November 4, 2010

Generalizing Pascal's wager to all of the supernatural

In none of the presentations of Pascal's Wager have I seen it applied to other entities, concepts, etc. that are found among the world's religions. For example, not believing in god (or not behaving in a way consistent with that belief) is not the same thing as believing in the devil (or acting in accordance with that belief).

Pursuing Pascal's approach seriously, each entity or concept requires its own wager -- the devil, demons capable of possession, and so on. You might be able to group some of these into larger, more catch-all wagers like one about "evil beings that can influence human outcomes here and now as well as in the afterlife." But there will still be a list of wagers, one for each independent cluster of beliefs. The list will be finite and probably not too long -- no more than a dozen clusters, I wouldn't think.

Each wager follows the same logic as the one about god and heaven. If the thing doesn't exist, you're out some finite amount if you believed in it, compared to the person who did not. However, if the thing does exist, the non-believer gets nothing (maybe they are even punished) while you enjoy infinite benefits.

For example, if witches and sorcerers don't exist, then over a lifetime you've used up a certain amount of time, energy, and resources in order to protect yourself from them, to redirect their magic back at them, etc. Since beliefs cost you nothing, this comes down to all the little and large behaviors you work into your life. Adding it all up, it's probably no more than all the nuisances that we go through sorting every recyclable item into this and that category, hauling the bin out to the curb, lugging it back, paying taxes to run the program, the opportunity costs of the machinery, labor, etc., that powers the program, and so on.

We perform these rituals largely without thought or investigation into whether it really has the effect on the world that we believe it does, and that experts tell us it has. So a witch protection routine isn't so burdensome by modern standards.

As for the potential upside if witches do exist, well then the routine could save your life or that of a family member or friend or ally. Aside from overall health status, there's the stuff you own or the resources you depend on, whether plant, animal, or artifact -- they'll be more bountiful and secure if you can keep the witches away. And then there is the greater reproductive success you'll have if witches have a harder time making you infertile, stealing your children, causing abortions, etc. Not to mention the greater sense of happiness or satisfaction that you'll enjoy as a result of all this. Most people couldn't put a finite price on all of these benefits, and when we look at how such benefits would help the person out in Darwinian fitness terms, they do appear, if not infinitely large, then close enough to it, especially compared to the puny potential losses.

If you don't behave in a way that says you believe in witches, then you're going to miss all of that upside -- indeed, since you're so sure they don't exist, you'll be their easiest target and they'll exploit you first, hardest, and for the longest.

It's odd that modern people, even if they don't accept Pascal's wager, at least treat it as a respectable approach when it comes to god and heaven, but would certainly keel over laughing if they heard someone apply it to witches, possession by spirits, divination, etc. In those cases, it would look too backward and primitive, and professing intellectual beliefs is mostly about showing how sophisticated you think you are, so it would be a no-go. Of course, maybe beliefs and behaviors about witches are among the most widely held and practiced across the globe because they're closer to the unknowable truth than are other religious beliefs and acts.

The rationalist skeptic will foolishly object that you don't need to believe in witches to avoid the real harms of those styled as such. They'd say there's a perfectly naturalistic basis for what appear to be acts of witchcraft -- a once-a-century drought is what killed your crops, a newly introduced pathogen is what wiped out your livestock, and it was a sociopathic serial killer who went on a murderous rampage, not a witch acting from afar. A person can avoid these naturalistic sources of danger without having to dress it up in religious garb.

Why is this objection foolish? Because people who are complacent, overly optimistic, and not paranoid enough in one domain of life are that way in all others as well. I mean, c'mon, a once-a-century bust of the housing market couldn't wipe out the global economy! A brand new "killer germ" -- yeah right, how many times have we heard that one before? An epidemic of serial killers -- please, that's just the powers that be trying to stoke your fears in order to brainwash you into obedience and consumption so you won't be a threat to their power.

So, someone who quickly dismisses the probability times the impact of a bizarre event of supernatural origin is also going to dismiss the contribution of a bizarre event of natural origin. They won't perform the same degree of protection from "witches" as the believer in witches, only stripping away the supernatural mumbo-jumbo and replacing it with more rational and naturalistic ideas. They have a domain-general contempt for what they see as unfounded paranoia about the bizarre, no matter the intellectual framework that supports the paranoia.

Again it's not hard to imagine how easily this overly complacent mindset would be weeded out by natural selection. It seems to be on the rise in industrialized countries, but that's not even 10 generations in most of them, thus hardly a proven stable equilibrium. For all we know this super-sanguine sensibility is going to lead us right over a cliff -- ah c'mon, we've taken 1000 steps in this direction so far, how could the next step do us any harm?


  1. There's no need even to limit it to the beliefs of real-world religions. Any belief at all which promises infinite benefits if you believe it and it turns out to be correct -- so long as it has a non-zero chance of being true -- is subject to Pascal's Wager.

    For example: "People who avoid eating carrots on prime-numbered days of the month will go to heaven; those who neglect this prohibition will burn in hell." The fact that no one actually believes this doesn't affect the logic of the Wager. It could conceivably be true, so the potential infinite benefit outweighs the finite trouble of checking the calendar every time you want to eat a carrot.

    That's why Pascal's Wager is useless as a guide to action: it tells you that every horse in the race is equally worth betting on.

  2. True, but there aren't in reality an infinite number of horses in the race. If we go by coherent-enough clusters, there aren't so many.

    That's where cross-cultural research and evolutionary logic come in -- to show what has survived the longest and in the widest variety of places (e.g. witchcraft or sorcery). Those are the only horses that are truly in the race.

    A general form of Pascal's wager doesn't have to include every conceivable entity or concept -- just those that are already serious contenders.

  3. It's also worth noting that in its original formulation (, Pascal's wager was an existential rather than a speculative wager, ie, he says that we have no choice but to live as if our actions have consequences, and one such action is our stance toward the Divine:

    "The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.

    "Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves, and those who live without troubling or thinking about it."

    Pascal goes on to say that it's crazy to simply not trouble one's self with ultimate questions:

    "Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong."

    That is, a man who doubts God but does not act one way or another to inform himself, and not merely to find some facile and attractive answer but actually to resolve the question by his utmost exertions, is acting absurdly.

    The Wager was not about "forcing" belief. That is a later development and imho an abusive formulation that misses Pascal's point.

    "Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?"

    Pascal thought that atheism was not an untenable position, but that, since it was so terrible if true, crass Whiggish atheism was unfeeling and mindless. This is, I think, something that intelligent atheists and Christians can agree on.

    -- bb

  4. Steve Johnson11/5/10, 2:00 PM


    Look, "witches" are old, socially connected women. The "powers" they have are those of gossip and influence.

    People are right to fear those powers (try finding a mate in a small village when a "witch" "curses" you by hexing everyone into believing that you're an unchaste woman or a cowardly man). Today, old women have no power so there is no fear of witches.

  5. This made me think of the Black Swan and I quite agree; even if the threat is laughable, who wants to be the sucker? Being robust and prepared is where it's at.


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