Matrix: Reloaded Explained
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Matrix: Revolutions Explained
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Dismembering Blaise, Part 3

30 Apr, 2010 | Brian

We come now, lumbering, at last, to the final scene. The first part saw Pascal simultaneously demand and invalidate all evidence of divinity. The second part showed Pascal's forced choice requires an equal belief in zombifying witches and cruel resurrections for the sport of silver-clad brats in the year 3000. The third part highlights the absurdity of Pascal's dangled carrot: the great rewards or punishments that shall be dealt out beyond the grave. This kind of reasoning is not just wrong, it is immoral.

I had not thought at all about Pascal's silly bet since college. (That means it has been a while.) My recent re-exposure to it was within the pages of a book. The book wrapped the fallacy of the Wager in the soggy blanket of the fallacy of appeal to authority. It was like draping bacon around borderline chicken. Well, except bacon is crispy and delicious, and an appeal to authority is pasty and bland, so nevermind that. The point is the author seemed to know his reader would not embrace Pascal's Wager without dressing it up first. So he went on about how brilliant Pascal was, really being pretty insulting about it if you ask me. It went like this: "Long ago and far away in a magical kingdom called Europe there was this fellow, and he was immeasurably smarter than you are or will ever be. This means you must instantly accept anything he says without question, because if there were any mistakes in his assertions, why, this fellow, who is a genius (and you are not), would have thought of it already."

Honestly there is a reason for bringing this up aside from mockery. The reason is that appeals to authority are very much like appeals to consequences, and that is what the third part of this criticism of Pascal's Wager is all about.

It's not like I don't make decisions based on consequences. This is a very normal decision-making situation, like whether I should eat yogurt that is three days past the date on the container. However, an appeal is more dangerous territory. In an appeal (a fallacious one anyway), I invoke a consequence as a secondary proposition in order to convince you to accept a primary proposition. For example, sometimes a salesperson, in an attempt to sway my decision-making in favor of a purchase, will throw the following line at me: "Do you like to save money?" You do? Well then you need to buy this thing.

What the salesperson hopes is that I will stop thinking critically about the primary proposition and instead focus on the reward I will allegedly receive. The other option is for me to say that I don't like to save money, and since I don't want to be seen as someone who is careless with his cash, I'll try to avoid that position. So there is a latent punishment if I don't go through with the transaction.

Pascal does this too. His urges you to forget all about the primary proposition - whether God exists - and wants you to think instead about whether or not you would like to get a reward, in this case infinite happiness. Infinite happiness sounds pretty good, although I am not too clear how to measure that against my current state. (Pascal goes on about an infinity of infinite happiness, which is kind of like saying you'll get a kajillion dollars.) If I want in on some of this happiness then I must decide that God exists. The implied alternative is that I do not like happiness.

The fallacy is the tie-in. Whether or not I like to save money has nothing to do with whether or not the item on the sales floor is a good purchase for me. Likewise, whether or not I like happiness has nothing to do with whether or not God exists. The salesperson tells me that I will "gain" some "savings," but there is absolutely no demonstrated connection between this reward and the act they want me to perform. The parallel with Pascal is that he erroneously links an affirmative belief with a supposed reward, when in fact there is no reason to think these two things ought to be connected.

But wait! you may shout. There is a connection between those two things! No, there really isn't. If you want to assert that there is, you must argue that as a separate case. You cannot just tell me that one leads to the other. You have to explain the mechanism, and you have to prove causation through real reasoning. Most of all you have to have observable results. Non-observable ones don't count. If you cannot produce evidence of a single case where someone has saved money by buying your wares, I stand unconvinced.

I want to refer back to the decision matrix about witches from Part 2 in order to point out one last thing. It's an element of the Wager that is, frankly, insulting. The "decision" portion of the matrix has to do with action. In Pascal's version, the action is to behave morally or to behave immorally. Now this is not precisely how he formulated it, but that's what he meant. What other kind of action would prohibit my receiving the reward upon which the Wager is founded? This absurdly suggests that what I am really weighing is whether or not to act like an antisocial maniac. I question this assumption.

Or maybe I don't. Ironically, it is the people who take Pascal's bet, the people who are swayed by this appeal to consequences, who have the motive to act like maniacs and the track record to prove that they will. Because, you see, that is what Pascal's Wager really says: when there is an infinity of infinite happiness in the balance, all means are justified. Post-mortem consequence is the ugliest and cruelest possible form of moral reasoning.

How about we focus on being decent human beings to each other here and now instead.