Erroneous Responses to Pascal

Many arguments which are presented against accepting Pascal’s wager are mistaken, some of them in obvious ways. For example, the argument is made that the multiplicity of religious beliefs or potential religious beliefs invalidates the wager:

But Pascal’s argument is seriously flawed. The religious environment that Pascal lived in was simple. Belief and disbelief only boiled down to two choices: Roman Catholicism and atheism. With a finite choice, his argument would be sound. But on Pascal’s own premise that God is infinitely incomprehensible, then in theory, there would be an infinite number of possible theologies about God, all of which are equally probable.

First, let us look at the more obvious possibilities we know of today – possibilities that were either unknown to, or ignored by, Pascal. In the Calvinistic theological doctrine of predestination, it makes no difference what one chooses to believe since, in the final analysis, who actually gets rewarded is an arbitrary choice of God. Furthermore we know of many more gods of many different religions, all of which have different schemes of rewards and punishments. Given that there are more than 2,500 gods known to man, and given Pascal’s own assumptions that one cannot comprehend God (or gods), then it follows that, even the best case scenario (i.e. that God exists and that one of the known Gods and theologies happen to be the correct one) the chances of making a successful choice is less than one in 2,500.

Second, Pascal’s negative theology does not exclude the possibility that the true God and true theology is not one that is currently known to the world. For instance it is possible to think of a God who rewards, say, only those who purposely step on sidewalk cracks. This sounds absurd, but given the premise that we cannot understand God, this possible theology cannot be dismissed. In such a case, the choice of what God to believe would be irrelevant as one would be rewarded on a premise totally distinct from what one actually believes. Furthermore as many atheist philosophers have pointed out, it is also possible to conceive of a deity who rewards intellectual honesty, a God who rewards atheists with eternal bliss simply because they dared to follow where the evidence leads – that given the available evidence, no God exists! Finally we should also note that given Pascal’s premise, it is possible to conceive of a God who is evil and who punishes the good and rewards the evil.

Thus Pascal’s call for us not to consider the evidence but to simply believe on prudential grounds fails.

There is an attempt here to base the response on Pascal’s mistaken claim that the probability of the existence of God (and of Catholic doctrine as a whole) is 50%. This would presumably be because we can know nothing about theological truth. According to this, the website reasons that all possible theological claims should be equally probable, and consequently one will be in any case very unlikely to find the truth, and therefore very unlikely to attain the eternal reward, using Pascal’s apparent assumption that only believers in a specific theology can attain the reward.

The problem with this is that it reasons for Pascal’s mistaken assumptions (as well as changing them in unjustified ways), while in reality the effectiveness of the wager does not precisely depend on these assumptions. If there is a 10% chance that God exists, and the rest is true as Pascal states it, it would still seem to be a good bet that God exists, in terms of the practical consequences. You will probably be wrong, but the gain if you are right will be so great that it will almost certainly outweigh the probable loss.

In reality different theologies are not equally probable, and there will be one which is most probable. Theologies such as the “God who rewards atheism”, which do not have any actual proponents, have very little evidence for them, since they do not even have the evidence resulting from a claim. One cannot expect that two differing positions will randomly have exactly the same amount of evidence for them, so one theology will have more evidence than any other. And even if it did not have overall a probability of more than 50%, it could still be a good bet, given the possibility of the reward, and better than any of the other potential wagers.

The argument is also made that once one admits an infinite reward, it is not possible to distinguish between actions with differing values. This is described here:

If you regularly brush your teeth, there is some chance you will go to heaven and enjoy infinite bliss. On the other hand, there is some chance you will enjoy infinite heavenly bliss even if you do not brush your teeth. Therefore the expectation of brushing your teeth (infinity plus a little extra due to oral health = infinity) is the same as that of not brushing your teeth (infinity minus a bit due to cavities and gingivitis = infinity), from which it follows that dental hygiene is not a particularly prudent course of action. In fact, as soon as we allow infinite utilities, decision theory tells us that any course of action is as good as any other (Duff 1986). Hence we have a reductio ad absurdum against decision theory, at least when it’s extended to infinite cases.

As actually applied, someone might argue that even if the God who rewards atheism is less probable than the Christian God, the expected utility of being Christian or atheist will be infinite in each case, and therefore one will not be a more reasonable choice than another. Some people seem actually seem to believe that this is a good response, but it is not. The problem here is that decision theory is a mathematical formalism and does not have to correspond precisely with real life. The mathematics does not work when infinity is introduced, but this does not mean there cannot be such an infinity in reality, nor that the two choices would be equal in reality. It simply means you have not chosen the right mathematics to express the situation. To see this clearly, consider the following situation.

You are in a room with two exits, a green door and a red door. The green door has a known probability of 99% of leading to an eternal heaven, and a known probability of 1% of leading to an eternal hell. The red door has a known probability of 99% of leading to an eternal hell, and a known probability of 1% of leading to an eternal heaven.

The point is that if your mathematics says that going out the red door is just as good as going out the green door, your mathematics is wrong. The correct solution is to go out the green door.

I would consider all such arguments, namely arguing that all religious beliefs are equally probable, or that being rewarded for atheism is as probable as being rewarded for Christianity, or that all infinite expectations are equal, are examples of not very serious thinking. These arguments are not only wrong. They are obviously wrong, and obviously motivated by the desire not to believe. Earlier I quoted Thomas Nagel on the fear of religion. After the quoted passage, he continues:

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. Instead they become epiphenomena, generated incidentally by a process that can be entirely explained by the operation of the nonteleological laws of physics on the material of which we and our environments are all composed. There might still be thought to be a religious threat in the existence of the laws of physics themselves, and indeed the existence of anything at all— but it seems to be less alarming to most atheists.

This is a somewhat ridiculous situation.

This fear of religion is very likely the cause of such unreasonable responses. Scott Alexander notes in this comment that such explanations are mistaken:

I find all of the standard tricks used against Pascal’s Wager intellectually unsatisfying because none of them are at the root of my failure to accept it. Yes, it might be a good point that there could be an “atheist God” who punishes anyone who accepts Pascal’s Wager. But even if a super-intelligent source whom I trusted absolutely informed me that there was definitely either the Catholic God or no god at all, I feel like I would still feel like Pascal’s Wager was a bad deal. So it would be dishonest of me to say that the possibility of an atheist god “solves” Pascal’s Wager.

The same thing is true for a lot of the other solutions proposed. Even if this super-intelligent source assured me that yes, if there is a God He will let people into Heaven even if their faith is only based on Pascal’s Wager, that if there is a God He will not punish you for your cynical attraction to incentives, and so on, and re-emphasized that it was DEFINITELY either the Catholic God or nothing, I still wouldn’t happily become a Catholic.

Whatever the solution, I think it’s probably the same for Pascal’s Wager, Pascal’s Mugging, and the Egyptian mummy problem I mentioned last month. Right now, my best guess for that solution is that there are two different answers to two different questions:

Why do we believe Pascal’s Wager is wrong? Scope insensitivity. Eternity in Hell doesn’t sound that much worse, to our brains, than a hundred years in Hell, and we quite rightly wouldn’t accept Pascal’s Wager to avoid a hundred years in Hell. Pascal’s Mugger killing 3^^^3 people doesn’t sound too much worse than him killing 3,333 people, and we quite rightly wouldn’t give him a dollar to get that low a probability of killing 3,333 people.

Why is Pascal’s Wager wrong? From an expected utility point of view, it’s not. In any particular world, not accepting Pascal’s Wager has a 99.999…% chance of leading to a higher payoff. But averaged over very large numbers of possible worlds, accepting Pascal’s Wager or Pascal’s Mugging will have a higher payoff, because of that infinity going into the averages. It’s too bad that doing the rational thing leads to a lower payoff in most cases, but as everyone who’s bought fire insurance and not had their house catch on fire knows, sometimes that happens.

I realize that this position commits me, so far as I am rational, to becoming a theist. But my position that other people are exactly equal in moral value to myself commits me, so far as I am rational, to giving almost all my salary to starving Africans who would get a higher marginal value from it than I do, and I don’t do that either.

While a far more reasonable response, there is wishful thinking going here as well, with the assumption that the probability that a body of religious beliefs is true as a whole is extremely small. This will not generally speaking be the case, or at any rate it will not be as small as he suggests, once the evidence derived from the claim itself is taken into account, just as it is not extremely improbable that a particular book is mostly historical, even though if one considered the statements contained in the book as a random conjunction, one would suppose it to be very improbable.

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