Why Not to Take Pascal’s Wager

I have written before that I am a naturalist-humanist, which also means I am an atheist. This means that I lack belief in gods, including the Christian one. But why would I take such a stance? I’ve already outlined twelve reasons I don’t believe in anything supernatural, and written some of why I don’t believe specifically in God in “Where is God?” and “The Great Problem of Evil”. I’ll write more soon.

But there’s always a different question when we deal with the supernatural, specifically the belief in the afterlife and God: Since you can’t prove or disprove the existence of the afterlife and God and since belief in the afterlife and God is beneficial, isn’t it better to believe in it anyway? Welcome to Pascal’s Wager.

 

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager is an argument not for the existence of God, but for the rationality of belief in God and the irrationality of nonbelief in God. It was suggested by French mathematician, philosopher, physicist, and Catholic Blaise Pascal in his work Pensées, published after his death in about 1662. In his original writing, the Wager looks like this:


1. God is, or He is not
2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
4. You must wager. It is not optional.
5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. [...] There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

 

 

The General Argument For

In a more modern wording, the wager can be formulated as this argument:

  1. If God exists and one believes in him, then one will gain eternal reward (Heaven).
  2. If God exists and one does not believe in him, then one will gain eternal punishment (Hell).
  3. If God does not exist and one believes in him, then one does not gain or lose anything.
  4. If God does not exist and one doesn’t believe in him, then one does not gain or lose anything.
  5. There is no way to prove whether or not God exists, so all four options have an equal probability.
  6. The above four premises are all the possible options, so one must choose.
  7. Therefore from premises 1, 3, 5, and 6, one ought to believe in God, regardless of whether or not he exists.

 

What this means is the argument that regardless of whether or not God exists, one should believe in God. If the believer turns out to be right, he or she gains everything, but if the believer turns out to be wrong, he or she loses nothing. This is a net benefit +∞.

As the argument goes, if the nonbeliever turns out to be right, he or she gains nothing, but if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he or she loses everything. This is a net benefit of -∞. The argument is, all else being equal, shouldn’t we take +∞ over -∞? Even if God’s existence is improbable, certainly no one has proven God’s existence is impossible, so the logic is that believing in God is always a safe bet.

 

The General Argument Against

I, of course, disagree. Pascal’s Wager is a valid argument, which means that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. However, this also means that if any single premise is false, then the entire arguement is false. I will not be taking Pascal’s Wager because not only is one premise false, but every premise is false.

We can see this clearly. Premises 1 and 2 assume what hasn’t been proven (beg the question), Premise 3 and 4 are demonstrably false, Premise 5 is false in most cases, there are serious philosophical problems with Premise 6, and the conclusion itself also has independent practical problems. Since only one of these premises needs to fail for the entire argument to fail, the fact that each and every premise fails is a very good reason to reject Pascal’s Wager.

 

A Note on Agnosticism

One may be tempted to look at Pascal’s Wager and say that the agnosticism option (saying “I don’t know if God exists”) is missing, and therefore the argument is flawed. However, this does not properly account for the Wager, as you still will have to live as if God exists or not. Pascal’s Wager actually assumes strong agnosticism (God is not proven nor disproven) is the only reasonable position, but then argues we should all live as if God exists just in case.

While one can be philosophically agnostic, it is impossible to live an agnostic position in practice. Everyone has to take Pascal’s Wager in their life by deciding to pray or not; to attend church or not. If you do, you have taken the Wager and affirmed God. If you don’t, you have taken the Wager and rejected God as Pascal defines him.

 

 

Begging the Question (Premise 1 & 2)

Pascal’s Wager itself states that we can’t prove or disprove the nature of God. Therefore, how do we know that God will send us to Hell for nonbelief and send us to Heaven for belief? The only proof we have for assertions of Heaven and Hell would be holy texts, all of which at best remain unproven, and at worst remain falsified due to their numerous contradictions (see here, here and here for the Bible, and here for the Quran). You can debate these contradictions if you wish, but that is an entirely separate argument to Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager therefore begs the question and is an invalid argument.

 

Other Possible Reward-Punishment Philosophies

There are so many other possibilities besides Pascal’s Heaven-Hell punishment system under his Catholic God. If there exists a God that doesn’t punish and reward people as Pascal suggests, then his argument is invalid. Seeing as these Gods are just as possible according to Pascal (premise 5), these become a good reason to reject his argument.

First, the obvious positions of Deism, Pantheism, Panentheism, and any other religious belief that rejects the concept of a personal God. If these philosophies are true, God would exist, but there would be no Heaven or Hell. Therefore, there would be no infinite gain for the believer and no infinite loss for the atheist, and no practical reason to affirm God. The wager would become invalid.

Second, the position of strong universalism, or the belief that while God exists and Heaven exists, everyone who is sufficiently moral will go to Heaven, atheists included. If this philosophy is true, there also becomes no reason to affirm God, but just reasons to be moral (which exist independently of God anyway). The wager would also become invalid.

Third, we could be under yet another system, such as predestination in Calvinism, where nothing you do changes your Heaven/Hell destination; or a Trickster God who sends people to Hell at random; or an Evil God who sends everyone to Hell. If any of these Gods are possible, the wager also becomes invalid.

 

Carrier’s Reverse Wager Theology

Yet, in addition to all those philosophies, it could be even worse for the believer. As Richard Carrier argues in his essay “The End of Pascal’s Wager” there could be a God who rewards sincere and logical nonbelief and punishes insincere or illogical belief, because he wants to reward morality and critical thinking.

As Carrier argues, this theology accounts for far more problems than the Christian theology, explaining why God is so hidden, why God appears immoral in the Bible and Quran, why natural evils exist, and why there is just so little evidence or reason to believe God exists.

Under this possible theology, the reward system is reversed; now there is +∞ for nonbelief and -∞ for belief. If this theology is true, then Pascal’s Wager would tell us to wager on nonbelief. Since neither wager is more valid than the other, the entire wager system blows up, simultaneously supporting belief and nonbelief. We go back to square one.

 

 

The Great Religious Crossfire

We have a third objection to contend with, however. This simply the great crossfire between Christianity and Islam. The Bible clearly says that you must accept that Jesus is part of the trinity and died for your sins in order to go to Heaven. The Koran clearly says you must accept Jesus as solely a prophet, accept Mohammed as a prophet, and affirm Allah and the Koran to go to Heaven. These are mutually exclusive, so you clearly cannot do both. Therefore you must pick either Christianity, Islam, or another religion.

If you pick Christianity and Islam turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam Hell.
if you pick Islam and Christianity turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Christian Hell.
If you don’t pick Islam or Christianity and either turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam or Christian Hell.
If you attempt to pick both Islam and Christianity and either turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam or Christian Hell.

Since without further proof all religions are equally probable, we are trapped. No matter which of the four possibilities we pick, there is a chance we are going to suffer -∞ in Hell. There is no “generic theism” to believe in like Pascal seems to assume. You simply cannot win with Pascal’s Wager.

 

A Note on Religious Presumptions

One objection to this argument is the idea that “Well, deist theology / strong universalist theology / trickster theology / evil theology / Carrier reverse theology / Christianity / Islam cannot be true because my religion is true.” This objection misses the entire point of the Wager though, which dodges proof for religion and says we should believe regardless of which philosophy is true. Since it isn’t true that we should believe regardless, the wager fails. Carrier elaborates on this in a reply to criticism of his previous essay.

Instead, we then have to ask “How do you know your religion is true?” and we’re back to discussing arguments that have nothing to do with this Wager. We can’t just assume your philosophy is true without granting the possibility that the other several dozen philosophies are true. You can’t escape The Great Religious Crossfire, for example.

 

Conclusion I

Premises 1 and 2 fail to establish that Heaven and Hell work as Pascal assume they do. It is entirely possible that they work in no one’s advantage, or even contrary to the believer. Therefore Pascal’s Wager becomes We have good reasons to believe in God, therefore we have good reasons to believe in God, an entirely circular argument that asserts what it intends to prove. This circular nature is enough to reject Pascal’s Wager as an invalid argument, and therefore I do.

 

 

The Consequences Are Not as They Seem (Premises 3 & 4)

Now that it is entirely possible that the believer might not be getting the +∞ he or she is expecting and the nonbeliever might not be getting -∞, is it the other half of the argument true? Is there any reason to believe in Premise 3 and 4, that the atheist gains nothing if he or she is right and that the theist loses nothing if he or she is wrong?

Well, what do the believer lose if he or she is wrong and atheism is right? A lot of time, money, and thought. He or she wastes tithes and other donations, devotion time, worship time, prayer time, and time spent on church attendance. He or she wastes time worrying about all the ridiculous and rigid restrictions from sex to even thought itself.

All the time he or she spent advocating Pascal’s Wager (or other arguments to others) was not only a waste of time, but harmful by endorsing a lie. He or she also would end up associating himself or herself with a lot of evil and hypocrisy that is done by other members (but not all members) of the same religion. Not to mention that he or she wasted the only life you have by chasing a lie. Sam Harris also discusses the geopolitical consequences in his essay “The Empty Wager”.

What does the atheist gain if he or she is right? The truth — seeing reality for what it really is. Shouldn’t that, in itself, be enough? The atheist also gains freedom from rigid dogma, no longer has to do intellectual backflips to explain inconsistencies, immoralities, and interpolations in holy texts. The atheist gets the freedom to set his or her own purpose and morality and be good for a good reason, not be good because God says so.

 

The Atheist Counter-Wager

In the end, this sets up The Agnostic Atheist’s Wager:

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God, you will be judged on your merits and not just on whether or not you ignored the lack of evidence of his/her existence and blindly believed.

 

If God is just, then sincere nonbelief should never matter; and if sincere nonbelief is punishable, then God is not just by any understandable standard. I would never worship an unjust God because might never makes right. It is the atheist who stands to gain everything and lose nothing, whereas the theist loses out in the life that is most probably our only one. Not to mention that atheists are fully able to be happy and have purpose, meaning, morality, justice, and comfort without needing God, so why bother?

 

Conclusion II

We now have another line of reason to reject Pascal’s Wager — atheism is the better bet, allowing you to love without restriction and know without boundary. Since the religious stand to lose and the atheists stand to gain, premises 3 and 4 are clearly inaccurate descriptions of reality. This means Pascal’s wager itself is a clearly inaccurate description of reality, and that is enough to reject it.

 

Religions Can Be Disproven (Premise 5)

Now we enter an additional fallacy of the wager: assuming we’re arguing between generic atheism and generic theism. In reality, both sides are not worldviews we can actually accept. The real wager must be between naturalism-humanism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Deism, Zoroastrianism, etc. All of these are initially valid worldviews and you must pick one (or make your own).

So while it may be impossible to disprove generic theism, it is possible to disprove Pascal’s Christianity. We simply ask ourselves two questions: “Are there any good reasons to believe in Christianity?” and “Are there any good reasons to not believe in Christianity?”. We find that the answer to the first question is “No” and the answer to the first question is “Yes”. This means the weight of evidence is strongly against Christianity, and we have logical and rational reason to reject it. For example, consider the questions of Where is God? or Why Does God Allow Suffering?, and others.

Now let’s do the same for naturalism-humanism. Are there any good reasons to believe in Naturalism-Humanism? Yes. Are there any good reasons to not believe in Naturalism-Humanism. Not really. The weight of evidence points to Naturalism-Humanism and we have logical and rational reason to support it. (Note: This section will be expanded with future essays.)

 

Conclusion III

Since Pascal’s Wager cannot possibly advocate for a generic theism which doesn’t exist, Pascal’s Wager does not advocate for anything. Instead, if the Wager is intended to advocate for Christianity, it must contend with all the failure of arguments for Christianity and the success of arguments against Christianity. This means Pascal’s Wager doesn’t successfully advocate any position, and this is good reason to reject it.

 

 

Problems With Forced Belief (Premise 6)

Now, even if all the previous premises are somehow true (and that’s a huge if), this argument still makes two giant, unproven assumptions about belief: (1) that beliefs can be shifted via willpower and (2) that beliefs should be shifted via willpower.

On the first problem, no matter how hard I try or how many times I read the 100 Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe, I cannot sincerely believe that the Earth is flat.

Now imagine you told me that you would pay me $100 million dollars if I believed the Earth was flat and would kill me if I believed the Earth was round. My benefit in this case is +100million for believing and -∞ for disbelieving. But despite pleading and doing everything possible to demonstrate a belief in a flat earth, very few in this situation would be able to conjure up a sincere belief.

The only way an atheist could possibly take this wager is to have insincere belief. But would we expect God to reward this insincere belief? Surely an omniscient God would see straight through your bluff. Can we go up to God at Heaven and say “Well, I didn’t really believe in you, but I played the odds?”. Somehow I doubt that will work well for him, and if it does work better than sincere nonbelief, we have an unjust God.

 

Why Wager?

We know that truth is also not a popularity contest or a comfort contest. No matter how many people believe in a proposition and no matter how much we want a proposition to be true, neither of these constitute good reason to believe the proposition is true. All of this essentially amounts to the fallacies of Argument from ignorance and Appeal to tradition.

In reality, the truth is most definitely not something we wager for our own personal benefit. We can see this quite obviously with a reductio ad absurdum: Why don’t we use Pascal’s Wager on other items that make us obviously happy and we conveniently can’t disprove?

 

From Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

 

The Reductio Ad Absurdum

As Bill Packer points out in Pascal’s Wager: Your Future Waits, why don’t we pay his God $1 just in case his God is the real God? Why don’t we accept Wonko, since his Hell is ten times worse than any other Hell? Why don’t we Kiss Hank’s Ass?

As Ebonmuse writes in his essay “A Flip of a Coin”:

Everyone understands this, whether they realize it or not. After all, why else do Pascal’s-Wager-using theists reject belief in Santa Claus? As stated above, by their own argument they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by such belief, regardless of how small the chances are that such an entity actually exists; yet no adult theists I know of believe in jolly old St. Nick. The reason for this is precisely because they understand that the notion of Santa Claus is demonstrably untrue, an idea with no good evidence in its favor and strong positive evidence weighing against it, and therefore they feel free to disregard that “but what if…” possibility as unworthy of consideration. The situation with atheists and God is very much the same.

 

Conclusion IV

When it comes down to it, are we really going to wager what we know about reality for our own personal benefit? Doesn’t that seem not only arrogant and selfish, but downright absurd? Not only are we psychologically unable to sincerely preform such a task without becoming a walking ball cognitive dissonance, there is absolutely no reason why we should.

Reality is simply not a popularity contest or something you bet on in Vegas. Reality is not something we accept just because people bribe us to accept it with a nice, coincidentally unfalsifiable, afterlife and threaten us with a scary, also unfalsifiable, Hell. In all cases, truths simply cannot and should not be accepted by carrot and stick, but by reason. Therefore, Pascal’s Wager is both psychologically and philosophically unsound, and this gives us another reason to reject it.

 

 

According to Pascal's Wager, we don't know for sure if God is a chicken. Therefore, it is in our best interest to not eat chicken, since we have everything to gain if we are right, and very little to lose if we are wrong. (From Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.)

 

Where The Argument Stands Now

We started out with what sounds convincing: an idea that we have everything to gain but nothing to lose by accepting a belief in God and/or the afterlife. It is clearly an unsound position for many different reasons — it assumes what has not been proven, it contains misinformation, it is psychologically absurd, and it has logical fallacies. When it comes to being an argument in defense of a religion, it does a really bad job — it not only has zero convincing merit, but it fails to defend any religion, let alone a specific one.

I imagine the argument is very convincing to someone who is already convinced. The person using this argument already has beliefs in the +∞ and the -∞ for whatever reason and for some reason thinks that a God who punishes sincere nonbelief is still just. However, if you assume the religion to be true and use this argument, then of course your religion is going to come out justified. Pascal’s Wager simply has too many fallacies and false assumptions to have any argumentative or logical merit.

Therefore, please stop presenting atheists with the Pascal’s Wager. If the atheist is a good atheist who has actually thought out his or her worldview (there are some bad atheists just like there are bad Christians), then the atheist has a reason to reject God. Find out what those reasons are and address them or find a different argument that actually is convincing. Meanwhile, I’m just going to move along, with my naturalism-humanism completely undaunted.

Besides, gambling is probably a sin.

 

 

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I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.

On 26 Jan 2011 in All, Atheism, Counter-apologetics. 30 Comments.

30 Comments

  1. #1 Louis Epstein says:
    28 Jan 2011, 7:14 pm  

    As a doctrinaire generic-theist,I dismiss the Wager because its theism fails to be generic,there is no credible basis on which to assume a digital rather than analog afterlife.However,the necessity of an Infinitely First Cause can not be credibly doubted,whatever rationalizations any may allege for doing so.

  2. #2 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    28 Jan 2011, 7:46 pm  

    What is “doctrinaire generic theism”? Is it different than deism?

    Since, according to you, there is no credible way to doubt your position, I guess I cannot doubt it. Maybe I’ll make some sense to you when I discuss The Cosmological Arguement (coming soonish).

  3. #3 Louis Epstein says:
    28 Jan 2011, 9:23 pm  

    Deism specifies that God is beyond the material,Pantheism that God is within the material,Theism doesn’t limit God either way.I believe that nothing but the existence of an Infinitely First Cause can ultimately explain the existence of anything,but its nature is largely unknowable.

  4. #4 melvin says:
    31 Jan 2011, 6:08 pm  

    It’s ok if you don’t believe in God, God don’t believe in you….

  5. #5 Peter says:
    2 Feb 2011, 3:02 pm  

    @melvin: Do you know how completely meaningless that phrase is?

    First, it does nothing to convince me. If I already don’t believe in God, why would I care if God doesn’t believe in me? That alone makes your statement meaningless.

    But if you really think about it, it’s completely crazy for another reason. I know I exist. You know I exist, because someone had to write this comment. So if God didn’t believe in me (know I exist), then he wouldn’t be omniscient. He would be rather stupid. If your claim is true, you have disproved your own God (assuming you believe in an omniscient God).

    The fact that you think such a statement means anything to me shows that you are not thinking correctly at all. So, in turn, I reply “It’s ok if you don’t believe in Odin, Odin don’t believe in you…”

  6. #6 Anonymous says:
    12 Oct 2011, 5:42 pm  

    Gotta say I’m sorry for you. If you put faith in God, you don’t lose pork (saying that is being what’s called an idiot), you lose your foreskin-so what?, you lose time and energy (when you would be doing what? sleeping in, watching football and eating potato chips? stupid again), 10% of your income(so what? is life entirely about money? if you choose to believe, help the people who help your faith even more), stem-cell research (or maybe we could just not use stem cells from murdered babies…), blood transfusions (says who? stupid again), and lack of rights (lol what religion are we talking about here? pretty sure that that’s only some muslim communities). In response the person above gave to melvin, he never said God doesn’t believe you don’t exist, He may not believe that you have the brain capacity to understand an all-powerful being (but we’ve already established that you’re an idiot, so it’s common knowledge now anyway).

  7. #7 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    13 Oct 2011, 12:20 am  

    Anonymous, thanks for the ad-hominem attacks; much appreciated.

    Also, your religion, whatever it may be, is not the only religion that exists, so the losses from participating obviously differ depending on what you endorse. Additionally, the one cartoon you single out for critique isn’t even the whole point of that argument, which is just one of many.

    But of course, I, being an idiot, just have no ability to appreciate the sheer brilliance of the comment you grace my website with, so take my answer with a grain of salt.

  8. #8 Hamiltonian87 says:
    19 Oct 2011, 4:07 pm  

    I really like your breaking this down as you do. You’re good to work through it. Though I’m a Christian (Mormon) and feel to be able to say that “I know” there is a God–on the basis of spiritual experiences that I deem to provide more than enough proof–I still very much respect the thought and consideration you’ve put to the question.

    Now I know that you’ve demonstrated that enough premises of Pascal’s wager aren’t true so that it isn’t valid (meaning just one), I would simplify it substantially. And though it may not stand on it’s own, there is merit there which could ultimately be persuasive, just like it’s persuasive not to believe in Santa even though there are aspects of the wager which could make it compelling.

    The bottom line for me is, I won’t stop using it in my talks with atheists. But I will have a much healthier view of both its limitations and it possibilities because of what you’ve described.

    As an aside, it’s curious that the “counter-wager” presented fits in so nicely with Mormon theology. It seems painfully obvious that, if one were to live one’s life as suggested, a all-knowing, all-wise, benevolent Father in Heaven would certainly judge based on the individuals adhereing to correct principles–so-called principles of righteousness.

    Our doctrine takes it one step further, though. If you had the chance to hear of it, and exhibited skepticism congruent with an unwillingness to adhere to the principles; or if there was an element of “laziness” in working through the possibilities fully to test the principles offered, that would be tantamount to “ignor[ing] the… evidence of his/her existence and blindly [dis]believ[ing].” And that, of course, would ultimately “count against” one in the grand scheme.

  9. #9 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    20 Oct 2011, 1:32 am  

    I really like your breaking this down as you do. You’re good to work through it.

    Thanks!

    ~

    Though I’m a Christian (Mormon) and feel to be able to say that “I know” there is a God–on the basis of spiritual experiences that I deem to provide more than enough proof

    I’d be interested in hearing how you came to this conclusion, and what you think of those who say they came to other religions on the basis of spiritual experiences.

    ~

    Now I know that you’ve demonstrated that enough premises of Pascal’s wager aren’t true so that it isn’t valid (meaning just one), I would simplify it substantially.

    What would you simplify it to? How would it still have argumentative merit? With every premise being false and the conclusion being invalid, it’s as wrong as an argument possibly can be, so I don’t see what is left.

    ~

    Our doctrine takes it one step further, though. If you had the chance to hear of it, and exhibited skepticism congruent with an unwillingness to adhere to the principles; or if there was an element of “laziness” in working through the possibilities fully to test the principles offered, that would be tantamount to “ignor[ing] the… evidence of his/her existence and blindly [dis]believ[ing].” And that, of course, would ultimately “count against” one in the grand scheme.

    What if I heard of Mormonism but felt honestly unconvinced by it, just because I found the evidence lacking and did not share in the same spiritual experiences? Would this count against me?

  10. #10 AGreenhill says:
    22 Oct 2011, 4:21 pm  

    “If God is just, then sincere nonbelief should never matter; and if sincere nonbelief is punishable, then God is not just by any understandable standard.”

    I grew up with extremely conservative Christians… until I did a lot of thinking (in college, with all my spare time that I should have been doing my homework)… I too was part of the religion.

    I can tell you that the statement I have quoted above simply would not fly with these people. The reason is that these types of extreme Christians believe that if you aren’t a Christian and have heard about Jesus, you inevitably feel convicted to follow the “truth”, and not doing so (aka defying your conscience) is worthy of damnation.

    That was just an FYI on the thoughts of some Christians.

    I’m glad you brought up the point about the impossibility of forcing belief within yourself. It’s one of those things that was just so obvious to me after leaving religion, but while I was in it – I was somehow able to gloss over all of my worldview’s glaring fallacies. It is a weird thing.

  11. #11 Peter says:
    23 Oct 2011, 1:23 pm  

    I can tell you that the statement I have quoted above simply would not fly with these people. The reason is that these types of extreme Christians believe that if you aren’t a Christian and have heard about Jesus, you inevitably feel convicted to follow the “truth”, and not doing so (aka defying your conscience) is worthy of damnation.

    Reminds me of “The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory” by Adam Lee, criticizing and ridiculing the idea that everyone has the testimony of the Holy Spirit and are simply deluding themselves.

    Not to mention the full fury of how horrible an idea Hell is: if God is placing people there based on their religion instead of how good they are as a person (“purity” of intention, I guess), then he is practicing religious discrimination.

  12. #12 Hamiltonian87 says:
    23 Oct 2011, 1:53 pm  

    @Peter

    I’d be interested in hearing how you came to this conclusion, and what you think of those who say they came to other religions on the basis of spiritual experiences.

    Just as there are physical senses, there are senses of a finer mien. Yet these are equally real, just as spirit matter is finer — though real — than physical matter. Clearly, science has yet to catch up to this granularity, but they’re working on it!

    As regards others who maintain they’ve had similar experiences, who am I to judge? That has to be a very personal thing that others can have no basis for evaluating.

    As far as the various “religions” go, I have to reason as follows:

    IF “God” exists, then by definition he’s in possession of all truth.
    IF he’s in possession of all truth, then truths must exist independently of whether specific individuals or belief systems adhere to them. That is, “relative truth” cannot exist. This comports with our understanding of the physical universe — no one would likely maintain that, if one chose not to believe in the principle of gravity, it wouldn’t then apply for them.
    It follows, then, that because truth is discreetly discernable, whatever “rules” that apply to one’s living with God after this life must follow the same basic formulation that “rules” of physics follow. That is, there must be discoverable, attainable, discreet concepts which govern whether we obtain a “reward” (e.g. the reward of flight by following principles of physics), or alternatively a “punishment” (as in a crash if we don’t follow the proper principles of physics).

    Religions themselves have nothing to do with these truths. They are simply mechanisms devised for mortal man to discern the spiritual rules, and they attempt to provide a framework for obeying them such that flight occurs and not crashes.

    Now, if religions were exclusively in the domain of truth, they must necessarily look identical — there could be no varyiance among them. And God would have to provide a consistent, discoverable stream to either each individual, or to “collection points” in order to be all-just (according to the definition of a perfect being). If not, then some people would be left out and that would be unjust.

    Hence the liklihood of collection points, through which truth is received and can be disseminated further. This seems most likely, given the above arguments of the differences between the physical senses/world, and the finer spiritual matter/communication that would have to occure — not everyone would be prepared, or properly “tuned” at the outset to receive.

    So….. By reason, if there’s a God, there should be identifiable prophets (the most likely scenario for a “collection point” medium) and they should be disseminating information they receive to the rest of the world.

    But whether a particular religion equates to “the” single true religion must also be discenernable. If it were not so, God could not be perfect — he’d be a so-called respecter of persons, and would be unjust. And the mechanism through which these truths could be discerned must necessarily be spiritual — part of those finer senses/material. On the other hand, not all either choose to discern, nor have attuned themselves so. But it would follow that though these finer faculties once attuned, one could certainly discern whether a “prophet” is truly in communication with the almighty. It would have to be so for God to be just. Leaving his children alone without means for discovering truth is inconsistent with either perfect love or perfect justice.

    So, the long answer is that, given the availability of the medium for discerning, all would come to the same truth if they had attuned their spiritual (finer) senses. And that God would offer that to everyone, regardless of standing, in order to maintain perfect love and justice.

    What would you simplify it to? How would it still have argumentative merit? With every premise being false and the conclusion being invalid, it’s as wrong as an argument possibly can be, so I don’t see what is left.

    I would have to put in some real effort to “simplify” Pascal’s wager. I would likely abandon much of it and reduce it to premises and conclusions based on what I’ve just described.

    What if I heard of Mormonism but felt honestly unconvinced by it, just because I found the evidence lacking and did not share in the same spiritual experiences? Would this count against me?

    Naturally, it would not be “held against you.” There’s a scripture in our canon of scriptures which basically says that there are many good people out there who’d love to learn the truth, but know not where to find it. I think that bespeaks a level of sincerity on behalf of the “seeker”, but for whatever reasons — previous bad experience, cultural taboos, indoctrination against, learned biases, or difficulty complying with whatever prerequisites are required in order to fine tune — the time wasn’t right or the communication was otherwise lost. In these cases, certainly an all-loving, all-knowing, all-just father in heaven would take these things into account and judge accordingly.

    To me, that’s the beauty…

  13. #13 joseph says:
    25 Oct 2011, 1:34 pm  

    @Hamiltonian
    I am having some trouble understanding, on your view, whether:

    1/ It is God’s responsibility that it’s children come to knowledge of it.
    2/ If it’s the afore-mentioned children’s responsibility.
    3/ A mixture of the above.

  14. #14 Tom Mitchell says:
    28 Oct 2011, 10:39 am  

    @ Hamiltonian87

    I enjoyed reading your post. There were parts I am having problems with, I hope you can help me clarify.

    IF “God” exists, then by definition he’s in possession of all truth.

    The problem I am having is that the my people beleive in Tian. IF Tian exists, then by defintion it is in possession of all truth. My Tian and your God have some overlap, but there are many ways in which they are different. For instance there is no heaven or hell in what i believe. Tian was translated in english to “heaven” but in reality it is world apart from the christian term heaven. I have no problem with you beliefs but I do not understand if we are soley in the realm of “ifs” why the possibility of your absolute truth should take precedent over mine? Furthermore, I believe that even if everyone does not have a word for it, like God or Tian, humans by nature work on the assumption of some ultiamte concern, some absolute truth.
    Peter has written over a hundred essays on this Blog. He is clearly devoted to something, some idea. It is just not your idea. Your idea is older than his, but does its antiquity make it superior? If that is the case, my Tian is as certianly as old, if not older, than your God. Perhaps it is majority that makes your absolute truth so sacred and his so profane? But then again, there are many people who do not believe in your God. I do not know. To me, his truth seems just as sacred to him as your does to you, and as mine is to me.

    The idea of an all-knowing God seems cruel to me, but then so does Peter’s idea of an absolute knowledge. In fact, I see the two ideas as one.

  15. #15 Hamiltonian87 says:
    28 Oct 2011, 6:37 pm  

    @joseph
    You have it partially correct: It is “God’s responsibility” only to make the truth abundantly available to his children. Hence the prophets. It’s also, however, this being’s responsibility to provide a medium of deciphering tools to make discovering the truth available to all.

    Just consider what would take place if this wasn’t the case.
    1) If God didn’t make the truth available to every single soul, He (I’ll refer to the being as a male) would be what is known as a respecter of persons. That means He would make something available to some, but not all.

    If this were the case, He would instantaneously cease to be a God, if God is defined as being perfect. Given this scenario, would He be all-loving? Nope. Would He be all-just?. If even one individual wasn’t given equal opportunity, He would no longer be just. And of his many attributes, if even one is not in him in perfection, He loses perfection completely, and therefore ceases to be God.

    2) If God didn’t make the truth discernable for every soul, through whatever medium He used, and didn’t make that medium available for every soul, then we run into an exactly similar set of circumstances. And if so, God can no longer — by definition — be a God.

    So the question turns on whether there’s a God or not. And if there’s a God, then it should be a relatively simple matter to test, because by His very nature, He can’t withhold it from anyone and must make the ability to find it available to all.

    According to our theology, this “medium” I refer to is known as the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. It is often referred to as the “Comforter.” Look up John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:13 for a brief list of this being’s duties. This is the mechanism by which God provides all with the opportunity to find out about whether he exists; whether someone purporting to be a prophet called of him truly is; whether the doctrine that they teach is “true” — independently in its sphere just like the laws of physics, not relatively so; etc.

    In the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:5):

    And by the power of the holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

    By the way. Because His children can find out through the mechanisms He has made available; and because he withholds it from no one who will approach it according to the manner that He prescribes; he is completely, perfectly just.

    So in answer to your question, it seems clear — by definition — that #3 is the only possible statement that maintains the integrity of the system. Through #3 God can do his part (allowing Him to be no respecter of persons), and simultaneously grant that individuals can choose for themselves (which further reinforces the attribute of being perfectly just).

    Sorry if this is all convoluted–it’s a bit late here and I’ve been working feverishly on another critical matter. I’ll try to review it and make better sense of it later…

  16. #16 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    29 Oct 2011, 11:53 pm  

    @Hamiltonian87:

    Just as there are physical senses, there are senses of a finer mien. Yet these are equally real, just as spirit matter is finer — though real — than physical matter. Clearly, science has yet to catch up to this granularity, but they’re working on it!

    How do you justify this claim?

    ~

    As regards others who maintain they’ve had similar experiences, who am I to judge? That has to be a very personal thing that others can have no basis for evaluating.

    But what about experiences that are literally contradictory? As I mention in “Where is God?”, people often have very different spiritual experiences — some feel that God wants this, others feel that God wants that, etc.

    Is Baptism necessary for salvation or not? It depends on who you ask.

    ~

    Now, if religions were exclusively in the domain of truth, they must necessarily look identical — there could be no variance among them.

    But how do you explain that religions most emphatically do not look identical?

    ~

    And God would have to provide a consistent, discoverable stream to either each individual, or to “collection points” in order to be all-just (according to the definition of a perfect being). If not, then some people would be left out and that would be unjust.

    What do you make of the people who have been left out then? Such as those who died before they could learn of religion, those too mentally handicapped to learn about religion, those practicing the wrong religion, and those who once practiced the correct religion and then changed their minds?

    ~

    So, the long answer is that, given the availability of the medium for discerning, all would come to the same truth if they had attuned their spiritual (finer) senses. And that God would offer that to everyone, regardless of standing, in order to maintain perfect love and justice.

    Again, why do so many people live their lives without being able to develop their alleged spiritual senses, despite lots of trying? Why to the people who claim to have developed alleged spiritual senses espouse different opinions about the nature of God?

    ~

    Naturally, it would not be “held against you.” There’s a scripture in our canon of scriptures which basically says that there are many good people out there who’d love to learn the truth, but know not where to find it.

    Why doesn’t God help these people learn the truth, if they are incapable through no fault of their own?

    ~

    According to our theology, this “medium” I refer to is known as the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.

    How would you demonstrate that the Holy Ghost exists? Especially see Luke Muelhauser’s “William Lane Craig on Faith and Reason”, Adam Lee’s “The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory”, and especially Michael Martin’s Craig’s Holy Spirit Epistemology.

  17. #17 joseph says:
    30 Oct 2011, 10:21 am  

    @Hamiltonian

    Thankyou for your reply.
    I am having trouble understanding then why God took his (as you seemingly prefer) responsibilities to Joseph Smith very seriously.

    On the other hand I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witnesses, and perhaps it was the Devil itself that spent such a long time training me in counter arguments to every other system of theology.

    Perhaps I was given such a handicap on my search for the truth for some unknowable reason…not that I have it as badly as saw a Muslim or a Hindu…

  18. #18 John W. Loftus says:
    4 Nov 2011, 2:04 pm  

    Very nice articulation of the arguments against Pascal’s Wager.

    The real Wager should look like this:

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2011/03/new-and-better-pascals-wager-if-god.html

    Cheers

  19. #19 Will Pierce says:
    28 Jan 2012, 12:58 pm  

    You seem to have missed the point – what if you are wrong, sir? What if God does not conform to your logic? By definition, God can do whatever He chooses. He is not bound by your sense of justice or logic. What if He allows you reasons to believe and reasons to not believe because He wants you to choose rather than logically deduce? The Wager is certainly not a reason to believe in God; it is a reason to accept the possibility of God – to open your mind to the idea. In this respect, it has done the job with you – you’ve demonstrated that you have thought about the possibility. You’ve made a choice, and I respect your opinion. That doesn’t affect the possibility that you are wrong. Your logic, to you, seems irrefutable; Adolf Hitler’s logic, to him, also seemed irrefutable. I can change your opinion no more than I can change his; I can, however, submit the idea that you might be wrong. What you do with that idea is up to you…as God intended.

  20. #20 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    1 Feb 2012, 12:34 am  

    Will, your comment frustrates me a bit because while I want to do as much as possible to trust you are arguing in good faith, I see little indication that you have read what I wrote as you don’t really interact with it. Here are my responses to what you have written:

    The Wager is certainly not a reason to believe in God; it is a reason to accept the possibility of God – to open your mind to the idea.

    That’s at least not how I’ve seen the wager used in both common practice and in the literature — its instead an argument from utility that it would be irrational to be an atheist because you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by doing so, allegedly. The Wager is actually *premised* upon the possibility of God and argues for belief in God based on that possibility.

    The Wager does nothing to actually argue that God is possible — it doesn’t deal with any incompatibility arguments, for example, or reason from any premises to a conclusion that God is possible.

    ~

    You seem to have missed the point – what if you are wrong, sir?

    But I have already dealt with this consideration here and elsewhere. I admit the possibility I could be wrong, but I find this possibility to be minuscule enough to not worry about. Also, you could be wrong not only about the existence of God but about which God exists, thus you face just as much liability as I do.

    ~

    What if God does not conform to your logic? By definition, God can do whatever He chooses. He is not bound by your sense of justice or logic.

    Can God really do *whatever* he chooses? I’m told he can’t deny himself or go against his own just and good nature. Furthermore, I highly doubt that he can make a square circle or create a married bachelor. If all this is true, God does seem to be bound to my sense of justice and logic after all.

    ~

    What if He allows you reasons to believe and reasons to not believe because He wants you to choose rather than logically deduce?

    As I argue here, that consideration is silly because belief isn’t a choice. And as I argue in “Where is God?” that consideration is silly because there is no reason why logical deduction based on provided evidence should be considered undesirable.

  21. #21 Patrick Brinich-Langlois says:
    31 Oct 2012, 3:24 pm  

    I’m impressed you can write as much as you do while you’re in school.

    I would never worship an unjust God because might never makes right.

    This seems a bit foolhardy: in certain circumstances it’s is prudent to submit to force. Let’s say some religious extremist takes you hostage and threatens to torture you to death if you don’t prostrate yourself and chant a bunch of meaningless phrases. You probably would submit to your captor’s demands. In Pascal’s wager, the stakes are higher, and it seems well worth it to engage in a bit of hocus-pocus to avoid being tortured for ever.

  22. #22 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    2 Nov 2012, 1:02 am  

    In Pascal’s wager, the stakes are higher, and it seems well worth it to engage in a bit of hocus-pocus to avoid being tortured for ever.

    Unlike the religious extremist, I don’t suspect God would be satisfied by insincere hocus-pocus. And I don’t think I could ever sincerely and wholeheartedly worship someone because of a threat, not because I wouldn’t want to for my own sake, but because I think it just isn’t psychologically possible given how sincerity works.

  23. #23 Patrick Brinich-Langlois says:
    6 Nov 2012, 1:19 am  

    But wouldn’t it be worth a try? Many people undergo great religious or political conversions. They shake their heads at their former selves, and wonder how they could have been so foolish. This is a part of the argument I believe that Pascal got right: he didn’t say you should will yourself to believe, but rather that you should put yourself in circumstances in which a conversion is more likely to take place:

    But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.

    If God exists, it seems reasonable that if you made a good-faith effort, he’d help you along. And even if he didn’t, he might go easier on you than he would if you made no effort.

  24. #24 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    6 Nov 2012, 2:02 am  

    But wouldn’t it be worth a try? Many people undergo great religious or political conversions. They shake their heads at their former selves, and wonder how they could have been so foolish.

    I don’t think it’s worth a try in my current epistemic situation (put simply, it seems too silly), though I’m fairly sure that if I was faced with an actual god, I could change my mind.

    And when you get down to it, which god figure are you supposed to accept and worship? I think my section “Begging the Question” is the most compelling one — there just are too many mutually exclusive outs even if you wanted to try.

  25. #25 Patrick Brinich-Langlois says:
    6 Nov 2012, 2:55 am  

    And when you get down to it, which god figure are you supposed to accept and worship?

    Islam and Christianity would be the best choices. If there were a god that cared about whether people believed in him, I’d expect a tendency for people to believe in that god at above-chance levels. Islam and Christianity have far more adherents than other religions. There are reasonable, smart people who believe in them. Members of these religions have reported miracles and visions. Their scriptures have some good bits, and they are pretty long. I’d choose the Christian god, since I live in the US.

    It seems much less likely that Wonko exists. Nobody believes in him. Nobody has reported a spiritual experience that involves Wonko. The only evidence of his existence seems to be a one-page document on the Web that was originally posted on Usenet. Its tone is sarcastic, and it doesn’t make any effort to persuade. It refers to “Verse 1567, line 42 of the Revealed Holy Wisdom of Wonko,” but as far as I know, there is no such book.

    It could be that Wonko exists, but a far better explanation is that he is the a parody, the creation of some atheist. So I’d give something like a 0.00000000001 chance of Wonko’s existence, compared to a 0.0001 or so chance of a vengeful Christian god’s existence.

    If you pick Christianity and Islam turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam Hell.

    if you pick Islam and Christianity turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Christian Hell.

    If you don’t pick Islam or Christianity and either turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam or Christian Hell.

    If you attempt to pick both Islam and Christianity and either turns out to be true, you suffer -∞ and go to Islam or Christian Hell.

    Since without further proof all religions are equally probable, we are trapped. No matter which of the four possibilities we pick, there is a chance we are going to suffer -∞ in Hell.

    Yes, but the chance of hell is less if you pick one of either Islam or Christianity than if you pick atheism.

    You raise the possibility of a god that punishes people forever for believing in gods whose existence isn’t supported by evidence. This seems like another ad hoc, Wonko-type God. This sort of God is so arbitrary that the opposite sort of god (one who punishes people for not believing in some god for which there is insufficient evidence) seems just as plausible. So this possibility wouldn’t change my expected-value calculation.

  26. #26 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    6 Nov 2012, 11:45 am  

    If there were a god that cared about whether people believed in him, I’d expect a tendency for people to believe in that god at above-chance levels.

    Why would you expect that tendancy? What if the god that exists is one that *doesn’t* care about whether people believe in him? For this kind of god, surely the number of people who believe isn’t going to be useful in determining the probability of its existence.

    Furthermore, if you’re going down this route, I think you walk into a fatal Argument from Nonbelief — the existence of reasonable atheists should make it clear that whatever god exists does not have “make all people believe” as its highest priority.

    ~

    Islam and Christianity have far more adherents than other religions. There are reasonable, smart people who believe in them. Members of these religions have reported miracles and visions.

    Argument from Nonbelief aside, this is an “argument from popularity” fallacy — the number of adherents has very weak bearing on its truth. Miracle and vision claims are also weak and contradictory, and definitely not limited to Islam and Christianity. And Islam and Christianity weren’t always the dominant religions.

    But even if you were choosing between Islam and Christianity, you’re still stuck in an unresolvable Hell crossfire. In fact, even among just Christianity, there are questions about what kind of baptism ritual you need to go through, whether or not homosexuality yields hellfire, or even whether hellfire is really fire!

    Lastly, even by using evidence to adjudicate which god concept is the most probable, you’re already stepping away from the original Pascal’s Wager, which was intended to be an “a priori” argument.

    And where does deism fit into all of this?

    ~

    I’d choose the Christian god, since I live in the US.

    I can’t imagine your region of residence determining which god exists, if any.

  27. #27 Patrick Brinich-Langlois says:
    9 Nov 2012, 3:12 am  

    You made some good points. Here’s an argument. I didn’t know where else to put it, so I stuck it at the top.

    It may be difficult to convince yourself of something that’s bizarre and contradictory and whatnot, so why not instead devote your life to getting other people to believe it? You could get a high-paying job and donate your earnings to whatever group of missionaries produces keeps the most people out of hell, in expectation. This gets around the psychological argument. If you did this, you might go to hell, but you might save many others from this fate, so it would be a happy ending after all.

    If there were a god that cared about whether people believed in him, I’d expect a tendency for people to believe in that god at above-chance levels.

    Why would you expect that tendancy? What if the god that exists is one that *doesn’t* care about whether people believe in him?

    I was assuming that people are more likely to believe in something if it exists than if it doesn’t.

    Furthermore, if you’re going down this route, I think you walk into a fatal Argument from Nonbelief — the existence of reasonable atheists should make it clear that whatever god exists does not have “make all people believe” as its highest priority.

    Thanks for that; I hadn’t heard of the argument from nonbelief before, at least not stated in those terms.

    Christian doctrine has some seemingly irreconcilable elements. As an atheist, I’m not in the best position to defend them. Some apologists chalk it up to mystery, which is cop-out.

    Argument from Nonbelief aside, this is an “argument from popularity” fallacy — the number of adherents has very weak bearing on its truth. Miracle and vision claims are also weak and contradictory, and definitely not limited to Islam and Christianity. And Islam and Christianity weren’t always the dominant religions.

    I was thinking that a real god should be more likely to have the advantage in getting adherents. Christianity and Islam could be replaced in the future by the actual true religion, and I’d be SOL. But we have to go with what we know now.

    Miracle claims are indeed weak evidence. I was thinking of them more as a prerequisite for seriously considering a religion. If a religion doesn’t even have miracles, it’s pretty lame.

    But even if you were choosing between Islam and Christianity, you’re still stuck in an unresolvable Hell crossfire. In fact, even among just Christianity, there are questions about what kind of baptism ritual you need to go through, whether or not homosexuality yields hellfire, or even whether hellfire is really fire!

    It would still make sense to try to minimize your chances of ending up in hell. Pick whichever sect seems to have the highest expected value.

    Lastly, even by using evidence to adjudicate which god concept is the most probable, you’re already stepping away from the original Pascal’s Wager, which was intended to be an “a priori” argument.

    Pascal’s Wager was a remarkable achievement for its time, but the original version is indeed deficient.

    And where does deism fit into all of this?

    We can ignore deism as you described it, since it excludes the possibility of infinite consequences.

    I’d choose the Christian god, since I live in the US.

    I can’t imagine your region of residence determining which god exists, if any.

    Sorry; I wasn’t clear about this. Where I live, there aren’t any mosques and there are few Muslims. I was raised a Christian. I could sort of see myself try to believe that stuff again, but I can’t imagine myself converting to Islam.

  28. #28 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    9 Nov 2012, 11:28 pm  

    Seeing as you’re an atheist, I don’t know whether or not you accept the argument you’ve been putting forth, but it’s fun to engage with.

    A lot of what you seem to base yourself on, though is being able to find the most likely path to avoiding Hell. Sure, it may be a 0.01% longshot, but if Hell is infinitely bad, it’s worth it, right?

    I disagree, because I don’t think you can confidently find the most likely path to avoiding Hell.

    I was assuming that people are more likely to believe in something if it exists than if it doesn’t.

    Usually this is the case, because the vast majority of things that don’t exist are not believed in. However, gods and religions do seem to be a special case, and you agree with me that it’s quite clear the vast majority can believe in something that doesn’t exist. How many things does the majority of the population believe in that not only exist, but are also seemingly contradictory and irreconcilable?

    Not only that, but if people believe in something that actually exists, they should be able to tell you why and explain it in a way to help you believe. Apologetics is an attempt, but as you acknowledge, it doesn’t do a very good job. How can that failure be reconciled with an existant god, let alone one that *wants* you to believe?

    Furthermore, on the “popularity = truth” front, consider that 48% of people believe in ESP, 34% in extraterrestrial UFO visits, and 23% in ghosts…

    ~

    I was thinking that a real god should be more likely to have the advantage in getting adherents. Christianity and Islam could be replaced in the future by the actual true religion, and I’d be SOL. But we have to go with what we know now.

    Only if the real god were interested in having the most adherents, though. And why would a god who wants adherents allow mutually exclusive religions to exist and there to be mutually exclusive positions within the true religion? This all touches on some of my other work in “Where is God?” and “There Are No Religious Facts”.

    ~

    Miracle claims are indeed weak evidence. I was thinking of them more as a prerequisite for seriously considering a religion. If a religion doesn’t even have miracles, it’s pretty lame.

    Why must the one true religion have miracles? Could a god not have different revelation preferences?

    ~

    Me: But even if you were choosing between Islam and Christianity, you’re still stuck in an unresolvable Hell crossfire. In fact, even among just Christianity, there are questions about what kind of baptism ritual you need to go through, whether or not homosexuality yields hellfire, or even whether hellfire is really fire!

    Patrick: It would still make sense to try to minimize your chances of ending up in hell. Pick whichever sect seems to have the highest expected value.

    How can you figure out which sect has the highest expected value?

    ~

    Where I live, there aren’t any mosques and there are few Muslims. I was raised a Christian. I could sort of see myself try to believe that stuff again, but I can’t imagine myself converting to Islam.

    How is that relevant to whether or not Christianity or Islam is true? Again, mere geography shouldn’t be an indicator of truth.

    ~

    It may be difficult to convince yourself of something that’s bizarre and contradictory and whatnot, so why not instead devote your life to getting other people to believe it? You could get a high-paying job and donate your earnings to whatever group of missionaries produces keeps the most people out of hell, in expectation. This gets around the psychological argument. If you did this, you might go to hell, but you might save many others from this fate, so it would be a happy ending after all.

    I like the earning to give angle, but I have much different intentions on where to place the income! Though saving people from Hell would seem high value, I have such low confidence that it exists and that it will generate infinite disutility conditional on it existing that it’s not worth it.

    You might be interested in the concept of Pascal’s mugging, if you’re not already familiar with it. Pascal’s mugging is what you’re trying to do to me.

  29. #29 Patrick Brinich-Langlois says:
    23 Nov 2012, 2:40 pm  

    Seeing as you’re an atheist, I don’t know whether or not you accept the argument you’ve been putting forth, but it’s fun to engage with.

    I find discussing Pascal’s wager depressing. It’s something I’d rather not think about. But you’re spirited and responsive.

    Not only that, but if people believe in something that actually exists, they should be able to tell you why and explain it in a way to help you believe. Apologetics is an attempt, but as you acknowledge, it doesn’t do a very good job. How can that failure be reconciled with an existant god, let alone one that *wants* you to believe?

    That’s a good point. Atheists and Christians have similar degrees of success in convincing each other of the truth of their views. But it seems that Christians should have a decided advantage if an omnipotent being is on their side.

    Why must the one true religion have miracles? Could a god not have different revelation preferences?

    God is supernatural, so wouldn’t it make sense for him to act supernaturally? If he acted solely through natural means, how would we distinguish God from nature?

    Patrick: It would still make sense to try to minimize your chances of ending up in hell. Pick whichever sect seems to have the highest expected value.

    How can you figure out which sect has the highest expected value?

    There are several factors to consider:

    * purported consequences of adherence. Is punishment eternal (hellfire) or temporary (being reincarnated as an insect)?

    * compatibility with other religions. According to this article, Islam is more accepting of Christian salvation than Christianity is of Islamic salvation. I’d always thought the opposite, but this issue is open to inquiry.

    * plausibility. Apparent contradictions would count against a religion. Evidence of miracles would count for it. Ad hoc “religions” should be ignored.

    Where I live, there aren’t any mosques and there are few Muslims. I was raised a Christian. I could sort of see myself try to believe that stuff again, but I can’t imagine myself converting to Islam.

    How is that relevant to whether or not Christianity or Islam is true? Again, mere geography shouldn’t be an indicator of truth.

    You’re certainly right about this. I was just saying that, prima facie, Islam and Christianity look to be on a par regarding Pascal’s Wager. So it would make sense for me to follow that I’m more likely to stick with. This wouldn’t matter for the earning-to-give strategy, though.

    You might be interested in the concept of Pascal’s mugging, if you’re not already familiar with it. Pascal’s mugging is what you’re trying to do to me.

    There are several things I don’t understand about Pascal’s mugging.

    First, why is the utility in question finite rather than infinite? Is the idea that infinities somehow “balance out”? Or that using the specter of infinity is cheating?

    Second, if I were to give in to the mugger, my ability to deal with other high-utility, low-probability events would be diminished. That is, every dollar I give to Pascal’s mugger is a dollar I can’t give to Catholic missionaries.

    Third, what’s the solution again? Señor Yudkowsky says, “If I could formalize whichever internal criterion was telling me I didn’t want this to happen, I might have an answer.” His position seems to be based on intuition or common sense, something we can’t really argue about.

    The idea of Hell has bothered me for a long time. During a Q&A session at a religious summer camp, I asked about that most blatant of contradictions in the Christian faith: How could an all-loving god condemn somebody to eternal suffering for finite transgressions? I was told that there is a hell, but it might be empty. Or that people would have to hang out there only till they could open their hearts to God.

    Religious fundamentalists talk about hell, but I doubt they comprehend it. Hell is by far the most horrible, obscene, despicable creation of the human imagination. It’s an utter farce to believe that God is love and God allows people to suffer forever.

    The arguments over Pascal’s Wager seem inconclusive and (especially from the atheist side) tendentious. I’m not going to support religion personally or financially, but I don’t believe my reasons for this are firmly grounded in reason. I’m akratic, ignorant, and bullheaded. Like most other people, I find infinity mind-boggling. Mostly, I don’t want to be a sucker.

  30. #30 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    24 Nov 2012, 10:41 pm  

    Me: How can you figure out which sect has the highest expected value?

    Patrick: There are several factors to consider:

    * purported consequences of adherence. Is punishment eternal (hellfire) or temporary (being reincarnated as an insect)?

    * compatibility with other religions. According to this article, Islam is more accepting of Christian salvation than Christianity is of Islamic salvation. I’d always thought the opposite, but this issue is open to inquiry.

    * plausibility. Apparent contradictions would count against a religion. Evidence of miracles would count for it. Ad hoc “religions” should be ignored.

    Basically, you’re asking which of the Hell-offering religions is the one that maximizes p*c, where p is the probability of it being true and c is the consequences of disbelief. I don’t think you can get a meaningful value to p*c.

    Moreover, the opportunity costs of avoiding all other religions compound, such that you might go with the p*c maximizing religion, but you’re total utility is still p*c – p2*c2 – p3*c3 – p4*c4 – … – pN*cN for all remaining religions, which will likely be negative, likely infinitely so.

    Not to mention if c is infinite, then p doesn’t matter at all. Which is what I think the original wager was about.

    ~

    Second, if I were to give in to the mugger, my ability to deal with other high-utility, low-probability events would be diminished. That is, every dollar I give to Pascal’s mugger is a dollar I can’t give to Catholic missionaries.

    That may be a reason to refuse that specific mugger — “sorry, you didn’t come first!” — but not a reason to reject muggers in general. Right now, I’m modeling all religions with a fiery hell as a group of muggers competing over your money.

    ~

    The arguments over Pascal’s Wager seem inconclusive and (especially from the atheist side) tendentious. I’m not going to support religion personally or financially, but I don’t believe my reasons for this are firmly grounded in reason. I’m akratic, ignorant, and bullheaded. Like most other people, I find infinity mind-boggling. Mostly, I don’t want to be a sucker.

    I think there’s something to be said for “This is clearly wrong, but I don’t know why”. Without things like that, people could be clearly convinced that 2 = 1 and that magicians are really magic. People without this mental ability to reject without a reason tend to go insane while reading Decartes.

    On the other hand, this mental defense mechanism can definitely go too far… I don’t want people just rejecting arguments they don’t like willy-nilly.

    ~

    Third, what’s the solution [to the mugger problem] again? Señor Yudkowsky says, “If I could formalize whichever internal criterion was telling me I didn’t want this to happen, I might have an answer.” His position seems to be based on intuition or common sense, something we can’t really argue about.

    I think the problem is actually still an open issue; and I don’t think Yudkowsky has claimed to provide an answer. Though good potential solutions I’ve seen involve our prior probability scaling with the promises of utility and a Bayesian approach that takes our chance of measurement error into account.

    ~

    There are several things I don’t understand about Pascal’s mugging. First, why is the utility in question finite rather than infinite? Is the idea that infinities somehow “balance out”? Or that using the specter of infinity is cheating?

    Infinity has been considered taboo because expected utility goes crazy when it encounters infinity. Also an open problem. Luckily it doesn’t come up in the real world that much.

    ~

    Religious fundamentalists talk about hell, but I doubt they comprehend it. Hell is by far the most horrible, obscene, despicable creation of the human imagination. It’s an utter farce to believe that God is love and God allows people to suffer forever.

    I agree. I’ve even wrote about it in “God, Babies, Hell, and Justice”. Though a lot of believers around me these days say Hell isn’t the whole infinite torture thing, but rather something else. Usually it’s annihilation, which is still a great evil (why terminate a life that could have been infinite for usually arbitrary reasons?) but not as bad.

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