Pascal’s Bidding War

Pascal’s Wager is one of the more popular and silly arguments for why one should believe in the existence of some particular god.  In brief, the premises are that believing in a false god is not very costly, while failing to believe in a true god entails a huge cost (at some point, at least), so erring on the side of belief is a rational choice.  [Note the prima facie appeal to logic, as Pascal’s Wager was designed to work on educated skeptics.]  The standard counters to this idea include the difficulty in willing oneself to believe something for which one has no evidence, which seems to assume a cognitive process that enjoys as little support as the existence of god(s), and the problem of there being myriad gods to choose from, which makes the entire argument rather unhelpful to those who are only seeking to hedge their bet.  (For more, see, e.g., http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager.)

More problematic, in my opinion, are the consequences of any religion using this argument in an open marketplace of ideas, which, these days, will almost always include at least one alternative religion.  This is best seen by applying Bayes to the question, under which the strength of the suggestion to believe in god X is proportional to the cost of not believing the claim.  If, for example, the penalty for non-belief is that one simply loses access to some form of after-life, then this will be quite ineffective on most atheists, as they already expect to be “paying” this cost.  In contrast, if the cost of non-belief is to roast in the fiery pits of hell for a really, really long time, then even an atheist might be tempted to give this religion a try.

As long as only one religion is using Pascal’s Wager on targets and the costs of non-belief remain vague, futuristic, and unfalsifiable, there’s not too much danger.  The target need only apply any of the numerous counters and carry on as usual.  But when neither of these conditions are met – when multiple religions are each using this approach and employing costs that are immediate and tangible – then we arrive at the serious problem of Pascal’s Bidding War.

If the strength of an argument based on Pascal’s Wager depends on the costs of non-belief, then, in order to “win” this argument over competitors, adherents to a particular religion need to make the costs of non-belief in their claims much higher than the costs associated with non-belief in the claims of all others.  And to prevent the target from ignoring these costs on the grounds that they only occur in the future, the religion needs to make these costs immediate and tangible, which brings us to anything from the Spanish Inquisition to modern-day Islamic beheadings.  And it can only get worse, as bidding wars – by definition – always escalate.  What may have been somewhat effective in the past – e.g., roasting in the fiery pits of hell for eternity – would no longer be an acceptable bet; it is now barely an ante, I’m sorry to say.

– billie

edit/update: tl/dr; http://www.jesusandmo.net/2006/08/23/hell/

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7 thoughts on “Pascal’s Bidding War

  1. Never thought much of Pascal, interesting point.

    I would say though that a “good” Christian (not trying to pull a true Scotsman here) satisfies most the Jewish ideas, is a person of the book to Muslims, earns ok Karma, empties herself a bit to move forward in Buddhism, don’t know enough about Sikhs to say, and the only complaints most pagans had about monotheist was that they might piss off the ignored Gods by exclusive worship but had no inherent objection to their piety as a mystery religion.
    Seems to be the best bet and cover the most bases. OK at least with all other religions, you handle the only 100% exclusive one, and have the best chance at a happy afterlife.

    If your wrong, you enjoy far more social acceptance than an atheist in life, get a few psychological benefits, and blew a few bucks on tithes instead of vices. Hard to say there is a “cost” in the matter.

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  2. Thanks for the comment.

    While I cannot deny that adherents to most religions enjoy more social acceptance than atheists, I would treat this as a different class of cost from those typically used by those employing Pascal’s Wager to “convince” an atheist to believe their claims. The costs suggested by the religious are seldom as mundane as “you rank below rapists on the latest CNN poll!” which are specious and subject to change without notice. The old-school costs were things along the lines of burning in hell forever; the new-wave costs (albeit pioneered by Catholics in centuries past) are the loss of crucial body parts, such as the head.

    – billie

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  3. Hi, Billie. I just saw on Michael Nugent’s blog.that your name linked to a website, and decided to pay you a visit.
    I like your take on Pascal’s wager, especially the “arms race” religions must engage in in order to prevail.

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