Encore: Saving Pascal

[Originally posted on August 7, 2007.]

Scott Adams is at it again, trying to defend Pascal’s Wager, which he defines as follows:

In a nutshell, Pascal was a dude who argued you should consider Christianity because if it’s true, the downside of not believing is eternal Hell. But if you become a Christian and there’s no God, all you’ve lost is your Sunday mornings. (Here I am simplifying.)

What follows is his response to the standard critiques of Pascal’s gambit, conveniently summarized on Wikipedia.

Chief among the alleged flaws in Pascal’s argument is that you still have to pick the correct religion among many, or else you go to Hell anyway.

Sure. But picking any religion that promises salvation slightly improves your odds over picking an option that doesn’t. You’re still probably doomed, given your bad religion-picking skills, but a one-in-a-million chance of reducing the risk of eternal Hell is a move worth taking, mathmatically speaking.

Where to begin. I suppose we could start with the fact that this is a blatant appeal to gullibility. Reducing the risk of what Hell? Has Adams ever been to Hell? Has he ever met anyone who has been there, maybe brought back some lovely vacation photos? Of course not. Hell is a place that people believe in for no other reason than that certain other people have said so. Believing what people tell you, just because they tell it to you, is gullibility.

Secondly, not only does Adams assume that Hell really exists, he also assumes that faith in God will save you from going there. That’s a bit of a problem, because faith in God is not even a possibility.

For example, suppose I tell you that God has spoken to me, and has promised that in 5 minutes, a $100 bill will miraculously appear in your pocket, as a gift. Or suppose I say God has revealed to me that you should call all your loved ones and say goodbye because in 5 minutes a blood vessel is going to burst inside your brain and cause you to die in about 60 seconds. In other words, suppose I claim to speak to you on God’s behalf, whether I’m promising something good or something bad. If you believe what I say, who are you putting your faith in–God or me?

Ok, it’s 10 minutes later, and you’re not dead, nor is there an extra $100 bill in your pocket. Who lied to you, me or God? If you called your family to say goodbye, whom did you put your faith in, me or God? When you call them back to let them know you didn’t die after all, will you blame God or blame me?

The point is, God does not show up in real life, and thus we have no interaction with God that could possibly result in our having faith in Him. Everything we know about Christian doctrine (or Islamic or Jewish or Hindu, etc) are things we obtain by paying attention to the stories, superstitions, and subjective feelings of men. We can put our faith in men, but we cannot put our faith in God, because He does not show up to give us anything to believe in . That means we have no alternative but to believe what men tell us, just because they say so. And that, again, is gullibility, not faith.

This leads to a third point: why would God consider faith to be such an important quality that He would decide our eternal destiny based on whether or not we’ve got it? Most Christians take the biblical reference to “walk by faith, not by sight” as meaning that there is some special virtue in believing that for which there is no real world evidence. If we could find things in the real world that were consistent with God’s existence, then our belief in God would be based on the evidence rather than on faith alone, you see. But what is it that we’re believing? We’re believing the things that men tell us, knowing that they do not fit the real-world truth, just because men tell us we ought to believe them.

So the thing that supposedly makes faith into a virtue that deserves to be rewarded is our willingness to believe what men tell us despite the fact that the things they say are clearly not consistent with real world truth. In other words, our gullibility. But if there are things in the real world that are evidence consistent with God’s existence, then shouldn’t we be deciding the issue of God’s existence based on the evidence, instead of on silly appeals to gullibility like Pascal’s Wager?

Adams actually tries to address something like this last point in his post:

Another noted “flaw” in Pascal’s wager is that you can’t rule out the possibility that only skeptics are spared from Hell. Perhaps, it is argued, God loves the spunky fact-loving personality of skeptics and saves them alone, or saves them in the greatest percentage.

That argument passes the math test, but does it pass the sniff test? It’s a viewpoint that exists only as a debate tool. While we can’t rule it out, surely it is the worst bet if you must pick a theory of God. No rational person on earth, including skeptics, has concluded that God prefers skeptics over believers.

That’s an odd claim to make, especially considering that Adams gave a link to the Wikipedia entry on Pascal’s Wager, in which the following quote appears:

Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. For all others are untrustworthy, being cognitively or morally inferior, or both. They will also be less likely ever to discover and commit to true beliefs about right and wrong. That is, if they have a significant and trustworthy concern for doing right and avoiding wrong, it follows necessarily that they must have a significant and trustworthy concern for knowing right and wrong. Since this knowledge requires knowledge about many fundamental facts of the universe (such as whether there is a god), it follows necessarily that such people must have a significant and trustworthy concern for always seeking out, testing, and confirming that their beliefs about such things are probably correct. Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven — unless god wishes to fill heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy.

Richard Carrier, The End of Pascal’s Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven

In other words, yes, it is entirely plausible to suppose that God might prefer to reward those who made a reasonable and determined effort to uncover the truth, as opposed to blindly indulging in deliberate gullibility. What’s more, when we look at the real world, we find that God, or whatever supreme power may exist, does indeed seem to give preferential rewards to those who reject gullibility in favor of a more rigorous and objective pursuit of truth. Skepticism, remember, does not mean wantonly refusing to believe in anything at all. Rather, skepticism means requiring verifiable evidence before accepting some idea as true. In other words, taking the scientific approach that has lead to modern medical advances, improved engineering, longer lifespans, better crop yields, and so on.

Adams seems almost aware of the absurdity of his position:

I realize it’s unscientific to try and compare one absurdity to another. But if you assume our perceptions are often flawed, you have to allow the possibility that some apparent absurdities are due to our limited powers of perception. So, for example, while the notion of a loving God who allows eternal damnation seems absurd, it is less absurd than assuming the world is run by invisible unicorns, or that God discriminates against those who believe in him.

This is a common apologetics gambit called the Charlatan’s Excuse, or Blame the Pigeon. When you find out the snake oil doesn’t actually cure gout or grow hair or whatever the salesman promised, he avoids giving you your money back by insisting that it’s your fault somehow–you didn’t rub it on right, or you used too much or too little or you left the bottle in the sun, or whatever. But the problem does not lie with you. The reason the snake oil doesn’t work is because it’s bogus, not because you lack the skills needed to use it properly.

Likewise, when “comparing absurdities,” we should not overlook the possibility that Hell is absurdly inconsistent with the idea of a loving God precisely because it is an absurd idea. We’re not talking about quantum mechanics or obscure technical jargon here. If the idea of an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving God seems inconsistent with the existence of a realm created by God for the purpose of causing most of His children to suffer eternal agony, it’s just possible that this is because the two ideas are inconsistent. And certainly it is far less absurd to suppose that God might prefer to reward those who diligently seek the truth over those who lazily and irresponsibly indulge in (and promote) blind gullibility.

Adams nevertheless continues trying to put the shoe on the other foot:

But what’s the reasonable explanation for God preferring skeptics? If God appreciates reasoning skills, he can’t be too impressed by the fact he created the entire Universe and skeptics still can’t find any good clues he exists. God would only be impressed by skeptics if God did NOT exist. You can’t top that for absurdity.

But remember, God is supposedly rewarding believers for their faith–i.e. for believing despite the universal absence of any supporting, verifiable evidence. If the evidence existed, then not only should we be using it to address the question of God, but it is the skeptics, and not the gullible believers, who are to be praised for insisting on finding it. The whole reason why believers resort to Pascal’s Wager is precisely because no “good clues” exist. And again, if all the skeptics are doing is pointing out the non-existence of these clues, and it’s true that they don’t exist, then the skeptics’ only “crime” is that they are telling the truth. Why would God not prefer the truthful skeptic over the gullible believer?

Picking the “right” religion is a long shot no matter how hard you try. But if rational thought has any value at all, it’s in narrowing down options and improving our odds of making good choices. Rational thought hasn’t led anyone to conclude that there’s a God who only saves people who don’t believe he exists. We can’t rule it out, but can’t we rate its likelihood compared to a God who prefers that his lumps of clay hold him in higher esteem than their own eye crud?

The problem with rational thought is that its conclusions are only as valid as the data you give it to work with. Adams is clearly working from gullible premises, such as the assumption that there’s a Hell to be saved from, that God will send you there if you don’t have faith, and that you can have faith in God by blindly and gullibly swallowing whatever men say about Him, just because they say so. If there exists any God who is reasonable and just, He will be more likely to prefer those who diligently seek the triumph of truth over gullibility. And if there exists a God who, by contrast, is unreasonable and unjust, then there’s no reason to suppose He would give any kind of fair and reasonable reward to believers. Any way you look at it, the odds are stacked in favor of skepticism and against blind gullibility.

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Posted in Encore, Unapologetics. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Encore: Saving Pascal”

  1. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    Wow. Just… wow. I am phenomenally disappointed in Scott Adams. I was really hoping you weren’t talking about THAT Scott Adams, but… damn, just damn. I had him pegged as intelligent, and his post is one of the stupidest things I have ever read.

    I’m going to go be sad now. Another one bites the dust.

  2. Mishmuf Says:

    “So, for example, while the notion of a loving God who allows eternal damnation seems absurd, it is less absurd than assuming the world is run by invisible unicorns…”

    Uh, HOW? It seems to me that God behaves exactly like an invisible unicorn, just without the flowing mane and badass horn.

  3. mikespeir Says:

    The reason it seems less absurd is that we’re so used to the idea of God being taken seriously. It permeates our culture. Some of us were so inculcated with the notion so early that later, even after having found it rationally wanting, it’s still a hard thing to escape.

  4. Tacroy Says:

    Pascal’s wager says that you should kill your children as soon as possible after they have been baptized and/or taught to believe in God.

    1. Children are free of sin, and believe in Jesus. (by baptism if you believe in that, and because they’ll believe anything)
    2. If you let your children live, they may choose to sin and/or stop believing in Jesus. They may also continue believing in Jesus and not sin. This means that the outcome if they live is (prob Hell * -infinity) + (prob Heaven * infinity).
    3. If you kill your children right now, they will definitely go to Heaven. This means that the outcome if they die immediately is (prob Heaven * infinity).
    4. (prob Heaven * infinity) > (prob Hell * -infinity) + (prob Heaven * infinty), for any nonzero values of prob Hell and prob Heaven.
    5. Therefore, you should kill your children in order to achieve the best outcome for them. You will of course go to jail and Hell (in that order), but any parent would say that going to Hell to ensure that their child ends up in Heaven is a small price to pay. Further, it’s totally worth it if you have more than one child – in fact, it becomes even more worthwhile the more children you kill.

  5. Ben Says:

    Hi, great article: a perfect explanation of the fallibility of Pascal’s Wager in relation to religion.

    Just one point though, regarding this quote:

    “So, for example, while the notion of a loving God who allows eternal damnation seems absurd, it is less absurd than assuming the world is run by invisible unicorns, or that God discriminates against those who believe in him.”

    I wouldn’t really class this as a Charlatan’s Excuse, but more as special pleading: my idea might be absurd (*cough*not*cough), but yours is more absurd, so is less likely. Or more specifically, he’s claiming to know the mind and will of an unknowable being that may or may not exist to make assumptions about what that being may or may not want, even though he has no way of knowing any such thing. His position is special, because he says so.

    Given that evidence exists for neither, and human reasoning cannot, by the admission of Christians themselves, be applied to “God”, both cases are equally (un)likely. In fact, if you’re talking absurdity, I find it more reasonable to imagine a deity who doesn’t discriminate based on belief/disbelief, goodness/badness and takes everybody to utopia …

    Or, you know, one who doesn’t exist.