Tuesday, February 10, 2009

(246) Pascal´s Wager: tossing a coin on the ultimate bet

On the evening of February 8th 2009 I was reading from and contributing to a blog at the Guardian´s Comment Is Free section.
It was by Sean Clarke - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/06/atheist-bus-religion?
Join my campaign for a middle way in the atheist/theist bus debate. You have nothing much to lose, and plenty to gain
You wait ages for a bus-based theological advertising campaign, and then two come along at once. But I think it's time for a third. If Blaise Pascal were in charge, the ad would read something like:
There might be a God after all. Maybe you should factor that in.
The original atheist bus campaign irritated detractors in its own camp for the word probably: "There's probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life." It was, said the hardliners with open contempt, an agnostic bus campaign.
Then came the Christian counterstrike. The Christians want to put together an ad saying: "There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life."...
It strikes me that my man Blaise "Sums" Pascal has been overlooked in all this. "Sums" memorably commented that, as a gambler, if you didn't know whether or not there is a God, you might as well behave as if there were. Winnings: eternal life, infinite bliss etc. Stakes: forgoing a bit of bad behaviour. Odds: immaterial. It's like a twopenny lottery ticket to win the world – you can spare those two pennies.
Pascal's advice on the bus front, I think, would be the following. Given what we know about the stakes, it's worth putting a punt on the existence of God... Better to state openly that you believe at least in the possibility of him/her and to perform some act of charity, as an earnest of good faith...
I posted something re the primacy of direct personal experience of the divine -

  • JamesPlaskett's profile picture JamesPlaskett

    07 Feb 09, 1:09pm
    What might be a more accurate representation on the side of a bus of the attitudes of Blaise Pascal is not the wager which he PUBLICLY spoke of during his short life, but the wording his servant found on a scrap of paper hidden in the lining of his coat... a testimony of something that had happened 8 years earlier.
    Pascal had written it down and kept the paper close to his heart.
    Here is what it said:
    ‘In the year of Grace, 1654, on Monday 23rd of November… From about half past ten in the evening Until about half past twelve:
    FIRE! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob Not of the philosophers and scholars Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace God of Jesus Christ. Fire!
    Now he said nothing about it during his life, whilst going through the motions of church attendance and obeisance in all the accepted modes of his time and place.
    But the reality of what made him embrace the supernatural only became apparent after he died.
    Indeed it may well be that this is far more common than is popularly supposed.
    When researching her 1984 book, The Making of A Moonie, Eileen Barker presented a questionnaire to members of the Unification Church and also to a control group.
    It contained one question that had also been asked of a hundred postgraduate students by David Hay:
    "Have you ever had any religious or mystical experiences."
    So high was the percentage that said they had, often with accompanying comments like, "
    No Ive not told anyone. For the simple reason, theres such a lot of disbelievers about, and theyd ridicule you, like
    ", that she felt that the emphasis in psychology was put on the wrong factors.
    I do not therefore, want to suggest that Moonies are unique or freakish because they will (very probably) have had some kind of religious experience; I do, however, want to point out that they find themselves in an environment in which they (and, indeed, others) BELIEVE that such experiences are uncommon and that those who have them can be considered slightly (or very nutty).
    Reading through the responses of both Moonies and the control group, I began to feel that had Freud been studying present-day students in Britain rather than 19th century matrons in Vienna, he might have concluded that it was spiritual rather than sexual repression which lay at the root of many current frustrations. It is, after all, often quite acceptable for a student to tell his friends whom he slept with the previous night. He is far less likely to tell them that Our Lady appeared while he was saying his prayers.
    As the 21st century dawns science and religion are in opposition.
    It has no always been so.
    But these days reductionism, neo-Darwinism and atheism rule, so such spiritual experience gets hushed up.
    It is such experience more than anything else which refutes atheism.
    Without it you´re left weighing up the classical arguments for God or choosing which of the religious creeds is the right one.
    Having been touched just once by divine consciousness you from then on are a gnostic, and simply know that materialism is wrong.
    The catch is that it is a Cassandrine gift. She could prophecy the future accurately, with the snag that nobody would ever believe her.
    The inability to provide the slightest evidence for any gnostic experience is what cowed the students in the above cited survey not to speak of them.
    And what caused Blaise Pascal to carry the treasure close to his heart for the rest of his days.
    But never to speak of it.
    And certainly not to paste it on the side of any bus.


It prompted a cogent question, to which I later responded -

  • JamesPlaskett's profile picture JamesPlaskett

    07 Feb 09, 9:32pm
    robbo100 posts -
    @ JamesPlaskett
    Why doesn't God make himself known in no uncertain terms to everyone rather than just a rare few then? He could do, couldn't he, if he's all powerful? He could do it so even the likes of Richard Dawkins could be in no doubt.
    Bloody good question...
    Gnosis has made me a Theist... yet His seeming caprice makes me not humble and pious, but rather frustrated and pissed off.
    We ARE indeed, robbo100, entitled to a clearer insight into what the deal is.
    At Dr Thacker´s
    God On Trial CiF Blog
    mikeeverest posted
    at Sep 07 08, 11:23am -
    There is no argument for the existence of God, there is only experience.
    I wish those who claim to have Faith would stop trying to provide explanations for Him. How arrogant is that?
    If you want to know God, meditate. You will, eventually, experience direct, incontrovertible proof of His love and your connectedness with everything in the Universe. Then you will have Faith and no fear.
    Religion is a distraction, an obstacle, a man-made vehicle for power mongers and oppressors and for those trying to make sense intellectually of something that is beyond all human understanding BUT NOT HUMAN EXPERIENCE.
    Be scientific, conduct the experiment. And yes, it is replicable, millions have carried out the same experiment and report the same results.
    And -
    at Martin Kettle´s May 27th 2007 The Dawkins Delusion CiF Blog, please do note this from
    Chewtoy -
    28 May 07, 5:41pm
    A modern day myth just as persistent as religious ones is that scientists and rational atheists can't be bigots.
    Recently I saw the BBC Horizon episode 'God On The Brain' in which spontaneous religious experiences were linked to certain temporal lobe activity, caused by for instance epileptic seizures. A neurotheological scientist called Dr Persinger has developed a helmet creating an electromagnetic field that triggers the same effect and Richard Dawkins was invited to test it. Dawkins repeatedly said: "I really want to have a mystical experience". The conviction with which he said this and the look on his face reminded me of a kid who feels left out after not receiving an invitation to a party. This suggests to me that his zealous rants are somewhat based on jealousy. I strongly suggest he try psilocybin.
    Whereas I personally would not advocate halucinogens as a means of cleansing the doors of perception ( I have never taken drugs )
  • JamesPlaskett's profile picture JamesPlaskett

    07 Feb 09, 9:41pm
    (SORRY: last post went up before completion!)
    I find Chewtoy´s pointing out Richard´s repeated expressed desire for Gnosis very noteworthy.
    Traditionally the religious impulse in man has found two types of expression:
    the first sees religion as the acceptance of a received doctrine.
    The second sees it as essentially a search.
    Gnosis is the goal of such a search.
    To address your inquiry, robbo; perhaps it is the lack of spiritual inquiry by people, including the man you nominate, which underlies their lack of gnosis?
    mikeeverest suggests, to my mind, a far more wholesome way of searching than that advocated by Chewtoy.
    But each, like Dawkins, looks down on mere believers in God.
  • Then later -
  • JamesPlaskett's profile picture JamesPlaskett

    08 Feb 09, 2:29pm
    I´ve just bet on Slumdog Millionaire to win Best Picture both at tonight´s Baftas and also the Oscars later this month.
    Good bet; but no bet is a safe one...
And lastly -
  • JamesPlaskett's profile picture JamesPlaskett

    08 Feb 09, 6:17pm
    robbo100; to continue my response to your query as to why a higher power does not confer spiritual experiences on all, even Richard Dawkins, and after having posted above Chewboy´s post in which he refers to Dawkins´"jealousy" of and desire for such knowing of the divine - check out this from a recent blog of thread contributor Jonathan West where he writes of a friend´s mystical experience -
    He is aware that experiences similar to his do pop up in the writings of various religions. He knows that while the details of his experience are unique to him, he is far from alone in having something like this happen to him.
    He is able to summon echoes of the experience from time to time.
    ... ... ...
    I have to admit to a twinge of envy. I've never had an experience like that. Perhaps my brain chemistry is such that it can't possibly happen to me. Perhaps my life has taken a sufficiently smooth path that my unconscious hasn't needed to scream so loudly at me. Perhaps God is content for me not to believe in him and has decided that I need no evidence of him. I have no means of knowing. In the absence of any comparable experience of my own, I am leaving him to interpret his experience in a way that he finds meaningful. The effects on him are clear enough and exist even though the causes are unknown, so I see no need to attempt to impose my interpretation of the events on him.
    Hmmm.... Seems the recounting of gnosis does indeed evoke jealousy in the breast of even the professed atheist.
    After all arguments, ontological, teleological, design-based or revelatory have been refuted, there remains for atheists the problem of testimony of direct perception of the supernatural experience.
    West admits it, and I think Chewtoy got under Dawkins´ skin with his comments on why the Prof. seemed so desirous of it.
    Investigation is the opposite of the blind acceptance of dogma.
    Is it really to much to hope that at some future point we will have a spiritual science, and thus "
    be far closer to understanding Man´s true nature
    " as Sue Blackmore speculated in The Sceptical Inquirer of Fall 1986?
    In the post above empathyfreak writes
    If you do not know whether something is true or false, then it is 50% likely to be true.
    ... ... ...
    Translated back to pascal's example, if I don't know whether the moon is made of green cheese or not......
    But remember he had those extra couple of words....."if you can never know whether the moon is made of green cheese........"
    But we CAN investigate the composition of the moon, and have done so.
    In the 1700s the French Academy of Science pronounced on the urban myth that stones fall from the sky:
    There are no stones in the sky therefore stones cannot fall from the sky.
    Rational enough.
    But on April 26th 1803, only some 30 yrs later, thousands of meteorites pelted the town of L´Aigle 140 kms from Paris.
    Jean-Baptiste Biot collected 38 kilos of the rock and exhibited it to the Academie.
    He also noted that along with the vast number of clearly non-indigenous stones there was another kind of evidence: moral evidence.
    The testimony of so many people that the rock was extraterrestrial.
    A thing dismissed as supernatural had to become incorporated into mainstream, accepted science.
    The only other way to acquire such rock was one which never occurred to anyone of that time: go up and get it..
    That happened 163 yrs later when Aldrin and Armstrong brought back the first samples of moon rock.
    Note just where the confirming meteorite shower chose to land.
    Not in the water with which 75% of our planet is covered. Not in the fields.
    On a specific named spot, a small town only a few hours by horse from where the Academie itself was based.
    During daylight, so everyone could attest to the reality of rocks falling from the sky.
    Thousands of them.
    The first words spoken on the moon were
    "The Eagle has landed."
    L´Aigle means The Eagle.
Having posted that I moved out of the room to where my wife and son were watching the beginning of No Country For Old Men, although here had been no prior announcement of their intent.
Fiona had seen it before and recommended it.
I decided to watch it through with them.

I noted that on two occasions a psychopathic killer allows an intended victim to call on a coin toss. The first time the man, unaware of the significance of the toss, called it correctly. His life was thus spared.
The second time was almost at the end where he permits a woman to choose.

The outcome is not entirely clarified, but it seems that she dies.

I then moved back to the Guardian thread and later posted -
  • JamesPlaskett's profile picture JamesPlaskett

    08 Feb 09, 11:22pm
    Dunno about Pascal´s wager but Jimmy´s just worked.
    I posted earlier -
    08 Feb 09, 2:29pm
    I´ve just bet on Slumdog Millionaire to win Best Picture both at tonight´s Baftas and also the Oscars later this month.
    Good bet; but no bet is a safe one...
    Now 43 quid richer.
I am not 100% certain about it but I think that the Bafta Award was given whilst I watched No Country For Old Men.
I did not appreciate until later that that flm was the winner of the Best Picture Oscar, as well as three others, at the 2008 Oscars.


1 comment:

Jonathan. Kinlay PhD said...

Hi Jim,

Happy to see you alive and well and blogging away happily. Speaking of coincidences, I happened to turn on the TV to watch Who Want to be a Millionaire a while back and was amazed to see you romp home with a very decent pile of loot! Now if only chess tournaments plaid that well....

As you indicated in your blog, I have not been very involved with chess for quite a while, but mainly because of pressure work rather than any lack of interest. I guess I saw the avalanche of talent coming down the pike from Russia and decided that the field was getting a little overcrowded with serious talent. But I work with my long term business partner and friend GM Ron Henley, who is a real chessplayer, and he and I still both jump onto ICC from time to time for a "fix".

Hopefully we will run into one another sometime agin soon.