Monday, June 22, 2015

In Defense of “Pascal’s Wager”

I have always particularly disliked Pascal’s Wager.   First, on logical grounds, since, like Anselm’s Ontological Argument, it can just as easily lead to the Great Pumpkin or the Great Penguin, as to God as conceived by Christians (of whatever stripe).  Second, on psycho-religious.   Romeo does not pitch upon Juliet by a process of totting up her good points, and subtracting her bad (suitably weighted  statistically or otherwise), comparing the result with the similar figure for the other wenches in Verona, meanwhile having his accountant double-check for accuracy, and then proceeding (with degree X of Bayesian confidence) to the balcony of the lucky winner.   Nor do such cold considerations yield any sense of the Christian feelings and beliefs about God.

Nevertheless, I am uncomfortably aware of having embraced something somewhat akin -- a leap of faith across a crevasse of uncertainty, borne on the wings of reason -- in subscribing to the Nicene Creed.

Credo ut intelligam

But just now, perusing the thoughtful and chatty treatise of a (non-religious) philosopher, this:

Very few people today are impressed by Pascal’s wagers.  But decision theorists have long been using the arguments he invented … Pascal’s logic is sound. The trouble is that his starting points  no longer apply for most of us.  They are no longer “live possibilities”.
-- Ian Hacking, An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic (2001), p. 123

Bingo!   That crack about the Great Pumpkin  misses the mark, because that portly vegetable only comes into perspective when seen from afar, from some philosopher’s distant star.   For anyone else (with the possible exception of Seneca the younger -- vide “The Pumpkinification of Claudius”), that rotund worthy is not a Live Possibility.

Our purpose here is not to argue for the intellectual respectability of adhering to the Christian faith (or to that of Islam), but to pursue the (psycho)logical point.   For, you,  respected and right-thinking reader, have almost certainly (if you are reading these words) made a similar bargain yourself:  in embracing the Religion of Science.

Not knocking science, nor denying its partly empirical character:  ever since my seventeenth year, my almost every effort has been bent in pursuit of scientific understanding.   But such is not easily to be had, even for those who majored in scientific subjects at top-flight colleges  and never slacked or looked back.   Most of what we accept, at least outside our own field of research, we largely accept on faith.  (And indeed, even within that field -- QFT or String Theory, say -- there are doctrines and assumptions you just swallow  and then push forward, not really questioning these, trying to come up with something publishable that hews to the Narrative, at least until you get tenure.)   To reject science sweepingly is intellectually disasterous;  but embracing it involves certain … wagers.

(For more on the subject, try this:  Veracity and Verifiability.)

Bonus:  For a relatively friendly look at Anselmian ontology, try this.
For a previously-unpublished tractate of the Saint:

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