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A defense of Pascal

Wnope
Posts: 6,924
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2/20/2013 6:03:46 PM
Posted: 7 years ago
At 2/20/2013 5:39:10 PM, Polaris wrote:
At 2/20/2013 5:05:46 PM, Wnope wrote:
At 2/20/2013 4:36:57 PM, Polaris wrote:
At 2/20/2013 3:36:07 PM, Wnope wrote:
I have done a rather poor job communicating my position, so I'll try again.

The fact that I am an atheist should be the first indicator that I am not arguing Pascal's Wager is valid when considered in modern context. Instead, I am arguing that his philosophical project, when viewed in context, should be seen as an impressive analytical development.

The situation is similar to that of Hobbes. In the modern context, it is easy for us to hate Hobbes because he endorses the most brutal type of fascism.

But this ignores the context. Hobbes project was not to show the best form of government. His project was to convince the world that "divine right" is not the only possible justification for kingship. He had to retrofit secular philosophy so the Kings could say "well, heck, that doesn't challenge my power, it may even be beneficial, I guess I won't publicly execute him."

Hobbes made possible Locke and others who took for granted that the "state of nature" could determine how societies ought to form.

Onto Pascal:

In the modern context, we see the options as "Christianity versus Islam versus Norse versus x" and can choose among moral/teleological theories from categorical imperatives to moral nihilsm. But at the time, religions were basically seen in a western context as "Christianity or heathen savages."

At the time, "naturalistic atheism" was a fairly new concept (in the sense of "no god and no object moral guidance") and in need of some means of justifying "how we ought to act" or "what is a good life" without reference to "God" or innate purpose.

A common answer was expected utility. The assumptions were that you could calculate how you ought to act by considering what you gain or lose (using the standard parameter of "utility") as the result of an action relative to the probability of it occurring. Furthermore, under the Christian conception, at no point during a stay in heaven would utility at any moment drop below zero.

Even assuming every moment as an atheist leads to an increase of utility, the result will be finite. He my also think whether god exists is a toss-up (50 percent chance) or "absolutely note" (99.999% chance god doesn't exist) then the following is true:

Expected utility = probability x utility

Following life of an atheist = 99.999 x finite number = finite number

Following life of a Christian = 0.0001 x infinite number = infinite number.

Thus, Pascal's opponents could no longer appeal to expected utility as an alternative means to religion of providing a "good life" or establishing how we "ought to act."

So is this an accurate portrayal of your argument?

p1. That which grants us greatest utility, is that which we should believe.
p2. The belief that there is an afterlife, is that which grants us the greatest utility.
c1. The belief that there is an afterlife, is that which we should believe.

"Belief" may not be the best word. It is more a matter of how you should make decisions about how to act on future events. Namely, living in accord with Christian principles and morality as dictated by God.

It would have to be, because the benefits of an afterlife, according to pascal's wager, are only enjoyed if we believe.

Pascal's answer, like his argument, is not very convincing in a modern context but used the same presuppositions as atheists following expected utility.

Namely, the too-obvious-to-notice presupposition that assuming expected utility entails assuming acting upon the results is a rational course of action. The "rational/passion" dichotomy was nearly unquestioned at the time, unlike what we now know about emotion's involvement in knowledge.

"Pascal argues that if the wager is valid, the inability to believe is irrational, and therefore must be caused by feelings: "your inability to believe, because reason compels you to [believe] and yet you cannot, [comes] from your passions."

So you should go find a priest, learn and listen and mimic him, and you'll eventually decrease the passions until you believe.
mattrodstrom
Posts: 12,028
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2/20/2013 6:10:41 PM
Posted: 7 years ago
At 2/13/2013 3:52:23 PM, Wnope wrote:
A lot of people think of "Pascal's Wager" as simplistic, obviously wrong, and generally stupid. I would like to argue that while the argument may not be valid, the Wager is in fact an important and in some ways ingenuous argument.

The argument is geared specifically towards a population that is deciding between either Christianity or atheism/heathenism because they believe the evidence against Christianity is too low. Particularly, the secularists who were experimenting with meta-ethics that don't involve invoking the divine. This was not geared at converting Muslims, Hindus, Jews, whatever.

Expected utility, at the time the most innovative form of decision theory, takes the general form of (probability that x is the right decision times the utility of choosing x).

In the same way atheists today are into Evolution, atheists back then were into decision-theory and all sorts of secular means of establishing philosophical grounding.

If no afterlife exists, the utility of believing in no afterlife will be finite (so you might gain utility in this life by being an atheist, but not infinite utility since it stops when you die.)

If utility can increase with time, then getting into heaven means infinite utility since you would be there for an infinite period of time.

Say you follow decision theory and believe there is a 99.99999999999% chance the Christian God doesn't exist.

Expected utility = probability x utility

Believing in atheism = 99.999 x finite number = finite number

Believing in afterlife = 0.0001 x infinite number = infinite number.

Therefore, an atheist cannot accept the following two statements without the third being true.

1. Expected utility is useful in gauging what you should do.
2. Utility can increase with time.
3. It is better to believe in an afterlife than not believe, regardless of apparent evidence.

But what if... Instead..

There's no god, but an Evil Demon who will torture you infinitely if you believed in God!!! 8)
"He who does not know how to put his will into things at least puts a meaning into them: that is, he believes there is a will in them already."

Metaphysics:
"The science.. which deals with the fundamental errors of mankind - but as if they were the fundamental truths."

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