27 March 2024

How Psychology Nullifies Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager was a clever argument for its time. Since we now have more reliable means of understanding the roles that belief and professions about beliefs play in psychological health, we can reject the wager as a failure at both persuasion and helping people to flourish. The wager is unpersuasive because it fails to tap into the depth of emotions that could enable a non-believer to honestly change their mind and because it would enact the psychological cost of lying about your true beliefs in the present for merely speculative payoffs. 

The idea of Pascal’s wager is that you can compare the benefits of belief or non-belief in God against the predicted pay-off depending on whether or not God actually exists. Presumably, Pascal had intended the argument to enable others to have better access to flourishing in his world by enabling them to convert to his preferred beliefs. The argument arose long before the field of psychology, so it could not possibly account for what has been found out about how human minds actually work. A proper accounting for psychological costs significantly diminishes the power of the argument. On the whole, the argument is actually a complete failure when it is properly considered.

The four cell matrix of the wager gives us yes/no options for belief arrayed against yes/no options for God’s existence; thus
- belief in a God that does not exist pays off with wasted faith
- non-belief in a God that does not exist pays off with being right
- belief in a God that does exist pays off with eternal salvation
- non-belief in a God that does exist pays off with eternal damnation
There are several problems: the ambiguity of the term “belief,” the lack of sufficient emotion to inspire a sincere belief, the psychological costs of professing insincere beliefs, and the inadequacy of the payoffs given future discounting.

Does the term “belief” refer to genuine heartfelt cognition and emotion, so called “true belief,” or to merely professing something as a “belief” to others? If it refers to something genuine, in the true belief sense, then there is a fatal flaw in even using argument to affect it. True belief does not arise out of argumentation. There is a vast literature on how difficult it is to convince anyone of anything in both of the contexts in which this issue is central: education and politics. Given the fact that the miraculous arising of true belief is not a plausible outcome of applying the logic of a payoff matrix we must conclude that this argument is doomed to fail as a persuasive device, therefore we must assume that the wager is reduced to mere statements about belief. 

Since we must necessarily be discussing the profession of belief, there is the problem of the cost of inauthenticity. We now know that there is a cost to professing belief that is inconsistent with our true sentiments. The payoff of professing belief when it is inconsistent with your emotional commitments and thought processes is some form of psychological anguish in the present. The wager only posits speculations that are dependent on, not only the existence of God, but the existence of a God that traffics in condemnation and salvation for eternity. The costs of psychological anguish would be incurred immediately, which makes them far more salient and meaningful to us. The fact that humans a wired (by God) to discount the value of things that are distant in time relative to things that are immediate, the argument is effectively rendered moot. Those who already believe in God should feel free to profess their heartfelt beliefs, but so should the non-believers. Those who are interested in converting those who are on the opposite side of the belief dichotomy need to be realistic about their prospects for success and look to something other than logical argumentation to initiate change. Harnessing powerful emotions is a far more likely strategy. In any case, diminishing your well-being now for speculative rewards or punishments in the distant future is not a good idea. 

Another strategy that believers should consider is stating their beliefs in more psychologically realistic ways. God created us in a way that enabled us to develop science as a means of discerning the causal structures, processes, and patterns that God kept hidden away until those developments. God created us in a way that makes us vulnerable to believing in stuff that is untrue. 

In fact, God created us in a way that makes everything we believe into a delusion, if you look at it hard enough. Is the sky blue, the grass green, or a rose red? Scientists have looked hard at color vision and what we mean when we make statements like, “the grass is green.” What we mean by that statement, according to the cognitive linguists, is that there is something inherent in the fact that it is grass that makes it green. The greenness is an inherent property of the things we refer to as grass. But, what the color scientists found is that there is not anything about the objects we refer to as grass that have any such thing. The color scientists can create conditions in which the very grass that we would label as green can become other colors or no colors which proves that the greenness is absent from the grass, but instead arises out of some combination of the light, the grass, our eyes, and how our brains interpret the signals that our eyes sent to it. 

I believe in God. I believe in God in the same way that I believe in zero. Zero was a concept that was only invented after mathematics had been around for thousands of years. It took awhile for us to realize that representing the absence of value could be extremely useful. I believe that God is the representation of the knowledge that is currently absent from us, both individually and collectively. God is a useful concept because it allows us to represent that absence.

The challenging thing about the concept of God is when people assign human traits to it. There is pattern of those who believe in the human-like god manipulating other people to treat the narrative about a-God-with-human-traits as if the humanness is more real than the absence in our knowledge that the term “God” actually represents. They invent a God that requires representatives (a human characteristic) to have power over other people in order to carry out God’s will (also a human characteristic.) Religion that takes its assignment of human traits to God too seriously, and too literally, is likely, or perhaps, inevitably going to take their belief in God to extremes that will cause unnecessary harms. 

From my perspective, the best forms of access we could possibly have to the “will” of God is science, journalism, jurisprudence, and academically respectable history.  Those are the institutions that can successfully marshal the better angels of our natures in order to discern the truth. This is the case because of the fact that God hid the truth from us and has implicitly challenged us to figure it out in the face of great temptations. Those institutions do not succeed all the time, but they are our only hope for long-term success.

25 January 2023

Interview Excerpt #4: Defining Holistic Equity

 In this excerpt Jenn asked me to define Holistic Equity. 

Updating the Visual Summary of Self-Determination Theory

For those who are interested in keeping up with the developments in Self-Determination Theory here is my latest visual summary. The most substantial change is moving the terms "emotional" and "cognitive" out of the engagement box and into the attitude box. This is a result of a study by Johnmarshall Reeve and his colleagues in which they suggest that cognition and emotion may be better thought of as prior elements to engagement, rather than as parts of it. This makes sense to me because I think the emotional reactions inform the motivational processes that will then shape the cognitive choices that inform the engagement that follows. 

If it seems a bit fuzzy, just click on it to bring up the full resolution graphic.