Friday, October 22, 2010

On the proper context of Pascal's Wager

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.

10 comments:

shiningwhiffle said...

Good contribution to the discussion.

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.

"THAT position" is, of course, a genuine choice as William James defined it: live, forced, and momentous.

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.

I agree, but one could argue that submitting to brainwashing is still more rational than risking hell. (I think this is the theological version of the St. Petersburg paradox.)

I would still insist on the additional limitation that the choice of either side not make this life so miserable as to be not worth living. Even if I thought Mormonism was a serious option, there's no way I'm going back given the very abusive culture you are required to participate in.

Or am I just saying that because of the abusive culture, I can't take Mormonism seriously? Eh, six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Unlike some people, I am going to define brainwashing for the purposes of this discussion.

Excellent definition.

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.

The Jamesian form is the only form I presently accept (it follows from my Davidsonian views about truth). I haven't thought seriously about the Kantian form, but in light of "Better Never to Have Been" I can definitely see the appeal.

shiningwhiffle said...

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.

I'm going to disagree here.

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.

But we can't be pragmatically neutral in either case. "Accept this truth or go without it," (to quote James) is always logically disjoint, whereas "Accept this theory or reject it," is never logically disjoint.

Therefore, waiting for a decisive swing in the evidence leaves us without guidance as to how we ought to live our lives now.

What differs is that the choice of being a Christian or not (with all practical consequences that entails) is momentous, while the choice of accepting Fermat's last theorem or going without it isn't.

See? James > Pascal. :-)

Ron said...

I agree that Pascal's Wager needs to be understood in the context of Pascal's overall Christian apologetic. Pascal puts Christianity on the radar so to speak by emphasizing the multifaceted nature of man; namely that he has both an element of greatness about him (a thinking reed), as well as an aspect of debasement, which is to sum it up in one word, sin. Of all the narratives about humanity that can be believed in, Christianity fits this insight more than any of its competitors who tend to deny one or the other of these facts. For the purposes of reaching naturalists on this blog I think Pascal can be easily combined with the AfR to provide a powerful one-two punch against materialism.

Gregory said...

I agree, but one could argue that submitting to brainwashing is still more rational than risking hell.

One might also argue that "hell" and "brainwashing" are synonymous conditions....an inescapable darkness.

I would formulate the "wager argument" along these lines:

Atheism entails naturalism. Naturalism entails determinism (i.e. an evolutionary brainwashing). Consequently, an atheist may become---by those very "natural processes" that he/she so adamantly defends---a Christian in the end....since an atheist can only be what nature's "dice" has rolled for him/her.

Theism---at least, those forms of "theism" that can be believed, acquiesced and defended---entails "natural freedom of self-determination".

So, the "wager" is this: would you rather bet on a point of view that eliminates your ability to "bet" altogether, or bet on a point of view that allows you to "bet"?

Gregory said...

I offer three examples that are highly problematic---and perhaps worrisome---for the atheist:

C.E.M Joad, C.S. Lewis and Antony Flew

shiningwhiffle said...

Atheism entails naturalism.

Actually, no. You can be an atheist and still believe in souls and an afterlife. You just can't believe in gods.

However, I agree that in practice the two go hand in hand, in that atheists often argue for naturalism and then derive atheism from that.

Naturalism entails determinism (i.e. an evolutionary brainwashing). Consequently, an atheist may become---by those very "natural processes" that he/she so adamantly defends---a Christian in the end....since an atheist can only be what nature's "dice" has rolled for him/her.

It depends on what sort of naturalism one is talking about, but in this case (naturalism == physicalism/materialism) I tend to agree. Of course, the natural/supernatural distinction is kind of fuzzy outside of a given theology; anything that exists is natural in its own way.

Richard Carrier, in "On Defining Naturalism as a Worldview" defines naturalism as the view that "everything that exists is causally reducible to the nonmental." Free will would violate this stipulation.

Richard Rorty, in "Charles Taylor on Truth" also defined it as the view that "(a) there is no object of space-time that is not linked in a single web of causal relations to all other occupants and (b) that any explanation of the behavior of any such spatiotemporal object must consist in placing that object within that single web." In other words: naturalism means no skyhooks.

He actually contrasts it with reductionism, which he described as "the insistence that there is not only a single web but a single privileged description of all entities caught in that web." In other words, the mental can still be a cause in its own right.

I've never decided whether the no-skyhooks clause of Rorty's description prohibits incompatibilist free will or not. Rorty himself was a compatibilist.

Theism---at least, those forms of "theism" that can be believed, acquiesced and defended---entails "natural freedom of self-determination".

In other words, no sense wagering on Calvinism? :-)

So, the "wager" is this: would you rather bet on a point of view that eliminates your ability to "bet" altogether, or bet on a point of view that allows you to "bet"?

Again, though, one can be an atheist (no gods) but not a naturalist (no souls). So I don't think you ever get to the point of a wager.

Still, you have a good point. The issue of free will was my main resistance to naturalism and one of my main reasons for giving it up later. Roderick T. Long pointed out that determinism, even if true, can't be rationally believed, because it undermines reason itself. Without actual freedom to decide whether to accept or reject a conclusion, reason is just data processing.

Gregory said...

You can be an atheist and still believe in souls and an afterlife. You just can't believe in gods.

This position is so novel that....well, I think you're at odds with 99% of your fellow atheists.

If a person is willing to believe in a "soul" (i.e. a non-material entity), then much of the reasons he/she has for disbelieving in God are quickly rebutted and/or dismissed. Perhaps you have misunderstood the metaphysics underscoring atheism.....I'm not sure.

However, I am sure that most Christian philosophers/apologists and atheists understand that "physicalism" lies at the heart of non-belief/unbelief. One only has to look at the hoopla over "Intelligent Design"--especially observed among non-believing ID critics--to realize that "naturalism" and "atheism" go together, hand in glove.

shiningwhiffle said...

This position is so novel that....well, I think you're at odds with 99% of your fellow atheists.

Except I'm not an atheist. :-)

But yeah, "spiritual atheists" (as one guy called himself) are by far in the minority these days. Most atheists are physicalists. I'm undecided whether atheism -> naturalism, even given that naturalism (except possibly Rorty's, and then only for certain conceptions of God) -> atheism.

If a person is willing to believe in a "soul" (i.e. a non-material entity), then much of the reasons he/she has for disbelieving in God are quickly rebutted and/or dismissed.

Agreed for God-in-general.

For believing in a specific God, not so much: there are other reasons one might object to a given religion. Proof: you can't accept them all.

However, I am sure that most Christian philosophers/apologists and atheists understand that "physicalism" lies at the heart of non-belief/unbelief.

Most on both sides do, and they may be right in practice (I have my doubts; many atheists rejected theism long before they adopted physicalism), but they are both wrong in terms of what is essential to atheism. Physicalism implies atheism, not the other way around.

Gregory said...

"Physicalism implies atheism, not the other way around."

I am suggesting bilateral dependence/interdependence between these views. Physicalism and atheism are two sides of the same coin. Physicalism is the positive metaphysical view of what is real (i.e. physical things). Atheism, on the other hand, is the negative view of what isn't real (i.e. primarily God/s). In terms of practice, atheism implies physicalism.....even if by "physical", the atheist means by it a "construction of the mind" (i.e. idealism). There is no practical difference between the "real" physics and the "ideal" physics, in terms of our experience of things. "Realism" and "idealism" are simply philosophical labels that don't appear to impact the nature of our perception of so-called "physical" objects.

One problem I have with shiningwiffles "distinctions", can be seen in this example taken from basic grammar:

A "noun" is said to be "a person, place or thing". A person is properly said to be a "thing". Same goes for a "place". But a "thing" is not necessarily a "person" or a "place". For instance, a thing could be "light", a "tree" or a "rock". A "place" means a position or location of space within the material universe. Therefore, "light", "trees" and "rocks" can properly be said to be "places" too. So...why do we have all these grammatical distinctions?

Because Analytic philosophy, by it's very nature, tends to "strain at gnats while swallowing whole camels", the shift towards theism in many of the Philosophy departments and faculty--around mid-20th Century--was almost inevitable. Theism is not the bane of the "Prince of the Sciences"; instead, theism is it's savior.

Stuart Hackett's "The Resurrection of Theism" might have been more appropriately titled "The Resurrection of Philosophy". At the very least, theism has kept philosophy from sinking into the murky depths of Academic irrelevance.

shiningwhiffle said...

Gregory:

I am suggesting bilateral dependence/interdependence between these views.…

You still haven't shown that there's a double-implication (atheism <-> physicalism).

Let me put it this way: the vast majority of numbers are irrational — but it doesn't follow (irrational number <-> number). Number is the genus, irrational is the species.

Likewise, atheist is the genus, physicalist is the species.

A "noun" is said to be "a person, place or thing". A person is properly said to be a "thing". Same goes for a "place". But a "thing" is not necessarily a "person" or a "place". For instance, a thing could be "light", a "tree" or a "rock". A "place" means a position or location of space within the material universe. Therefore, "light", "trees" and "rocks" can properly be said to be "places" too. So...why do we have all these grammatical distinctions?

Yet surely you don't think all things are persons? Thing is the genus, person is the species. Some distinctions are important.