Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Does Appeal to Pascal's Wager Really Say?

Is This about Me or You?

Imagine this conversation:

Woman 1: So, anyway, at the end of the argument I just told my husband I thought he was wrong.

Woman 2: I can't believe you said that. Aren't you afraid he'll hit you?

When I put myself in Woman 1's place, I have two immediate thoughts:

1. Not in a million years would I be afraid my husband would strike me for any reason short of his own self-defense if I went violently insane.

2. How long was Woman 2 abused? Is she still being abused?

I wouldn't expect Woman 2's comment from a woman who has no history of abuse whatsoever. I suppose I could imagine a situation where someone was under a mistaken impression I was being abused, and was concerned for my safety? But as a general rule, that question would not be raised in seriousness by a woman who is not or has not been in a situation where she's been battered.

The question, while aimed at Woman 1, actually speaks volumes about Woman 2, and tells us nothing at all about Woman 1.

Language, questions and comments aimed at others actually carry within them information about those who are speaking. Even the most innocent language does this. If I see a friend making a Lasagna, and I see her using cottage cheese, and I ask "Oh, you don't use Ricotta?" I've just said, "I don't use cottage cheese when I make Lasagna, I use Ricotta." We spend our conversational time telling people all about ourselves, often without even realizing we're doing it.

What Pascal's Wager Tells Me about You

When we think of Pascal's Wager, we generally think in brief of someone asking "What if you're wrong?" The stakes generally are "something bad" if you're wrong (that you're risking), and either gaining reward or simply avoiding the "bad" if you're right.

The Wager itself has a host of problems. But that's not what I'm concerned with here. What concerns me here is what the Wager tells me about the person who puts it forward. When people ask, "What if you're wrong?," what are they telling me about themselves? What I hear when they ask this, is purely heartbreaking. And a letter writer recently put it in a way that evoked honest pity from me. Clearly directed to Matt, he asked:

I have watched many of your you tube videos, and from what I gather, you are a very intelligent man and you seem well educated.

But I wanted to ask you a question, just a simple question, perhaps a question that I myself toil with from time to time.

Q: "when the day is done, and you are sitting alone, or lying in bed, do you ever question your decision to be an atheist, are you ever scared at times, do you ever think that you might be wrong or fear what may or may not happen to you when you die"

Now, this question has no real direction, I just wanted to know if you were like so many others including myself, who at the end of the day either have a longing for an answer or experience doubts or concerns about the decision(s) you've made.

While he states the question has "no real direction," it does, like all communication, carry a message — and more of a message than what is merely being asked. It carries that message about the speaker, which I'm describing.

Matt submitted back a very thorough and well-thought-out reply. However, I kept thinking of this letter after I'd deleted it, and this morning I sent by a separate reply myself to the writer:

I know this was directed at Matt, and he answered it quite thoroughly. But I would like to add something. There are a number of people who have reported being horribly tortured at the hands of malevolent alien abductors. I don't believe these people's stories are true. They could easily ask me the same question:

Don't you ever worry about being abducted yourself? What if you're wrong?

Certainly if I'm wrong, I could also be abducted and tortured, but I can promise you I don't lose an ounce of sleep on it. I don't expend a moment's concern over being a victim of such an event. And I'm going out on a limb to wager that (1) you've heard these stories I'm describing and (2) you don't worry about being abducted by malevolent aliens any more than I do.

If I'm correct, then you have just experienced what I experience with regard to fear of being wrong about god. It's the indoctrinated believer who fears and who thinks that fear must plague others who weren't indoctrinated with that same fear. Just as it's the "alien abductee" who can't understand why I don't seem concerned about what these aliens are doing — not others who don't believe in alien abduction; it's the person either still in, or still suffering from the side effects of, indoctrination who can't fathom life without that fear, which was most often burned into their heads as defenseless children. It's put there as a mechanism to stop people questioning: "Even if you stop'll be plagued by fear and doubt the rest of your life...WHAT IF YOU'RE WRONG?!" But the truth is, as Matt pointed out, and as I provided an example, if you don't believe, then you don't believe in the consequence either. And it's just very hard to fear that which you do not believe exists.

This is why I consider religious indoctrination of children to be abusive. It scars people and they carry that fear of questioning well into adulthood far too often. Nobody should be made to fear asking questions, doubting, or not believing. Free and independent inquiry should be the basis for any sound ideology. Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry — such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of "true" ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?

And I suppose that's all I had to say about it?


  1. Excellent! A clever reexamination of an age-old and frankly overly long-in-the-tooth subject.

  2. "Free and independent inquiry should be the basis for any sound ideology. Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry--such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of "true" ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?"

    I love this part.

    Tracy - 1
    Lame Theist Emailer - 0

  3. Growing up as a believing christian in a somewhat conservative (although Canadian-conservative so not quite as bad as American fundies) household, one of the impressions I got was that it was really really easy to sin, and if you had even one sin on you when you died, you went to Hell.

    This was amplified by two somewhat non-orthodox views that my parents held and taught:

    a) Salvation through faith alone is not true. They held something that I've never seen or heard of in any other denomination, a sort of "salvation through remorse". Basically, to be forgiven for a sin you had to apologize and do so sincerely. So for example, if you believed in Jesus, with all your heart and soul and mind, or however that stupid song goes, but you still had intention to, say, disobey your parents and go underage-drink with your friends, not only have you committed a sin, but you are not able to be forgiven for that sin until you stop doing it and stop wanting to do it. Needless to say, this was a fairly effective control metric.

    b) as a logical extrapolation from a, you had to consciously ask for forgiveness. If you didn't, because say you are now a vegetable in a coma, or, less drastically, you *didn't realize* you were sinning, then it sucked to be you.

    Due to the above (mostly b), I spent a lot of time in my early teens being so incredibly afraid of death because, "what if I accidentally sinned and don't realize it? I'm going to Hell even if I didn't do anything on purpose!".

    Because of this, Pascals wager holds a sort of double irony for me because it always seemed to me that, when I was a Christian, I pretty much assumed I'd end up in Hell anyway. But now, notwithstanding the many other problems with the wager, I can sit back and say "I'm being intellectually honest with myself. I have no faith, and honestly think faith is a bad thing to have. If there is a god who is angry because I don't believe in him, then it's his fault for not giving me a reason to believe".

    tl;dr: pascal's wager has the opposite effect on me. I take it as a pretty effective argument in favour of disbelief

  4. Question: "What if you're wrong."

    A: "Well, if god is benevolent, just, and loving then he'll he won't do anything horrible over a few thoughts and ideas. All I'm doing is comparing crazy claims about him to the observable world to see if their true, I can't imagine any god punishing us for attempting to verify the truth.

    However, if god is evil, unjust, with no respect for freedom of thought and inquiry, who would punish us over personal beliefs - then I've made the right choice not to associate myself with the guy.

    Out of the two stances, why risk being unethical in the first place and just disbelieve?"

  5. @erauqssi:

    I posted to FB the following, which reminds me of what you just wrote:

    "Additionally the myth that religion offers some sort of comfort regarding death is a sick joke. I have seen more Christians worried as they battled terminal or serious illnesses, that they aren't 100 percent right with their god, and will end up in hell anyway, for some overlooked infraction. Rather than providing them comfort it adds additional stress to an already stressful situation. It's simply cruel."

  6. And Tracie cracks open another six-pack of win.

  7. erauqssi says

    '"salvation through remorse". Basically, to be forgiven for a sin you had to apologize and do so sincerely.'

    Sounds very catholic to me.

  8. @erauqssi

    The whole sin thing is obnoxious.

    This morning, I discovered that my cat had sinned against me.

    He had eaten some grass, and either harfed or pooped it onto a rug of mine. That's in violation of my residential rules.

    However, I didn't punish my cat, nor did I get mad at my cat. I simply cleaned it up, and went along my way. I understand that my cat doesn't comprehend that particular sections of "Ground" are invalid and not harf compatible, nor could I explain it. If it continues, I may take some action to control the situation, such as remove the rugs, or eliminate the source of harfing. The cat will continue with his cat-like nature. He was born that way.

    ... but just because my cat isn't perfect, makes mistakes and breaks the rules doesn't mean I'm going to stop loving him, and throw him into my cellar of doom. I don't require him to be perfect to live with me. I expect he'll make mistakes, and we'll deal with that as we go - because I'm capable of dealing with it, and mending/forgiving mistakes.

    So, apparently I'm more kickass than that "god" people keep bringing up.

  9. I'd also add that the reason I have that cat is because I agreed to give him a home, not because I expect anything from him in particular. It costs to feed and maintain him, and even if he wasn't a terribly friendly cat, my taking care of him wouldn't be contingent on that.

    ..of course, there's limits to that patience, but my response wouldn't be to torture him.

  10. Nice post on Pascal's wager.

    However, I have always wondered about the applicability of Pascal's wager in any debate.
    I have seen Pascal's wager used in several contexts other than religion.

    For instance, when a scientist and a global warming denier is arguing about global warming I have seen Pascal's wager used by the scientist. The scientist says there is plenty of evidence for global warming and that we need to change our way of life dramatically to reduce/eliminate the effects of global warming. The denier will simply ignore the evidence for global warming and say that we do not have to make any changes. The scientist will make every earnest effort to convince this other person that these evidences do truly point towards global warming. The denier will simply ignore the arguments that is being presented and repeat his position over and over again (like Wendy Wright vs. Richard Dawkins).

    Finally, the frustrated scientist gives up on the debate and uses Pascal's wager. "If you (denier) are wrong about global warming and thus don't take steps to mitigate it you will end up living in a cesspool. If you (denier) are right about global warming and still take steps to mitigate it, you would just be living an admittedly less comfortable (driving less, car pooling, eating less meat, etc.) life. Wouldn't you trade-off a little bit of your comfort for the guarantee that you will not live in a cesspool."

    IMO, this is a very good application of Pascal's wager.

  11. Good point Tracie. When I was a Christian I was terrified of death because I always thought that I hadn't "worshiped" enough or properly. When I became an atheist all of that fear disappeared. What was supposed to provide me with comfort was a constant source of fear, doubt, and guilt.

  12. @Raymond:

    While I agree totally that guilt is a Catholic theme--I think you'll also find this is prevalent in fundamentalism. I was Church of Christ, and this same fear of not being totally right with god at the moment of your death was pervasive.

  13. Great post as usual. I never liked Pascal much. It is not even because it is just one big appeal to consequence, it is because he basically pleas to disregard reason and critical thinking.

  14. I don't understand the alien abduction analogy. It seems to me it only works if they believe that believing in the existence of the aliens will keep them from abducting you. Am I misunderstanding this?

    I do like the point made that Pascal's Wager reveals more about the person asking than the person being asked.

  15. I remember when I was really young and wrestling with the whole god concept and punishment. Even at a very young age, I came to the coclusion that any god that is worth the title could not be a vindictive crazed punisher. Almost every time I would ponder these things, my final thought was always something like "if he really understood my motivations and thinking, he would be OK with what I was doing". So I never spent much time fearing anything excessively. However, if I had a family that enforced a more strict a-hole version of god, I can see being quite worried all the time.

    It's just funny that even as a child I realized that god isn't deserving of worship just "because". If he was just prone to be a jerk, it wasn't my problem. All I could worry about was myself and my actions. But I hadn't read the bible back then.

  16. @Tracie

    I was raised catholic and went to a catholic school.I do not have such an intimate knowledge of other christian denominations.

    Having said this I never really suffered from guilt caused by "sin".
    When I used to have to confession as a young kid I would think "This is crazy, I am good kid, I haven't done anything wrong, why the hell do I need say sorry to a priest (or god)"
    Just lucky that is the way my mind worked even at a young age.

  17. Excredulous:

    It's not intended to be analogous to Pascal's Wager. It's intended as an example of some threat that looms over you, according to some people, but that you, since you don't believe it, have no fear of.

    It is only meant to point out that those who don't believe god exists, and have not been indoctrinated into belief in god's retribution, do not fear god's retribution, in the same way people who don't believe aliens are abducting people, and have no been convinced such abduction stories are true, don't fear being abducted by aliens.

  18. I thought Pascal's Wager was a dead horse (and well, it still mostly is), but the abuse analogy was excellent.

  19. >IMO, this is a very good application of Pascal's wager.<

    Yes, and in fact your example is completely congruent with P's W as applied to the existence of god.

    Well, in all but one respect: the threat of global warming is demonstrably _real_ (while the threat of consequences of not believing in cannot be determined).

    I'd say that Tracie's point is that P's W is being used for belief in in exactly the way you describe it being used in a debate about global warming - in what I suppose you could call the Argument From Fear.

    The little detail of the truth value of the underlying threat is simply shooed away and asserted to be true.....

  20. Very good post. Pascal's Wager really does reveal a cowardly perspective. I never considered the abduction example; it is a great analogy. I don't think I will ever understand why Christians fear their infinitely loving father.

  21. Thanks Tracie! I suspected you would have a good explanation and I wasn't disappointed. I see now I could have read it a bit more carefully.

    Yes, if we're talking about fear, the alien abduction one is a good example. I think other gods are a good example, too. I don't think Christians are lying awake at night wondering if Allah is going to judge them.

  22. @Atheist: The use of that variant of Pascal's Wager with respect to global warming differs from its use as an apologetic in one key way: "do something about AGW/don't do something about AGW" is a true dichotomy, unlike the "believe in my god/disbelieve in my god" choice offered by Pascal's Wager, which ignores all the alternate possibilities.

    As I recall, the Pascal's Wager apologetic was proposed as an extreme case of the more general "two choices, one with benefits but cost, one with no cost but negative consequences" decision model, where the cost was infinitesimal but the benefit/consequence was infinite. It works well as an illustration of the point, it fails as a useful or valid apologetic.

  23. I really feel terribly for Woman 2.

  24. While I am still a "Catholic" (an agnostic who likes to participate in rituals and likes the poetry of tradition, essentially), the more I see things like this, the more I think that, if I have kids, I probably won't bring them to Church or send them to catechism. I don't want them indoctrinated. I used to think this wasn't indoctrination, but I really think it is now. I don't want my kids to be motivated by fear, and most Christian denominations' beliefs are based in fear: 1. you are a sinner 2. if you aren't saved, you'll go to hell - it's all about fear of punishment. That frankly disgusts me.

  25. There is more to Catholicism than guilt, you know. We also have better music and costumes.

    Now, as far as the Wager... this is such a total FAIL that I remain amazed to hear Christians using it. These people are not paying very close attention to their own belief system.

    In Christianity, belief in God - in Jesus as Christ, specifically - has to be sincere and honest in order to matter at all. God is going to know if you're just hedging your bets. Professing beliefs you don't actually hold is not going to do you one bit of good.

    God will still know you're an atheist, non-Christian theist or whatever and you're right back at Square One. Now, God might still choose to save you - being God, he has the power of course. But the Wager won't get you one step closer to that desired result.

    As an atheist I reject the Wager for the various reasons we all know so well. But were I still a believing Christian I would reject it just as adamantly.

  26. Very insightful commentary. Any belief system that propagates itself by instilling fear in children has serious problems!

  27. Excellent point Tracie.

    For me the fear and the beleif formed a reinforcement loop. The beleif casued the fear and the fear reinforced the beleif which reinforced the fear.... Breaking out is difficult becasue if the beleif begans to wane, the fear shores it up. If the fear starts to subside, the belief reinforces it.

    In may case, it was an alternative Christian doctrine that provided the mechanism for breaking the loop. Christian Universalim provided a way to loose the fear of hell. Once the fear reinforcement was gone, I could examine the beleif without fear and saw it for the fantasy it was.


  28. Good post, good answer. Thank you Tracie.

  29. That said, Ahab, we should not aver from instilling fear in children, or adults, if warranted. There really are things to fear in this world.

    Religions err in teaching children to fear OTHER-worldly things, which are by their very nature speculative or imaginary.

  30. Well, I have never been a believer so this has to go with a grain of salt, but I am not sure the people that offer Pascal Wager type arguments are really worried about a literal hell so much as they are just fearful of death in general. It is a perfectly natural thing to fear death and I believe that thinking about the permanency of death is the real fear driving pascals, not a fear of hell. IMHO.

  31. I agree with George from NY. I always thought of the wager as someone saying to me, an atheist, that I should believe just in case I'm wrong. And I've always thought, how can I force myself to believe in something that to me is unbelievable! And even if I did fake it, was this so called god dumb enough to accept my prayers while I had my fingers crossed behind my back!? What kind of omnimax being is this?

  32. @ Jeremiah - that certainly is an interesting perspective.

    I agree that most fear the permanence of death. That, along with the desire to see our loved ones again, is probably one of the main reasons any idea of an afterlife evolved as a human pattern of thought.

  33. To be perfectly fair, Pascal never intended his wager to be taken at face value by nonbelievers, thus raising the suspicion that it was aimed, all along, at believers who are plagued with fear and doubt. In his explanation of the wager, Pascal himself admitted that accepting it wasn't enough and wouldn't bring salvation; it was meant to be an early step in embracing the entire faith.

    Only those nonbelievers who are profoundly ignorant of the "good news" are open to making an emotional and intellectual investment in the faith. Apologists seem to know this, which is why they never try to present it in the way that Pascal intended. Perhaps they are under the delusion that acceptance of the wager really does lead to genuine faith, down the line. But still, they act like genuine faith is irrelevant, when presenting the argument.

    To me, the question of why they think that the wager is a good apologetic remains unanswered. The idea that they use arguments that they wouldn't personally find convincing because they are unconsciously projecting their own worries seems incoherent. What makes the most sense is that most Christians who use the wager are merely parroting something that sounded good at first blush without ever carefully considering what it really means. In my experience and reading, many/most Christians are driven by a need to "save" others, such that typically the ends justify the means.

    I don't doubt, however, that plenty of Christians do use Pascal's wager on themselves for validation and reassurance.

  34. If I ever encountered a woman 2 in real life I think I'd fall apart emotionally. To think that there are other guys out there who have no qualms about doing that to their significant other is horrifying.

    I really dug the analogy, btw.

  35. Oh jesus christus on a chariot-driven sidecar, a half hour's writing shot to crap with a "sorry, we're unable to comply with your request". Mods, if you see my former post anywhere, delete this one, ok? Thanks.


    While I really enjoyed your response to the emailer, I think that, at least in certain circumstances, it might have fallen short of its goal.

    Let's assume, for the sake of brevity, that there are two different types of atheist.

    1. One who never believed in G/god
    2. One, like Matt, who believed in G/god with all his heart and brain.

    While your argument is completely and utterly valid for person number 1, it might not be AS valid for person number 2.

    To use your example, if you never, not once in your life, believed in alien abduction, then sure, it would be ridiculous to devote even .0000000001 percent of your time to worrying over it.

    But what if, sometime in your life, and perhaps for a great percentage of that life, you believed in it? What if you actually thought you'd been abducted by aliens, and were AS convinced that you were, THEN, as you are totally unconvinced NOW.

    Thinking about it that way, I could see the validity of asking the question (if only to oneself in the deepest dark of the night) "What if I'm wrong? Obviously, for over 30 years, I thought I'd been taken by the ZZZZZZZR'TT'TH tribe on Melnor 6 and had probes inserted where no probe was meant to be inserted. I totally and utterly believed in it, and preached my belief to others. I even went so far as to attend Alien Abduction school with the full intent of becoming an Alien Abduction priestess before I realized that, through scientific study, self analysis and all the rest, that I couldn't possibly have been abducted?"

    I think it's perfectly natural for humans who first follow one life path, and then completely diverge from that path in the opposite direction, to, if even only ONCE, ask themselves "What if the first path I was on was right after all?"

    Because you say this was addressed to Matt, and because Matt has never been shy talking about his previous beliefs as a Christian, then even if (as is most likely the case) Matt NEVER questions his deconversion, I honestly don't have a hard time thinking that some people who once believed do, in fact, ask themselves "What if I'm wrong?"

    For me, having never believed in a god or gods, Pascal's Wager is the height of stupidity. But I can easily see some atheists, who once were as impassioned about Christianity as they are now about atheism, might, at one time or another in their lives, come to question "What if I'm wrong?"

    After all, he/she once believed, and every bit as utterly, as surely, as he/she DISBELIEVES now, so there IS that basis upon which to draw questions.


  36. And to be fair to Christians and Catholics, Pascal never made unanimity. After all, not all Catholics are austere jansenists. I read his Pensées during my first year at university when I was turning into an unbeliever and he pretty much sped up the deconversion process.

    @isleoflesbos-I think that Pascal's Wager is aimed (and was originally?) at believers who are questioning their faith.

  37. Tracie, have you ever written a book? Your eloquence is astounding.

    "Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry — such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of "true" ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?"

    I've been struggling to make that point articulately for a while now. Thank you!

  38. I just want to say this: the idea of lasagna made with cottage cheese makes me feel like I'm going to vomit.

  39. erauqssi said:

    "Salvation through faith alone is not true. They held something that I've never seen or heard of in any other denomination, a sort of "salvation through remorse". Basically, to be forgiven for a sin you had to apologize and do so sincerely"

    My mother's faith thinks the same thing. She is a member of the LDS church. Part of the Mormon faith is believing that to be truly expunged of "sin" not only must you have faith but you must pray to Jesus for forgiveness, then you must apologize for your sin (to Jesus and whoever may have been involved) and be truly remorseful of it. Without going through remorse you have not truly atoned for your sins. Basically, the Mormons think that you must suffer from your sin and through remorse and prayer Jesus will lift your guilt and free you from it, therefore being atoned.

  40. I have been in several discussions with religious people that concerned the Pascal's Wager. I guess it's one of those cards that they take out when the discussion is going nowhere for them.

    and besides, i truly believe personal choice supreme to all other assumptions or values. personal choice is absolute and accurate because it is made by me and nobody else.

    isn't that actually what free will is? making independent choices whether right or wrong?

  41. Moderately off-topic, but it just came up and a quick google search didn't help:

    What is the name of the fallacy of assuming that because there are two possibilities, they must be equally likely; i.e. 50/50?

    It's come up so often that is must surely have a name.

  42. @Lukas

    I think that'd be the Equivocation Fallacy. You can't equivocate (force a choice) between A & B alone if C, D, E, etc are also options.

    I like the abduction analogy too. And John K's "Give me $20 or I will use my magic powers to destroy your family."

    I'm working on a way to point out the futility of "deciding to believe". Something like "I have an IPU named Smedley in my glove compartment. His attributes are x, y and, amazing but true, z! I believe in Smedley & I want you to believe in him too. So if I offer you $10 million to really believe in him for just 1 year... "

    Beyond the "can I choose to believe in Smedley" you'd also need to ask yourself "do I believe this guy's even GOT $10 mil...and that he'd give it to me".

    otoh, I'm physically right there making the offer. And we know that money exists. God and his eternal HFP (Happy Fun Place)? Not so much.

  43. Added a bit later:

    Could call it the "Coffee or Tea Fallacy" (what, no Coke, hot chocolate, beer, apple juice...?)

    Or the "Chocolate or Vanilla Fallacy". (No strawberry, butterscotch ripple, tin roof, chunky monkey, etc.)

  44. Waaaay later...

    After mulling (but no actual research, as that might involve MINutes of something resembling work), I'm thinking it's more likely to be "False Dichotomy"

    'K, felt bad about talking without fact backup. Googled "False Dichotomy". That's the one. Also called a false dilemma, either or, black or white, the missing middle, etc.

  45. Tracie, thank you. I have copied from--'Nobody should be made'--to the end, so I can read it over. That will probably happen a number of times. It makes sooo much sense. I consider myself an intelligent person who makes decisions based on logic and reason. However, I well understand the concerns of this letter writer. My religious upbringing engrained in me the notion that asking questions is wrong and not believing is somehow the ultimate of deprevity. Well, I definately got over the asking questions thing long ago. So, I suppose in that sense, I would already be in trouble with a being who can't handle his/her/its supporters thinking for themselves. But, the fear of completely accepting atheism with its logic, allowance for intellectual integrity, and respect for mature minds (the opposite of religion) seems so much harder to shake. It is a struggle. I love your last sentence--'After all, what sort of "true" ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?'

  46. Are there any mental health professionals or programs to help ex-Christian new Atheists to overcome their irrational fears about Hell? The "What if I am wrong?" syndrome?


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