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RS 190 - Amanda Askell on "Pascal's Wager and other low risks with high stakes"

Release date: August 6th, 2017

Amanda Askell

You've probably heard of Pascal's Wager: That it's rational to believe in God, because if you're wrong it's no big deal, but if you're right then the payoff is huge. This episode features philosopher Amanda Askell, who (though not religious herself) argues that it's much trickier to rebut Pascal's Wager than most people think. Amanda and Julia also discuss how to handle other decisions where a risk has very low probability but would matter a lot if it came true -- should you round them down to zero? Does it matter how measurable the risk is? And should you take into account the chance you're being scammed?

Amanda's Pick: "Infinite Utilitarianism: More Is Always Better" by Luc Lauwers and Peter Vallentyne

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

 Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (16)

I wonder if there isn't some sort of L'Hopital's Rule going on when you start getting into infinities and multiplying them to get some utility value.

If for example in the finite case of someone asking you how much you trust them and you say 1 to 1,000 then they offer you $5,000 tomorrow for a $1 today, just them offering you this may decrease your probability of trusting them to 1 to 10,000 then they offer you $50,000 tomorrow for a $1 today which decreases your trust again (and so on).

The same could be said of someone offering 1 day in heaven, then upping it to 2 days, then 3 days, etc. I don't think you can just "skip" to offering infinite days in heaven. Each day they offer you the trust you give them reduces more than the value of that day. And so on such that the "infinite" heaven days don't overcome your skepticism.

I think "skipping" to infinity too soon may be the source of the irrationality of the decision. Similarly if you calculate A x (A^-2) as A goes to infinity and skip to saying A is infinity and A^-2 is non-zero so the product must be infinity you actually get the wrong result.
August 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Rosenberg
This is delightful to listen to, but can intelligent people not refrain saying "like" in the same unnecessary way that morons do?
August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJake
Concerning the multiple gods problem, there is an easy answer. Which god lifts up his people the most? What that really means is which god has provided his people with the best instruction manual for life?

As we look around the world, which societies are the best and who is their god? Also, note which societies are the worst and their god. Obviously, any god who cannot lift up his society is not worthy of following.

In the West the instruction manual for life is known as the Bible. It is the West that rose above the rest. This suggests that following the God of Christians and Jews is the best strategy.
August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
Believing in a proposition is the state of having been convinced that the proposition is true. You cannot will yourself to believe in something simply by bypassing the required dialectic process. It's not like you can just take a blue pill and suddenly believe.
All the talk about infinities and risk assessment in this episode is unnecessarily tedious, in my opinion.

I'm reminded of an old Sufi prayer that says (paraphrasing): "Lord, if I worship you because I fear hell, then send me to hell. If I worship you because I yearn for heaven, deny me heaven."
August 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
I think discounting is largely the answer, and possibly it should be further explored as to why it's a good answer personally but not a good answer for decisions about all of humanity. If I acquired good evidence that a god would grant me eternal joy if I murdered my family, I still wouldn't do that. Why? I think that clearly demonstrates the value of finite negative can outweigh an infinite term positive. Discounting nicely explains why an infinite term positive may have very little value - it's far off, uncertain and therefore warranting a higher discount rate, etc.

A astonishingly small probability times a concrete value (something clearly not worth killing my family for), means I don't need to take the wager seriously.

I suppose that leaves the question of whether one should push a button that made *all* of humanity believe in god, but that's a bit of a different question and developing the ethical framework to answer it would probably be half the battle.
August 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Temple Run Game online....
August 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdnan
Interesting discussion. You didn't seem to give enough weight to cost as it relates to benefit and odds. In the lottery example. If someone is giving you the ticket, the cost is zero making the odds and benefit less relevant. As the cost goes up both of those become more relevant. Also in religion. The cost of Pascal's wager in Christianity is relatively low, as I understand it, you can basically live whatever life you want and just say you "believe" on your death bed. Whereas in orthodox Judaism, for example, you have to live an entire life constrained by hundreds of rules, e.g. limiting types of food, "resting" on the Sabbath, separating from your spouse for nearly 2 weeks a month, etc.

Would be interesting to factor these into the discussion.
August 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDoug
"Let's assume there is only one type of heaven because it gets more complicated otherwise," Amanda Askell. Yeah, that's the point of the many gods counter argument. It's not accepting the argument, it's showing how Pascal's argument is flawed because if we accept that one god and one heaven is real without any proof then we must also accept all other gods and all other hevans. Including unknown gods and heavens.
August 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie Mous
Well there are several objections that we can make to the wager's premices but I think the most compelling argument against the wager is the hypothesis of a God that rewards only the non-believers. After all, God's existence and nature are - according to Pascal - unreachable through reason, and therefore the idea of a God who punishes the "gullible fools" and rewards the skeptics is just as plausible as any other.
If you take this int account, you oppose two infinites and no choice is better than another.
I know that it's not an original argument, but I fail to see how you go around it.
August 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErwan
I aver that whenever you cross railroad tracks, there is a chance an imperceptible spectral train will hit you. If you are pinching your nose when the spectral train hits you, you go to heaven when you die. However, if you are not pinching your nose, you go to hell when you die. Only the last spectral train collision of your life counts, so don't worry about your past train track crossings per se, but from now on, you best pinch your nose when you cross those tracks. If I am wrong about the spectral train and you pinch your nose for no reason, you lose very little. However, if I am right and you don’t pinch your nose next time you cross a railroad track, it could be your DOOOOM!

After reading my claim above, nobody is going to consider pinching their noses when they cross railroad tracks. The absurdity of Pascal’s wager becomes very clear when you substitute a different agent (Spectral train for God) and behavior (pinching nose for believing, or conforming to, a religion).

With Pascal’s Wager almost anything could be justified and, therefore, nothing can be justified. In order for it to work, you would have to justify Pascal’s assumptions about the attributes of a given deity. However, if you are able to make a case to justify those assumptions around a belief, then you likely do not need a wager to believe it.
August 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Von Glahn
Really intriguing. I share the tension; this piece of decision theory and ethics actually could change everything.

I think you missed this idea: If Pascal's wager is a correct way to think, the optimal strategy would probably be something like maximizing the chance to building an infinite virtual world with infinite happiness all the while searching for better and better "religion" until committing to the best one when the universe has no energy left to sustain the virtual world. Only if you take self-interested ethics will you end up to current religions.
September 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterET
Amanda Askell's ideas were wonderful.

FYI one way to circumvent objections regarding the problems that arise when infinity is put into decision theory, is to reimagine Pascal's wager using inequalities instead. In this case, you would be rational in being religious if you valued the possible outcome of God's acceptance more than you value the benefits of secularity, plus the disutility of leading a religious life. This avoids the problem of valuing anything infinitely much.

You can also alter the wager so that you are betting not on the value of believing in God, but on the value of relating well to God. The latter concerns actions while the former concerns beliefs. This is a good alteration because while most people (or nobody) can force themselves to believe disproportionately to the evidence, they can motivate themselves to take different courses of action.

This alternative form of Pascal's wager is expanded in Joshua Golding's book 'Rationality and Religious Theism', which I highly recommend. While I think it has a few things wrong, I think it moves forward the conversation about the role decision theory should have in philosophy of religion.
September 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBW
Thank you for sharing the podcast. I was looking for it.
October 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJulia
Wonderful discussion, as always. Unless you actually have a direct interaction with God, or a representative of God such as an Angel or Spirit, you cannot "know" that God exists. Therefore the act of "believing" in God is something other than knowing. It's more of wanting God to exist due to your affinity for God's particular Law. For instance, if you like the Golden Rule, then you also believe in the God of the Torah.

Judge Learned Hand had an interesting estimation, that he himself rejected as a Rule, for how seriously to take a particular danger. B=PS where Burden defines the Burden you should undertake to prevent a harm of Severity S and a Probability P of occurring. Simple and effective and also probably the best estimation we have today for how to make important decisions about risk.
November 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
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February 1, 2019 | Unregistered
Concerning Pascal’s wager my objection would be what if god in truth punishes believe. I mean it would be reasonable for a creator. You might not want as creator or god people in your heaven who believe in things with no proof. Either Amanda didn’t objected to that kind of arguments or she didn’t and I was listening with full attention.
September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOnurcan

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