31 October 2009

Dan Dennett, provocative as usual.


Pascal's Wager: An argument that should never have been convincing.

As an atheist (a six on the Dawkins scale) I get to hear about Pascal's wager more often than anyone really needs to hear about it. If you find yourself in the unbelieving crowd, no doubt you hear it too often as well. This post isn't for you (well it is for you too, but I am really interested in exposing the flaws of Pascal here). This post is for those, often well meaning folks, who continue to tirelessly wheel out Pascal's rotting corpse in an effort to affect a religious conversion. I don't honestly think they've given Pascal's Wager the review it deserves. This may not be so. However, the abruptness with which the wager falls apart makes me think those who fancy it haven't thought too deeply about it. Either that or they think I'm none to bright. No doubt a few have thought the latter.

Before pressing on, let me spell out Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal, was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher and theologian of the 17th century. He was an innovator in mathematics and physics. He was also, perhaps not surprisingly, sick much of his life. And I don't mean mildly sick either. Much of Pascal's life seemed to involve some kind of pain. Whether this unduly influeced his theology, is not, for our purposes, germane to the argument contained in his infamous wager. It was a decidedly Christian wager, by the way, but probably has applicablity for all the Abrahamic traditions. Pascal thought all people should wager thusly: While no evidence for God exists, and proving his existance through reason was impossible (a part modern users of this argument like to leave out) one should wager as if God did exist because the costs for being wrong so outweighed the costs of being correct. That is to say, winning the wager (by believing in God) gets you heaven and whatever other poorly described rewards heave has to offer while you also avoid the eternal torments of hell (failing to believe in God if said being exists). There are no real rewards for winning the bet the other way. If the unbeliever is correct both believer and non-believer get the same reward. Nothing.

Wikipedia has a nice framing, "even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose." So if you believe, and are correct you win the lottery, and if you are wrong you have, so Pascal claims, lost nothing.

For some reason this seems like a very brilliant gambit for many believers, but they really ought to note its many pitfalls. Lets look at what I think are three of the most obvious.

1. Pascal's Wager assumes we can choose which beliefs we adopt
I can only speak for myself here, but it seems like there are very few of our beliefs we can control. If we believe something, it is likely because we think the reasons for holding that a position is consistent with reality are strong. Not because it makes us feel good. No doubt some beliefs are better at making people feel happy than others, but that says nothing about how true they may be. For instance children believe in Santa Clause for very rational reasons. Authorities, whom they trust tell them Santa is real. For a child of a suitably young age, this kind of trust makes complete sense and constitutes reasonable evidence. But no matter where you find yourself in the belief or unbelief question you look for evidence of the veracity of position. It isn't apparent that one can choose to believe anything. They have to be compelled by evidence to adopt a position. That doesn't mean of course they will arrive at the correct position, just that some body of evidence (experience, research, etc) will have been enough to convince them that an idea (God, Aliens, Bigfoot) is consistent with reality. Whether people notice it or not they speak in terms of evidence no matter how much they use the word faith. At most all an unbeliever could do was act as if they believed if evidence didn't compel belief. Lets leave that aside for the moment.

2. Pascals Wager assumes that adopting religious belief carries no costs.
In every framing of this argument that I've heard, and indeed the way it was phrased by Pascal himself, it is assumed that faith is a cheap investment for the believer, as cheap as unbelief (hence the extreme difference in payoffs at the end of earthly life). One wonders how that part of the argument can be made with a straight face. Religious belief has obvious costs (these can vary of course, but they exist in every sect of the Abrahamic traditions). Religious faith makes its cost felt in obvious places like one's bank account (tithing, other religious donations), but also in terms of family relationships, and mental health, and simple time. The costs of religion can be felt in all these areas. Why Pascal didn't count these things as costs I don't know. Perhaps he was simply trying to bolster his case that the investment of both unbeliever and believer was equal in an effort to underscore the difference in payoffs. But think about all the time believers spend doing things for their faiths, the money spent, the relationships avoided, or broken off, and it becomes apparent that belief has costs, and sometimes they are quite serious. From here we see that these costs amount to serious, indeed utterly substantial investment. This seems like a profoundly obvious thing to have missed. Set against eternity in heaven I suppose a life time of this isn't much of an investment, but if it is the only life you get it, the wastefulness of it becomes apparent. Think about someone you know (it might be you reading this) who spends time, and considerable amounts of money on their faith, maybe they have also shunned a child for some religious infraction, or have all their life avoided same sex encounters that they deeply desire. What if that believer is wrong? Such a scenario certainly ruins Pascal's hypothesis that cost was a non-issue for the believer, but even mild costs would work to ruin the notion.

3.Pascal's Wager assumes that God will accept a lie.
I cannot make myself believe something that I think is patently false. All I can do is act like I believe something that I already believe is patently false. Sure I can fake it. And this is essentially what Pascal asks people to do with his wager. Dishonestly act as if you believe to gain a set of rewards for little cost in a future life. Firstly does this sound like the kind of action that the god of Abraham would tolerate? Secondly, is such subterfuge commensurate with moral action? It seems to me the answer to both questions is no. Pascal, and those who continue to use this argument act as if the answer is yes.


08 October 2009

BLOG BIT: Dennis Miller and his guests are stupid.

I listen to conservative radio sometimes. Sometimes I didn't get my coffee, and need a jolt of self-righteous falsehoods being triumphantly spewed from some guy whose reasoning ablitity has been mangled by cheese bits, oxycotin and anger induced mini-strokes. That is almost like coffee, though, much more bitter. There is no amount of sugar and creamer (even irish cream creamer) that offsets the kind of vitriol generated by radio Hannity, Beck, Savage or Limbaugh. Radio brings out the worst in these characters. Though I am unsure exactly why that is. Maybe it is the tendency of the listener of these shows to be dyed-in-the-wool acolytes? Call screeners creating a fairy land of agreement, and insuring that only the most brain-dead rerpresentative of a contrary point of view ever makes it on the air (Rush, I am looking directly at you)? Maybe all the skewed positive feedback simply makes the delusion of being correct more potent? Whatever the case, radio encourages these guys to say the dumbest things, and its not that they need much encouragement.

Dennis Miller though I always thought might be a little different. Don't think I didn't notice that slide into right-wing Randian thought Dennis. I certainly did. I was sad to see it happen but I hoped that you might, in all your pop referencing glory make a reasonable, and maybe even funny case for your ideas. Dennis, I am sorry to say, disappoints. And he does this spectacularly. On top of this, his radio show seems to have the least actual content, and consists mainly of he and his co-host exchanging pseudo-witty pop-culture references and laughing (kind an unfunny Bob and Tom if you can imagine it). Oh, and then there is Miller hawking the wares of various sponsors which also eats up oodles of his air time (his shtick for some outfit called Taxmasters is the most annoying).

None of these right-wing talking point parrots sounds more ignorant than when the topic involves an element of science. And in that area climate change seems to flummox the lot of them even more profoundly than "teaching the controversy."

Today the show took a nasty turn into ignorance early, and there it remained. Of course there was the review of some terrible healthcare plan that would indeed be something about which to be alarmed if Obama was proposing anything like it. However since Obama isn't proposing the plan that have Dennis and his cohost so scared, I'm not going to bother looking at that strange analysis. Instead I will look at Miller's grasp and that of his callers on climate change. An analogy may help prepare you. Let climate represent a massive cliff face, say one of the giant cliffs found in the Valles Marineris on Mars. Let climate change science represent a hand hold at the top of the cliff saving one from a seven kilometer fall. In this scenario Dennis Miller and his audience are doing a pirouette to the tune of gravity punctuated by a very sudden stop. Terrible analogy? Probably, but my point is illustrated don't you think?

Dennis read a report that stated Chicago may have its earliest recorded snowfall sometime next week. Feeling triumphant, he laughed and said something like, "So what about global warming now? Clearly it just isn't happening." Now I don't mind an error. Everyone makes them. But to make a statement like this is reveal a level of catastrophic ignorance, and to do it proudly, that is stunning in its scope. Clearly his grasp of statistics is somewhat limited. He also seems to be missing the meaning of the global. I know, I know me and specifics. Global mean temperatures are rising, and this is completely not in dispute. A hot spell or cold spell in a specific location taken by itself is not sufficient to confirm or nullify the the climate change hypothesis. It is the broad trend that is in question. Not local variation. It is also pretty funny that Miller trusts the climate modeling that predicts snow in Chicago sometime next week.

The second major blunder came when one of his callers piped up about ozone depletion. Specifically, the caller said, "You know what I wonder, is why we never hear about the ozone layer anymore? We were all going to die, there was all the worry about UV. Now we never hear about it."
Miller responded, "Yeah its all a joke. A money making scam. Just follow the money. Look, Al Gore is worth a hundred million now. I mean good for him, I just wish he would admit it and then I could pat him on the back and say 'Way to go ya' hack!'"

If you live an area where the hole in the ozone affects you it probably seems more real I guess. Try the southern hemisphere Dennis, but take your sunscreen.

One of the reasons we do not hear as much about ozone depletion in the press is because the problem was so obviously tractable. The science was just that obvious. That didn't stop conservatives in the Reagan administration from resisting regulating the use of CFCs (chloroflourocarbons-the major culpits in the ozone depletion). Magaret Thatcher, who was no friend to regulation, but who did possess an education steeped in chemistry, did see it as an unavoidable necessity in this instance. CFCs were the problem and their broad applicablity made them quite abundant. In the lower atmosphere they were chemically inert, but stratospherically CFCs are broken down by UV light, which frees the chlorine. Chlorine is then able to amble about the stratosphere and mangle ozone molecules by the hundreds and thousands (this is a complex story but the synopsis will do for our purposes). However, CFC use has been dramatically reduced world wide and so the damage to the ozone layer has been drastically reduced. While this is all very positive problems will remain for some time. However protocols adopted by at least a 190 nations will likely allow the ozone layer to return to natural levels around 2050 according to NASA.

In the mean time, processes release excesses of chlorine into the stratosphere, especially in the Antarctic, but elsewhere too, that (combined with human released chlorine) result in depletions world wide. These depletions can result in significant and risky exposures to UV. UV warnings are not infrequent in Australia and other Southern Hemisphere hotspots (the Antarctic hole is often large enough to encompase portions of Australia). However general ozone reduction can be a threat the world over.

The reason, Dennis, that the ozone hole is not the huge problem it could've been, is because the world took note, followed the evidence and took action. Sadly adopting ridgid ideological blinders has hindered your ability to look objectively at evidence. What is even more disappointing is that you and others like you have been given such a potent microphone as a radio show.