Saturday, August 13, 2005

Pascal's wager

Richard at Philosophy et cetera again tempts me by calling Pascal's wager
"Worst philosophical argument ever"

So I thought I would deal with his objections
He argues

1) The argument idiotically assumes that Christianity and atheism together exhaust the theological possibilities

However, the argument only compares atheism with Christianity.

For example if I was to say "2>1" saying "the argument idiotically assumes 2 & 1 exhaust all the possibilities" is only valid in the most irrelevant of senses.

And the argument is only "clearly" applicable to (protestant) Christianity amongst the major religions because most other religions don't work via faith.
However in addition it would theoretically be possible to be Christian AND be saved by other religions. And finally this doesn’t refute the argument anyway - one is placed with choices and one gets to make decisions on each of these choices, noting that there might theoretically be other choices of value is no excuse for not taking any action at all or not proposing one of the best options.

Richard further argues that a beer might improve his chances of being a Christian so he should drink beer. Well maybe, however I am surprised he has reason to believe it would improve or decrease his likelihood of believing - it might also work in the opposite direction. But I don’t really think that was the main point. What he is doing is reduction to absurdity - but not in a particularly valid manner.

In no way does his example counter the argument it merely points out awkward implications of it (which would just have to be taken into account).

He furhter argues

"Now, as Alan Hajek neatly pointed out, this argument "proves too much". For suppose I decide to flip a coin, and will believe in God only if it lands on heads. This process also has a non-zero chance of obtaining infinite utility (by the Pascalian assumption). So the expected utility of this course of action is, again, infinite. "

this has similar problems to most of his objections in that it doesnt really attack the theory in a fatal way.

Actions can only be compared with potential alternative actions and while 2 x infinity is infinity when you divide it by the same infinity to solve the equation you will (I presume) get 2. Then you have lots of confusing equations but no more confusing than the usual utilitarian ones.

2 Comments:

Blogger Valefar said...

I was working on this when I lost internet briefly, so I'll try to put it back together from memory as best I can...

1) I'm not sure that whether "other religions aren't faith based" is relevant since the argument seems to be about whether or not (Protestant) Christianity is true, not whether or not the claim has been made before. I don't see why it being a religion that people actually practice gives it special priviledges over any other claim.

2) Is having faith an action that people can actually choose? What I mean is, from my perspective, I am not certain how I can will myself to believe in something I haven't seen any evidence for. There's a subtle difference between imagining there's a horse behind the couch and believing there's a horse behind the couch. If not, Pascal's wager should be inapplicable on the basis that we can't just have faith in something because we choose to. Assigning a utility to impossible acts seems questionable. If faith is a choice, why is having faith as an action in particular relevant to this argument? You could substitute any religious practice that protestant Christianity isn't based on, such as particular chants, drawing mandalas, or whatever else.

3) Since the behavior doesn't seem to be relevant to the structure of the argument, and whether there have been prior claims don't seem to be relevant, any action can be hypothetically paired with an infinitely horrible consequence. We could say that darning your socks today prevents getting stabbed for eternity. Or that burning them on the lawn prevents infinite athlete's foot. If any of these claims are assigned any probability whatsoever, the infinitely horrible consequences mandate that any action taken to prevent them is worthwhile. Since all actions are susceptible to this line of argument, there's no special reason to favor faith in Protestantism.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Genius said...

1) well... you may have trouble having faith in a religion that no one practices and determining if it is reasonably internally consistant.

2) pascals wager is based on the fact that you can choose to have faith. It is based on the same sort of logic as william james' "act as if". basically you act as if it is true and you will start to believe. Seems logical to me.

3) a vengeful god at least has some prima face plausibility

10:32 PM  

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