Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The calm before the calm

Rapture rapidly approaches, and there is no apparent quickening towards Saturday’s judgment. I am left wondering if this is the stillness before the storm, or the stillness before the continued stillness. This stillness must be truly portentous as it is not very still stillness. Things are happening everywhere on a variety of timescales. It is almost as if existence and time are continuing towards a particular destination, and then will continue through that destination towards other more distant ones.

Should we pay more attention to the postulated events of Saturday than to other more distant end times? Of course we should! Even if rapture does not happen this Saturday there will be other dates to prepare for. Don’t forget that 12-21-12 is just around the corner. If rapture doesn’t get us maybe the Mayan gods will.

Would it hurt you to believe?

"But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions." -- B. Pascal (from Pensees III:233 translated by Trotter)
One of the most common reasons I am given for why I should believe in a (usually Christian) god is best summed up in Pascal’s wager. The summarizing progresses through a detailed description of a finite two position wager based on equitable risk, and then blows all this to pieces by introducing infinite reward and risk. A typical progression would be as follows:

  1. If you were forced to bet on a fair coin toss, but were allowed to wager whatever you wanted, you would wager half your money on heads, and half on tails.
  2. If heads paid out 100 to one you would wager more on heads.
  3. f you did not lose you money if it came up tails you would bet more on heads.
  4. If you did not win anything if the coin-toss came up tails you would bet everything on heads.
  5. Even if the coin toss was not fair it would make sense to bet everything on heads.
  6. Even if there was only the slightest chance of winning it would not make sense to bet on tails.

The proponent then points out that the ratio of any finite reward compared to the infinite eternal rewards of heaven are essentially zero. They then usually point out that the ratio of any finite loss compared to the infinite eternal torments of hell is also essentially zero.

One can visualize the argument as a matrix like this:

No god
(High probability)
(Low probability)
Believe in God
Essentially zero harm
Infinite payout
Remain unbelieving
Essentially zero payout
Infinite harm

The reason why I am personally confronted by this proposal is: 1) That I insist that there is “almost certainly no god”, which suggests to way too many people that there is some exploitable probability that there is one, and 2) for some reason many true believers (especially the boorish ones) tend to think they are the first people to ever explain Pascal’s wager to me.

Pascal himself described it in his pensees (233) thusly:

"You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. "That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; where-ever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness." -- Blaise Pascal (translated by Trotter)

Blaise Pascal’s (June 19, 1623 – August 19, 1662) decision matrix was more complex than the one simple-minded-boorish true-believers of today present as their argument. Most importantly outspoken atheists in the early 1600s were treated quite poorly. The year Blaise turned 10 was the year that pope Urban VIII (Who began his reign as pope the year Blaise was born) brought Galileo to Rome to submit to the inquisition. Blaise wrote the wager in his Pensees while the wars that marked the adolescence of the reformation divided Europe. Blaise was a Roman Catholic who would die not long after King Charles of England was beheaded at the end of a largely puritan uprising. The matrix for Pascal reveals that his choice was more a matter of degree, and looked much like this:

No god
Believe in God
Reasonable treatment while alive.  Zero chance of anything when dead.
Reasonable treatment while alive.  Even better treatment when dead.
(very good)
Very poor treatment while alive.   Zero chance of anything when dead.
Very poor treatment while alive.  Very poor treatment when dead.
(very bad)

Most modern fundamentalist Christians (which, if not an oxi-moron, is some other kind of moron) in the United States would like the reality of their wager to be more like Pascal’s. There are significant movements afoot to erode the separation of church and state. There are significant numbers of American Christians who would also like to codify discriminatory economic policies (like hiring, pricing, citizenship, and access). In a famous, and often repeated, quote President George W Bush suggested that Atheists were not complete citizens.

Blaise was a true true-beleiver. He gave away most of what he owned, and moved into a minimalist religious living situation. He often wore a castigation belt (a metal belt with inward pointed spikes designed to castigate the wearer for their sins). His self torture and self deprivations left him in a state of almost continual sickness that lead to his early (age 39) death.

"Sickness is the natural state of Christians." -- Blaise Pascal

Blaise was willing to do anything to cash in on his wager. The infinite risk ratio is obviously undefined in a risk-benefit analysis. The actionable information gleaned from Pascal’s wager is at best trivial, and more often damaging. What cannot be justified if we postulate some infinite reward even if it has a very small probability?

Some of my regular readers are surely wondering why I have not championed the use of limits to show that an infinitely great payout with an infinitely small probability could yield a finite payout. Any finite payout could then be compared to any other finite payout; even those with finite risk and benefit. I did not do this because there is no accepted way of analyzing the partial risk and partial benefit of partial religious belief.  To be worthy, according to many sources, beleif is an all-or-nothing proposal. There is no way, therefore, of defining the effect of increased belief as the limit of absolute belief is approached.

Pascal produced his wager just a few decades before another religious nutcase (Newton) would create a great method of analyzing limits (the Calculus).

What of today’s Christian? What are they willing to give up for their wager?  Do they need a car…or even shoes? Where is their castigation belt? If there is any possibility that the May 21st date is correct shouldn’t they be preparing? Have they found a way of justifying a partial buy-in to Pascal’s wager, or do they see it as simply a cute way of arguing with atheists?

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