Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pascal's wager, redux

"""Actually it is better known as Pascal’s Wager. However, the argument is not really sound. For example, substitute some other entity that cannot be shown to exist for God. Moreover, if it is only the placebo effect of belief in God that affects one’s actions, isn’t it a little reminiscent of a coercive act (or at the least a deceptive act but it is a moot point) because in either case it lacks the free-will autonomous basis for moral action."""
Actually, Miss Cat doesn't quite understand Pascal's Wager, which is, as the name indicates, a wager--not a deductive argument at all; really PW's an early example of a decision matrix. Pascal admits God's existence cannot be proven (or disproven) by Reason alone, yet Pascal asserts that the safe bet, spiritually speaking, involves living as if a God existed, since the chance--however slight--of an afterlife means not living as if God existed could result in, like, eternal damnation (supposedly). Moreover, Cat eyes begs the question on the "the placebo effect of belief in God": assuming He exists, it's not a placebo effect, is it; if He doesn't, we won't know, presumably. The "coercive act" bit a bit vague: though if God does exist, He knows all, commands all, so in a sense we would be His subjects (one of the absurdities of calvinist variety of determinism).

As the Wiki puts it, "
"Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose." Sort of like a Win-win situation, but a bit more subtle; french subtleties tend to scare WASPs, of course (or WASPettes).

One X describes Pascal's Wager:
""It’s a wager: i.e. sort of like decision matrix–not an argument. Pascal’s wager doesn’t prove anything, Cat Lies. It sets up a scenario with various outcomes: something like “If G*d of the Bible does not exist, a mafioso doesn’t lose anything by being a mafiosi. If G*d of the Bible does exist, mafioso roasts in the malebolgia.”

Free will’s a separate matter, but obviously religious tradition holds that humans are free, and have “moral autonomy,” at least from their own perspective.""""
Then, Cat-eyes wrote,

Weak and generally fallacious attempt at a rebuttal as characterized by the need to resort to an ad hominem."""
Wrong. Not only does she not understand Pascal's wager or X's point (like, Malebolgia, Dante? etc? Fuggetabout it), she doesn't know what Ad Hominem or fallacious reasoning consists of. There's NO Ad Hom (except in her mind): If one were to say "we don't have to pay attention to Cat Lies' points because she has a silly name, or because she's musically incompetent, a friend of biblethumping chiropractors and frauds," etc. THAT would be Ad Hominem. That has not occurred, whatsoever. A slight attempt at humor (Cat Lies) in the midst of serious writing does not suffice for Ad Hom, and really to object to that trivial level of parody is itself paranoia, nearly J-Edgar like. And since Pascal's Wager is NOT a deductive argument, her point on rebuttal was mistaken and silly. X describes Pascal's Wager quite adequately.

Menschliches, Allzumenschliches.

...... ...... ...... ........... .........

Pascal's wager does not lack a certain pragmatic force. Regardless, thinkers have criticized it for the last few centuries--Richard Dawkins' points contra-Pascal some of the most recent criticism. Dawkins may have a point that the scenario of belief and no-God may not result only in "nothing lost": all the time and energy spent going to church, participating, taking mass or communion, praying (especially if one prays to Nada) could be a loss, assuming there is ~God. That hints at another issue--the status of other faiths---which Cat-eyes may have hinted at (as did Dawkins, I believe), though did not really flesh it out. Yes, the choice of faiths would also be part of the Wager, or expanded Wager (Osiris forbid the faithful xtian/jew/muslim--or atheist---reaches the gates of Nirvana, and well, connect the dots).

At the same time, Dawkins seems to overlook the somewhat ethical point: Pascal was not just asserting that faith might be prudent, but that the best bet, spiritually speaking, was to act as if God existed (and he meant the God of Christianity, Roman Catholicism, in particular). That seems a bit different than merely making appearances, coughing up some shekels onto the plate, having faith, shaking the preacher or Padre's hands; though defining what those acts would consist of--catholicism, or calvin? etc.--presents another problem--perhaps slightly Kantian. A witness might believe "do not bear false witness" to be correct action, until her refusal to lie (say during testimony) means the mob kills the people she ratted out, or her family, and so forth.

* * *

Evidentialists present another defense to Pascal's gambit: shouldn't humans base their decisions--whether in terms of ordinary life, scientific research, legal matters, or religion--on evidence, and withhold assent (not to say actions based on belief) when the evidence does not support a particular belief?? An obscure British mathematician and philosopher William Clifford suggested as much. We cannot really determine how God might or might not reward our decisions, first off. Bertrand Russell (aware of Clifford both in terms of his skepticism and work in mathematics)also suggested as much: a rational Being would seemingly prefer reasonable inquiry into religion, perhaps even doubt, rather than blind faith, even of the Pascalian pragmatist sort. Thus, asked whether he feared meeting a living God, Russell claimed he would answer the Almighty by saying He had not provided sufficient evidence of His existence, and thus should be admitted into Heaven for relying on reason (evidentiary, and logical) instead of the blind faith of zealots.

Evidentialists thus suggest that it's "absolutely wicked" for humans to base any belief on decision-theoretic self-interests. Pascalians have various answers to this, but I believe this criticism also shows that a pragmatic, utilitarian belief may be missing the point: one doesn't calculate the odds of the Almighty vis a vis a theological cost-benefit analysis and then decide to believe, or "do the right thing"; one believes and acts virtuously, because it is the right thing to do (whatever that is--even Kant hisself could not prove obligations).

Pascal did, of course, grant the lack of evidence of God, and arguably anticipated the evidentialist's tactics. Pascal himself belonged to the experimentalist school--he not only worked in mathematics and probability, but in physics and engineering (his work in hydraulics quite important--he demonstrated a substance-less vacuum, startling all the old aristotelian mechanists and the rationalist, Cartesian sorts. He also devised early adding machines, and........the roulette table). While taken to be a catholic, Pascal actually opposed church dogma in many instances (and catholics still have not quite blessed him). The Wager does not merely relate to belief, to evidence, and faith, but to actions. A skeptic who, after deciding that no compelling evidence supports the religious hypothesis, engages in a murder spree would not likely be rewarded in the afterlife were he to LOSE the wager, and discover that God exists---whether he possessed a Russell-like mind or not; in some cases taking an atheist viewpoint could conceivably result in immoral or criminal actions (or totalitarian). Indeed, Contingencies suggests that Pascal's Wager really concerns objective ethics, and moral realism as much as it does decision theory, the problems of evidentialism, or theological wrangling. Pascal wants to suggest that a chance exists that a theological moral realm holds: he does not, however, assign probabilities.

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