A Different Take On Pascal's Wager
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I’ve been to a lot of funerals lately. As I write that it seems too casual and mundane a statement with which to describe the solemnity that attends death. If I only have to change the word “funerals” to “movies”, to instead be talking about frequent trips to the cinema, then maybe I need to use a different phrase. But I’m not sure there is actually something that really encompasses the enormity of death. There is something of the infinite in death even if, or especially if, you don’t believe in an afterlife. For those who don’t believe, death is an infinite loss.
Actually, I should be careful about speaking for those people who don’t believe in an afterlife. I freely confess to having a hard time getting into the mindset of the true atheist when it comes to this subject, and this is assuming that there is just one mindset, which is obviously not the case. I’ve already mentioned those atheists who feel that death is the ultimate evil, and the transhumanists who believe that defeating death might be the single most important issue. And if for some reason I was absolutely convinced that there was no afterlife I imagine I might fall into this camp.
I haven’t yet talked about the atheists who take the opposite approach and feel that this life is amazing enough without worrying about trying to prolong it, or whether there’s anything after. For example, to quote from Richard Dawkins:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
(I have many criticisms to level at Dawkins, but being a bad writer is not one of them.)
As another example, Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan’s wife, said something similar:
Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting.
This quote brings up a common attitude among those who aren’t religious or don’t believe in an afterlife, the idea that those who do believe in those things are seeking refuge in illusions, specifically the illusion of religion, and that by seeking this refuge we are weaker than those who face death with “courage”. I guess maybe that’s true on some level. And if courage is the ultimate virtue then perhaps there’s a moral framework in which this is the most virtuous path.
But if courage isn’t an end unto itself, and I don’t think it is, then what did Carl Sagan gain from this courage? Did it make him happier? Did it make life easier to bear? Perhaps for Sagan the answer to both of these questions is yes. But I doubt that this approach would work for the vast majority of people. I think most people are made happier by the hope of an afterlife, regardless of whether they’re otherwise religious, or even spiritual. Therefore telling all of these people that they lack courage is not very helpful, regardless of whether it’s true. What harm are they trying to prevent by telling these people they lack courage? I know that for many atheists, such as Dawkins, removing a belief in the afterlife is supposed to make people less recklessly violent, by, for example, reducing the number of religiously-inspired suicide bombers. But how does their proposed alternative, that there are no consequences to anything we do and that this life doesn’t matter, make a problem of reckless violence any better?
As I said maybe this view is more courageous on some level, but even this courage is insufficient to truly grapple with a purely materialistic view of life. And by a materialistic view of life I’m not talking about being obsessed with possessions I’m talking about believing that there is nothing spiritual, that nothing exists except matter. The fact is, that if you really want to be as materialistic and scientific as possible, then you should acknowledge that as far as science is concerned, we’re nothing more than organic robots. Brought about by the process of evolution in a series of largely arbitrary steps, to fit into a certain niche for the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the universe, a fraction just long enough for us to hopefully reproduce. And the joy, affection, and love experienced by Ann Druyan towards Carl Sagan was nothing more than a complicated chemical and biological process designed to make this reproduction happen.
You may think I’m exaggerating when I talk about organic robots, but from a scientific, materialistic viewpoint there is no evidence that humans have free will. Thus the “organic robot” viewpoint would appear to be the most scientific and the most courageous, but I’m not currently aware of anyone, even among the hardcore atheists, who hold this particular point of view. Which leaves me to wonder, how is one simultaneously certain that there is no afterlife, but also equally certain that we aren’t soulless automatons for whom consciousness is an illusion? But to repeat my initial caveat, I have a hard time getting into the mindset of an atheist, so maybe this viewpoint is more common than I think.
In any event, the purpose of this extended introduction is to point out that technology and science have made the problem of death more complicated rather than less. And this complication extends even to people who believe in the afterlife. The Mormon Transhumanist Association is a great example of this intersection. It used to be that there was no question of avoiding death. If you believed in an afterlife, death is just part of the plan. Now technology has enabled transhumanists to decide that death shouldn’t be part of the plan and Mormon Transhumanists to assert that death isn’t part of the plan and that the afterlife may not be after anything, but rather just a continuation of this life.
And the complications go beyond merely questioning the role of death, they extend the other direction into complete apathy about death. If nothing else, progress eliminated a lot of death, particularly among the young. And as a result we’re able to mostly ignore death, and on those occasions we can’t ignore it we compartmentalize it. This has not always been the case, and I’m not sure it should be the case now. Death is still with us, and as I’ve hopefully shown there are a lot of ways for dealing with it, and, if you’re not in that small slice of people we discussed, who are both fine with death and don’t believe in an afterlife, then it’s perfectly reasonable to look for ways to extend things past death, particularly in this day and age when it appears that we might be able to cheat death entirely.
For those who aren’t excited about passing into nothingness, which I assume is the majority of people, there are a variety of options, but none of them offer any absolute certainty, and because of this uncertainty each option is a wager of one sort or another. The best known of these wagers, particularly if you restrict yourself to that label, is Pascal’s Wager. But despite it being the best known wager, it is not the one most commonly chosen. And thus we’ll set it aside for the moment.
The award for the most commonly chose wager belongs to procreation, or having children. I know it’s not commonly framed as a wager, but it is one way in which someone can live on after they’re dead. And sure, this wager is best suited at providing immortality for your DNA. But in the shorter term, as long as your descendents remember you and something about your life that is a form of immortality.
Of course someone isn’t limited to only being remembered by their genetic descendents, and thus another wager (though again not labeled as such) is seeking after fame (or infamy as the case may be) through doing noteworthy things. Certainly Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Plato, and Johann Sebastian Bach all have a degree of immortality. But while the first two are famous as rulers and conquerors, the last two are famous for what they created, and here we get into what might be considered a separate avenue for immortality: immortality through the arts and sciences. Plato and Bach are famous in a different way than Caesar and Genghis Khan. Plato is famous for his writings, and I can still read what he wrote (albeit not in the original Greek) even thousands of years later. Caesar did write, but that’s not why he’s famous and as far as anyone can tell Genghis Khan was illiterate, so while I can read about both of them, it’s not the same thing as living through the end of the Roman Republic or the Mongol invasion. But reading Plato today is very similar to reading Plato while he was still alive. As is listening to Bach, despite purists arguing about the difference between catgut and metal strings.
In any case, while very few of us will have the opportunity to become famous as rulers and conquerors, all of us have the opportunity to achieve some immortality through our work, even if very few people ever interact with it. (Almost no one reads Newton’s Principia, but everyone knows who Newton is.) I assume that even Sagan and Dawkins, despite whatever else they might have said on the subject, hope(d) that people are still reading their books after they’re dead, and, while not precisely the same thing, I imagine that Ann Druyan may have hoped for a form of immortality by having her brain waves recorded and placed on the golden record included on Voyager 2.
As I said all of these activities represent wagers. You wager when you have kids that they’ll tell their kids about you, and maybe those kids will tell their kids. You wager when you write a book, or record a piece of music, that people will still be reading it, or listening to it, long after you’re gone. But all of these wagers are limited. Even if you are one of those people who assume that humanity will still be around in 10,000 years, it’s almost certain that people will have forgotten about even Plato and Caesar, definitely they will have been long forgotten in 100,000 years. And, undoubtedly, people have kids and write books and record songs for many other reasons beyond a quest for immortality, but it’s always in there somewhere. The point is that there’s really only one wager you can make that has some chance of not only sparing you from death, but of doing it for all eternity, and that is Pascal’s wager.
In short, for those of you who might not be familiar with Pascal’s wager. If we assume that there are two possibilities, either God exists or he does not, and if we have two ways of acting, either we believe or we don’t. We end up with four possible outcomes:
God does exist and we believed he existed- We receive infinite joy for an infinite time.
God does exist but we didn’t believe he existed- We receive no reward, or we are punished. But in any case the outcome is not as good as in #1.
God doesn’t exist but we believe he did- We suffer a finite loss of all the things we gave up by believing in God’s existence.
God doesn’t exist and we didn’t believe he did- We benefit from a finite gain of not wasting time believing in his existence.
As you can see the only logical thing to do when presented with these four choices is to bet on God. Reducing it to these four choices is somewhat simplistic and as you might imagine there are many objections to Pascal’s wager. If you’re interested in a reasonably comprehensive list of objections with a rebuttal of each using decision theory and logic I would direct you here. My point is not to answer every objection (though perhaps in time I will). What I purpose to do is approach the whole thing from a different angle.
The first thing I want to bring to the discussion is the point I already discussed. If you aren’t a member of the small minority who welcomes death despite also believing in its finality, then the options you have for achieving some measure of immortality are limited. And Pascal’s wager, regardless of what you think of its likelihood, is the only one that offers the possibility of true immortality.
The second thing I want to add to the discussion is the concept of antifragility. As we discussed in a previous post one of the key elements of things which are antifragile is that they engage in small, repeated sacrifices (or costs) in order to access large unbounded gains. It’s not hard to see how Pascal’s wager and religion in general are perfect examples of this. So perfect that it’s hard to imagine that Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the sage of antifragility hasn’t written about it. And indeed he has. His discussion of it is too lengthy to fully excerpt here, though if you’re curious you can find it on page 210 of The Black Swan. But this small selection should hopefully give you an idea of his argument:
All these recommendations have one point in common: asymmetry. Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.
Indeed the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book… This idea is often erroneously called Pascal’s wager...I know that I have nothing to gain from being an atheist if [God] does not exist, whereas I have plenty to lose if he does…
Pascal’s argument is severely flawed theologically: one has to be naive enough to believe that God would not penalize us for false belief…
But the idea behind Pascal’s wager has fundamental applications outside of theology. It stands the entire notion of knowledge on its head. It eliminates the need for us to understand the probabilities of a rare event… rather we can focus on the payoff and benefits of an event if it takes place.
You’ll notice that Taleb says that the wager is severely flawed theologically. And that brings me to my final point: answering objections to Pascal’s wager. I am not so presumptuous as to claim that I am answering all objections to Pascal’s wager or even Taleb’s objection, because it is clear that people are either intrigued by Pascal’s wager or they find it risible, and it is unlikely that whatever few words I write will move someone from the risible camp to the intrigued camp (though a man can dream) nevertheless I should at least provide my own response for why I am in the camp of those who are intrigued.
It should be noted that no one, starting off as a committed atheist, hears Pascal’s wager and says, “Well that makes sense I’m going to abandon my atheism and spend the rest of my life pretending to believe.” Despite this fact, most people approach Pascal’s wager as if this is the only scenario they can imagine. To call this a strawman is probably overkill, but it certainly has the scent of the barnyard about it. I think it’s far more common in practice to approach it from the other direction.
Imagine that instead of being an atheist that you’re a believer of one variety or another. You’ve been raised up in an organized religion, your family believes, your wife or husband believes, etc. Does this mean your faith is perfect? That it is without the slightest crack? Probably not, particularly in this day and age. But you do believe and when you have doubts you work to overcome them. And one very effective weapon in that effort might very well be Pascal’s wager. With the wager in mind you might ask yourself what if I am wrong? What if my family, my wife, and all my co-religionists are all wrong? Well then I will have lost very little. Only a few finite years against the vast measureless emptiness of eternity, and I will have not even lost my life, but only the way I choose to live it. Yes, I will have wasted some percentage of my time in church. But hopefully that time will have been spent learning to be charitable and loving. (We know that there will be people who argue that this is not in fact what I’m learning, but that’s a subject for another post.) But, if I’m right… If I’m right, than what a thing to be right about!
This is the key point I want to make in this post. If you are already a believer, many of the objections to Pascal’s wager take on an entirely different character. For example another very common objection to Pascal’s wager is that there are hundreds if not thousands of different religions, how does one know which one to wager on? Once again most of the objections appear to assume that the only possible scenario for Pascal’s wager coming into play is a hard-core athiest with no built in preference for any religion suddenly deciding that they’re going to join a religion and place a bet on the existence of God. Only how are they ever going to decide which religion to pretend to believe in? Should they worship Odin or Vishnu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Once again things reek of the barnyard...
If someone is already following a religion then sticking with that religion is a pretty good wager for a lot of reasons. First there’s the aforementioned wife and family, who are also probably part of the same religion. Secondly, there are the expectations of God. And on this point Mormonism has a lot to add. The LDS Church teaches that this life is a test. I don’t think it’s uncalled for to use the sorts of test we’re familiar with as a way of understanding the testing we might undergo in mortality. If you were going to give a test to the typical junior high student, you would not give them a test on quantum mechanics or partial differential equations, but on the other hand you wouldn’t test them on single digit arithmetic or whether they can recite the alphabet
In a similar fashion if we accept that life is a test, we can also expect that the true religion is not some long vanished faith which was only practiced in the steppes of central Asia. But on the other hand, neither can we assume that God intended us to blindly and unquestioningly accept the religion we were born into. And, certainly, faith is part of the test, and another thing God asks of us that is neither impossible nor inconsequential.
Death is a serious and solemn business, and it was not my intention to treat the subject with anything less than the respect and reverence it deserves. But because of seriousness of death we rarely think about it. A situation which the modern compartmentalization of death only exacerbates. But everyone, sooner or later, is going to be forced to grapple with death, especially their own death. And, in that grapple, if the hypothetical wager of an obscure 17th century mathematician and philosopher makes it any easier, then I think you should go right ahead and take advantage of it.
If you’re not quite ready to grapple with death, maybe you should grapple with the question of whether to donate to this blog.