Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jeff Jordan defends Pascal's Wager

A redated post. 

Jeff is a former office-mate of mine from my year as a Center for Philosophy of Religion Fellow at Notre Dame, and a doctoral student of William Rowe.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I think Pascal's Wager is one of the most underused arguments nowadays - I'd like to see someone develop it further.

Rob G said...

I found this treatment of it pretty interesting. Victor may have had this posted before, in fact.

http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=21-05-020-f

Clayton said...

Suppose we modify the matrix slightly. Consider three hypotheses:

H1: Jordan's God exists.
H2: No supernatural beings exist.
H3: The anti-gullibility God exists.

AGG punishes those who believe in deities with infinite suffering. Meanwhile, Jordan's God rewards the believer but annihilates the non-believer or those who believe in AGG. So, it seems that faced with this wager the practically rational person is the agnostic or atheist. Right?

Eric Koski said...

There was a time when Catharism was significantly correlated with both unhappiness and diminished life expectancy ...

Joe said...

I am going to try to work on a wager type argument. However much work needs to be done. I mean there are many different ideas that need to be clarified. Such as what is a belief, can we change beliefs, what are the qualities of rational decision making. etc. Indeed I think a form of the wager works but it’s a big project.

I think Nicholas Rescher wrote a book on it as well I was never able to get a copy of it though.

I just started looking for books on it and find that Jeff Jordan already wrote 2 books on the topic so maybe he did allot of the work already.

Victor Reppert said...

Clayton: In order for Pascal's wager to work we show some epistemic advantage of the traditional theistic God over the Anti-Gullibility God. But surely that case can be made.

shiningwhiffle said...

I feel a little odd when debating Pascal's Wager because the two arguments I think are strongest have never been brought up by anybody I know:

(1) If Pascal's Wager is valid, then shouldn't it work even better for a religion like Mormonism or Dragon Rouge that claims to offer the chance at being a god, not just being with a god?

(2) Consider the possibility that we reincarnate eternally.

This is not just barely possible, like the anti-gullibility God: it has the backing of several religions, major and minor, young and old (Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, the New Age movement, neo-pagans, some Christian heresies, etc.) and even some alleged scientific evidence in favor of it.

If this is the case, then it would seem that the base strategy would be to choose in each life the religion (or lack thereof) with the greatest practical benefits (both in that life and in what effects it leaves to lives to come). The accumulated positive utility over the course of and infinite number of lives would, of course, infinite: heaven on the installment plan.

Conversely, choosing a religion (or lack thereof) with a negative utility would, if repeated in every incarnation in the name of Pascal's Wager, sum to negative infinity: hell on the installment plan.

I'm curious what you (all) think of the point that while Pascal's Wager, if valid, can get you to the point of accepting some *one* of the several religion that offer heaven and threaten hell, reincarnation has the backing of *a lot* of religions, stretching back into antiquity to those formed very recently.

Would that mean (2) is not only a stalemate for Pascal, but superior to it?

Steve Lovell said...

Shining Wiffle,

Well, if the philosophies which endorse reincarnation are true, then we will be reincarnated whether we accept them or not ... as long as we live well we can still get the benefits. So while the benefits may exist, there is no incentive to wager upon them.

Moreover, if we escape the cycle of reincarnation in whatever way the true religion (which ever it, on this hypothesis turns out to be) proposes, then the cycle will end ... and then it isn't clear that the benefits are infinite after all.

Just my initial thoughts.

Steve

shiningwhiffle said...

@Steve Lovell:

Good point. My argument will only work against religions with a negative utility. And come to think of it I'm not sure there's a sensible baseline for defining "negative" other than "what would, given a lifetime of living it, make life not worth living," especially considering I'm taking a person's way-of-life as a whole.

So perhaps I've simply come up with a restriction on the applicability on the wager. It could still recommend you take some religion with an ulitmatum, provided it did not make your life not worth living in this world.

My argument also doesn't add the stipulation that there is any way off the cycle of reincarnation, at least not one which would (a) lead to eternal happiness and (b) require sacrifice of this-world happiness. Understood this way, it's actually pretty rare even in Eastern religions, where, AFAIK, Nirvana/Moksha is generally seen both as eternal bliss off the wheel of rebirth and the best you can do in this life.

shiningwhiffle said...

OK, so here's an argument for the Wager:

There is some chance the Wager is a correct guide for belief/behavior. Unless this chance can be shown to be exactly 0, the Wager can be applied to itself and succeed that way.

I don't think that's quite right. In particular, you might ask, "Why not apply the Wager to itself infinitely?" so it would seem to be the infinite product of the probability. So, if that product converges, we should believe the Wager; otherwise, we shouldn't. I'm not what the threshold for convergence is, but my guess is anything higher than 0.5.

But, if you hold the probability of the Wager's truth to be strictly greater than 0.5, isn't that the same as accepting it to begin with?

Which leads me to a possible objection to the Wager: is it logically consistent to hold that a belief is poorly justified but still believe it?

But then, the Wager is presented as a form of justification.

shiningwhiffle said...

I must revise my objection to the self-application argument I made in my last comment, in light of some reading on the math.

The problem is that the infinite product ∏(∞) [probability of Wager] would seem equivalent to lim(n->∞) [(probability of Wager)^n], which is zero for any probability less than 1. The infinite product would thus never converge.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen any merit in Pascal's Wager insofar as it's presented as a stand-alone argument. In fact, I find it cheap, vulgar, and distinctly repulsive, especially when offered to people on their death beds. What kind of person does God respect more? An atheistic individual who, on his death bed, suddenly drops his life-long convictions and chooses to "believe" in God solely in the hopes that he will obtain eternal pleasure, or someone who has the courage and principle to stand by the beliefs that he feels he has come to acquire to the best of his abilities over the course of a lifetime?

If God respects the former, then this suggests something sharply nasty about the character of God. He becomes a very cynical and gullible God, who will, if I say to Him, "Tell you what, I'll give up the convictions of a lifetime, fling myself at your feet, and pretend I believe. Hope you're impressed!," would say, "Yeah! That's good, my faithful servant. That's progress." No reward is given for intellectual consistency, courage, honesty, or anything of that sort.

In other words, Pascal's Wager, by itself, asks for someone to be a credulous, cringing, unprincipled serf, who says, "Sure! What are principles for, if not to be sold in the hope of a future boon?"

Rasmus Møller said...

Anonymous said:

... In fact, I find it cheap, vulgar, and distinctly repulsive, especially when offered to people on their death beds. What kind of person does God respect more? An atheistic individual who, on his death bed, suddenly drops his life-long convictions and chooses to "believe" in God solely in the hopes that he will obtain eternal pleasure, or someone who has the courage and principle to stand by the beliefs that he feels he has come to acquire to the best of his abilities over the course of a lifetime?

If God respects the former, then this suggests something sharply nasty about the character of God. He becomes a very cynical and gullible God, who will, if I say to Him, "Tell you what, I'll give up the convictions of a lifetime, fling myself at your feet, and pretend I believe. Hope you're impressed!," would say, "Yeah! That's good, my faithful servant. That's progress." No reward is given for intellectual consistency, courage, honesty, or anything of that sort.

In other words, Pascal's Wager, by itself, asks for someone to be a credulous, cringing, unprincipled serf, who says, "Sure! What are principles for, if not to be sold in the hope of a future boon?"

Rasmus:

Grace is cheap; indeed it is free. That may seem vulgar and repulsive to those, who think they can afford a more expensive deal :) God offers us love and redemption, not respect. "The best of our abilities over the course of a lifetime" will get us nowhere with God; He is not impressed.

By grace, He will bring us to the end of ourselves, where we will lose our credulous self-trust and willingly come to Him as beggars emptyhanded, cringing over our corruption.

If you value your justice higher than His justice, you might find it "unprincipled" to bow to Him.

Shackleman said...

"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing....[45]

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.... In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.[45-46]

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. 'All for sin could not atone.' Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin....

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[47]

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."


-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

shiningwhiffle said...

@Anon 10:11

While I agree that the Wager doesn't work, I don't agree with you on why. You've given a kind of "argument from indignation," asserting:

(1) If Pascal's Wager works, God is nasty.
(2) Either (a) God is not nasty, or (b) no one should want to go to heaven with a nasty God.
(3) Therefore Pascal's Wager doesn't work.

I hope you can see the problems with this:

(1) is your judgment — and mine, frankly — but human judgment is fallible; it might be false. If there's even a chance it's false, it only adds to the uncertainty that the Wager was designed to circumvent.

(2a) is true for Christianity, but not every religion.

(2b) could only show that heaven-hell decision is lose-lose. You lose if you have to spend an eternity with a cruel god, but not nearly as much as if you have to spend eternity made miserable in hell.

More reasonable arguments against Pascal's Wager would be the following:

* The probability of the truth of any religion we'd realistically apply it to is exactly zero. This need not be an arrogant assertion of certainty: if a religion is self-contradictory in its essence, then one can dismiss it in good conscience. ("Realistically" because if we willingly apply it to made-up options, the "anti-gullibility" god raises its head.)

* The Wager as popularly-stated is a kind of St. Petersburg paradox: would you really give everything you have in the hope of an extremely-low-likelihood of infinite reward?

* The Wager offers an impossible kind of happiness: happiness without virtue. (Works for eudaimonists like myself.)

Shackleman said...

I think the force of Pascal's Wager is strongest when applied to the agnostic, not the committed athiest.

If the "still seeking" agnostic* has examined all the evidences and arguments and still sits at a sort of 50/50 chance, then the Wager works as a _motivator_ for taking the "leap" of faith. I don't think the Wager is designed to be an end-all-be-all argument. But, as a concept to _persuade_ the agnostic it has substantial force and merit. It works, in other words, to get people "over the hump" so to speak. I don't think it works to get people to the point where there's a hump to get over in the first place. One has to have done all the prior work necessary to be in a position to make the wager first.


(*: as apposed to the "committed" agnostic who has resigned himself to be an agnostic forever, or at least until he has received his own burning bush. Pascal's Wager won't work on this type of agnostic because, in my estimation, this type of agnostic is actually an atheist without the courage to confront the logical conclusions of his position, plus he gets the benefit of putting all the onus on God for his coming to faith, thereby absolving himself of any responsibility should it turn out in the end that God really does exist.)

Victor Reppert said...

If I remember from what are now two-decades-plus-old conversations with Jeff Jordan, Pascal offers arguments to the effect that if there is a God, He is most likely to be revealed in the Christian revelation as opposed to others. So the question then is posed to people who must either choose the Christian God or none at all, and who see a substantial amount of merit in both views. If we are in THAT position, then we are given a reason to accept theism as opposed to atheism. Addressing the Wager to someone like Dawkins or Loftus, who considers Christian theism to be not only false but preposterous, and to recommend to them that they ought to submit themselves to brainwashing seems to be a mistake.

Unlike some people, I am going to define brainwashing for the purposes of this discussion. You are submitting to brainwashing if you are knowingly trying to cause yourself to believe something that your best reasoning tells you is very probably false. If you really do think that the Christian God is no more probable than Zeus, or Athena, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then the Wager is out of play.

The Wager can take different forms; the traditional Pascalian form uses the concepts of heaven and hell, the Jamesian form views it in terms of what it would take to have a meaningful life, and the Kantian form looks at what would make it easier or harder to live a moral life. I think the argument can be hitched to a Lewisian argument from desire, whereby it is argued (and Pascal is one of those that argues it most forcefully), that humans have built into their nature a desire for infinite and permanent joy, and we must accept the permanent frustration of a significant part of our nature if we decide there is no hope for that.

I think the Wager does one other thing: It undercuts "default" arguments for atheism or agnosticism by pointing out the practical implications of belief and nonbelief. It has always seemed to me that we must either structure our lives with God in mind or without God in mind, so we can't have the kind of neutrality on this issue that we have on, way, the truth of Fermat's last theorem of its denial. Therefore, waiting for a decisive swing in the evidence leaves us without guidance as to how we ought to live our lives now.

J said...

S-whiffle: What kind of person does God respect more? An atheistic individual who, on his death bed, suddenly drops his life-long convictions and chooses to "believe" in God solely in the hopes that he will obtain eternal pleasure, or someone who has the courage and principle to stand by the beliefs that he feels he has come to acquire to the best of his abilities over the course of a lifetime?

Usually the wager's presented not just as a matter of what to believe, but how to act. Ie, should one "act as a Christian" ("thought word and deed" as the episcopalians used to say), or, rather, become a mafia hit man, or jihadist? Yet...to carry any force the Wager would seem to need to account for other faiths, not to say trying to ascertain what G*d would really want: expanded Pascal's wager . Or something like that. At any rate most rational humans would probably agree it's a safer bet---in terms of avoiding a potential Hell, at least-- to be a law-abiding virtuous citizen, rather than Lucky Luciano--unless you're in Sicily perhaps. The potential Dantean context is crucial--but I don't think anyone, even Bishops of the Church of Rome, could assign odds....