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Humans Aren't Rational
Pascal's Wager is misunderstood 
5th-Jan-2009 08:53 pm
I've been reading through chapter III of Pensées by Blaise Pascal, which contains the origin of Pascal's Wager. People seem to suppose that Pascal's Wager goes something like this:

1. If I believe in God and I'm right, I'll gain infinite happiness.
2. If I disbelieve in God and I'm right, I'll gain only finite happiness.
3. Therefore, as long as there's some chance of God's existence, it's rational to believe in God.

The document does contain text that goes something like that (section 233 of Pensées). But if you take it in context, I don't think that's what Pascal meant. I think that particular section was spoken in a mocking, tongue-in-cheek sort of way, and that Pascal did not seriously believe based on that argument, or expect anyone else to.

Rather, it seemed, from the surrounding text, that his point was twofold.

1. To show people that it's rational to seek the truth, and that it's irrational to sit around lazily as if religion doesn't matter, whether or not you believe in it.

2. To show people that it's rational to seek virtue, rather than the temporary pleasures of this world, whether or not you believe in a God who will reward you. If you seek virtue as an unbeliever but it turns out God exists, you might gain infinite happiness; but if you're wrong, you won't lose much. He was mocking hedonism without thought of the eternal as utterly irrational.

This reasoning actually makes quite a bit of sense. In fact, in light of it, I'm not sure there's as much point in me wanting to be an atheist anymore, unless I could be completely sure there's no God, which seems impossible. As long as God might exist, I should still act virtuous just in case, which means I can never (rationally) have the complete freedom that I desire. (However, there are still particular morals of Christianity that it would be nice to discard as not following from anything.)

But there is still a significant flaw even with this reasoning. The dichotomy between a certain God or physicalism is false; Buddhism has a chance of being true, for example. Maybe the real God or the real ultimate reality will punish Christians forever and reward people based on some criteria other than virtue or belief or whatever you happen to believe rewards people.

Which makes it all the more important to continue trying to convert to everything. In fact, that seems to be the most important goal in life.
6th-Jan-2009 01:09 am (UTC)
Pascal was a Jansenist when he wrote this, I believe. I don't think he was being anything other than earnest; the rest of his work does not suggest it.

Other than that, I agree.

Edited at 2009-01-06 01:18 am (UTC)
29th-Sep-2009 06:06 pm (UTC) - The God Delusion
You should read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. It will help you realize that the whole notion of God is absurd. Religions are meme-plexes (living information entities, a complex system of interconnected and interrelated memes) that feed off the energy of people infected with them. Rid yourself of the Christian parasite once and for all, and remain vigilant as other parasitic information entities try to steal your life from you.

You should also read Susan Blackmore's excellent book "The Meme Machine" to get a better understanding of how memetics works. All of human behavior, including religions and altruism make perfect sense once you come to understand that TWO replicators are at work in the course of human evolution: genes and memes. They evolve at different rates and what is good for one is not always good for the other, with the conflicts resulting in interesting (i.e. bizarre) behaviors that are seen exclusively in humans.

Religions are the most prominent examples of meme-plexes due to their size, age, sophisticated organization and phenotypic artifacts, but the world is absolutely full of meme-plexes. The whole notion of "God" is a central meme of almost all religions. Religions trick us into giving them our energy by leveraging the gullibility of the young and our most deep seated fears (death, torment, etc.).

Anyhoo, give those books a read and you'll be much closer to understanding what's REALLY going on.
29th-Sep-2009 09:16 pm (UTC) - Re: The God Delusion
I've already read several chapters of The God Delusion. Though I enjoyed its attack on religion, for the most part it's political trash and I found few original arguments.

In particular, there are many problems with the use of memes to attack religion.

1. The way a belief came about is different than the reason it's wrong (or right). You still need a reason why religion is wrong, or you need to refute its arguments for being right.

2. I'm sick of people attacking organized religion and thinking that by doing so they're attacking religion. I deny organized religion while having philosophical religious beliefs, and the argument from memes gains no ground in pulling me from that position.

3. If you think (which I don't) that the argument from memes is sound, then you have to apply it to everything, not just religion. You'd have to call atheism a meme. You'd even have to call memes a meme, and thereby refute yourself.

So no, I don't think I'll be reading any more Dawkins, or that other book. If you have an argument that attacks my beliefs (rather than the organizational structure my beliefs have caused), then by all means, give it.
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