Pascal’s Wager in a social context
December 18, 2013 — 11:11

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

One of our graduate students, Matt Wilson, suggested an analogy between Pascal’s Wager and the question about whether to promote or fight theistic beliefs in a social context (and he let me cite this here).

This made me think. (I don’t know what of the following would be endorsed by Wilson.) The main objections to Pascal’s Wager are:

  1. Difficulties in dealing with infinite utilities. That’s merely technical (I say).
  2. Many gods.
  3. Practical difficulties in convincing oneself to sincerely believe what one has no evidence for.
  4. The lack of epistemic integrity in believing without evidence.
  5. Would God reward someone who believes on such mercenary grounds?
  6. The argument just seems too mercenary!

Do these hold in the social context, where I am trying to decide whether to promote theism among others? If theistic belief non-infinitesimally increases the chance of other people getting infinite benefits, without any corresponding increase in the probability of infinite harms, then that should yield very good moral reason to promote theistic belief. Indeed, given utilitarianism, it seems to yield a duty to promote theism.

But suppose that instead of asking what I should do to get myself to believe the question is what I should try to get others to believe. Then there are straightforward answers to the analogue of (3): I can offer arguments for and refute arguments against theism, and help promote a culture in which theistic belief is normative. How far I can do this is, of course, dependent on my particular skills and social position, but most of us can do at least a little, either to help others to come to believe or at least to maintain their belief.

Moreover, objection (4) works differently. For the Wager now isn’t an argument for believing theism, but an argument for increasing the number of people who believe. Still, there is force to an analogue to (4). It seems that there is a lack of integrity in promoting a belief that one does not hold. One is withholding evidence from others and presenting what one takes to be a slanted position (for if one thought that the balance of the evidence favored theism, then one wouldn’t need any such Wager). So (4) has significant force, maybe even more force than in the individual case. Though of course if utilitarianism is true, that force disappears.

Objections (5) and (6) disappear completely, though. For there need be nothing mercenary about the believers any more, and the promoter of theistic beliefs is being unselfish rather than mercenary. The social Pascal’s Wager is very much a morally-based argument.

Objections (1) and (2) may not be changed very much. Though note that in the social context there is a hedging-of-the-bets strategy available for (2). Instead of promoting a particular brand of theism, one might instead fight atheism, leaving it to others to figure out which kind of theist they want to be. Hopefully at least some theists get right the brand of theism—while surely no atheist does.

I think the integrity objection is the most serious one. But that one largely disappears when instead of considering the argument for promoting theism, one considers the argument against promoting atheism. For while it could well be a lack of moral integrity to promote one-sided arguments, there is no lack of integrity in refraining from promoting one’s beliefs when one thinks the promotion of these beliefs is too risky. For instance, suppose I am 99.99% sure that my new nuclear reactor design is safe. But 99.9999% is just not good enough for a nuclear reactor design! I therefore might choose not promote my belief about the safety of the design, even with the 99.9999% qualifier, because politicians and reporters who aren’t good in reasoning about expected utilities might erroneously conclude not just that it’s probably safe (which it probably is), but that it should be implemented. And the harms of that would be too great. Prudence might well require me to be silent about evidence in cases where the risks are asymmetrical, as in the nuclear reactor case where the harm of people coming to believe that it’s safe when it’s unsafe so greatly outweighs the harm of people coming to believe that it’s unsafe when it’s safe. But the case of theism exhibits a similar asymmetry.

Thus, consistent utilitarian atheists will promote theism. (Yes, I think that’s a reductio of utilitarianism!) But even apart from utilitarianism, no atheist should promote atheism.

  • Mark Rogers

    “If theistic belief non-infinitesimally increases the chance of other people getting infinite benefits, without any corresponding increase in the probability of infinite harms…”

    What the justification is for holding this particular notion is not at all clear to me.

    December 19, 2013 — 9:22
  • Dustin Crummett

    If the social version of the argument works, that also might weaken the force of (5) and (6) when applied to the personal version of the argument. You’re probably likely to be much better at promoting (or at least not hindering) belief in others if you genuinely believe yourself, so if the social version of the argument works and you have altruistic reason to promote belief in others, you’ll have instrumental altruistic reason (rather than just “mercenary” reason) to bring yourself to believe, if you can manage it.

    December 21, 2013 — 22:12
  • Mark Rogers

    3. Practical difficulties in convincing oneself to sincerely believe what one has no evidence for.

    With regard to number three Pascal is speaking to those who are simply unable to reason themselves to belief. He believes, I think, that for these people belief will only be possible if they are able to perceive a certain level of truth in the certainty and infinity of a theistic possibility. To achieve this Pascal suggests these people must first want to believe. If someone wants to believe then they should follow what others have done in their situation but did later believe. Go where these who previously did not believe went and act always as if they did believe. This Pascal says will bring a person who can not reason their way into belief to recognize the certainty and infinity of that to which a thiest is pointing. But it begins with wanting to believe and here is the social benefit. Pascal points out that those who want to believe will exhibit certain social graces such as being “faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others?” So it would seem to me a great benefit for society to promote a desire in others to want to believe.

    Happy New Year to all and a special thanks to all those who donate their time, effort and intelligence to make the Prosblogin what it is!

    December 29, 2013 — 8:01
  • Indeed, Pascal’s advice on how to come to believe is good advice. And trying to get others to believe will involve similar activity.

    December 31, 2013 — 12:49
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