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Atheism, Christianity

Pascal’s Fault #353

Among the faults of Pascal’s Wager is an oft-overlooked stumper.  Pascal proposed a hypothetical reality and then calculated “odds” based on that reality.  This is certainly fine for philosophical musing, but the very act of making the proposition gives others the same permission:

Christian:  If God is real, then it’s better to have faith, (IF reality is the way Pascal proposed it)

The bold parenthetical is the part Christians don’t include, but which properly belongs in the proposition.  An interlocutor may follow their proposition with this:

Atheist:  If God is real, then it’s better NOT to have faith, (IF reality consists of a God who rewards skepticism and punishes blind faith.)

Perhaps there is a god, and the Bible, the Koran, and all other holy books were given to us as tests of our reason.  Maybe only the humans with strong wills and good reasoning skills are worthy of eternal reward, since it takes real guts to stand up to a threat as terrible as hell, and real intellectual integrity to look at 75% of your peers and say, “The evidence suggests strongly that you are wrong.”

Maybe God’s heroes are Galileo, Copernicus, Dawkins, and Harris.  Maybe he takes great joy in sending Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, and George W. Bush to hell as punishment for their blind faith.

Pascal can be used against Christians as easily as it can be used for.  It’s still just a thought exercise, and doesn’t carry any empirical weight, but it’s worth understanding the hidden premise.

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Pascal’s Fault #353

  1. The counter to that would be to ask how probable the atheist’s proposed reality is compared to the theist’s. If the theist’s is more probable, then you should bet on his.

    I think the theist’s would be more probable. It seems unlikely that a god who is rational enough to admire skepticism would send people to hell forever. Whereas a god who is irrational enough to torture his creations for all eternity would certainly be irrational enough to demand that they hold blind faith in his existence.

    Posted by Ian | January 26, 2011, 5:39 pm
  2. Ian, that’s a good point. And when the theist thinks the Bible is good evidence, it definitely creates a sticking point. But as far as I can see, there is no way to come to any reasonable certainty about either proposition. They are both equally unlikely.

    Do you remember the scene from Labyrinth? Where the two doors do the classic riddle? One always lies and one always tells the truth. It works out if you KNOW that both of them are consistent, and if you get to ask both of them the same question. But in a situation with one god, and only the god’s word to go by, there is no way to logically deduce the veracity of the statement.

    So… IF Pascal’s description AND my description are possible, AND IF there is only one god, AND IF we must rely only on god’s word, THEN we cannot assign probability to either scenario.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 26, 2011, 6:41 pm
  3. Also, you are assigning human values to a rational god. The “mysterious ways” argument actually works pretty well here. A rational god who valued skepticism could just as easily threaten hell but not follow through, opting instead for purgatory, or reincarnation, or just unconscious oblivion. Not knowing what his experiment is, we can’t say whether or not he would have a good rational reason for lying about hell.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 26, 2011, 6:44 pm
  4. in a situation with one god, and only the god’s word to go by, there is no way to logically deduce the veracity of the statement

    That’s true, but we may still find one interpretation to be more likely than the other, even if we can’t logically deduce whether it’s true or not. In any case, for this criticism of the wager, we’re making some assumptions which, if challenged, would lead us into a different criticism of the wager. We’re assuming:

    1. Some kind of deity exists
    2. Eternal damnation is a real possibility
    3. A belief decision that we make determines whether we’re damned or not

    It would be nice to allow the theist all of that and still refute the wager, but I think at this point we may have allowed them too much. If each of those points are true, then I think it is reasonable to suppose that the theist’s interpretation, which has some support from the various arguments in favor of theism, is more likely to be true than the atheist’s counter-position here, which is based on speculation.

    Obviously, this isn’t to say that the theist’s arguments are really stronger than the atheist’s. The problem is that we can’t use our arguments because of the assumptions we’ve allowed. They are all consistent with and support the theist’s position. You can of course propose speculative scenarios in which god misleads everyone about what they’re supposed to believe, but that’s getting a bit paranoid.

    Do we know for certain that such a being wouldn’t deceive us? No. But do we know for certain that he would? No. The only data that we do have on a god-being in a scenario where eternal damnation exists and a belief decision that we make determines whether we’re damned or not supports the theist’s position. It’s weak support, yes, but if we’re going to propose that the theist faces an equally probable possibility of being damned, then we do need to have some support for our claim, other than speculation.

    Again, if we want to counter the wager, we have far better than weak support to do it with, but none of it is consistent with the possibility of eternal damnation. Once you invite something as irrational and improbable as that to the party, it’s all over.

    Posted by Ian | January 27, 2011, 7:37 am
  5. 1. Some kind of deity exists
    2. Eternal damnation is a real possibility
    3. A belief decision that we make determines whether we’re damned or not

    We still haven’t allowed anything that dictates why one would be eternally damned, thus the theist’s position is still no more probably than the atheist’s. It only becomes more probable as we ascribe human like notions of what’s “reasonable” behavior to this deity.

    We’ve already given up on “reasonable” behavior by allowing eternal damnation (which for any crime is quite unreasonable).

    The problem here is that there is no way to determine which argument has more merit as the allowed assumptions simply change definition to meet the criteria for deity like behavior of whoever interprets them.

    I think Hamby’s primary point is thus valid, the wager is equally true for the atheistic position as it is for the theistic one given the unprovable nature of it’s premises and their variable interpretative nature.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | January 27, 2011, 9:45 am
  6. Having said that, the theist’s typically a great deal more practice accepting a pre-defined type of behavioral model for this deity figure, and thus have more well thought out constructs for it. Thus it’s better to simply argue the wager is illogical on it’s face.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | January 27, 2011, 9:46 am
  7. The problem here is that there is no way to determine which argument has more merit

    Why not? Surely it’s possible to determine whether an argument has merit or not. If it’s mere speculation, then it has no merit, and cannot be at all persuasive. A rational person cannot accept such an argument.

    The arguments for the theist’s scenario might not be very strong, but there are plenty of them that rise above mere speculation. The argument from religious experience, morality, etc.–these are at least persuasive enough that the theist’s scenario is more probable than the atheist’s.

    Unless the atheist can come up with some support for a scenario in which blind faith is punished with eternal damnation. But there are no records of religious experiences which support that. A deceitful deity is likewise not suggested by any rational argument or religious school of thought (which accepts eternal damnation),* and is contradicted by the argument from morality.

    The mistake in this criticism of the wager is the assumption that both scenarios are speculation, and thus equally probable. But if that’s all the theist’s position was to begin with, then we wouldn’t even consider it. It would be impossible for us to accept it and remain rational–thus we would reject it out of hand and not give it another thought. It is the fact that the theist’s arguments are at least somewhat persuasive that causes us to criticize Pascal’s wager.

    *Luciferian and Gnostic theology could provide support for a deceitful deity, but I don’t think either of them accept eternal damnation.

    Posted by Ian | January 27, 2011, 5:31 pm
  8. The arguments for the theist’s scenario might not be very strong, but there are plenty of them that rise above mere speculation. The argument from religious experience, morality, etc.–these are at least persuasive enough that the theist’s scenario is more probable than the atheist’s.

    Perhaps, if we didn’t have solid non-god explanations. But even more importantly, even if these experiences count for something, we’re still left at a total impasse to verify the “true nature” of the cause. So you felt the “presence of god”? Nice. Now, was it a good god giving you a true representation of his actual nature, or was it a capricious god playing a trick on you?

    So god whispered in your ear and said, “I’m good”? Nice. Now, was it telling you the truth or lying?

    So god wrote a book that a billion people believe is true? Nice. Now, is the book accurate, or is it a lie?

    It’s the same quandary in every situation. Without evidence external to god, we can’t verify anything about it. So it really is pure speculation on any count.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 27, 2011, 6:40 pm
  9. Perhaps, if we didn’t have solid non-god explanations.

    We don’t have a solid non-god explanation for the possibility that believers might go to hell forever for having blind faith–that’s my point. Even if these arguments are weak, they’re better than speculation.

    You can’t simply counter the claims they make by speculating that they might be lies. Why? Because you have to subject your own speculation to critical scrutiny. If a truthful god is the more parsimonious explanation, then that’s a better explanation than a deceitful god. If we find that some of the claims are verified, then that’s evidence in favor of truthfulness.

    To demand that believers convince us beyond any possible doubt, with 100% certainty, is raising the bar way too high. And dismissing theism as pure speculation underestimates the strength of their position.

    So you felt the “presence of god”? Nice. Now, was it a good god giving you a true representation of his actual nature, or was it a capricious god playing a trick on you?

    If you apply that degree of doubt to life in general, you’re going to end up paranoid and undermine your ability to know anything. I think what you’re doing is reacting to the fact that theist’s generally claim to be 100% certain of their claims, and refuse to apply any kind of critical reasoning to them.

    Now, the fact that someone had a religious experience doesn’t justify him to go off and willy nilly do whatever he believes the experience justifies, but at the same time, if the information conveyed by the experience is consistent with what many other people have reported throughout history, you do have to treat belief systems arising from these experiences as being stronger than speculation.

    It’s the same quandary in every situation. Without evidence external to god, we can’t verify anything about it. So it really is pure speculation on any count.

    It does not follow from an epistemic inability to objectively verify an experience that the experience must be ontologically subjective. An example would be the first-person features of the universe. You can’t verify objectively that anyone else besides you experiences these, yet I presume that you would not declare irrational all the atheists who believe that there must be something objective about phenomenal consciousness. I assume you would not dismiss great portions of Western philosophy of mind as speculation, even if you don’t agree with the position.

    Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in the argument from religious experience–these things still require interpretation, and are often subversive to religious dogmas anyway. I’m just saying this argument is better than speculation.

    Posted by Ian | January 28, 2011, 8:06 am
  10. I’m just saying this argument is better than speculation.

    Forgive my brevity, but I’m really behind today. The gist of my argument is that the quoted statement is incorrect. You’ve hit on the precise reason: If you apply that degree of doubt to life in general, you’re going to end up paranoid and undermine your ability to know anything.

    EXACTLY!! When there is no evidence for a thing either way, we can imagine anything we’d like to imagine, and it’s just as likely as anything else. There is no method available for testing the following two beliefs:
    1) This message came from God.
    2) God is trustworthy.
    The methods you’ve been alluding to — the popularity of Christianity, the existence of multiple reward/punishment religions, the consistency with human motivations — none of these have any bearing on the situation. They are the result of blind math. That is, if you demand that a thousand people come up with an answer to an unanswerable question, you’ll get some kind of pattern. Not because the answer is more likely correct, but because humans are doing the answering, and humans have real innate tendencies.

    So, there are two reasonable choices for avoiding the nihilism trap:
    1) Cure paranoia and ignorance by abandoning that which leads to paranoia and ignorance
    2) Try to make the unknowable fit into a human conception, which still leaves plenty of room for paranoia and ignorance and nihilism.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 28, 2011, 2:42 pm
  11. The methods you’ve been alluding to — the popularity of Christianity, the existence of multiple reward/punishment religions, the consistency with human motivations — none of these have any bearing on the situation.

    I agree that those methods don’t have any bearing on the situation. But arguments like the argument from religious experience don’t use those methods to make their case. The gist of the argument from religious experience is that the way we obtain knowledge in the first place is from experience. Religious experiences count as experience.

    If we are to defeat the argument from religious experience, we need to come up with an alternative that explains them. An alternative which is not mere speculation.

    We have that, and I certainly don’t need to go into it, because you’ve made that argument yourself. The point is that when you make it, you’re not just relying on speculation. You’re defeating an argument that does have some evidence and valid reasoning in support of it with another argument that has better evidence and valid reasoning in support of it.

    if you demand that a thousand people come up with an answer to an unanswerable question, you’ll get some kind of pattern.

    This explanation for the origin of religion isn’t really consistent with what we observe. Religious experiences don’t result from people trying to come up with an answer to an unanswerable question, and they do have a lot to do with the origin and development of religions.

    There is no method available for testing the following two beliefs:
    1) This message came from God.
    2) God is trustworthy.

    To address the first point, let’s let the word “God” be the sign which refers to a being encountered in a religious experience. Whatever message the signified being relates is a message that came from God.

    For the second point, you establish his trustworthiness the same way you establish the trustworthiness of a person. Now, if you object that you would not believe a person who made extraordinary cosmological claims without providing any evidence for them, I agree with you. Remember though that this disagreement is about a specific criticism of Pascal’s wager in which we’ve already taken for granted the existence of god as well as two very absurd and improbable cosmological claims: eternal damnation and a faith-based soteriology.

    Your argument is that even if we allow the theist these points, he still can’t win, because the probability of being damned is the same whether you choose atheism or theism. The game’s going to end in a stalemate. I’m arguing that if you let the theist set up the board that way, checkmate is inevitable.

    The situation is nastier than it looks at first–you’ve granted the theist two of the most controversial and improbable points out of his entire belief system. On top of that, you’re proposing to counter the better arguments in favor of theism with speculation.

    Could god be deceitful? Could he arbitrarily act in a way which is inconsistent with everything he’s said and damn people to hell for having faith in him? You could use that same line of reasoning to deduce that your boss might arbitrarily fire you for showing up for work, and conclude that you might as well stay home, because the chances of keeping your job are 50/50 either way.

    Note that I’m not arguing that there’s no place for speculation in arguments against theism. When they pull out arguments such as, “Well, you can’t disprove god,” or postulate metaphysical nonsense, then it’s time to bust out the invisible pink unicorn and the flying spaghetti monster. What I’m arguing is that it is possible to make arguments for theism which are consistent with rational principles, and those can’t be countered by speculation.

    Posted by Ian | January 29, 2011, 9:15 am

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