Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Dismembering Blaise

29 Jul, 2009 | Brian

I know there has been a lot said in the world about Blaise Pascal and his Great Hedge against a bad roll of the cosmic dice. It is highly likely that I cannot add anything new, and probable that I cannot add anything worthwhile. (Was that funny?) Anyway, I have not seen a criticism of Mr. P's wager formulated according to my style of cogitation, and although that owes principally to my ignorance, I will nevertheless pretend otherwise and burden society with my thoughts on the subject.

The wager has three basic parts. (1) There is no evidence for or against the existence of God. (2) Belief in God is a forced decision. When you die, it's too late to change your mind; the consequences will be upon you. (3) Because we cannot discern which is the right choice, and the choice must be made, it is rational to choose whichever has the best risk/reward profile.

Now, let the massacre begin.

Most people can disembark Pascal's Crazy Gambling Train at #1. Turn around, walk away, and never think about this silly mind game ever again. People think they have reasons for believing in God. Personal revelation, burning bushes, the shadow of Elvis on a piece of toast, what have you. People think they have made a rational choice already, and have no need of analyzing consequences. To go any further down the road with Mr. P, you must abandon this idea and embrace agnosticism. You must say, "I don't know," and believe it.

There is no room in Pascal's house for "intelligent design," for conversion stories or other alleged miracles, for argument from morality, for bananas, for crocaducks, or for good old fashioned I-know-it-in-my-soul. No, sir! If you incline toward any of these, go away now. Pascal's Wager is not for you. Only bona fide agnostics are welcome here.

Ah, but what about your poor agnostics who remain? So sorry, but you too will have to wander off. You see, Pascal apparently did not know about false compromises. For someone who dealt substantially with probability, you would think old Blaise would understand this better. A false compromise is when there seems to be two sides to an issue, and someone says, "Well, then, the reasonable thing is to take a position right in the middle!" This type of thinking implies that in any debate, because there are two sides, and 100% divided by 2 is 50%, it follows that each side has a 50% chance of being correct.

Pascal engages in a false compromise when he takes a position "right in the middle" regarding the existence of God. I understand why he does it. It just happens to be a foolish argument, because there is not a 50% chance of something extraordinary happening simply because I phrase it as a true/false pair of outcomes. For example, I will either win the lottery today or I won't. According to Pascal, this means I have a 50% chance of winning, which is clearly not so.

In fact, the entire position is incorrectly stated. There is only one side to the question, which is to inquire whether God exists. The default state is that he does not exist. There is no need to demonstrate that, just like there is no need to demonstrate the unreality of all other potential concepts. I could claim that giant carnivorous Martian space carrots do not exist, but there is no reason to do so. I do not need to accumulate evidence against their existence, or even produce a statement about them at all, because the default state is that such creatures are nonexistent. It may feel unfair to compare belief in God to belief in space carrots. But I am just making a point about how to take a logical position, not belittling belief.

The only claim that can be properly advanced is that there is a nonzero probability of God's existence, based on a particular set of evidence. Now if Pascal wants to say there is no such evidence, then the probability of God's existence drops back down to zero. It doesn't rest at 50%, buoyed up by the imaginary vacuum of lack of evidence disproving God. Zero percent is the default state.

So it turns out that agnostics are really atheists in disguise. Or, they are given the constraints Pascal has put on the situation. By disallowing evidence, he makes it very hard to go forward with his cosmic bet, since betting on a 0% outcome is not attractive.

But wait, there is more! Parts 2 and 3 of the wager are equally disappointing. I will get to Part 2 next.