Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pascal's Wager vs. Losing Your Eyebrows

Hello everyone! Henwli here, the latest official contributor to WotM Watchdog. I'm an English major student from Finland with a strange fetish that involves iPods and Way of the Master Radio. Further introduction can wait as I tentatively stick my metaphorical toes in the virtual waters of online authorship with this little ditty:

Now, if you step outside of your house and get near a road, there's a chance you'll be wrestled into the back of a car, clobbered senseless and later wake up on a hill without your eyebrows. This stuff apparently happens.

Everyone knows (Blaise) Pascal's Wager, right? In short, the argument goes that if God exists, it's ultimately better to believe in Him, because if you don't you are headed straight to hell. The wager is based on simple math. Heaven is infinitely good, and hell infinitely bad. If you believe, either you go to heaven or nothing happens. If you don't believe, either you go to hell or nothing happens. So basically you're left with two choices:

A: nothing (0) or infinite good (+)

B: nothing (0) or infinite bad (-)

So, just in case God exists, aren't you really better off putting your money on the selection that will let you suckle angel teat for infinity after your time here is done? A fool would put their eternity on the line and willingly choose the hot poker up the bum option, surely.

Few people take the wager seriously any more. It's nothing more than a simple scare tactic. The WotM ministry has reinvigorated this old beaten battle horse and rides it's rickety carcass to town with their fishermen every day! Of course they don't present the wager in it's classic form, but sneakily implant it in their droning witness encounters.

If a person they're interviewing says that they do not believe in the Christian God, or they do not believe that they're going to hell, or they don't have a specific moment when they were “born again”, or hell, just happen to have one of the thousands of available attributes that makes them “not Christian” to a WotM advocate, they will be posed with a question:

“Rergardless of what you believe; if what I'm saying is true (that God judges everyone according to His standards), would you go to heaven or hell (implied infinity)?”

This is actually Pascal's wager in disguise.

By taking a person through the Ten Commandments, the WotM witnesser establishes that the witnessee (I'm making up words as I go!) has actually broken several of God's laws; that they are adultering, blasphemous thieves. Now in the theoretical situation that the supposed hell (and thus its counterpart also) exists, how screwed are you. Infinitely, of course. The question they pose always contains that one particle I can't quite understand – the “if”, which implies that the “nothing happens” scenario has also been taken into consideration. Why do they say “if”, if they truly, truly believe that what they say is a stone cold fact. Does it sound more persuasive? Isn't that being disingenuous toward you own beliefs? In essence the question posed is:

“You're a bad, bad person and I love you and God loves you, but if what I'm saying is true, would you rather choose:”

A: nothing (0) or infinite good (+∞)

B: nothing (0) or infinite bad (-∞)

The whole Pascal's wager is implied within this technique, and it works just as well in this guise: you still need someone who finds it in themselves to believe in these things. Non-believers, I believe, are called non-believers for a reason.

“Dear Henwli. I write in teary-eyed with shaking hands to thank, because you have saved my soul by converting me to believe in God with Pascal's super awesome wager! It totally rocked my socks right off my feet! And I was wearing shoes! But what did the eyebrow story have to do with anything? Thank you, you are a true angel! XOXOXOXO P.S. u r sooo hot"

It has been actually documented that there is a chance that someone will nab you off the street, beat you up and steal your eyebrows. We could go to the previous victim (who is, I am sure, the first victim in a long line of malevolent attacks that will keep all owners of eyebrows on their toes for decades to come) and observe his hairless ridge. If asked, he will most likely tell you that the event was very unpleasant. Now, the next time you go out, ask yourself is it worth the risk? There are two chances:

A: nothing (0) or you have a merry skip across the park and greet the birds that chatter the message of all-permeating happiness and universal love (+1)

B: nothing (0) or you get beaten up, lose facial hair (-1)

You'll notice that infinity does not appear in this scenario, but has been replaced by (arbitrary) finite numbers. Of course, one of these options is statistically more probable, but both options are based on the world we live in and are absolutely feasible. The infinity in the original wager is irrelevant, because it relies so much on speculation. Math that requires you to believe in the existence of a number didn't really apply last time I checked.

Living life under irrational fear brought on by a faulty mathematical equation sounds kind of exotic though, give it a shot and report back to me how it worked. And by the way, if you do send me e-mail or comment on this post, be careful not to be electrocuted by your computer.


BoxerShorts said...

Here's how I know that Pascal's Wager is bullshit: I came up with is on my own when I was 12 years old, long before I ever heard of Pascal, and everything I came up with when I was 12 is bullshit.

That, and it only works if you're operating under the incorrect assumption that the choice is binary. It isn't.

henwli said...

The WotM way of thinking only involves in dwelling in absolutes. Etiher God likes it, or hates it. No neutral ground. Stealing a paperclip is "infinitely wicked and punishable by eternal gnashing of teeth" - even if it's accidental!

They, in essence live in a binary world which they rationalize to themselves in some unknown manner. Fertile ground for feeble arguments to stick their roots into.

AnathemaUnbound said...

If you listen to Todd Friel's debate with Dan Barker, you'll here him clearly say to Dan Barker, "If you think you hate Pascal's wager, oh man, that thing drives me nutty."

Former Follier said...

If it "drives him nutty" then why does he insist on using an adapted version of it every time he speaks with an unbeliever? Seems to me, if I didn't agree with or like something, I wouldn't use it.

Anonymous said...

Search for Living Water Publications here. They made a nice 1.3 mil in 2005.

BoxerShorts said...

Awesome info, anonymous. Thanks. Email us.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you found the info useful. Find a financial expert with time to devote to commenting on this as there are alot of red flags in this return. Notice how none of them make over 50K from LWP? Not by accident. Notice how LWP was just formed in 2004? Where were the funds before this and why were no assets transfered into the organization? Religious organizations aren't required to file a public 990, so it looks like they've created LWP to run the publication and sales money through. If you write to them they will be required to send a copy of the 2006 990, although you may have to pay for copying costs and return mail.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and one more thing. Did you happen to catch the nepotism on the bottom of page 5?

henwli said...

Sounds interesting, anon. Too bad my experience with American bureucracy is limited to filling out the "Are you a terrorist YES/NO" pamphlet before landing on LAX. All Greek to me...

But, anathemaunbound, seriously, do you read anything you reply to? I mean, like, grown-up seriously.

edit: I took a gander at those tax forms, and understood just enough for it to cause some involuntary eyebrow movement of the surprise kind. Interesting indeed.

BoxerShorts said...

Seriosuly, Anonymous, email us. If you're concerned about protecting your identity, rest assured it is safe with us if divulged privately. We could use your help.

smoke said...

just because Todd uses the word "if" doesn't mean he's using Pascal's wager. the reason he says "if" is because the person he's witnessing to might not necessarily believe what Christians believe. and regardless of what they believe all that matters it what is right.

Person: i don't believe 2+2 is 4.
Todd: it doesn't matter what you believe if the answer is 4 then you are wrong.

henwli said...

Smoke, by taking just a snippet out of context, you're pushing aside the fact that their style without fail includes implying that in the case of "if", you should be scared. You can alter the delivery, but the elements and logic of the wager are always applied to the encounters. I tried to make this my main point in the original post, but obviously failed to some degree.

What is "right" is a different discussion altogether. When talking about beliefs, its concept is a subjective issue. Taking a presuppositionalist stance when approaching a topic doesn't automatically mean that you are correct, it means you're approaching it with a (gasp) presupposition.

smoke said...

Okay maybe i'm not understanding you correctly. But are you implying that WOTM is using Pascals Wager because they use scare tactics in the case of "if"?

And on your second point, i'll agree that taking a presuppositionalist stance doesn't automatically mean you're right, but at the same time it doesn't automatically mean that you're wrong. presuppositions can be right can't they?

henwli said...

You say "sandwich", I say "kerrosvoileipƤ".

Yes, it's a scare tactic, that perfectly correlates to using the Wager. We could also refer to them as "an argument from the stick": Do as I say or this stick will rapidly approach your noggin resulting in a painful bonk. Make that eternally repeated bonks.

What I am opposing is the type of closed minded thinking that fundametalist religious practise requires. The whole fundamentalist world view is defined by a false dichotomy, just as Pascal's Wager and the related scare tactics. This leads to people studying issues with VERY strong presuppositions. I like to think of it as an onion: numbers of logical suicides within each other, building up something that makes me cry when I cut into it.

In the worst case, people lose their ability to openly approach concepts that come from outside their own niche. This results in oddball ideologies like biblical literalism that are so far removed from this plane of existence that there's no way to justify them when approached with the presupposition "I live on Earth." (which I think is quite valid as far as presuppositions go)

A Christian's presupposition that "I'm right" on something unverifiable is just as valid as any other individual's or group's presupposition about being right. It's possible that atheists, humanists, Hindus and everyone else are wrong and you're right. Or the other way around, perhaps. The chances are either way are infinitesimal. With a finite number of people on this planet, it's actually possible that we're all wrong, and if we're dealing with an infinite amount of options, this is the most likely option! Is there a good argument against the idea that right are wrong are something more than man-made ideas? Oh, I know, conscience, right? Is that something else than a man-made concept?

Consider the fact that I live in a country where no strong religious influences and movements are visible in the public sphere. We do have a national church, but any kind of fundamentalism is absolutely minimal. I've been exposed to different belief systems through our educational system and an interest in history. It's absolutely unfathomable that I would somehow regard one aspect of our heritage so high that it eclipses all else. To be honest, that sounds darned boring. Almost as boring as the concept of "Heaven".

I think belief in a superior being can be an awesome gift if harnessed properly, but what fundamentalist Christians preach nowadays is beginning to more and more resemble cult behaviour.

Evil rambling naturalist-humanist nutcase signing out :)

Maronan said...

Actually, the infinites used in the proper Pascal's Wager have importance that are lost when you use finite numbers.

When you start talking about infinites, funny things happen. For example, consider a dual-god Pascal's Wager.

In this example, God A and God B have both proven themselves to exist; you just need to pick one to follow. If you follow God A, you go to heaven. If you follow God B, there is a 10% chance that you go to heaven, otherwise you just die. Assuming heaven is an infinite benefit, which god is the better bet?

God A's benefit: ∞
God B's benefit: ∞ * .1 = ∞

Both gods grant equal benefit, yet anyone in their right mind would choose God A! Infinites screw up our calculations, and Pascal's Wager is worse off because of it.

Then, of course, there's the fact that you can't believe something through an act of will; you can only fake faith and any powerful god would see through that, combined with the fact that there are an infinite number of possible gods who grant rewards or punishments of infinitely varying durations and intensities, according to infinitely varying schemes. That's leaving out the fact that Pascal's Wager requires that you plunk down your entire life as your bet if you do "take the wager."