Pascal’s Gamble

Is Believing in God Really a Safe Bet?

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Religion /
@ K. 2001 08 17

Mission: to challenge the idea that there can be error without consequence

Institutions transfer responsibility
from concrete individuals to abstract individuals

Notice: 2004 12 19:

I just read a more mathematical presentation of Pascal’s argument than I had previously encountered. (I’ve still not read the Pascal argument itself.) I’m afraid that I’ve misrepresented it below — having had it misrepresented to me (as so many things are: to all of us). I leave the former version as is for the moment, but hope to make time to redo the whole.

It now seems that Pascal’s argument was more strictly logical than I had realized. Still the logic seems full of holes to me: still based on my second-hand acquaintance. The crux seems to be that an infinity is pitted against finite values: if the bliss of heaven is infinite, that skews the odds against all finite considerations.

But: if my understanding remains correct that Pascal’s conclusion was that the safe bet was to believe in God (whether or not you really believe in God), fallacies remain galore. “God” is being confused with dogmas about God. Let’s say that God exists. Does it therefore have to follow that heaven exists? Does it therefore have to follow that belief in God guarantees entrance into heaven? Does it therefore have to follow that pretended belief in God guarantees entrance into heaven? (Does it follow from belief in God that God is a fool?)

Where do we have God’s word that the bliss of heaven is infinite for those there? And: given God as existing, must it follow that we must believe his word even if we had his word?

In other words: we should distinguish the entity from dogma about the entity.

How common: for a thousand errors to slip in with one axiom.

Wasn’t it Pascal who was supposed to have said Why not believe in God: if you’re wrong, it can’t hurt; if you’re right, then you get pie in the sky? Pascal seems to have been one smart cookie, but is this rationalization a good example? (2004 01 26 I scribbled that from memory, not by checked scholarship. Today I find a reference by Wilson in his The Earth Will Shake [p. 147]: The value of a wager is equal to the value of the possible gain multiplied by the probability of achieving the gain.)

I am anything but Catholic in the Roman sense, but is not my generalization correct that Catholics seem to believe that if you trust the priest you’ll be right whether the priest is right or wrong? Doesn’t Oriental bushido do very much the same thing when the samurai finds virtue in obeying the war lord? If the war lord is wrong, it’s not the samurai’s fault.

Rational or riddled with fallacies I nevertheless find this attitude to be ubiquitous in kleptocracies. Do what teacher says. Whatever kind of an idiot the teacher is, you’ll still be OK. Maybe: so long as you’re on the winning side. But what about the losers? How betrayed must Eichmann have felt when that identical strategy backfired on the Nazis? But I followed orders. How can you possibly hold me accountable for the immorality of my party line?

But of course we all know it can go either way. We gamble that we’ll be on the winning side. God will bail us out. God loves craven followers; not honest thinking. The important thing is to be like the Vicar of Bray, change “teacher” with the weather. Had the Nazis won, Eichmann’s behavior would have been perfectly moral. Moral as in “morés.” “Ethical” is always another question.

In the American version of kleptocracy, if you don’t like what you see, and if the majority agrees with you, then in four years you can put a new face on the old dummy. The bureaucracy alas is immortal (temporarily: always temporary: until the real teacher catches up with us.) note

When I was at Columbia a neighboring father came up to me. I’d upgraded my opinion of his younger son on learning that he’d been thrown out of St. Bonaventure for wearing a rope in the place of a belt: had gone all Existential in the late 1950s. But now Danny was in the navy, and the navy, his father was bragging to me, had sent him to school: a navy school, of course. The lesson his father was passing on to me, and I quote, was “Everything you’ve been taught is wrong.” note

How could I explain to this man that Columbia didn’t teach anything in that Roman Catholic sense of claiming it to be true, current, of valid. Columbia, at least my experience of it, didn’t say This is true; it identified for us sources of the culture: there was no official content, no dogma. Therefore, it couldn’t possibly be wrong except by being exposed as not being the source of our culture. Aristotle is not a seminal thinker. Aristotle has had no important influence on us.

Actually I might have said something to piss off the proud father: That only applies to technology.

(Side thought: Of course now I do believe that Columbia was wrong, that the best universities propagate bullshit. They still pass on the Greeks but don’t know dick about other real sources of the culture: the Five Tribes’ Great Law of Peace, for example. Better knowledge would indict all authorities with choreographed blindness.)

Well, as always I’m in a rush to get back to Macroinformation. The above may be a botch, but at least I’ve sketched out some materials for better development.

Gotta put this somewhere. My updated module on Sectarianism [Link to be restored] quotes Reaching for Heaven on Earth:

Writing the Preface to Robert H. Nelson’s Reaching for Heaven on Earth, Donald N. McCloskey writes, “Nelson detects two traditions in religion, which he calls the Roman (in both the ancient and the Catholic sense) and the Protestant (in both the Calvinist and the rebellious sense). The issue between them has always been the perfectibility of humankind. Moderation, prudence, courage, and justice, the four natural virtues, are especially admired by Romans. By their works ye shall know them. On the other hand the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity, are especially Protestant. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

I find that a handy contrast between RC and Protestant. Unfortunately I recognize only the latter reference to be accurate. I grant courage to the Romans but have difficulty recognizing moderation, prudence, or justice: in ancient Rome, in the Holy Roman Empire, or in the American Catholic Church of Secularism.

“By their works ye shall know them.” Isn’t that a little glib? Doesn’t it presume a quality of sentience for which I find no general evidence? Is the public competent to recognize works? See through the choreographed disinformation? But then I’m a Protestant: I can’t see sense in the public asking for anything but flat out mercy.

2008 08 29 I attributed the fairly standard argument to Pascal, this morning I am reminded of it in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act IV Scene i) (King Henry walks disguised among his men in the pre-dawn before battle):

King Henry. Methinks I could not die anywhere so contended as in the King’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.
Will. That’s more than we know.
Bates. Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.
Will. But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make.

The argument is odious to those who would have individuals bear responsibility for decisions and for actions.


The Real Teacher:

No, I don’t mean Jesus. I don’t even mean Bucky, Bateson, or Prigogine. I certainly don’t mean pk. I mean Evolution.

The fossil record will show who the real teachers were: provided there’s a sentience adequate for the evidence.

& The Bureaucracy is Immortal:

If my will to integrity has driven me insane, I at least feel that I’m in good company. Historian of ancient Rome, Michael Grant, explains the lunacy of emperors like Nero and Caligula in terms of their utter helplessness as dictators. They could rape and murder all the slaves they wanted — they could even steal the estate of an occasional senator — but they could do nothing to reform the empire. If powerlessness drives emperors insane, think of what it should do to a poor, disinformation-managedly invisible, philosopher.


Everything You’ve Been Taught Is Wrong:

At the revival meeting some clown is ranting at the audience, hogging the mike, about what a sinner he is. Why are we listening to him then?

Oh, I used to be such a liar. And we should trust you now?

If the navy teacher announces to the class that everything they’ve been taught is wrong, why don’t all the navy boys get up and walk out? If teachers have a record of zero, and this guy is a teacher, what follows? Your vows to the navy are worthless? Your marriage should be annulled? Your parents aren’t really related to you? Suddenly, this clown is going to teach you something valid?

How long will it be valid for? Why don’t we just wait for the upgrade? Why don’t we wait forever: for the last upgrade? Will the last upgrade be valid?

God appears at Judgment Day. Why believe Him? Just ’cause the illusion is so powerful?


This belongs under cosmology, under theology, but I may have been a touch sloppy in putting it under religion: but categories are for convenience.
2014 12 10
Ah, very good. Too bad this article didn’t exist online, at least not where I could find it, when I posted the above.
Of course now that I read the article I additionally see how much indebted to Pascal my own thinking is: has been for decades, half a century and more.
I’m about to stream a video on Pascal: another resource not available earlier. I be back soon to revise further …

Writing in time, having to forever amend, is so much more fun than knowing anything in the first place could possibly be. Yea, Darwin, Boo, Perfection.

Cosmology Etc.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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