Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I Know It. You Know It: Pascal's Wager is Stupid and Other Rants

My inner Dilbert fan is once again given a reason to weep and seriously consider the possibility the strip being ghost-written, again. He's pulled out Pascal's Wager, along with a straw man of certainty, claiming that atheism is untenable without being omniscient.

To get the obvious out of the way: The typical atheist, myself included, does NOT believe that the existence of deities to be impossible. I simply see no good evidence for them, just like I see no good evidence for leprechauns, fairies, oni, ghosts, chupacabras, aliens currently visiting Earth, hushaboom explosives, unicorns, displacer beasts, beholders, Hogwarts, Klingons, Wookies, Delvians, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Don't be surprised if someone shows up to pull a variant on Pascal's Wager for one of them, by the way.

Despite any risk to Tinkerbell, I will say that I'm confident that there's no such thing as fairies. There's no evidence thus far, even though we'd expect to see some. I could be wrong, but the mere possibility of me being wrong isn't a good reason to believe in fairies anyway. Bring me a little winged person in a jar or shut up.

Now, replace "Tinkerbell" with "the Judeo-Christian god," "fairies" with "deities," and the winged person in a jar with a successfully generated miracle under controlled conditions. Deities aren't really any different from fairies on the scientific front. No evidence, no good reason to believe.

Onto Pascal's Wager: The wager is essentially an appeal to selfishness over truth, logic, and evidence. Which benefits you more: Belief or disbelief?

What's more is that they presume that there's only one type of deity in question: A kind of deity who sadistically tortures people for not believing and rewards people for believing. Usually, the people who bring up Pascal's Wager will do everything they can to pretend that there can't be other kinds of deities, or consider hypotheticals they didn't propose to be "cheating."

So here's a list of what ifs to irritate all of them:

1. What if the deity punishes people for doing evil deeds and rewards them for doing good deeds, with no regard for beliefs?

2. What if the deity punishes people for blindly believing in him and rewards them for thinking critically and thus doubting him?

3. What if the deity rewards everyone, regardless of what they do or believe?

4. What if the deity rewards people on a random basis?

5. What if the deity only punishes those who step on cracks in a sidewalk?

6. What if the deity doesn't care at all about human beings and only thinks about them as a meaningless, uninteresting by-product of a brane/string experiment he conducted 13.7 billion years ago?

7. What if the deity just throws everyone's souls up on the roof, where they get stuck?

I could go on and on. Even more so if you don't insert an a priori requirement that polytheism be impossible. For every hypothetical deity that rewards one action, we can make up another hypothetical deity that punishes that action. The only reason some deities get emphasized over other is for what amounts to American Idol epistemology: Popularity is seen as an indicator of truth or plausibility. Text in your votes during the commercial break.

All of this just amounts to argumentum ad baculum: Trying to convince someone to cave into the threat of force. For this mentality, truth is relative to whoever has the biggest club, and Hell is one of the favorites.

Adams makes the stupidity worse:

Let me put this in perspective. You might be willing to accept a 10% risk of going skiing and getting hurt, but you wouldn't accept a 10% risk of a nuclear war. The larger the potential problem, the less risk you are willing to tolerate.

An eternity in Hell is the largest penalty there could ever be. So while you might not worry about a .00000000001% chance of ending up in Hell, you can't deny the math. .00000000001% of eternity is a lot longer than your entire mortal life. Infinitely longer.

The problems with this analogy are:

1. We're pretty confident that there is such a thing as skiing accidents, and that they have a non-zero probability of happening. We can say no such thing about deities. No evidence.

2. How can we do anything to change the odds of receiving eternal punishment? Countless hypothetical deities, remember? Every action we take (or even inaction) will get on the nerves of one of them. I think I can safely say that we can go about our business as usual until the evidence is forthcoming. Then we'll know what to do or not do for a reward.

Now, just watch, Adams gets even stupider:
Personally, if I were more rational, and less focused on immediate gratification, I would become a moderate, peace-loving Muslim. My reasoning is that Islam has the best chance of becoming the dominant world religion in the future, and therefore probably has God’s backing, if he exists. The Muslim belief that death is sometimes a good thing is a huge advantage in a future where weapons are improving, and the only thing keeping people from using them is fear of death.

If you believe God exists, the smart money says he’s backing the team with the best strategy and long term viability. Based on what I see today, I’m betting on Islam being the only religion in a thousand years. Once you can build your own nuke from stuff you buy online, don’t be betting on the Buddhists.
Adams assumes, without reason, that the deity wants to be popular, cares about humans, and has a hard-on for tribalism. That may work as an entertaining premise in one of my D&D adventures, but I see no reason why reality must be constrained to having only anthropocentric deities, or why popularity equals plausibility.

22 comments:

MarkH said...

The only reason some deities get emphasized over other is for what amounts to American Idol epistemology: Popularity is seen as an indicator of truth or plausibility. Text in your votes during the commercial break.

Perfect

Dubito said...

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that Scott Adams is deliberately trolling from the ivory tower of comedic fame, and has said as much. I still laugh at his cartooning but, just as I like my Yamaha but can't stand Japan's stance on whaling, I am forced to carefully separate Adams the artist from Adams the author. If he keeps going, however, I am going to have to consider just plain boycotting him.

He's displaying the intellectual age of about 9, and behaviour that would get him ridiculed off any other forum.

The debate now is: Should we attempt to correct the misconceptions, or just ignore him?

Bronze Dog said...

I avoid buying any of his books for one year after each Pharyngula-worthy slops, which probably means I'll never buy them. I'm just leeching off the free stuff he produces with a commitment to avoid reading advertisements.

I respond to him like I would any Creationist. The thing that got me started was him banking on Islam with "might makes right".

Dilbert the cartoonist and writer of corporate silliness is often funny.

Dilbert the blogger is not. Just like Dane Cook is apparently never funny.

This leads back to my ghost writing suspicion.

Wes said...

Adams excuses his inanity by calling it "philosotainment", just like TV pundits excuse their divorce from factual reality by calling it "infotainment". The terms are convenient disclaimers. The "philosotainer" can state his opinions as if they carried philosophical weight, and when challenged to defend them philosophically deride the critic for taking entertainment too seriously. It's philosophy when it's safely uncriticized and entertainment when it's under attack. It's the best of both worlds! You can claim to be a philosopher without having to do all that hard work like critical inquiry, self-questioning, or formulating logical arguments!

Anonymous said...

Are you hosting the next Skeptics' Circle and if so, what email do you want submissions sent to??????

Wes said...

^^Is that question really so urgent that it needs six question marks?

Bronze Dog said...

My name without spaces @gmail.com

I was planning on posting a reminder with a graphical representation tomorrow.

Akusai said...

I honestly fail to see how Islam stands a chance at surviving long into the future. I said as much in the last essay I ever wrote before I graduated college (it was for a Western Religions class). How, for example, can Islam survive space travel? Even in low-Earth orbit it would be impossible to orient oneself to Mecca for a prayer. Because of its incredibly Earthbound nature (and that's just one reason), it can't possibly survive the future without major overhauls.

Uzair said...

Your blog is very nice.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is the color of my anus.

Q said...

That could all be solved if you cut back on living out your own bizarre sexual fantasies. It's bad for you.

Lepht said...

BD, i hate to say this, but i been lurking here for a long time now and you just did it again over at Orac's.

it's "ad HOMINEM", not "ad homenim".

*brandishes wooden ruler* now write it out fifteen times. =]

Lepht
(Latin nazi)

Bronze Dog said...

ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem
ad hominem

I'll be good...

Infophile said...

I honestly fail to see how Islam stands a chance at surviving long into the future. I said as much in the last essay I ever wrote before I graduated college (it was for a Western Religions class). How, for example, can Islam survive space travel? Even in low-Earth orbit it would be impossible to orient oneself to Mecca for a prayer. Because of its incredibly Earthbound nature (and that's just one reason), it can't possibly survive the future without major overhauls.

Actually, I doubt that will be a problem for them. Even on Earth they rarely get it right. Almost all Muslims face in a direction that only makes sense if the Earth were unrolled to match common maps (if they don't simply face east/west). If you were to extend their line of sight along a great circle around Earth, it would generally miss Mecca by a good deal.

Even though people now (generally) accept that Earth is a sphere, far too few actually understand it. The concept of a great circle is taught all-too rarely and almost never sinks in, so laymen get confused about figuring out the directions for large distances.

Tom Foss said...

Pascal's Wager is so full of problems that it's hard to cover them within the scope of a single post; the Atheist Experience did a whole 90-minute episode on Pascal's Wager and still didn't get to everything.

One hypothetical god I think is usually worth mentioning is the god who is offended by people who believe in him solely out of self-interest.

Or, better still, the omniscient god who knows that you only profess belief in order to avoid his wrath, and that you don't sincerely believe in Him.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time forcing myself to believe things. If I think something's unsupported by the evidence, no matter how hard I try, I can't make myself actually believe in it without the little voice in the back of my head saying "well, yeah, but it's not true."

Infophile said...

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time forcing myself to believe things. If I think something's unsupported by the evidence, no matter how hard I try, I can't make myself actually believe in it without the little voice in the back of my head saying "well, yeah, but it's not true."

I believe that's actually an evolutionary adaptation that most humans share. Who wouldn't like to believe that they're immune to all possible dangers, for instance? Of course, if someone did believe this, they generally don't survive to pass it on.

However, it is possible to subvert this. The trick is that if you want to believe something enough and don't have good critical thinking facilities, you can fall for many logical fallacies and cherry pick evidence leading you to actually believe in it.

Berlzebub said...

Pascal's wager? I thought most religions were against gambling.

Anyway, I've also seen cases where the theists had trouble understanding how we use the word "believe". When we say we don't believe in gord, they seem to think of it like a LDS doesn't believe in caffeine. I've started trying to clarify it by saying "I don't believe there is a God".

Although, I did just have to warn a troll about proselytizing. (Does anyone else find it fun to imagine the veins popping out on their forehead when they warn us about Hell?)

Akusai said...

Even though people now (generally) accept that Earth is a sphere, far too few actually understand it. The concept of a great circle is taught all-too rarely and almost never sinks in, so laymen get confused about figuring out the directions for large distances.

I myself am guilty of this, as I never thought about their current non-Mecca orientation. But they at least try to face where they believe Mecca to be in relation to them, which is something thats impossible to do from LOE. They'd have to be constantly moving to keep their faces towards it, and given that they do try to face Mecca, even if they're always off, this would be a problem for them.

TheBrummell said...

A Muslim already in LOE or farther from the surface of the Earth would likely have few or no qualms about setting up their prayer mat upon a rotating or gimballed platform, set to consistently point at one place on the Earth's surface.

Columbus' voyage didn't do in Christianity (round Earth + clear violation of Aristotle's buoyancy hypothesis in the construction of his ships), I doubt space travel would inflict mortal wounds on any current major religion.

Islam doesn't seem to be gaining in popularity much faster than a short list of other major religions (Pentecostalism comes immediately to mind). I don't see how loud threats against the heathen qualifies as evidence of eventual global hegemony. Adams' argument there is plainly just silly, he probably wrote the part about Islam intending to annoy the moderate Christians who dominate his fan-base.

Eric said...

Uhh...did it occur to no one that the Adams piece might be satirical?

Bronze Dog said...

You generally have to go very far to point out that you're doing satire of fundies. Because there's always one who'll say the same thing in all seriousness.

And if it was satire, I don't think he'd try defending it.

Wikinite said...

I myself am guilty of this, as I never thought about their current non-Mecca orientation. But they at least try to face where they believe Mecca to be in relation to them, which is something thats impossible to do from LOE. They'd have to be constantly moving to keep their faces towards it, and given that they do try to face Mecca, even if they're always off, this would be a problem for them.

This will just lead to an industry on self-adjusting prayer platforms that track the location of mecca an always turn to face it. Then, in 2000 years or so the ritual of the spinning prayer platform will be reinterpreted as god being everywhere.