Friday, May 10, 2013

Philosophy of Religion, Part 1: Pascal's Wager and the Ethics of Belief

This is my first blog post in what is probably over a year. Due to work and school, I have not been as active with the group as I would have liked - my work hours conflicted with SSA meeting times during the past winter semester. Now I have much more free time. As I am currently taking a very pertinent spring class - Phil 262, which is "Philosophy of Religion" - I figured that now was as good of a time as any to start blogging again. I aim to write 1 or 2 posts each week, dealing with the subjects presented in class as I encounter them. This week, the topics were "The Ethics of Belief" and "Pascal's Wager."

Belief and Morality

"The Ethics of Belief" was the title of our introductory class. We studied two essays - W. K. Clifford's "Ethics of Belief" and William James' "The Will to Believe." Clifford espouses a view called evidentialism, which, according to our instructor Bill Dunaway, is the prevailing mindset among most philosophers of religion, theist or atheist. Evidentialism itself is not a particularly controversial or surprising view - it is basically the idea that we should strive to believe whatever is best supported by the evidence given to us, and that wherever the evidence is inconclusive, we should refrain from forming beliefs. The justification is, obviously, that if we don't do this, we are at a greater risk of making bad moral judgements and causing harm. Clifford's example is a shipowner who, about to send his ship off to sail, ignores clear evidence that the ship is not seaworthy, instead convincing himself on the basis of wishful thinking that everything will be alright. This makes him guilty of negligence - he formed his beliefs in a bad way, leading to an entirely preventable catastrophe (the ship sinks in the story). The point is that we have an ethical duty to form our beliefs based on evidence. In his own words,
"No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever."
William James would agree with Clifford in many or most situations. Both authors agree that when the evidence tips the scale to one side, we should believe in accordance with the evidence. Both authors also agree that in many cases, at least according to my interpretation, when the evidence is inconclusive, one should refrain from forming beliefs. However, James makes the following criticism: sometimes the situation is such that you are forced to act one way or another, with "momentous" consequences. The prime example being, of course, religion: we must either act like believers or not act like believers, and these actions could have momentous consequences after death. In situations like these, James argues, if the evidence is inconclusive, then we might as well believe whatever makes us happiest. By contrast, evidentialism would ask that you nevertheless try refrain from forming beliefs about the issue, even though you are forced to act one way or another. To this, James replies,
"I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford ... he who says, 'Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!' merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford's exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound."
 Assuming that the evidence in matters of religion is inconclusive, Clifford would seem to advocate agnosticism, while James would advocate "believe which side you like best." This dovetails into questions of voluntarism in matters of belief, and whether or not believing without evidence is intrinsically unethical. Those topics could be a blog post all by itself (which maybe I will write someday). Since I want to get to Pascal's Wager, I'll briefly conclude the discussion. Because I think that the actual evidence in matters of religion is more than enough to tip the scales, the above controversy is not all that relevant to the actual debate about whether God exists (James, after all, agrees that when the evidence does strongly favor one side, we are obligated to believe with it). As a first lecture, I thought that the "Ethics of Belief" was a good primer for the rest of the semester, as it served to remind us what sorts of things are good reasons to form beliefs, and where the grey areas lie.

Pascal's Wager

If you are reading this, I assume that you know what Pascal's wager is, so I will save some space and not restate it. If you want to read a good summary of the wager and objections to it, here is a link to the relevant article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which was our primary reading assignment. The class itself was a bit disappointing: instead of heated debate, we spent most of the time learning the meaning and mechanics of expected value. But toward the end of class, we actually did discuss the wager, a discussion that we will conclude next week.

The Argument from Superdominance

Although I had previously known what the wager was, I learned that it in fact has two forms (well, three, because that's how Pascal presented it, but I don't see why the second and third differ in any meaningful way). The second/third form is the classic form, normally referred to when we talk about "Pascal's Wager" - betting on God yields infinite expected utility, so it is always a wise choice. The first form is called the "Argument from Superdominance." In general, the argument states that if presented with two choices, and that the worst possible outcome of the first choice is at least as good as the best possible outcome of the second choice, then one should always take the first choice. The truth of this should be clear upon reflection. If choice 1 is "believe in God" and choice 2 is "don't believe in God," and the consequences of believing and being wrong would still make you more well off than not believing and being right, then you might as well believe and risk being wrong, no matter how low the probability of being right actually is. This argument works even assuming that God rewards believers with a finite utility, rather than an infinite one, so long as belief always leads to a better outcome, or superdominates, nonbelief.

The second/third versions of Pascal's wager, the most common presentations, presume infinite utility for a correct belief in God, but do not presume that belief superdominates nonbelief, nor do they presume that incorrect nonbelief has an infinitely bad utility (although that is a common variant).


1. Objections to the superdominance variant
If believing in God actually does superdominate nonbelief in quality of outcome, the first wager is quite compelling. But there is little reason to think that it does. We might diminish the utility of incorrect belief simply by virtue of the fact that it is incorrect (true beliefs are intrinsically desirable). We might boost the utility of correct nonbelief for the same reason. It also seems likely that incorrect religious belief would lead to moral failings from a humanistic perspective, such as the persecution of gays and honest skeptics, the unhealthy repression of sexuality, etc. If some version of belief in God, like Deism, would lead a person to implement humanistic ethics on earth, then it would have a chance at actually superdominating nonbelief - and I would also not be terribly opposed to it (we fight religion primarily on ethical grounds; if we can convert people to humanism, I say let them keep believing in God privately, if it makes them happy. In such a case it would be about as consequential in everyday life as disagreeing about string theory. We currently argue so forcefully for atheism because it seems the best way to make more humanists. Also because we think we're right, but the former reason is more important.)

Now I move on to the classical wager.

2. Pascal's Wager... Invalid?
Before I present what I think are good objections to the classical wager, I want to share a very interesting objection, one which I am not convinced by, but that, as a mathematician, I nevertheless find hilarious. Most objections question premises or relevance; this argument, presented in the Stanford link above, questions the wager's actual logical validity. It goes like this:
  • Suppose we grant all of Pascal's premises: the utility of betting on God and being right is infinite, and all other possibilities have some finite utility. We also grant that "betting on God" is rationally the best choice.
  • There is a nonzero probability that any action I take - any action at all - may lead eventually to me betting on God.
  • But betting on God carries an infinite expected utility. Therefore, any action I take carries an infinite expected utility.
  • Therefore, I might as well ignore the wager and go have a drink at the bar, since this has the same expected payoff as anything else I try to do.
According to the Stanford article (which has this discussion in more detail), the argument was met by objections, which were met by counter-objections, etc. The entire exchange is hilarious because of how far removed from reality it quickly becomes. Here is an outline:
  • Counter-Argument: Eventually, after taking a countably infinite number of actions, you will wind up betting on God with probability 1. Why not just do this to begin with?
  • Counter-counter-argument: Not if you engage in a sequence of actions where the probability that you bet on God diminishes fast enough! For example, 1/4, 1/9, 1/16, ... etc., for then even after countably infinite actions, it is not certain that you will bet on God, though the utility of each action is infinite.
  • Counter-counter-counter-argument: Yes, but if you are able to perform the actions uncountably many times, then it is indeed certain that you will bet on God at some point.
This train has long ago passed nonsense station. I offer a simpler objection: if all of your options have infinite expected utility, is it not rational to choose the one that is most likely to actually pay off? That is, just choose the belief option right away, because it's the most likely strategy to succeed. This is why I don't think the above objection works; still, it was a wonderful effort.

The article lists a number of other objections that have been made. I will list some of my favorites.

3.  The reward for correct belief is high, but finite.
In this case, the probability that God exists does matter - if it is small enough, the utility of nonbelief could outweigh that of belief. I think there is a good case that the reward couldn't possibly have infinite utility. After all, it is quite clear that we humans are finite and worldly through and through. We do not have the capacity to experience infinity. Suppose that after death, we are transformed so that we can experience infinity. Would such a vast transformation not destroy everything that makes us human? Perhaps your unbelieving soul does suffer in hell - it would not be you, but rather some other being with the mere vestiges of you. Then when you die on earth, you really are dead.

4. The famous "Many Gods Objection."
When I was making the transition from Christian to Atheist, the last intellectual obstacle I had to overcome was the fear of hell. I was paralyzed in my belief by some version of Pascal's Wager that I had invented for myself. (Only later did I realize that this argument had not only been made before, but also was one of the most famous ever to be made). I overcame my qualms with the many gods objection, which struck me one day as I was watching news of the Middle East. Across the ocean is a whole world where the norm is not Christianity, but Islam. Two contradictory religions - and each could use Pascal's wager just as well as the other. If I had been born into a Muslim world, I would go to Christian hell. Perhaps, being born into a Christian society, I would go to Islamic hell. Who is right? Someone is going to hell either way - it might as well be me, for what is one more lost soul among the billions of people already destined for hell? (If you consider all 100 billion or so humans who have ever lived, I guesstimate that far fewer than 30% were ever Christian - that's a pretty terrible success rate, God).

Theists have tried to defend the wager by noting that some Gods are more likely than others. Perhaps, on the basis of historical evidence, Christianity could be determined more likely than Islam. The problem is that, as the Stanford article pointed out, a major criterion for likelihood is simplicity. In that regard, a deistic God with no connection to worldly religions seems to be far more likely than either the Christian or the Muslim gods - and what reason have we to think that such a God would punish nonbelievers with a hell? None, a priori - hell is a Judeo-Christian notion. The many gods objection continues to be a worthy one.

5. Moral Objections
As my Philosophy instructor pointed out, many theists have trouble with the wager as well. It's not a good reason to believe in God because it's not for the right reasons - religion is reduced to little more than a self-interested game, rather than a joyous appreciation of God's intrinsic goodness. As Patrick points out, the argument is coercive, and could be used to make a gullible person to believe almost anything. If we have very good reasons for not believing in God, then I think that the moral objection is entirely sufficient to kill Pascal's Wager as a living argument, even if we still assign a small but nonzero probability to God's existence.


There are other objections that I might cover, such as the idea that we can't simply choose to believe something, or of assigning zero probability to God's existence, but this post is getting long-winded. Most of my posts will not be this long. I was trying to cover the material of two classes. In the future I may limit myself to one class per blog post.

I wish that the class would go more in-depth into some of the subjects covered; however, as there is a lot of philosophy of religion - several thousand years' worth - and only a semester to discuss it, I understand why the course is more of a survey than a detailed analysis. As an atheist who has wrestled with questions of religion for years, I have seen most of the arguments before, in one form or another. However, I am looking forward to seeing how "sophisticated" philosophers approach the arguments. My knowledge of religion came from a haphazard internet education, which I have been trying to rise above. Frankly, most message board arguments that I see, both for and against God, are terribly simplistic and misguided. As Daniel Dennet said, "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear." The internet is useful as a grindstone on which to sharpen your bullshit detector. But if you want to do great philosophy, read the great philosophers.

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