Pascal's Wager and The Sure Thing

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

Status
Not open for further replies.

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
Pascal's Wager has a number of flaws, but there's an aspect to it that, it seems to me, is part of a larger scale casino-like atmosphere on the matter of philosophy and religion.

The wager is usually phrased in terms of belief, but if belief were the only thing that wouldn't matter. A person who adheres to a particular religion or philosophy makes choices about life relative to that religion or philosophy (e.g. what does one do with ones time, how does one treat other people and the world etc). Furthermore, if the religion has an idea of an afterlife (or karmic reincarnation) the person is likely to make decisions with those as a consideration (sometimes evincing a willingness to die for abstract things).

But, if we continue the gambling analogy, there is a bet that that is close to a sure thing: that one is a living being in a world. So the gamble that we all are making can be put like this:
The world exists and we live in it.
Should we decide upon our actions based on this fact or should we decided upon our actions based on a story of something that exists beyond the world?
The risk in deciding based on the story is that the story is false and the actions that we take will shorten our lives or the lives of others without good cause.
We cannot discern whether any such story is true, therefore, all possible story based worlds cancel out in the gamble (since for every story there is an equal and opposite counter story).
That leaves us with the only sensible considerations in the gamble of actions to be real world considerations.

This does not, however, eliminate the utility of religion and philosophy. A given person may gain a better insight and a sense of real world considerations from a particular religion or philosophy (or from a melange of ideas and practices from many such sources). Such a person makes better real world decisions because, for them, the religious or philosophical perspective leads to greater clarity about the real world.
 

Dennis E. Taylor

Get it off! It burns!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 1, 2014
Messages
2,590
Reaction score
342
Location
Beautiful downtown Mordor
I think you have to separate religion and philosophy in that train of thought. Religion, by definition, will contain some variation on commandments or strictures that are essentially an argument from authority. Whether or not they are good laws, they will be laws, and there will be a punishment. Philosophies, OTOH, tend to gain adherents by persuasion. You adhere to a particular philosophy because overall it makes sense, not because of any perceived threat.

That's also why the theistic argument that humanists can't have morals is bogus. If examined carefully, IMO, the exact opposite turns out to be true.
 

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
I think you have to separate religion and philosophy in that train of thought. Religion, by definition, will contain some variation on commandments or strictures that are essentially an argument from authority. Whether or not they are good laws, they will be laws, and there will be a punishment. Philosophies, OTOH, tend to gain adherents by persuasion. You adhere to a particular philosophy because overall it makes sense, not because of any perceived threat.

That's also why the theistic argument that humanists can't have morals is bogus. If examined carefully, IMO, the exact opposite turns out to be true.

Not all philosophies are persuasion based. Capitalism uses more force than most religions. It asserts that anyone who does not follow its ways will not be able to get food, clothing, or shelter. One might argue that capitalism isn't a philosophy, but many of its current adherents assert that it is natural law. Soviet style Communism (as opposed to Marxism) also tended to use a lot of force. It made an argument from authority claiming inexorable course of history as its backing. Social Darwinism (as opposed to actual evolutionary theory) also used a ton of force.

And not all religions use commandments and arguments from authority. Taoism didn't, most versions of Buddhism don't, Quakerism doesn't, neither does Unitarian-Universalism. Sufism generally doesn't either.
 

Dennis E. Taylor

Get it off! It burns!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 1, 2014
Messages
2,590
Reaction score
342
Location
Beautiful downtown Mordor
Hmm, to me an assertion (even if unsupported) is still an attempt at persuasion. Granted I'm most familiar with the major monotheistic religions, but a capitalist will not attempt to (literally) burn you at the stake or excommunicate you, or refuse to issue you a marriage license, just because you don't drink the Kool-Aid. Although I'll grant some of them are pretty rabid.

And even the most soft-sell religions have to have some kind of God-wants-it-this-way-or-else, or else how are they different from a philosophy? (of course, there we go down the rabbit-hole of word-definitions). Once you get into religions-without-deities, the definitions get even murkier. For instance, a religion that predicates reincarnation but no controlling deity is really more just a Theory of Everything than a religion. Of course, it may be legally a religion, which is a different definition again.

I think if we argue edge-cases on this subject, we're very likely to be butting up against differences in definitions a lot.
 

Maxx

Got the hang of it, here
Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 26, 2010
Messages
3,227
Reaction score
202
Location
Durham NC
Not all philosophies are persuasion based.

In the context of Pascal's (imaginary) wager (since we know what actually changed Pascal into a religious/Jansenist Person -- a horrific sexual experience according to his own story). Pascal's question really is: "How do I change my own behavior to face my hopeful prospects of spending eternity without any horrific sexual experiences?" Or even: "Now that I am a Catholic who believes in most of Protestant Theology, how can I cover all my bases and reassure myself that I can spend eternity -- or even next week -- without any horrific sexual experiences?"

Since most philosophers (luckily, I suppose) have avoided Pascal's thing with the rotting breast revealed on his chosen sexual object, they have tended to fill in the blanks of Pascal's wager with nicer things -- for example Hocking thinks it is a wonderfully early case of using Probability pretty audaciously. As for me -- it just leads me to wonder once again why it is that much of the time one will find any excuse to undertake an excursion into any kind of fantasy. Which in turn leads me to the puzzles of sublimating the drives and thence to Freud pondering the death of his favorite daughter and pushing on to write "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and why I find his earlier work so much more thoughtful than his more geometric formulations -- I guess as an escape from grief into fantasy -- much like Pascal.
 

kuwisdelu

Revolutionize the World
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 18, 2007
Messages
38,198
Reaction score
4,542
Location
The End of the World
Hmm, to me an assertion (even if unsupported) is still an attempt at persuasion. Granted I'm most familiar with the major monotheistic religions, but a capitalist will not attempt to (literally) burn you at the stake or excommunicate you, or refuse to issue you a marriage license, just because you don't drink the Kool-Aid. Although I'll grant some of them are pretty rabid.

Quite a lot of religions really don't care if you believe in them or not.

But if you're mostly only familiar with Christianity and Islam, then we're probably going to have communication troubles.

And even the most soft-sell religions have to have some kind of God-wants-it-this-way-or-else, or else how are they different from a philosophy? (of course, there we go down the rabbit-hole of word-definitions).

I have no idea what you mean by "soft-sell".

I figure a systematic belief in gods and/or spirituality is a religion.

Why do the gods necessarily have to want something?

In Zuni, I can't think of any such commandments or punishment. We have some rules and customs we follow, but many people don't. I don't sometimes.

We have no hell.

That's my problem with Pascal's wager: the assumption of a hell, when many religions don't have one, and the assumption that going there is predicated on belief.
 
Last edited:

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
Mod Note:
We are not going through the all religions are alike thing again.
This is not a matter of opinion. Anyone who studies religions knows that there is a vast diversity of views and practices.

To reiterate:
Most religions are not faith based.
Many religions have no afterlife.
Many that do have an afterlife do not have a hell equivalent.
The distinction between religion and philosophy is not clear cut.

If people think it's necessary I'll make a sticky about this.
 

buz

edits all posts at least four times
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 11, 2011
Messages
5,147
Reaction score
2,038
Pascal's Wager has a number of flaws, but there's an aspect to it that, it seems to me, is part of a larger scale casino-like atmosphere on the matter of philosophy and religion.

The wager is usually phrased in terms of belief, but if belief were the only thing that wouldn't matter. A person who adheres to a particular religion or philosophy makes choices about life relative to that religion or philosophy (e.g. what does one do with ones time, how does one treat other people and the world etc). Furthermore, if the religion has an idea of an afterlife (or karmic reincarnation) the person is likely to make decisions with those as a consideration (sometimes evincing a willingness to die for abstract things).

But, if we continue the gambling analogy, there is a bet that that is close to a sure thing: that one is a living being in a world. So the gamble that we all are making can be put like this:
The world exists and we live in it.
Should we decide upon our actions based on this fact or should we decided upon our actions based on a story of something that exists beyond the world?
The risk in deciding based on the story is that the story is false and the actions that we take will shorten our lives or the lives of others without good cause.
We cannot discern whether any such story is true, therefore, all possible story based worlds cancel out in the gamble (since for every story there is an equal and opposite counter story).
That leaves us with the only sensible considerations in the gamble of actions to be real world considerations.

I might be missing something, but...doesn't that conclusion rely on the assumption that any "otherworldly" considerations would be detrimental to "real world" considerations?

Why isn't it "most sensible" to gamble on both real world and otherworld, with such considerations being commensal or mutualistic?
 
Last edited:

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
I might be missing something, but...doesn't that conclusion rely on the assumption that any "otherworldly" considerations would be detrimental to "real world" considerations?

Why isn't it "most sensible" to gamble on both real world and otherworld, with such considerations being commensal or mutualistic?

Because there are an infinite number of possible otherworlds with contradictory things to gamble on. If you add up all those possible courses of action they sum to inaction, but action relative to the real world still shows up as necessary. That's why I called it the sure thing. And as I said, any otherworldly thing that helps you with that is fine, but in terms of the wager itself, otherworldly bets cancel out.
 

buz

edits all posts at least four times
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 11, 2011
Messages
5,147
Reaction score
2,038
Because there are an infinite number of possible otherworlds with contradictory things to gamble on. If you add up all those possible courses of action they sum to inaction, but action relative to the real world still shows up as necessary. That's why I called it the sure thing. And as I said, any otherworldly thing that helps you with that is fine, but in terms of the wager itself, otherworldly bets cancel out.

Well, not necessarily contradictory; if I decide to believe in Jesus and then it turns out there's just a Mesopotamian dust-world, I haven't lost anything :p But I take your point. So, in that case...is there a discussion question of some sort you wanted to explore? :D
 

Dennis E. Taylor

Get it off! It burns!
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 1, 2014
Messages
2,590
Reaction score
342
Location
Beautiful downtown Mordor
I should point out that Pascal's Wager, at least as I understand it, is only relevant if you posit a deistic religion with some form of punishment (or at least non-reward). That's the whole point of the wager.
 

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
Well, not necessarily contradictory; if I decide to believe in Jesus and then it turns out there's just a Mesopotamian dust-world, I haven't lost anything :p But I take your point. So, in that case...is there a discussion question of some sort you wanted to explore? :D

What we get from religion and philosophy if we examine it not from the otherworldly wager, but the worldly one. If we start from the premise that however we wish to look at things we must deal primarily with the worldly facts rather than the supernatural story.
 

buz

edits all posts at least four times
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Nov 11, 2011
Messages
5,147
Reaction score
2,038
What we get from religion and philosophy if we examine it not from the otherworldly wager, but the worldly one. If we start from the premise that however we wish to look at things we must deal primarily with the worldly facts rather than the supernatural story.

But you already covered that, yes?

This does not, however, eliminate the utility of religion and philosophy. A given person may gain a better insight and a sense of real world considerations from a particular religion or philosophy (or from a melange of ideas and practices from many such sources). Such a person makes better real world decisions because, for them, the religious or philosophical perspective leads to greater clarity about the real world.

I meant, is there more you wanted to explore than what you've already said?
 

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
But you already covered that, yes?



I meant, is there more you wanted to explore than what you've already said?

It seems to me that this is a neglected but useful perspective, so I was offering it as a jumping off point for general consideration.
 

kuwisdelu

Revolutionize the World
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 18, 2007
Messages
38,198
Reaction score
4,542
Location
The End of the World
Certainly many religions are also very much concerned with how spiritual matters affect THIS world.

I'm certainly not religious out of any concern for the spirit world or the afterlife, but because of its impact on THIS life.
 

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
Certainly many religions are also very much concerned with how spiritual matters affect THIS world.

I'm certainly not religious out of any concern for the spirit world or the afterlife, but because of its impact on THIS life.

Thanks. Can you elaborate on that please?
 

kuwisdelu

Revolutionize the World
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 18, 2007
Messages
38,198
Reaction score
4,542
Location
The End of the World
Thanks. Can you elaborate on that please?

Well, we have no hell. There is no reward or punishment in our afterlife.

That religion makes me feel more connected to my ancestors and to my community is something that benefits and comforts me in this life.
 

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
Well, we have no hell. There is no reward or punishment in our afterlife.

That religion makes me feel more connected to my ancestors and to my community is something that benefits and comforts me in this life.

Sorry, I wasn't clear. I was asking for specifics, so that people can get a sense of what and how your religion helps you in the world. One of the barriers to religious discussion is people assuming that the benefits of their religion or philosophy are the only possible benefits to religion or philosophy. It's good to expand people's awareness of the breadth of possible uses for religion or philoophy.
 

Pallandozi

Registered
Joined
Dec 2, 2020
Messages
40
Reaction score
2
Location
Cambridge, UK
I should point out that Pascal's Wager, at least as I understand it, is only relevant if you posit a deistic religion with some form of punishment (or at least non-reward). That's the whole point of the wager.

Strictly speaking, his original wager was to do with expected probability:

PREMISE : There is a finite chance that Christianity is correct
PREMISE : If Christianity is not correct, then there's only a finite comparative benefit in having been right about it not being correct, over being wrong about that
PREMISE : If Christianity is correct, then there's an infinite comparative benefit in having been right about it being correct, over being wrong about that
CONCLUSION : The expected value of the total benefit you'll gain from acting as though Christianity is correct, is higher than that of acting as though it is incorrect
REASONING : finite x infinite > finite x finite


(Note: I personally disagree with at least one of those premises.)
 
Last edited:

RichardGarfinkle

Nurture Phoenixes
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jan 2, 2012
Messages
10,459
Reaction score
1,586
Location
Walking the Underworld
Website
www.richardgarfinkle.com
Strictly speaking, his original wager was to do with expected probability:

PREMISE : There is a finite chance that Christianity is correct
PREMISE : If Christianity is not correct, then there's only a finite comparative benefit in having been right about it not being correct, over being wrong about that
PREMISE : If Christianity is correct, then there's an infinite comparative benefit in having been right about it being correct, over being wrong about that
CONCLUSION : The expected value of the total benefit you'll gain from acting as though Christianity is correct, is higher than that of acting as though it is incorrect
REASONING : finite x infinite > finite x finite


(Note: I personally disagree with at least one of those premises.)

I was trying to avoid the technicalities of probability theory in the initial post. But to elaborate from your restatement.

The problem with Pascal's wager lies in his assumption that there is only one possible world with an infinite payout. In actual fact, there are a much larger infinity of them then the infinity of his payout. Ergo the probability of anyone such world being correct is 1 / Very large infinity indeed. Ergo the contribution to expectation value for any such world is small infinity / large infinity = 0. So even summing over this infinite set leads to a contribution of 0 from each and every such possibility. The set is so large because there are a vast infinity of axioms and entities one could add to the observable world in order to have a supernatural component to the world.

On the other hand, any possible world that correctly models the observed facts of this universe without an addition of new entities or axioms is in a much smaller set of possible worlds and therefore can be given a non-zero payout possibility.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.

Featured Book