If one is an atheist . . . wait, I need to back up. I need to explain something basic. A theist is a person who believes there exists at least one god. An atheist is a person who does not believe any gods exist. I define the words because people ascribe values to words that go beyond their meaning. I am an atheist(*).
OK, then . . . if one is an atheist, odds are one has been confronted with Pascal’s Wager (I have been). The wager can be summarized thus: if you have to bet (and you do), it would behoove you to bet on the existence of god because the stakes are so much higher than what you’re betting (the span of your life vs. eternal bliss or eternal torment).
It’s important noting that Pascal was very smart. Unfortunately, many people who quote him are not, especially when they bring up this wager.
Typically, people who throw this wager at atheists don’t take the time to read the full philosophical arguments associated with Pascal’s Wager. Perhaps, the most important thing they miss is that Pascal was not making an argument for the existence of god, but rather mounting a defense of faith and the virtue of attempting to gain it. He recognized that you cannot just “decide to believe” in something you don’t believe in in the first place.
Also important, he was making the argument at a time when — for many — the decision was literally a coin toss; in his view, there was only one religion to consider. As such, he laid the foundation for a method to assign values to possible outcomes of a set of actions. It attempts to quantify the result of a decision based not only on the probability of a given outcome but also the cost/reward of a given decision path.
There are many places one can find a refutation of Pascal’s Wager but in fairness to Pascal, I think some arguments go beyond Pascal’s original premise and go on to refute how lesser individuals (i.e. modern believers with little understanding of probability and decision theory) use the wager in their arguments.
I could duplicate those arguments here but if one is really interested, one can easily read the excellent linked article.
It’s no secret I have a low opinion of most humans. Mind you, I don’t maintain I am a better person than most humans.
I do maintain most people don’t take the time to think about things and are — at best —intellectually lazy. We saw a huge example of this during the last elections and we continue to see examples after examples as we listen to The Left and The Right mount what would be laughable arguments for their positions were it not that so many people take them seriously.
Here’s where I can perhaps make a small contribution toward getting people to think about what they embrace so readily in one instance but completely refute in another. I aim to do it using Pascal’s Wager. Rather, variations of it. I should also say that while some of the examples use my words, they are not original ideas (I ain’t that smart). At best, they are my thoughts based on a consolidation of arguments I’ve read or heard elsewhere.
One of the problems with the wager is that it asks us to make a decision about the fate of a stranger. That stranger is us . . . after we are dead.
Studies have shown we are bad at making decisions about ourselves if it involves thinking about future consequences.
See if this sounds familiar . . . you hold a doughnut in your hand. You know it’s extra calories you’re not likely to burn up. You also know that it’s not many calories relative to what you eat during a day. You eat the doughnut.
You do so because when you think of yourself a year older, you don’t see yourself as a few pounds heavier from an accumulation of unburned calories. Or, ten years from now, twenty pounds heavier. Or, thirty years from now, forty pounds heavier and dealing with diabetes. At best, you see yourself thirty years from now pretty much as you are now.
The problem I see with Pascal’s wager as it relates to religion and faith is that it’s not a wager at all because the reward and punishment are not only ill-defined but impossible to define; neither the theist nor the atheist can imagine themselves as dead.
Ask a thousand theists and they will have a thousand views of what “heaven” and “hell” are like. At best, they have a view based on what they have heard, but whatever the view, it invariably involves them as they are in the present; it’s the only reference they have.
An atheist — like me — might describe it as akin to being in a sleep from which you don’t wake up, but by definition, I don’t have an actual understanding of it, a mental view of myself, of my consciousness, while asleep. I would have to be conscious to register what it’s like to be asleep; obviously, a contradiction. In other words, I can’t imagine myself “not being.” At best, I can think of someone I knew who died and I can infer that if the condition is permanent (it is), it’s not functionally different from me being in an endless deep sleep; not aware of anything and for all practical purposes, no longer aware of anything ever again. It’s a difficult thing to imagine but at least it doesn’t scare me.
Make the wager about something else, something other than your identity, and the wager becomes clearer and easier to consider:
You are walking along a street when a stranger approaches.
“Give me all the money in your wallet, and I promise I will meet you here a week from now and give you an infinite amount of money in return.”
You would likely laugh in their face. In part, that’s in response to the quantity of infinite. You cannot conceive a person having an infinite amount of money. It’s an impossibility. So, let’s change the request.
“Give me all the money in your wallet, and I promise I will meet you here a week from now and give you a hundred times the amount of money in return.”
Well, now it’s a bit more interesting. Would you give them the money?
Say you have $1 in your wallet. Your risk is small, the reward is great; you might.
Say you have $1,000 in your wallet. Well, the reward is still great — $100,000 — but you’re also risking a lot more. This is where your trust of the person comes in.
Do you judge them to be trustworthy? Did he just step out of a Rolls Royce or is he walking along pushing a shopping cart full of empty soda cans? Appearances matter, but also how much $1,000 dollars means to you. Would you give them the money? Would you give them the money if they upped the reward by a factor of 100 or 1,000? (Note: assume you are not a multi-billionaire. I mean, that should be easy since you’re reading this blog.)
Interesting question, but Pascal’s wager also considers something else.
“Give me all the money in your wallet, and I promise I will meet you here a month from now and give you a hundred times the amount of money in return. OR, if you don’t, I promise I will hunt you down sometimes next month and break both of your legs, both your arms, and rip one ear from your head. Also, I’ll pluck your nose hairs with tweezers.”
The stakes just got higher. Even if you could report it to the cops, you can’t be sure if the person is on the level and if they have the means to follow through on their threat. Would you give them the money? I mean, even if it’s a $1,000 it’s still less than risking physical damage and associated consequences.
Let’s consider one more change . . .
“Give me all the money in your wallet, and I promise I will meet you here thirty years from now and give you a hundred times the amount of money in return. OR, if you don’t, I promise thirty years from now I will hunt you down and break both of your legs, both your arms, and rip one ear from your head. Also, I’ll pluck your nose hairs with tweezers.”
Interesting, no? Thirty years is a long time. You may be in heaven by then. At the very least, you won’t be who you are now, so why should you worry about that guy? But, also, that’s not much reward for waiting thirty years. How about a million-fold return on the money?
Literature is full of stories about people making bargains involving long periods of time and thinking nothing of it . . . until the time rolls around. It usually doesn’t work out well. But why did they make the bargain in the first place? Studies say it’s because they did not see themselves in that future self. Literally, someone else will face the consequences. Although, I bet they see themselves reaping the rewards.
Side Note: Governments offer these kinds of bargains all the time; it points to politicians knowing a lot more about human nature than the average voter.
So, where am I going with this? Well, in part I want to point out the duplicity of many religious people. What do I mean by that?
Pascal’s Wager is thrown at me at least once a year if not more often. Many religious people use it to justify their faith, consciously or unconsciously, saying that, given the stakes, it makes sense to believe and worship god.
But, let me point something out . . . those same individuals — according to polls — will reach the opposite conclusion when presented with the same argument about . . .
Tell people the dire consequences of their choices and they dismiss it out of hand. By the way, that’s an old cartoon.
Note: some could see this as me confirming the validity of the base argument of Pascal’s Wager. No; the two are dissimilar because, in the case of god, its existence is absolutely an unknowable data point whereas climate is not. The point is that religious folks use (claimed) uncertainty as good in once instance and bad in another.
Note: the above dire climate predictions point to extreme examples if we do nothing. This piece mitigates the doomsday scenario . . . but it just gives us a little room to breathe, not to breathe easy.
So, here we are. While Pascal’s Wager is mostly useless in matters of faith, the underlying theory is something we should put into practice more often than we do. About news we hear, about what politicians say, when making important life-changing decisions, and so on.
Just to be clear, I’m suggesting we get in the habit of evaluating risks and rewards — both short and long term — in our decision-making process; assess the value of the risk, assess the value of the reward, even assess the value of doing nothing. Combine that with the probability of the truthfulness or accuracy of the information you have and the associated consequences if the information is wrong. Thinking it as a balance sheet might help you make sounder decisions.
On the other hand, it’s only one doughnut. My approach is to eat it and plan on working a bit harder at the gym . . . and perhaps not eat as much of other stuff. Regardless, I don’t want to be ten pounds heavier a year from now. That I know for sure.
Everything else needs careful consideration and evaluation.
Here’s the gallery (there is no SmugMug Gallery):
(*) I’m actually one of them “hard” atheists. Meaning, it’s not just that I don’t believe in god(s). It’s that I’m — within the certainty afforded by the available literature — as certain of the fact that gods don’t exist as I am certain Jedi Knights don’t exist, that Sauron never existed, that Martians didn’t attack Earth in 1938 . . . I could go on, but you get my point.
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. . . my FP ward . . . chieken shit.
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