Pascal’s Wager comes around again

There’s a new “Note to atheists” by Sidney Callahan in the National Catholic Review online. Callahan is not as critical of atheists as even some other atheists are (viz., Julian Baggini or Alain de Botton), but at the end she brings up a modernized version of Pasal’s wager:

When atheists realize they are accepted and understood they can take on some heavy lifting for the culture. They can work on ways to help people without faith to progress to moral understanding through reasoning and accrued human wisdom. Our society needs to be convinced of the value of the common good. Tasks of building caring communities outside of churches also await. Many people are so alienated from religious institutions that faith based moral appeals are no longer viable.

Well, the assumption here is that people with faith already have good ways to progress to moral understanding. But leave that aside:

And surely atheists can do better than to offer the solace(?) that death signals nothingness. Why not at least turn to the unsolved scientific mysteries of human consciousness or potential mult-verses? Appeals to the creative wonder of art, music and poetry would be helpful. When Dosteovsky said that the world would be saved by beauty, perhaps he foresaw future debates over reductive materialism..

I’m not optimistic to think that cosmology or consciousness will replace heaven, and I think that Callahan knows that. What will replace heaven is a better life on earth, and that means not Rembrandt or Donne, but universal medical care, more income equality, and less crime.  But leave that aside:

When I debate at home with my beloved Catholic atheists, I finally end with the remark that the only outcome for our argument is that they will be surprised on dying. If they are right and nothingness prevails, then none of us will exist to continue the conversation. Thank God I can’t believe that for more than a minute.

Now that’s wishful thinking: Callahan simply can’t entertain the possibility that her consciousness will be extinguished at death.

I must confess, though, that I too chafe at the thought that the religious people will never learn they’re wrong. And I sometimes wish that the faithful could be resurrected for a few brief minutes after death—just so I could tell them, “I told you so!”

h/t: Chris

67 Comments

  1. Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    If one believer could just come back and say it’s all nothingness, I think we could move ahead faster than we are currently doing.

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      If believers could be convinced by any kind of proof, most religions would have disappeared long time ago.

      • guilherme21msa
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        True. Adventists and Jehovah witnesses would simply see that as evidence for their Day of Ressurection.;

  2. marycanada FCD
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    It may have been defined in earlier posts but can you please tell me what a catholic atheist is? Thanks. Regarding the article, he is basically admitting to being delusional and doesn’t want that to change. Interesting how creationists see themselves as morally superior. Yet another delusion!

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      A catholic athiest is one that doesn’t believe in God, but still feels guilty when using a condom.

      • marycanada FCD
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for clearing that up Roq

      • gbjames
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Yes, thanks. I was wondering what a Catholic atheists was.

    • ichneumonid
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      That is what you are in Ireland if you are not a Protestant atheist…!

  3. Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Re Pascal’s wager; there’s a third option

    /@

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      An ex-Catholic atheist, maybe. But probably a question for Callahan rather than Jerry…

      /@

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Bertrand Russell said something similar, but I can’t find it online.

      I did this, which I like, from Greg Linster:

      Let’s suppose someone handed me a napkin with the following words written on it: “If you don’t hand over your savings account to me, you will spend an eternity in hell.” Somewhat befuddled, I decide to think deeply about this predicament. On the one hand, my gut intuition is that this person that handed me the napkin is full of shit. On the other hand, they could be right. In fact, I have no way to disprove their claim using my reason, much in the same way that I can’t disprove that a fickle God exists. I can think it’s highly unlikely, sure, but I really can’t formally disprove it. According to Pascal’s wisdom, I should cut this person a check and save myself from the slim possibility that I may be sentenced to eternal damnation for my failure to comply.

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        *did find this

        • criticofchristianity
          Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          Haha that is great! Such an accurate analogy. LOL.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        Love it! :D

    • religionenslaves
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      First, I fail to see the connection between Callahan’s piece and Pascal’s wager, which centres on the badness of hell being infinitely large. Second, there is a third option, that destroys the shaky logic of Pascal’s wager, namely the fact that, in order for the argument to work, Pascal must know with probability one that god will always punish with hell every atheist, but if there is even an infinitesimally small probability that god may be merciful then the whole argument is turned on its head (mathematical proof available on request).

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        And the fourth option is that Pascal should believe in all gods and hope that the real one(s), if any, are not jealous.

        Wait a minute, at least one god is supposed to be a jealous god…

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

          And a fifth–that Pascal’s wager is sound as presented–and that therefore he should believe in Allah!

      • PascalsGhost
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        Math proof please!

        • religionenslaves
          Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

          Let p be the prob that god exists. Let the payoffs from Belief be B and zero if god exists and if s/he does not, respectively. Let the payoffs from Reason be R-H and H, if god exists and if s/he does not, respectively.
          Pascal’s wager follows because the expected payoff from Belief exceeds the expected payoff from Reason if p>R/(B+H) which is always the case, provided H (Hell) is sufficiently large. However, if there is a positive probability that god is merciful and that the payoff from Reason (if god exists) is R-x, where x is finite, it is always possible to assume a value of R large enough compared to B+x such that one should never believe.

          • religionenslaves
            Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:39 am | Permalink

            Typo!
            “Let the payoffs from Reason be R-H and H, if god exists and if s/he does not, respectively.” should read

            “Let the payoffs from Reason be R-H and R, if god exists and if s/he does not, respectively.”

    • Notagod
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      That makes more sense to me than the other options. Would a god prefer to spend eternity watching people grovel or having possibly intellectually stimulating debates? Or at least some form of intellectual stimulation, It isn’t going to get any interesting interaction with souls that are fooled with silly faith chants as christians are.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      Supposing that God, by presenting no credible evidence for His existence, wants humans to come to the logical conclusion that He doesn’t exist — and that He will reward humans for coming to this conclusion by granting them life everlasting — doesn’t require any more supposing than religious beliefs do.

  4. Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    “Appeals to the creative wonder of art, music and poetry would be helpful.”

    Yes, the time has come for atheist bluegrass.

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      The arts are already shot through with atheists, and have been for a long time:

      Atheist musicians

      Incomprehensibly, Johannes Brahms and Franz Schubert don’t appear on that list. That’s like listing famous mountains and leaving out Everest and Fuji.

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        That being a list on WIkipedia, you could add them yourself.

        Or point me to a trustworthy citation for each and I can do that, if you don’t have or don’t want to set up a Wp account.

        /@

      • AlexK
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:12 am | Permalink

        Brahms’ atheism has given us one of my very favourite *sacred* pieces of music, the German Requiem. The lyrics consist entirely of citations from the german translation of the bible, but is entirely dogma-free and so gloomy and morbid that it is a simply a joy to listen to.

    • David
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Atheist bluegrass is already covered by Steve Martin’s excellent band

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      I’m ready with my 12-string-guitar to make this happen.

  5. steve oberski
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    my beloved Catholic atheists

    My, how condescending.

    Wonder how Mr. Callahan would feel if he was referred to as “my beloved Catholic kiddy rape enabler”.

    Which is much closer to the truth than his statement.

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • AlexK
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

      I can only guess that she meant acquaintances who are still formally member of the catholic church, but do not believe.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      I’m as eager as the next guy to take offense (which, nowadays, seems to be pretty goddamned eager) but, on the face of it, I don’t see how that phrase is condescending. I mean, in my mind’s ear I can hear how “my beloved Catholic atheists” might be said condescendingly but, unlike some of the other statements in her piece (in this instance, “Sidney” is, I believe, a Ms.), you have to read that insinuation into this one.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

        The whole thing is condescending, beginning with the very first sentence: “When atheists realize they are accepted and understood they can take on some heavy lifting for the culture.”

        I wanted to raise a middle finger at that point.

      • steve oberski
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        Let’s just say that Sidney Callahan pushed a button or 2 from my Catholic upbringing and pretty much regurgitated the party line.

        And the fact that there happens to be Callahans on the maternal side of the family tree didn’t help (yes, Polish and Irish Catholic background, 2 of the most virulent forms of Catholicism hybridized into an even more intolerant and fundamentalist form, if that can be believed).

  6. Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    When atheists realize they are accepted and understood they can take on some heavy lifting for the culture.

    Believers would make that a lot easier by accepting and understanding us. Who else is supposed to? We accept and understand ourselves already.

    But what does he think is happening now? He seems to think the default condition is for churches to take the lead in “progress to moral understanding”, and “building caring communities” but that hasn’t been true since the Enlightenment, if it ever was.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      When I read that sentence (“When atheists realize…”) I wanted to utter something that isn’t welcome on this website. What an awful condescending comment!

  7. neil
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    “And I sometimes wish that the faithful could be resurrected for a few brief minutes after death—just so I could tell them, “I told you so!”

    Imagine what would happen if an atheist dies on the operating table, is resuscitated, and writes a book titled Proof of No Heaven–I was dead for 15 minutes and there was nothing.

    Nobody would think it proof of anything. Compare that to when a faithist dreams of jesus before going black…

    • microraptor
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      More like, when a faithist coaches their kid into giving a story about dreaming of jebus so they can take him on the talk show circuit.

  8. coozoe
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Oh how many times I have wished the same opportunity to say “I told you so.” But justice is a human invention and thus subject to imperfections.

  9. Occam
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Pascal’s Wager has been sufficiently debunked, by Alan Hájek and others. But in complement to the usual Bayesian approach I wish to introduce the light-hearted Frequentist analysis presented by Mary McGlohon and Robert J. Simmons.

    http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mmcgloho/pubs/pascal-sigbovik08.pdf

    Their multiverse Rapture-Recapture methodology:

    We first chose at random 100 people from each of 6 universes: Earth, Bizarro, World of Warcraft, Star Trek, Star Trek Mirror Universe, and the Buffyverse. We surveyed each subject regarding their beliefs in god, humanity, and their own sins. We then tagged the right ear of each subject and euthanized them. After some period of time we performed a re-capture and again surveyed each re-captured subject on their posthumous experiences.

    The Exit survey questions:

    1. Do you know you are dead?
    2. What is your current quality of life, compared to your life on earth?
    3. What is the current temperature?

    While the study has not yet been quite completed, I’m looking forward to the presumably first sampling-based experimental assessment of Blaise’s Bet.

    For, as Ben Eks-Vee-Eye (aka Benedictus XVI Ratzinger) said in his homily December last:

    Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the “God hypothesis” becomes superfluous. There is no room for him.

    Quite so. A forthright statement one can hardly quarrel with. Wish the man took his own thinking seriously. Pity that he should obfuscate it in the remainder of his homily, but he’s got a pork barrel to mind — or rather, a milk-and-honey franchise.

  10. Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    FYI for the thread: Sidney Callahan is a woman.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:52 am | Permalink

      Bring back the good old days when one could readily and confidently establish someone’s gender from their first name.

      • Dan L.
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        You mean back in the days when “Ashley”, “Robin”, and “Leslie” were all boys’ names?

        • suwise3
          Posted January 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          Not to mention… Beverly!

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            OK, OK, you win!

  11. Rain
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    “When I debate at home with my beloved Catholic atheists, I finally end with the remark that the only outcome for our argument is that they will be surprised on dying.”

    Apparently the “Catholic atheists” she debates have never refuted Pascal’s wager before. (Either that or she’s full of hoo-haw.)

  12. Pray Hard
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Pascal’s Wager … just another fear inducing con.

  13. TJR
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Pascal’s wager?

    He lost that to C++ years ago.

    • AlexK
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:25 am | Permalink

      In Borland they live on together as manifestations of one deity, the mighty RAD.

  14. Brygida Berse
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Callahan simply can’t entertain the possibility that her consciousness will be extinguished at death.

    And yet, she is probably not surprised that it is completely shut down every time she goes under general anaesthesia.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      True that. And in any case, her argument is simply an appeal to consequences, a well-known, nay, badly overused, informal logical fallacy.

      • AlexK
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink

        You see, I can somewhat understand that people fall for this “reasoning” every once in a while, but when writing an article? Good grief, I would have hoped people switch on their brains before they start publishing. Alas, that is naive of me.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      Or, as I once heard it: “I don’t know what consciousness consists of, but I do know that it’s soluble in alcohol.”

  15. suwise3
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    And I sometimes wish that the faithful could be resurrected for a few brief minutes after death—just so I could tell them, “I told you so!”

    Think you would really get a kick out of watching a certain episode (The Incredible Doktor Markesan) starring Boris Karloff in his Thriller series.

    Question asked and answered in grand style. And I’ll even send you the DVD if you promise to return it.

  16. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    And I sometimes wish that the faithful could be resurrected for a few brief minutes after death—just so I could tell them, “I told you so!”

    It wouldn’t work. They’d just take the temporary resurrection as vindication of their belief that a permanent resurrection awaits them.

  17. Owlglass
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    On Pascal’s Wager: “Okay, I swear fealty to a deity to secure my afterlife. But which one?”. :D

  18. Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    No one will be surprised when they die, no matter what.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    “Pascal’s Wager” — I don’t want to bet a side; I’d rather book the action and collect the vigorish.

    Even moreso than in other proposition bets, that seems the only likely way to turn a profit (especially given the lack of standards for determining what constitutes a “win” or who makes that determination).

  20. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Why not at least turn to the unsolved scientific mysteries of human consciousness or potential mult-verses?
    .
    WTF are those two things doing in the same sentence?

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Thank God I can’t believe that for more than a minute.
    .
    IOW: ‘My cognitive powers are limited, which is surely a sign of supernatural benevolence.’
    .
    Idiocy incarnate.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, that remark was so surprising that it seemed a tiny window of hope. How often do you hear a religious believer admit that for even a second they could believe there is no life after death?

      Ms. Callahan can believe it for up to a full minute. She seems far more open minded and magnanimous than the typical believer.

  22. truthspeaker
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    What’s with the implicit assumption that an explanation of death should involve solace, or that the world needs to be “saved”?

    It sounds like the writer wants atheists not just to not believe in gods, but also to pursue science and the arts.

    We already know most scientists are atheists. I don’t know what the numbers are in the arts but I suspect we’re at least a large minority.

  23. Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Shakespeare has a strict Darwinian explanation of how Callahan can overcome her fear of death in Sonnet 13:

    O, that you were yourself! but, love, you are
    No longer yours than you yourself here live:
    Against this coming end you should prepare,
    And your sweet semblance to some other give.
    So should that beauty which you hold in lease
    Find no determination: then you were
    Yourself again after yourself’s decease,
    When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
    Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
    Which husbandry in honour might uphold
    Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
    And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
    O, none but unthrifts! Dear my love, you know
    You had a father: let your son say so.

  24. Diane G.
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    What will replace heaven is a better life on earth, and that means not Rembrandt or Donne, but universal medical care, more income equality, and less crime.

    Worth repeating.


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