"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The atheist's wager

In the MP3 below, Zacharias mentions Pascal's Wager - the idea that believing in God, regardless of whether He exists of not, is the rational thing to do.

I've never given the wager much time, it raises too many questions and makes too many assumptions to be considered valid in my eyes. I mention it only because I came across this during my mid-morning blogsurf today. It could be summed up as the atheist's wager:

We must consider the possibility that there is a God. However, this God gave us a brain and wanted us to use it. The faith-based thinker hears God tell him, “I saw these religions come up and sweep the land. I could have stepped forward and say, ‘Don’t believe them.’ However, if I had done that, you would never have learned to think for yourselves. This was my ultimate test – to see if you would follow self-professed prophets uttering nonsense, or whether you will use reason to see through this religious nonsense and come to me with a thinking mind, or whether you would shut off and throw away this gift of a brain that I gave you. These people have devoted their lives to reason. They used the brain that I gave them. You, however, have not. I have no use for you.”

Now, if apply Pascal’s Wager to this interpretation of God, we get a situation where it is rational to abandon God and take up reason. Taking up reason saves the individual from eternal damnation – a fate that one gets thrown into if one commits the mortal sin of taking the existence of God on faith value.

Pascal's wager only holds if we're able to demonstrate that the proposition 'God wants us to believe in Him' is more likely than 'God wants us to make the most of the attributes he gave us'.

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Blogger Alex said...

A couple brief thoughts.

1. At what point have I (or the faith I hold to) ever advocated an abandonment of reason?

2. Why would 'God wants us to believe in Him' and 'God wants us to make the most of the attributes he gave us' be mutually exclusive?

I am going to restrain myself from going into an all out assault on a number of points fyfe made (speaking of assumptions!) as we have plenty going on here as it is.

Busy in the basement today, so I won't be around for a virtual chat session like yesterday!

9:33 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

It was more a point about Pascal's Wager than Christianity in general - the abandonment of reason seems implicit in the wager itself.

The two propositions aren't mutually exclusive, and the best religious thinking often blends the two quite skillfully. However, the fact that a large number of highly intelligent people arrive at incredibly different conclusions does raise questions. For example, I don't think our disagreement reflects on the rationality and intellect of either of us - so it does seem that being rational doesn't necessarily lead to God.

I should probably point out that this is just a test shot in a much larger argument I'm preparing - one that will hopefully, if not reconcile our different views, move the debate on considerably.

9:59 AM

Blogger David said...

Many years ago as a college sophomore I jinned up a thing I pretentiously called the "Gambler's Choice Theorem". Only latter did I discover Pascal's Wager. The propositons of your atheist's wager were a very important part of my formulation.
Small world ???

12:35 PM

Blogger Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Problem with Pascal's wager is it implies you have a choice what to believe- you don't.
I can't try to beieve that the grass is red- not unless you torture me to beieve 2+2 is 5 or something.
You see what see, you believe what you believe. It is foolish of mad people to beieve the TV is talking to them, but they do.
Based on my worldview I have an opinion on the existence-non-existence of the deity. I have no control over the fact that on the basis of the fcts I have taken in, my opinion is the way it is. Pascal's wager is a complete non-sequiter.

10:25 AM

Anonymous moe said...

I have a question for you. While most of what you and the great Alex talk about is over my head I feel that I catch only about half of what yall say. If this has been mentioned already on a week I have missed I apologize.

Back before I became a Christian I think my views were somewhat similar to what yours seem to be. In a sense that we are all just here for a short time so we must do what we feel we must to make ourselves feel good. We have our own standards and that is good for each of us. Never feeling the need to really answer to anyone or specifically any higher power. Whilst I am still growing in my faith and searching for that passion that the great Alex has, the point that I always seem to remember and in my mind to prove to myself basically beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is something out there is creation. How can people such as yourself truly say that you believe in no God? So if what you say is true then two dead pieces of matter, spontaneously and miraculously formed into my two beautiful kids? How is that possible? That to me is a simple answer, there is a God, and in my mind the proof you two always seem to go back and forth about.

ps. Alex come build a fire with me.

7:28 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Good to hear your thoughts. Please refrain from calling me "the great Alex" I only go by that name in the immediate company of family and friends.

We'll burn some stuff soon. I promise.

8:17 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

So if what you say is true then two dead pieces of matter, spontaneously and miraculously formed into my two beautiful kids?

Neither of your children spontaneously or miraculously formed. They were brought about by a very clear and well-understood cause/effect relationship!

A note about the beauty of nature: I went to the Biophysical Society conference last week (hence I've been quiet) and watched a computer simulation showing a complex ion channel protein assembling itself into a phospholipid bilayer. I had always assumed that assembling proteins in the cell membrane was a complicated procedure that was completely dependent upon an enzyme to initiate the process (ribosomes certainly assist in it). That, in a sense, some external force must be responsible for 'putting' those proteins where they are. And yet, a simple simulation demonstrated that the process was no more complex than the natural laws of thermodynamics. So I guess even this atheist has to get used to having his own little creation myths shot out of the water from time to time.

I think what I'm saying is that we tend to misunderstand complexity. We assume that if it looks complex, it must be privy to some external directing force; that it must be 'put there' or 'manipulated' somehow. That instinct permeates deeply into the psychology of every human, theist, atheist or otherwise. And yet, time and time again, we sho that you need nothing more than the basic natural laws of physics to explain everything. The only question being how long it takes us to understand the mechanism for a given phenomenon.

9:06 AM

Anonymous moe said...


Was that protien alive or dead? Yes LAB tests have created or simiulated creation of protiens, amino acids or whatever but there has ALWAYS been something 'alive' in a sense that they have added to get things rolling. I have never read, seen or even heard of anything anywhere using dead pieces of matter to create something living.

11:19 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

It was a computer model; no actually peptide was used.

Be careful of how you use the term 'living', it's an ambiguous and somewhat arbitrary notion as any biologist will tell you. The cells that make up your body are 'living', and arguably so are the mitochondria within them, but both cells and organelles are made up of what you describe as dead matter (i.e. essentially what you ingest and breath). It's only the manner in which that dead matter interacts with other bits of dead matter that leads to the existance of something that might be described as living (i.e. respiring and reproducing).

And amino acids can certainly assemble in the absence of a 'living' push; just requires the right chemical environment.

5:25 PM

Anonymous moe said...

I would consider anything living that has any sort of bacteria, amino acid, protein, or any sort of cell that is alive. I am speaking about when our world was created. There was nothing, life started somewhere and somehow. not in a lab but out here somewhere. it began from two dead matters. in my mind i picture two rocks. so you are saying rocks are alive and can eventually spawn into humans?

6:52 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


Just want to point out that I'm not ignoring your question, it's just that Incitatus is obviously in a far better place to answer it.

However, if you look at life as the complex interaction of basic materials then I don't think you can really make the grand distinction between alive and dead, you're just looking at degrees of activity. Rocks have an extremely low level of activity, humans have a high level - but we're on the same spectrum, rather than being fundamentally different.

5:12 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Good to see you again. I was beginning to think you had called it quits over here after that last little coconut fiasco.

Happy to see you haven't given up on us. ;-)

I pretty much took yesterday off from the blog. I'll try and muster up some toughts on this "wager" bit today over lunch.

6:28 AM

Blogger Alex said...

the abandonment of reason seems implicit in the wager itself.

Hmmm... I'd suppose that depends on how you take the intent of the wager. The wager it's self seems rather reasonable to me if you are willing to accept the presuppositions. However, it you have the wager is presented to you while denying the presuppositions, then yes, it would involve an abandonment of reason.

It is worth pointing out that Ravi addressed that by stating that the wager is "not some kind of stupid idea where one says, I'm going this route because I basically have noting to lose". He points out that the wager is in response to an existential pursuit of contentment an happiness.

If the Christian lives their life in pursuit of a deeper knowledge of God and lives a rich life filled with happiness and joy only to be proven wrong in his belief on his death bed, what has he lost?

However if the atheist lives his life in pursuit of happiness through what way seems best to him and discovers on his death bed that he was wrong... we'll now there may well be consequences.

I would also like to point out that I do not believe in a formulaic sort of test to determine if someone is destined for hell or not. It would not surprise me to discover some who lived their lives as atheists behind the pearly gates. Because of the situations we find ourselves in this life I do not believe everyone has the opportunity to respond in a real Christianesque sort of way to God. I would argue that it is not the label we wear that determines our destiny but the condition of our hearts in response to the prompting of God.

So what I am saying is, yes, you are to make the most of the attributes He gave you, but at the same time I must state that to "make the most" of anything you must be doing it for His glory not your own. If all you can manage is to make the most of your attributes for your own purposes you will be in a world of hurt. Arguably, Hitler made the most of his public speaking abilities. Do you think that found favor in the eyes of God?

Closing point: attributes and talents are morally neutral. How they are used is where moral judgments come into play. Therefore responding to God in trust is essential for the moral usage of your gifts in His eyes.

11:58 AM

Blogger Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Moe. Life sprang from Hydrocarbonic compounds. Primarily, RNA and DNA.
The chemical composition of the Earth was very different then as we hadn't had plants polluting the atmosphere with their oxygen and thereby cutting off most of the sun's radiation.
From the point of view of the rest of us Eukaryotes, it's a good thing they did.

12:30 PM

Anonymous moe said...

When is 'then'? What caused those compounds to form into humans? Even scientists agree that back in the day......there was nothing, however from what I have read most scientists believe that a bolt of lightning hit your compounds which started the chain reaction to form life. Similarly when scientists claim they can reproduce life by passing an electrical current through it they have agreed that it wasn’t the same conditions that existed when life began. Pasteur had it correct when he proved that living things can NOT produce non-living things.

Moe, yes I can make that distinction. A rock is a nonliving thing. There may be organisms on the rock but the rock itself is dead. So tell me how that can become alive? Or I suppose you will say by millions of years. I can see evolution makes changes over time to make a living thing better suited for its environment, but there is no way a rock can again, spawn into a human.

6:28 PM

Anonymous moe said...

Sorry noticed a typo. it should the other way.

Pasteur had it correct when he proved that non-living things can NOT produce living things.

9:36 PM

Blogger james higham said...

We must consider the possibility that there is a God. However, this God gave us a brain and wanted us to use it.

All of this has one flaw running through it - it starts with the individual and what he considers possible. It never starts with G-d.

3:29 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

[i]'Pasteur had it correct when he proved that non-living things can NOT produce living things.'[/i]

Pasteur didn't prove that though, and he didn't intend to. His experiments were designed to disprove a slightly backward theory of the time that entire organisms, regardless of complexity, would spontaneously appear under the right conditions (rats in a sewer etc). Pasteur debunked this by proving that microbes didn't spontaneously emerge in otherwise sterile liquid nutrients. Today that's pretty obvious. Similarly, if you build a shopping mall, humans don't spontaneously appear within it; they arrive from somewhere else, and if you've left the doors locked, they don't turn up at all (just like Pasteur's microbes).

Such an experiment certainly doesn't disprove abiogenesis as we understand it today (rather than in the 19th C). As Matt says, living/non-living is not a an easily defined line. It's a question of degrees. There is still something of a debate on whether viruses are 'living'. At the moment, their need for a host cell to replicate has them in the 'non-living' category, but they provide a good example of how things aren't so cut and dried about living and non-living. It ultimately rests on contemporary biological definitions, which change frequently and are mostly used purely for taxonomic purposes rather than to make absolute philosophical statements.

I guess find it kind of bizarre that a strong criticism of evolution is that it's too 'improbable' (despite the vast time scale involved). And yet the critics would instead put their faith in an ambiguous concept of a 'creator' (that we are to suppose never needed to be 'created' itself). Isn't that exchanging one apparent improbability for an even greater one? At best, it's passing the buck; instead of questioning our creation, we simply end up having to question the creator's creation and so forth. A similar fault is inherent in the belief of panspermia; life isn't created, it arrived from somewhere else.
Great, but how did it get to somewhere else in the first place?

For me, Intelligent Design and Panspermia essentially serve to achieve nothing other than to block further discussion of our origins by implementing a fairly diverse collection of logical fallacies ('argumentum ad conseqentiam' and '... ad ignorantiam' being two of the most common), which ultimately boil the argument down to the dogmatic statement, 'that's just the way it is'. At least with the developing theory of evolution, it is freely confessed to be a 'work in progress' rather than a free-standing and definitive explanation. The dialogue continues, and our ability to continually learn is assured. I might be more inclined to respect ID if a half-decent attempt to provide evidence in the form of peer-reviewed papers. The absence of such papers being submitted for review, despite journals such as [i]Nature[/i] and [i]Science[/i], openly stating that they would love to publish firm evidence of ID, is a little telling IMHO. It's a little disingenuous for IDers to accuse the scientific community of suppressing their data (which they have frequently) when none of them ever submit a paper for publication in the first place. The thing is, IDers don't think they need to produce evidence (and yet they remain quick to criticise that produced by their opponents).

10:58 AM

Anonymous moe said...

Sorry I don’t mean to criticize and I can see that there is no true evidence to say one way is the right way. I admit that. But that is just the way my brain thinks about it. Even before I became a Christian I didn’t believe that something came from nothing. There had to be something else at work in order to make this world and all its living things so complex and beautiful. Massive amounts of time can change things yes but to me I just don’t buy it that us walking ‘apes’ have evolved from nothing more than random chemicals. My brain can’t handle that. If yours can then okay we disagree.

7:13 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Sorry I don’t mean to criticize...

Criticism is invited here, no apologies needed.

My brain can’t handle that. If yours can then okay we disagree.

There's a not entirely unfounded case to be made that no human brain can really handle it. At least, not yet. An understanding of the complexity of our origin doesn't really serve any evolutionary advantage; indeed I imagine the less brain power we used on the subject over the millennia the better from a natural selection perspective. Hence theism may well have developed as a natural way to alleviate the origin conundrum.

I can't speak for all atheists, but my atheism often runs contrary to a very deep and primitive sense that a higher power exists. Now, for me, I choose to believe that this gut instinct is the psychological equivalent of an appendix, and hence I opt to override it with what I perceive to be a rationale outlook. However, the 'feeling' (which Alex has alluded to before) remains, and so there is something of a continual minor conflict, which I perceive to be the old and the new parts of the gray porridge trapped in my skull.

A question I have asked myself is whether that's really healthy; am I forcing my body to behave in a manner not in keeping with it's evolution? One can argue that atheists seem like very healthy people, but we can never really know what goes on in the mind of any other atheist except ourselves. How do we know some atheists aren't 'cheating' as it were? Secretly relapsing into theism under strenuous circumstances? The metaphysical equivalent of nipping into the alley for a smoke? Who knows. I can only speak for myself, but I freely confess that I cheat regularly; usually to hurl abuse at providence for anything that doesn't go the way I planned (even if, on a rationale level, I know I simply planned it badly).

Therefore, the question of whether we can really - at all levels of our consciousness - truly free ourselves of every theistic instinct is still open, IMHO.

9:07 AM

Anonymous moe said...

I dont have a response to that one. Well put. Its nice to see that we admit our inner struggles with topics such as this. For people like the great Alex and I it comes down to faith. At least I think he would back me up. We may need to sit by a fire with a swisher and a pint to be certain though. Without our faith we would be lost and as you put it our gray porridge would be just that.

9:43 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Oh eminent and exalted Moe, seated rightly upon your throne in the lofty province of Blaine,

Greetings and good tidings.

I look forward to initiating the chemical reaction of converting organic matter into it's more elemental compounds resulting much heat and light. Soon will the the time.

12:39 PM


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