April 28th, 2012

eyes black and white

Pascal's Wager, or Infinitimidation.

Shankar Raman, at the Cambridge Science Festival, gave a presentation seriously offering us to take Pascal's Wager. According to Pascal's famous argument, the small chance of an infinite payoff of eternal salvation justifies that one should live "as if God existed", even if one doesn't think it very likely that He does indeed exist. Shankar contrasts the argument no less seriously with the mirror case in Shakespeare's Hamlet: in the play, the namesake character contemplates committing suicide, but is kept from it by the fear of the infinite associated cost of an alleged eternal damnation.

Seriously? Come on. If we are to truly accept Pascal's argument, we must not only worship the Catholic God in favor of which Pascal argues, but all the Gods of each and every religion that we're offered, from Anu to Zeus via Kali, Odin and the Flying Spaghetti Monster; we must fear each and every announced catastrophic end of the world and everything we hold dear, from the Sun God getting angry to our failure to offer him a daily human sacrifice, to the entire planet warming into an unlivable hell hole for our failure to sacrifice all that makes our lives worth living; we must prepare for every imminent rapture or return of a Messaiah whereby we will be damned if we fail to submit to the edicts of those who prophesize said events.

In the end, an "infinite payoff" is but intimidation, a trick to focus the victim on one imposed "choice" where only one alternative is acceptable. If this were a universal argument rather than an ad hoc fallacy, we'd have to give all superstition peddlers an equal opportunity to intimidate us, and we would soon then be faced with as many mutually incompatible forced choices each with their totally hypothetical infinite payoffs; and how are we to compare all these infinites? We cannot simultaneously follow two different gods who demand we kill all the infidels, at least not without killing ourselves for following the other god, which would in turn anger other suicide-forbidding gods.

The whole point of positing infinites is for crooks to deny to suckers the ability to make actual rational comparisons on which to base moral choices, so as to turn them into puppets in the power of their forked-tongued masters. I have discussed this topic in the past in my article Sacred is the Enemy of Moral: "To make something sacred is to remove it from the realm of morality: it is to deny the moral dignity of man, his freedom and his responsibility, when faced with choices about precisely those things most precious to his existence."

Now let's have a little bit of humility here, and admit that we are finite creatures indeed; our lives, even made "eternal" (whatever that might possibly mean), only have finite value, however larger that may be than we usually care to examine — not unimaginably larger, though, for people do rationally take life-threatening risks or even wantonly sacrifice their lives at times. The odds of such extraordinary claims as advanced by the proponents of your usual religious superstitions are themselves so extraordinarily negligible as to warrant a negligible weight in our decisions, even with a (exponentially unlikely) fantastic factor distinguishing the value of an alleged "eternal" life from your very real worldly life.

The attempts by crooks to manipulate us with fallacies do warrant a response, but this response is neither to believe what they say, nor to necessarily believe the opposite of what they say (or they could manipulate us through reverse psychology): it is to recognize these crooks as such, and taint what they say, and what other people say as repetition of their arguments, as fallacies to be ignored, and those who fall for the fallacies or even spread them as weak and contagious minds, who may become dangerous if they don't practice proper mental hygiene.

At least this talk gave me the opportunity to speak in a microphone in a Christian Church and suggest that people who take the argument seriously shouldn't forget to make their daily human sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl. Thank you, Shankar Raman, for the opportunity. Shame on you, whoever hired that crook as a professor.