Thursday, April 26, 2007

God is what you make of it

Pascal's empty wager, Debunked, yet again:

While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth; and the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.

But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe something, he must also believe that the belief under consideration is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.

Beliefs are not like clothing: comfort, utility, and attractiveness cannot be one’s conscious criteria for acquiring them. It is true that people often believe things for bad reasons—self-deception, wishful thinking, and a wide variety of other cognitive biases really do cloud our thinking—but bad reasons only tend to work when they are unrecognized. Pascal’s wager suggests that a rational person can knowingly believe a proposition purely out of concern for his future gratification. I suspect no one ever acquires his religious beliefs in this way (Pascal certainly didn’t). But even if some people do, who could be so foolish as to think that such beliefs are likely to be true?
HT: Uncommon Sense

1 Comment:

Paul McKeever said...

Lisa: you had the tag "religion" at the bottom of the article. You could probably add, quite appropriately, a tag relating to catastophic anthopogenic climate change (i.e., the idea that human activity is changing the climate in a catastrophic way).

Climate change debates, where they intersect with government policy, often go like this: "Well, even if we cannot know whether we are changing the climate in a harmful way, we simply cannot take the chance. We must take drastic action now to reduce CO2 emissions JUST IN CASE human activity is causing catastophic climate change". I heard that argument just yesterday by television host Valerie Pringle, who - with her, um...let's just say "fantastic" knowledge of climate science - declared that only people with 16" thick skulls questioned whether man is changing the climate in a catastophic way.

In truth, Pascal's wager has become the replacement for reality, reason, and knowledge. "Y'never know, so we'd better blow our dough" is the modern moron's mantra.

Man help us.

Paul