24 November 2006

Faith, Self-Interest, and Belief in God

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 21, 2006

Many theists claim to rest their belief in God on faith. A person believes something on the basis of faith when he believes in it on the basis of what he knows to be inadequate evidence.

But consider how we normally react to the unsupported belief. Imagine you are in a bar and a biker sitting near you tells you that he is a white supremacist. You ask why and he explains that he while he doesn’t have a good argument for his views, but he nonetheless believes it strongly. In fact, he says, he takes it as a matter of faith. You would consider him to be sad and not just because his beliefs are destructive. Arguably, the opposition of some Catholic groups to free markets and birth control is similarly destructive. Rather your contempt will be based in part on the fact that the biker firmly holds beliefs that he can’t defend. Consistency requires that you take the same view of faith-based religious belief.

Recognizing this failure creates the logical space for Blaise Pascal’s wager. In the 17th century, Pascal argued that it is a good bet to believe in God. His argument makes three assumptions. First, Pascal asserts that while reason can’t tell us whether God exists, we know that he either does or doesn’t exist. Second, Pascal assumes that if God exists, he will send believers to heaven (an eternity of happiness) and will either annihilate non-believers or send them to hell (an eternity of suffering). Third, Pascal assumes that we can decide whether to believe in God and act accordingly.

Pascal argues that if we believe in God, we risk losing out on a few earthly pleasures but gain the chance of gaining an infinite reward. Okay, we’ll lose out on our chance to enjoy mushrooms while watching Martin Scorsese films and the occasional threesome, but these are small losses in the grand scheme of things. If we don’t believe in God then we can sleep late on Sundays and enjoy our sinful ways, but we risk being annihilated or, worse, eternal damnation. Pascal argues that it is irrational to risk an infinite loss just to secure a small gain. This is analogous to the way in which it is irrational to avoid other minor precautions (for example, wearing a seatbelt) that protect against catastrophic loss.

Pascal’s argument survives the usual criticisms that are leveled against it. Some critics argue that God wouldn’t reward someone who merely hedges his bet for self-interested reasons. However, Pascal would likely argue that he is talking about persons having a real commitment to God, which can occur even if the initial motivation to do so was a cynical appeal to self-interest. Other critics argue that the evidence against God’s existence is overwhelming and we are running the risk of shaping our life around a falsity. Even so, Pascal would likely respond, we can’t be sure that God doesn’t exist, any more than we can be certain about other arguments in math and science, and we can’t take the chance of a catastrophic outcome even when it is unlikely to occur. Still other critics argue that a just and loving being like God wouldn’t, and perhaps can’t, annihilate non-believers or send them to hell. Again, while this is likely true since reason suggests as much, the question remains whether we can afford to take this risk. We can’t.

The real reason this argument fails is that it doesn’t take into account all the outcomes that we can’t rule out with certainty. As mentioned above, these outcomes include scenarios where God exists and ones where neither God nor a similar being exists. However, they also include the case where an anti-Christian (or, perhaps, anti-theist) all-powerful god exists. This god hates believers since they annoy him with their constant prayers the way the paparazzi used to infuriate Sean Penn. This god sends believers to hell and all others to heaven. After all, what does he care? It doesn’t cost him anything to send someone to heaven and non-believers haven’t annoyed him. If this is correct, then believing in God poses a tremendous risk. The logic (and underlying mathematical calculation of self-interest) is identical and cancels out the risk one takes by not believing in God.

Pascal’s wager sinks and drags down with it the best case for faith-based religious belief. Faith and self-interest don’t shield believers from the onslaught of science and philosophy. And when we add beliefs about angels, the devil, magical spectacles, and bread being changed into the body of Christ, the need for faith intensifies and we’re moving in the wrong direction.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 21, 2006

Seventeenth century French genius Blaise Pascal assumed that in religious matters, nothing at all can be known. Still, in a passage now referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” he argued that one ought to believe in God--not because there is adequate evidence that God exists, but rather because it is prudent, that is, in one’s best interest.

Why? There are four possibilities, and in the absence of evidence, I must hold them to be equally likely. These are: (1) mistaken theism, (2) correct theism, (3) mistaken atheism, and (4) correct atheism. If I believe in God, I either lose little (1), or win infinite gain (2). If I disbelieve, I risk infinite loss (3), or a not-too-significant loss (4). How to bet? Clearly, believing in God is the safer bet; Pascal’s logic seems impeccable.

Despite the fact that Pascal was a mathematical genius, his logic is not impeccable. In fact, The Objectivist kicks a big hole in it. The problem is that if we know nothing at all in matters of religion, then how can we say that there are precisely four options (the numbered ones above)? We can’t. As The Objectivist points out, we’d have to consider anything which is conceivable, such as the scenario of the god who punishes only religious believers. We wouldn’t even be able to use his method of reasoning to decide what’s in our interest to believe, as the options would be infinite, and no human could go through such an endless train of reasoning.

What now? We can, like The Objectivist, reject Pascal’s way of reasoning altogether. But I’ll argue that the right response is to question his assumption that we know nothing in matters of religion. To the contrary, we do know that some religious claims are false, and moreover, everyone should agree that not all religions are equally plausible.

Some founders of religions (big and small) appear clearly in the historical record as power-, sex-, and money-hungry manipulators, and it is rational to trust them much less than founders who come off like genuine friends of God and humankind. Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer as a shameless money-making operation. This religion puts its adherents through a long, expensive, pseudo-scientific therapy, only after many years revealing to them L. Ron Hubbard’s ridiculous story of what’s wrong with the human race. (Search online for the word “Xenu” for this.) Other religions, such as some kinds of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, cut strongly against common sense, holding that the world we (seem to) see around us in an illusion, there really being just one indescribable thing (“Brahman”). Other religions, such as the “Ghost Dance” religion which swept through certain Native American tribes in the late 19th century, make predictions which turn out to be false. Tragically, one such prediction was that magical garments (“Ghost Shirts”) would repel even the white man’s bullets. You can guess how that claim was refuted. Similarly, there’s an endless parade of Christian sects which (sometimes repeatedly) unsuccessfully forecast the Second Coming of Christ.

Is it hard to grade some religions as more likely to be true than others? Sometimes. Is it rude? It can be. Will it spoil your Thanksgiving dinner if you bring this up? Probably. But if you’re interested in having true beliefs about religion, you have to think about these things. Pascal is too skeptical. There’s a boatload of testimonial evidence from sane, sober, and smart people, in favor of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There’s no evidence of any kind for belief in the believer-hating god.

There are two “world views” which predominate right now. First, there’s what I’d call Abrahamic theism--belief in the one God of Abraham (see Genesis 12-25). Second, there’s the world view which is currently dominant around the world, at least in the more educated segment of societies--what philosophers call “naturalism” (roughly: atheism plus the view that all there is is the realm investigated by empirical science). For most thoughtful people nowadays (though by no means all), these are by far the top two contenders for belief--not the only conceivable options, but the only two ones we can imagine actually believing. If you’re in that category, then you’re deciding between naturalism and belief in one perfect personal God, who treats us seriously enough to allow us to reject him completely and permanently (he refuses to force himself on us).

If you’re such a person, it turns out you really should take a cue from Pascal, because you face the four numbered options above. The prudent bet? Believe in God. Pascal himself realized that one can’t simply "believe on command," even when one judges belief to be in one’s best interest. His advice? Take practical steps, such as associating with believers, sending up hope-fueled prayers, and participating in religious rituals. Such a lifestyle will probably, over time, incline one to actually believe.


The Objectivist said...

Note that the theist is combining arguments for which there is evidence (theories X, Y, and Z have been empirically falsified) and arguments from self-interest. The arguments types are compatible. Still however we can be very confident that the theories have been falsified but not certain about this result. If so, again we have an expected infinite loss since the apparently falsified theories (e.g., Scientology and LDS) have a very very small probability of being false but arguably an infinite penalty for getting it wrong.

The Objectivist said...

The theist makes a good point about being less confident in religions that make false predictions.

Note the implication for Judaism. If you take pride in your Judaism but do the following, then your belief in trouble.

(1) Specify the basic tenets of Judaism and explain why they are superior to other religions.

If you state instead that you are a cultural Jew, you must be willing to do the following on pain of inconsistency.

(2) Specify the culturally distinct features of Judaism and explain why they are superior to other religions (and to no religion).

If your pride is based on your genetically being a Jew, then you're just confused. One's genetics are not under an individual's own control (parents might, in some sense, control it) and hence not something for which he is not morally responsible. One can't take pride in something for which he is not responsible.

Hence, I claim that those without a working knowledge of the religious parts of Judaism shouldn't take pride in it or being Jewish. Don't tell my mom I wrote this.

The Objectivist said...

I concede that believing in God might be a good strategy for making a person's life go well. After all, certain belief systems are more conductive to healthy families, regular sex, financial security, etc. and it wouldn't surprise me if religion were one of them.

Some now dated studies report that religious persons are on average happier and report greater sexual satisfaction.

Even if having false beliefs makes a person's life go less well, and this is not clear to me, the loss could be more than outweighed by the gains in other things that make a person's life go well.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: god belief

God Belief - The Meme Thought Virus

The Objectivist said...

A good question is whether religion is a good bet for a population. That is, for a population, do its benefits outweigh its costs?

One can think of lots of benefits (e.g., care for the weak and sick, the efficiency of shared values and culture, and incentives for persons to act in a moral manner).

One can also think of lots of costs (e.g., the promulgation of false ideas such as creationism and the anti-market influences of some religions - think religious influences in preventing organ sales).

I just raise this issue, I'm not sure what the answer is.

The Objectivist said...

With permission, I include a critic of the columns (John S.) and Dale's response.

This dude needs to go back on his meds!
The Theist

John S. wrote:
At least your book reports on Pascal provide a morsel of cerebral nutrition that was lacking in the hellish hash served up previously by my favorite pair of short order philosophers.

Note to Tuggy: when you seek to disprove religious claims, it might be useful to employ something more than your own claims, and "boatload of testimonial evidence" doesn't constitute a defense for your majority-driven interpretation of true religion. Could it be that the weavers of those ghost shirts simply lacked sufficient faith? Maybe the second coming came and went, and we never noticed. And Hubbard's story is ridiculous compared to...?

Note to Kershnar: white supremacist biker! - what a tired trope to hang upon your empty wall. Were fish-in-a-barrel not available? If you must indulge this penchant for parable and wish to avoid your typical segue to a shady cul-de-sac, study some of the storytelling masters, perhaps, the J.C. of your choice, be it Christ, Caesar or Cash.

Yet, beyond the plodding reiteration of facts and the predictably confined pro and con - where are the new insights? Why not yank the Wager off its dusty page and drag it into the 21st century?

Quantum mechanics may provide an intriguing means to amend the Wager. Consider the perky, little subatomic particle. It appears, disappears, reappears, exists in multiple locations at once, and, yet, can be compelled by mere mortal. The imaginative amongst us might term such behavior angelic. Or, heavens! - diabolic.

So, let the motto of our query be WWQD. What would quark do? (Interesting that there is an anti-quark, but I digress.)

How might the Wager be resolved in a universe where all states are possible:

premises 1, 2, 3 and 4: all true.

Ooh, scary, and that leads us trembling to:

premises 1, 2, 3 and 4: all false.

Now pay close attention because this is the kicker:

premises 1, 2, 3 and 4: all true and all false.

What does it mean? Perhaps that faith is always relevant. Except when it's not.
After all, what self-respecting godhead worthy of the name would not encompass its own nullity?

So what's next for you two? Quantifying angels on the head of a bowling pin?

The Theist said...

Hi folks,

Some quick replies to the Objectivist's comments.

(1) Yes, I'm combining practical and rational factors. This seems to be the... practical and rational thing to do.

(2) It isn't clear to my why a Jew, in order to avoid culpable gullability, has to be able to argue that her religion is more probable than any other (possible? known?) one. If you're a externalist about knowledge, or about some kinds of knowledge, even the unreflective autie Ruth might KNOW that Judaism (or its main tenets) is true.

(3) With regard to the praticality of being a Jew, couldn't it be prudent to be a Jew, without knowing that it is the most prudent possible course?

(4)"Some now dated studies report that religious persons are on average happier and report greater sexual satisfaction." I can, uh, confirm this. Quality and quantity, of both. :-)

(5) Regarding benefits to a population, it ENTIRELY depends on what belief-contents we're talking about. Any popular kind of Christianity, as Steve notes, carries with it non-negligible practical downsides. This obviously holds for any type of belief. As a Christian, I hold that human nature is "fallen", and part of what that means is that we all have the capacity use religious, pious-seeming means for our own selfish ends. This is tragically common, and involves much self-deception. e.g. using one's position of power as a clergyman to control or use others or enrich oneself, etc.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, T, going by the end of your post, you'll be happy, no doubt, to hear that we're putting onechan in a Baptist hoikuen (something like a nursery school). Turns out both her parents were put by their parents in Christian nursery schools as children, too. When the head lady at the hoikuen found out from us I'm Jewish, she burst into amazed and slightly embarrassed laughter--Jews are an even smaller minority in Japan than Christians are--in part because the hoikuen is pretty upfront about prayer before meals and learning the Bible and she was worried about what I'd think. (They even have a half-hour mini service every Monday--we just sat in on it this am.) We've almost made our decision, one that I did some paranoid agonizing over for a few days, but now feel pretty comfortable with....

On another note, Christmas here, unencumbered by Thanksgiving, is a two-month affair almost purely about spurring domestic consumption. Time for the right-wing Christian media to declare War on Christmas in Japan!

In another dramatic irony, I'm teaching The Scarlet Letter the end of the semester in one course here, and your last comment reminds me as much about the Puritan leaders in the novel as Dimmesdale.

That said, I wonder how you would deal with claims that the Abrahamic tradition you oppose to naturalism has some pretty big whoppers in the course of its discussion of the origin of the universe and humanity. Want to do a guest post taking your own stand on the Intelligent Design debate O and I had a while back?

The Constructivist said...

On the issue of religion and group beliefs, this letter from a postcolonial Christian pastor speaks volumes about the dangers of theologies like manifest destiny.

The Objectivist said...

Dear T and C:

We normally don't think that it is a good idea to hold a position for which one can't do the following.
(1) Specify the basic ideas behind it.
(2) Explain why it's better than other positions.
Even if the justification fails, it seems somehow bad or wrong (I'm not sure which) to have such a position.

If this characterizes some modern Jews, this is a criticism of them. My evidence for the antecedent rests on anecdotes and these might not be reliable.

Being religious (and for some, identifying with Judaism) might be in persons' overall interests, but if they can't do (1) and (2) it is intellectually suspect.

The Constructivist said...

So, O, if I understand your larger argument correctly, you're saying that taking Pascal's wager as T suggests necessitates your choosing the best/truest religion, or at least the one that you can offer the best reasons for believing in its God. Given how many varieties of Abrahamic religion there are, this is still a daunting choice for the self-interested non-believer. This is the point where so many turn to a new agey-type "spirituality," I think, or try to found their own splinter cell, so to speak, or just join a megachurch.

The Constructivist said...

Hey O and T, when you get a chance, check out the comments section for this post on religious extremism at Sadly, No!. The post itself is a contemporary take on the classic philosophy of religion issues you're discussing, with attention to political implications.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I claim that the self-interest argument is unsound and that combining the sort of arguments that the theist does, doesn't work. That is because the religions that he cites as implausible (a Native American one, Mormonism, and I forget whatever else he lists) are less likely but still we can't be certain that they are wrong. When you multiply a small chance that the religions are correct with the infinite payoffs, we end up with the same payoff matrix as the more likely religions. Hence, I don't see why from self interest, you can combine religions in the sense the theist suggests.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: belief
Belief Puzzle

The Constructivist said...

Good post and comments here!