Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Pascal's Wager Revised

Blaise Pascal famously argued that, as long as there was any probability that God existed, a rational gambler should worship him, since the cost if he did exist and you failed to worship him was enormously greater than the cost if it went the other way around.

A variety of objections can be made to this, most obviously that a just God would reject a worshiper who worshiped on that basis. But I have a variant on the argument that I find more persuasive.

The issue is not God but morality. Most human beings have a strong intuition that some acts are good and some bad--that one ought not to steal, murder, lie, bully, torture, and the like. Details of what is covered and how it is defined vary a good deal, but the underlying idea that right and wrong are real categories and one should do right and not wrong is common to most of us.

There are two categories of explanation for this intuition. One is that it is a perception--that right and wrong are real, that we somehow perceive that, and that our feel for what is right and what is wrong is at least very roughly correct. The other is that morality is a mistake. We have been brainwashed by our culture, or perhaps our genes, into feeling the way we do, but there is really no good reason why one ought to feed the hungry or ought not to torture small children.

Suppose you are uncertain which of the two explanations is correct. I argue that you ought to act as if the first is. If morality is real and you act as if it were not, you will do bad things--and the assumption that morality is real means that you ought not to do bad things. If morality is an illusion and you act as if it were not, you may miss the opportunity to commit a few pleasurable wrongs--but since morality correlates tolerably well, although not perfectly, with rational self interest, the cost is unlikely to be large.

I think this version avoids the problems with Pascal's. No god is required for the argument--merely the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, as most human beings intuit them. And, by the morality most of us hold, the fact that you are refraining from evil because of a probabilistic calculation does not negate the value of doing so--you still haven't stolen, lied, or whatever. One of the odd features of our intuitions of right and wrong is that they are not entirely, perhaps not chiefly, judgements about people but judgements about acts.


Mike Huben said...

Substitute "law" for morality, and your argument now supports following the law.

Where your argument is different is that there are positive, observable consequences from other people for violating morality or law (no matter their nature.) The consequences from god for not worshipping are not observable.

In other words, you can make a utilitarian judgement based on the real world, but not based on the supernatural world.

Scott said...

The most interesting problem with Pascal's wager is that the positive consequences of adopting a particular belief say nothing about whether or not that belief is true. I may be quite happy believing God is real, or I may be entitled to some rich reward in the afterlife if I believe in Him--but just because good results flow from holding a belief says nothing about whether or not that belief is a true one. And so, to a person interested in the truth, Pascal's wager has no force.

However, assuming, as you do, that it's the behavior God is interested in (probably among other things), the argument does have bite. But I, as you say, doubt God would care much about the behavior of somebody who in their heart simply does not believe. The most interesting aspect of your twist of the wager is the difference here: God cares about whether or not we really believe something, but morality allows for luck--someone who does the right thing even without believing it is the objectively right thing would seem to be just as virtuous as someone who does it while fully believing it to be objectively right.

As to Huben's statement: there are certainly "positive, observable consequences from other people" for not believing in God, even if the consequences from God Himself are not observable (arguably, though I can conceive of epistemologies that would allow it). And the consequences of violating morality or legality are not (arguendo) directly observable either, but rather only through the actions of other people.

However, if you believe that somehow we sense an objective morality out there and we can sense its violation (or insert "legality" if you like), then there are observable consequences. But if you believe such a thing (as, incidentally, I do), that's not terribly far from thinking the presence of God is observable as well.

August said...

Pascal's wager was specifically about God. It doesn't help to substitute morality. I find they way people define morality even more mysteriously than the way they define God.

Anonymous said...

Hard to see the relationship to Pascal's Wager when there is no infinite payoff. The point of Pascal is that the God=True event has infinite worth, and thus any non-zero probability will cause an expectation value greater than the expectation value of God=False.

With the morality argument, too much subjectivity comes into play for it to have "mathematical" force, since there is no infinite payoff. For instance, if Morality=100 utils and Anti-Morality = 10 utils, then mathematically you should still choose Anti-morality if the probability of Morality being true is, say 1%.

Also, the argument seems a bit empty as far as determining how to act. Suppose I believed (for some reason) that Killing Puppies was a moral act -- your argument suggests (I think) that I should act that way if I feel that way. Thus, it does not seem to direct in fact acting morally. I do not see how it is materially different from saying that we should act in a way that we think makes the world a better place, which is close to being tautological, or at least is common-sensible. Pascal's point was the anti-common-sense point that it could make mathematical sense to believe in a God for which the evidence was exceedingly slim, precisely because of the (alleged) infinite return on investment.

Anonymous said...

The real problem with pascals wager is that its not just unknown wether or not god exists: his nature is also a stab in the dark.

What pascal is really saying is: i dont know if god exists, but if he does, im going to assume he is like most people claim him to be. Thats just silly.

Perhaps god exists, but the only way he will let me into heaven is if i do torture small children on a regular basis? Perhaps nothing pisses him off more than people kissing his ass all day in the form of prayer?

Something that is unknowable is simply not worth my time to consider, since there is no limit on the hypothetical pool of unknowable things.

Arthur B. said...

The wager you propose tries to answer the question:
"Should I act ethically ?"
But the answer is obviously yes! You should always act ethically that's what "should" means.

Any belief system is composed of propositions which we try to categorize between true and false. We can make propositions about the physical world and we will judge of their truth through our senses and our experimentation. In mathematics, a proposition will be true if it can be logically deduced from a chosen set of axioms. We can create many systems like that, for example, "Spiderman can throw spider webs" is a "Marvel-comics-truth". Religion often claims to offer "spiritual truth" which is true, but it also generally claim that these truth are linked to the physical world without providing physical proof which is dubious.

What about normative propositions? I think some normative axioms can be known by introspection into human nature but a normative truth is bound to remain normative.

Normative propositions are self contained, they claim to say what you should do, not what you do, but it doesn't mean that there is no right or wrong though.

Someone who claims there's nothing wrong with doing something immoral is contradicting himself. He is really asserting a normative proposition which can be shown to be false.

Anonymous said...

Reading the Bible may couse a radical paradigm shift ;-).

Good means "in accord with God's will", bad means "without God's will". Based on this, the sentence "No god is required for the argument" is a really strange one. Analogous to this: no patient is required for the operation, we just need the organs we operate on. Strange, isn't it?

It seems to me that if God exists, God becomes the only axiom, and all classic axioms become deductions from that only axiom. By the way I think this preposition is a bit stupid, becouse God exists :-). Like if there is a computer in front of me...

Arthur B. said...

Sportember: Some christian theologist don't claim that morality is god's will. I suggest you read the first page of The Ethics of Liberty which deals with the theological opposition between the augustinian and thomist views on ethics. Just google it.

Dog of Justice said...

Hard to see the relationship to Pascal's Wager when there is no infinite payoff.

Oh, the relationship is there -- think about why we don't assign similar probability to the existence of a God that rewards those who do the opposite of what most people think we're supposed to do. We perceive an asymmetry between the possibilities, and that's because of our sense of morality.

This sense of morality has been shaped by memetic and genetic evolutionary forces to result in reasonable acts, most of the time.

westerlyman said...

I believe it is unlikely that people have an inate sense of right and wrong. It seems more likely that people are motivated by self interest, as in all things.

Patrick Tinsley said...

A critical flaw in Pascal's argument is that he overlooks the possibility that God could punish believers for their faith and reward non-believers for their scepticism. In other words, Pascal assumes that God must be good and not evil. Pascal's wager appears rational only because it assumes away this "irrational" possibility. (I now see that an anonymous commentator has already made essentially the same point.)

Proceeding to Friedman's argument about morality, I think we find an analagous flaw. Friedman assumes that if "good" and "bad" exist as actual, objective properties in the world, then our intuitions about their nature must be roughly correct. If something can be truly "good," then the best candidates would be things that most of us think of as good. But we could be radically mistaken about the nature of good and evil. Our intuitions could be 180 degrees off. In that case, I think the costs of acting according to our intuitive sense of good and evil would be higher than Friedman allows.

Anonymous said...

If Pascal's wager took something like this form, then believing in God would make sense: "one should believe in god because there is no consequence for believing and being incorrect, a large payoff for believing and being correct, and a large consequence for not believing and being incorrect." If I accept the premises for this argument, then it is sound, but I do not accept the premises. First, I believe there is a consequence for believing and being incorrect: that being a life in which the improper logic of my belief nagged at me (to a greater or lesser extent), and possibly affected other decisions in my life adversely. Second, the argument implicitly suggests that belief in something is a choice. I find that, at least in this case, to be doubtful. My (lack of) spiritual beliefs comes from my observations in life, some of which I chose, some of which I didn't. At this point, I would be hard pressed to undue those observations, and since I am stuck with them, I am also stuck with the belief they influenced me to have. The other important point, which has already been made here, is that Pascal's premise takes for granted a (probably Judeo-Christian) God, that would punish nonbelief with eternal damnation. Any number of religions would object to this image of God, and there is no meaningful way of guessing the probability that God would punish nonbelief, much less of guessing the severity of that punishment.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the border between morality and religion a really tenuous one? Good and bad, right and wrong are concepts that are commonly associated with religious belief, which would serve as the "referential system" for the many possible directions (i.e. what is good? What is right? Based on what?)

Anonymous said...

Regarding Scott's point:

"The most interesting problem with Pascal's wager is that the positive consequences of adopting a particular belief say nothing about whether or not that belief is true"

Isn't that the essence (and the definition) of belief? I mean, if one knows something is true and does not believe it or if one believes in something one knows it is not true, then one has some issues that should be sorted out.

Anonymous said...

Another problem with Pascal's wager is that it assumes that the only thing God wants is belief. I don't know a single religion that would say that. Most of them want you to believe in their god and worship him/it their way. Since most religions are mutually exclusive, and there are thousands of religions, this presents a problem.

If Thor is the one true god, believing in Zeus doesn't do you much good.

Anonymous said...

Building on Mark's post, an interesting examination of Pascal's wager is Jamie Whyte's in 'Bad Thoughts'. It goes something like this.

The choice Pascal offers is between Christianity and Atheism. Yet they are not the only choices. We must also consider other religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism etc. As more religions are added, the pay-off becomes increasing smaller.

However, that is not the end of the story. What about all of the possible religions that could be made up. Given that there are an endless number of these, the payoff is infinitesimally small.

Jamie Whyte puts it better.

Gene Laratonda said...

Pasca's Wager is so extremely powerful in it's simplicity and you all try to make it something it's not.

Either the One and Only, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Uncaused first cause exists OR he doesn't. That is putting Him up against the myriad of man made religions - all of them.

He granted every single one of us with the gift of free will - to choose.

Sin is disobedience to God's will. We're all guilty of it. Thank God he came to His creation in the form of man to fulfill the Law. Jesus Christ lived the perfect life and paid the ultimate price to be our advocate. The Bible is amazingly perfect in it's composition, if one would just take the time to study it. Anyone can ignorantly make claims about it when they haven't understood it's content.

The Wager still stands as strong as it ever did. You better make sure you're comfortable in your decision, because you're betting your eternal life on it, literally.

ZT205 said...

Why does this motivate us to always follow morality? Why shouldn't we just act so that marginal utility given morality = marginal utility given nihilism?