We have a great deal of evidence that slamming on the brakes will save me from a car crash. We have no evidence, despite the claims of Christians, that belief in God will save us from eternal damnation. Due to the vast gulfs in evidence between the two examples, this comparison utterly fails.

The article then descends into a discussion of why the Christian God is more likely than the "god of apathy," and claims that other concepts of god are "illogical" and do not solve the problem of evil. I will simply point out that trying to reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god with the existence of evil is so difficult that there is an entire theological discipline, theodicy, devoted to it, and that theists have yet to produce a theodicy that has not been convincingly refuted and which does not have numerous logical flaws. That's why theodicy is still an ongoing effort within the theological community.

The contradictions and illogicalities of the Christian concept of God are numerous enough to take up hundreds and hundreds of books. Suffice it to say that the logical objections to the Christian concept of God are numerous and that the disupte is hardly settled, leaving the Christian God in little better shape than the author's "god of apathy" and other examples.

As such, the author completely fails in his defense of Pascal's Wager and the refutations of the utility of the Wager stand.


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At 7:22 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I am glad to you see you working on your blog again!

Of course, as you so skillfully articulate, Pascal's Wager is in no way a convincing argument for belief in [Gg]od(s). I have little new to add to your comments, except perhaps a slightly different spin on exactly what you say: George Atkinson is guilty of a rhetoric trap into which many people fall -- he has lost track of the point of the argument in the first place.

I think we should begin by asking: "Who is trying to convince whom of what?" The answer is that Pascal and Atkinson are trying to convince (people like) you and me that we should believe in the Christian God, irrespective of whether or not God exists. That is, the thesis here is that we should believe, it is not that God exists. Pascal's Wager says nothing about the existence of any [Gg]od(s).

From a debate point of view, the hard truth here is simply that we are unconvinced of Pascal's (or Atkinson's) argument. Since I hold no designs on what Atkinson does or does not believe, I need not give an explanation -- it is sufficient for me personally to see that the argument is not logically sound or persuasive. Still, I am a person that likes to consider all sides of an argument, so I am apt to point out the flaws in the argument (as you have). However, it is not, then, my responsibility to defend my religious views ... it still remains their responsibility to defend their logic. Why? Because they wish to convince me, not the other way around. I am perfectly happy and comfortable with my belief as it stands, and I am more or less satisfied with others going on believing what they believe. I don't find the Wager a threat because it is logically flawed, and I certainly will not be convinced by Atkinson's insuations as to my personal verisimilitude. To convince me, he must (among other things) satisfy the chief complaint that, objectively speaking, there are more than two strategies to this game ... in fact, there are an infinite number. And he must do so without insulting me ... or his goal is lost.

Let's get at the crux of the matter by examining the word "rational". I think here it is clear that "rational" is meant entirely in the game-theoretic sense. Pascal's Wager is designed, on purpose, to be a hypothetical two-player game, and the basic tenant is that objective analysis of this game will show me how I should rationally play. The game is constructed in the following way: I am one player with two strategies (B: believe in the Christian God, or ~B: fail to believe in Him) and we suppose another player (the Universe) which has two strategies (E: the existence of the Christian God, or ~E: the lack of existence). Given this, I might construct the following game payoff matrix:

(B,E) -> Infinity, (B,~E) -> 0
(~B,E) -> -Infinity, (~B,~E) -> 0

From this, it is clear that B is the most "rational" choice from a game theory point of view. The problem, of course, as has been said several times, is that this is not the game I face when I consider my beliefs: Objectively speaking, I don't know anything about the other player -- the Universe has actually an infinite number of potential strategies, not just two.

It is in no way "intellectually dishonest" for me to suggest this flaw; if the game is simply a rhetorical prop then there should no investment on either side as to the real basis of any of the strategies in the game. That is, Pascal thought his argument clever precisely because it allowed him to talk in terms of rational beliefs irrespective of Truth. Once one becomes invested in what strategies the Universal player can or cannot use, it is no longer an objective rhetorical device, and thus it is no longer a prop to convince me, just a statement of belief. Moreover, there is a great deal of hubris on the part of Atkinson to suggest that I should somehow dismiss an alternative strategy (e.g., that an active disbelief in the Christian God assures salvation) because I don't believe this strategy reflects reality -- I don't believe the canonical Christian view of the world either -- that's the point. He can't have it both ways: Is it an argument about belief or reality?

Here's another way of looking at it. Suppose there were someone who believed this alternative: Disbelief in the Christian God assures salvation, belief assures damnation. And suppose they were attempting to convince to disbelieve. Could he not use exactly the same logic to convince me that it is in my best interest to disbelieve? Now I have a problem ... the two theses are contradictory. This is a clue that there is a logical problem with the argument ... contradiction is a standard mechanism for throwing out unsound arguments. The point is that any strategy we enumerate on behalf of the Universe is pure supposition -- a fabrication for rhetorical purposes (assuming we are still talking about an objective argument and not about Truth).

Unfortunately for the George Atkinsons of the world, you and I prefer logic and reason to proof by vigorous assertion. Pascal's Wager is a red herring; it is a foil constructed for one outcome ... as you point out, the outcome is predetermined by the assumptions that under-gird the construction of the game itself, and those assumptions stem from the author's core beliefs. It is a lie, not at all the objective argument for the rational belief in the Christian God it purports to be; rather, it is no more than a vigorous assertion of a belief that there is really only one plausible metaphysical reality.

Now, I cannot say with any authority what is real and what is not, whether the Christian God is or is not Truth ... or even whether there is Truth (and neither can Pascal or Atkinson), but I do know one thing for certain: I remain unconvinced that believing in the Christian God is in any way more rational than holding some other belief.

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At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any of you people want to attempt to refute the arguemts in the article itslef as opposed to hurling pre-digested rhetoric?

At 5:47 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

The original reference seems to have changed to a more objective article about the debate itself. I found Atkinson's article again here. I think we have spoken to exactly to Atkinson's points, as well as the article's key arguments, but if you need it to be laid out more directly, I will offer the following response.

I don't care about the "intellectualist objection", the "Evidentialist Objection", or the "Paradox Objection". They are all valid in their own way, and only minimally addressed in the article -- but the "Many-Gods" objection is sufficient to dispatch Pascal's Wager as illogical. I apologize if all of this is "pre-digested rhetoric". It's hard not to repeat oneself when one's argument is correct, but not accepted.

The article raises four defenses against this argument. I will take them in turn.

Genuine Options: "... only certain theological possibilities count as 'genuine options'"

This is an absurd argument. Why such a restriction? I don't believe any theologies I've heard have any more validity than one another, and I don't see any reason to believe any other theology not yet enumerated is any more or less likely. The article suggests that a classification of "genuine option" as one that "possesses sufficient evidential support" ... then, by that criteria, I reject all theological systems to which I've been exposed as a "genuine option". I see no evidence for any of them.

I addressed this argument directly in my earlier reply. To suggest that only some chosen subset is permissible to consider in the game is to already have conceded a belief. You needn't bother with the logic at that point, you already believe. If you want to logically convince someone who doesn't already believe, you'll have to approach things more objectively.

Run-off decisions theory: a two stage process in which one first "uses epistemic considerations in selecting a limited set of belief options" then applies the wager.

This is really just a revision of the previous argument with a slightly different selection criterion. The idea is that if we are required to provided an argument for each option we exclude, it seems highly probable that at least one of them is true ... thus religion is selected over non-religion, and the wager can proceed where we then select over the set of "reasonable" religions.

But there's always the antithetical religion to consider: the theology for religion A is precisely the opposite as that of religion B (e.g., belief in Christ as saviour assures damnation, disbelief assures salvation). I can see no logical, objective reason to dismiss one and not the other. They are equivalent. Since such an antithetical religion can always be constructed, we are faced with (in stage one) rejecting both the religion and its antithesis, or neither. In the former case, we will be left with disbelief, in the latter case we are left with a universe of possibilities, none of which are any more rational than another.

The other epistemic considerations the article alludes to are not fleshed out, but I will briefly address them. Testimony: So it would have been rational to believe the world was flat in Columbus' day because most people did? Simplicity: Any religion is by definition more complicated than no religion ... that one works against the Wager. Sublimity: How can this be addressed objectively?

Relativism: it may not be sound now, but it was sound to Pascal. Not really -- if Pascal had wished to consider the issue objectively, he would have easily been able to posit the possibility of theologies of which he could not currently conceive ... not the least of which is the anti-Christian theology I discuss above.

But even if so: so what? We aren't in that time. You are trying to convince me to believe now.

Geneic Theism: Perhaps it cannot be used to decide among religions, but "it at least gets us to theism."

Why? Again, the anti-theology argument holds here. But even that notwithstanding, what about polytheism? What about even more abstract concepts of embedded, naturalistic theisms like pantheism (e.g., Shinto)?

The article itself mentions both of my arguments here (the first the author calls the "Professor's God"). But it does not dispatch either of them. Atkinson called the "Professor God" argument a "borderline solipsism", but provides no real logical defense of this statement, offering a very weak straw-man glib reply "What if worms had machine guns?" Both Mark and I address this very point directly in our posts: To suggest that one should only include Atkinson-approved theologies as game strategies is to concede a kind of belief in the first place. It's very easy to convince anyone of anything if you are able to narrow the options before you even begin your task. Logic is not necessary.

What Atkinson doesn't understand is that to the unbeliever, the theology he is espousing is equally as absurd as its antithesis, equally as absurd was wondering "What if worms had machine guns?" If you want to objectively and rationally convince an unbeliever to believe, you cannot assume that your preconceived notions of what belief systems are "genuine" or "reasonable" are the only possible systems.

Finally, Atkinson suggests that unbelief is akin to not wagering, and that not wagering is to allow a deity to affect your choices, which is illogical. He gets this totally wrong. Unbelief is akin to saying the game makes no sense, whether or not there is a God. Again, as I said numerous times in my original post, Pascal's Wager is not an argument for the existence of God ... it is an argument for the belief in the existence of God. I reject the game entirely as being useless for rationally determining belief ... this concedes nothing to a God whether or not he or she exists. In fact, no choice by anyone concedes anything about God's actual existence.

But (assuming "Anonymous" returns to this post) let's turn the tables. Why is it so important to you to believe there's a rational reason to believe in God? I mean isn't faith something more than reason? Belief without faith is what, exactly? Surely you, as a believer, want something deeper from me than simply electing to believe because it is in my best interests to do so.

Atkinson called this response "moving the goal posts" but he again misrepresents the state. I am not moving anything ... all of my above arguments apply. I am now asking for your motivation as a believer.


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