Sunday, June 14, 2009

Scott Adams On Pascal's Wager

An atheist who gets it:

The Atheist Who Thought He Was God

Can we ever be sure about anything in life?

Is a feeling of 99% certainty enough to say you “know” something? Or do you need to feel 99.9999999999% certain before you’re willing to commit?

If you say you need to be 100% certain, you don’t understand how human brains work. It’s common for the human brain to be certain about things that later turn out to be completely false. It happens all the time, to everyone. If it has ever happened to you, then you know you can’t trust your own powers of certainty.

This brings me to atheists. In order to be certain that God doesn’t exist, you have to possess a godlike mental capacity – the ability to be 100% certain. A human can’t be 100% certain about anything. Our brains aren’t that reliable. Therefore, to be a true atheist, you have to believe you are the very thing that you argue doesn’t exist: God.

Perhaps you will argue that being 99.999999% certain God doesn’t exist is just as good as being 100% sure. That strikes me as bad math. As other philosotainers have famously noted, a small chance of spending eternity in Hell has to be taken seriously. Eternity is a long time.

Let me put this in perspective. You might be willing to accept a 10% risk of going skiing and getting hurt, but you wouldn’t accept a 10% risk of a nuclear war. The larger the potential problem, the less risk you are willing to tolerate.

An eternity in Hell is the largest penalty there could ever be. So while you might not worry about a .00000000001% chance of ending up in Hell, you can’t deny the math. .00000000001% of eternity is a lot longer than your entire mortal life. Infinitely longer.

Now, I've seen all kinds of hooting and hollering and monkey howlings amongst internet atheists any time any thing that smacks of Pascal's Wager is asserted. So has Scott Adams. And he had this to say in his next post:

In yesterday's post I described an argument that reminded people of something called Pascal's Wager.

In a nutshell, Pascal was a dude who argued you should consider Christianity because if it's true, the downside of not believing is eternal Hell. But if you become a Christian and there's no God, all you've lost is your Sunday mornings. (Here I am simplifying.)

Many of my blog readers left comments alluding to the well-known "flaws" in Pascal's argument. Here’s a handy list of them.'s_Wager#Rebuttals

Chief among the alleged flaws in Pascal’s argument is that you still have to pick the correct religion among many, or else you go to Hell anyway.

Sure. But picking any religion that promises salvation slightly improves your odds over picking an option that doesn’t. You're still probably doomed, given your bad religion-picking skills, but a one-in-a-million chance of reducing the risk of eternal Hell is a move worth taking, mathmatically speaking.

Another noted "flaw" in Pascal's wager is that you can't rule out the possibility that only skeptics are spared from Hell. Perhaps, it is argued, God loves the spunky fact-loving personality of skeptics and saves them alone, or saves them in the greatest percentage.

That argument passes the math test, but does it pass the sniff test? It’s a viewpoint that exists only as a debate tool. While we can't rule it out, surely it is the worst bet if you must pick a theory of God. No rational person on earth, including skeptics, has concluded that God prefers skeptics over believers.


I realize it's unscientific to try and compare one absurdity to another. But if you assume our perceptions are often flawed, you have to allow the possibility that some apparent absurdities are due to our limited powers of perception. So, for example, while the notion of a loving God who allows eternal damnation seems absurd, it is less absurd than assuming the world is run by invisible unicorns, or that God discriminates against those who believe in him.

The God theory has built into it the assumption we are not bright enough to understand the mind of an omnipotent being. That sounds reasonable. Hey, if God exists, and he does things different that I would, just maybe the problem is on my end. If you believe in God, the apparent absurdities have a reasonable explanation, even if wrong.

But what’s the reasonable explanation for God preferring skeptics? If God appreciates reasoning skills, he can’t be too impressed by the fact he created the entire Universe and skeptics still can’t find any good clues he exists. God would only be impressed by skeptics if God did NOT exist. You can’t top that for absurdity.


Picking the "right" religion is a long shot no matter how hard you try. But if rational thought has any value at all, it's in narrowing down options and improving our odds of making good choices. Rational thought hasn't led anyone to conclude that there's a God who only saves people who don't believe he exists. We can't rule it out, but can't we rate its likelihood compared to a God who prefers that his lumps of clay hold him in higher esteem than their own eye crud?

I’d prefer to make all of my decisions on the basis of peer reviewed science. But I don’t have that option when considering the great beyond. So I settle for looking at the competing absurdities and picking the one that seems relatively least absurd.

There are other arguments against Pascal’s wager, but none of them looked any stronger than the ones I mentioned here.

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