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Can we bet on Pascal’s wager for more practical decisions?

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Anja M
Anja M Sep 02, 2020
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Have you considered deciding between odds and outs of a problem by placing a certain kind of bet? Blaise Pascal had one such peculiar offer on an even more peculiar problem. He proposed a certain way of looking at one’s frame of mind towards the existence of God. Basically, humans bet their lives into the viewpoint that God either exists or not. ‘With their lives’: because there is nothing else they can put on the table since there is no conclusive proof to be gained for such a question in this life. But, precisely because proof cannot be found here and now, it ultimately has to be a ‘bet’, since it starts from and comes down to the point of uncertainty of our knowledge. However, before I continue, I would like to stress the point of this article is not a sheer explanation of this famous hypothesis. It has been thoroughly developed, discussed, and even disputed over the last three and a half centuries of its existence, even weighed to determine whether it is a fallacy or not. For the sake of the argument, I will mention only the necessary contra-arguments. Still, the point of introducing this argument at all is to see its scope of use far beyond its original purpose of discussing the approach to the question of God’s existence and our (dis)belief in it. My goal is to see how it can be used for the questions of assessing the high-risk concerns of the pros and cons like: the making of AI, use of nuclear energy, up to the decisions of vaccination support. So, in order to do this properly, bear with me with a slightly longer introduction.

Pascal claims since we cannot really discover whether God exists or not, it would be rational and pragmatic for us to believe so.
1) If God exists and we believe it – we get infinite reward (~epic win)
2) If God exists and we don’t believe it – infinite suffering (~epic fail)
3) If God doesn’t exist and we believe it – status quo (~fail, but no loss)
4) If God doesn’t exist and we don’t believe it – status quo (~win, but no meaning)
How this can be developed further concerning the same topic would require much more writing space and reading time, and it isn’t of primary relevance for us now. I will only mention two from the set of the most notable objections, due to their relevance for the examples to follow.

Psychological impossibility: There is something odd in making oneself believe a certain premise, even though it might lead to great consequences.
Moral impossibility: Believing in God/Following an idea just because we are expecting a certain personal gain is something to be argued against.

But someone could object to the last one, for example, and say: “Maybe that is wrong when it comes to the belief in God, but why should I feel bad if I want to pursue AI development and production? Here, the gain is not only personal, but benefits the whole humankind.” Partially, this is true, since the main difference lies in the empirically testable outcomes we deal with when it comes to the AI, and this is one of the practical outcomes we could use the Wager for. However, there are numerous scenarios in which AI production can prevail to either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ side. Professor Derek Leben questions this scenario in his article on the same topic. So, if we’d like to utilize this sort of reasoning for the matter, we must establish a threshold of minimum plausibility. This way, we are not dealing with anything crossing anyone’s mind, but real potential risks and gains.

So, if we conclude AI would have a high chance of entering into a conflict with human race upon its creation, which would result in our race being exterminated, that would present an infinite loss and it would be reasonable to conclude against the AI creation. In one of the opposite conceivable scenarios, perhaps humans would want to create AI in order to save their own race. In this case, our existence depends upon AI, which can either result in an infinite gain: shall we decide to create AI, or an infinite loss B, if we beforehand decide not to create it.

Still, another important factor to take into consideration with empirical situations is contingency. The above examples are just the ends of a spectrum. But what about many in-between cases? What if people decide upon creating an AI and it simply ends up helping with many different tasks, making our lives easier on a daily level? Then, that would fall in line with ’finite gains’. On the other hand, if we decide upon not creating, and we still can continue our lives without them depending on it, then we reach ’status quo’. ’Finite gains’ are definitely something of more value than ’status quo’, so in the process of reasoning with the hypothetical data given, Pascal would say it is rational for us to vote for creating AI! In principle, this is how the Wager works.

I started this brainstorming with myself upon noticing many issues in the COVID-19 crisis, about what I’ve started writing from another aspect. In this case, I asked myself if this reasoning can help with the problem of vaccine acceptance or wearing a face mask, for example. On that, see my contribution below. What I’d like to continue with you is brainstorming on more different topics tackling difficult, but important social situations. I am listening. :)
Creative contributions

What would Pascal say?

jnikola Sep 14, 2020
I want to share with you what I think is bad about Pascal's Wager (PW). I don't think so because I am an atheist (I am not), but because it seems to me that it never fits in the right frame. In the 17th century, when Blaise Pascal set the foundation for this brainstorming session, Christianity was tainted by centuries of religious conflicts and forceful colonists' expansions. The strong simple message of the recognized scientist was for sure enough to ignite the flames of Christianity in a society that was barely maintaining a balance between God's word and its earthly representation. On Pascal's wings, people strived back to the religious side, now backed up by science. Even today, when people tend to be unsure and under pressure, they religiously follow the principle of PW. But wouldn't it be weird if that was all he wanted to say? A great mathematician and a philosopher? Did we miss the point? Are we misinterpreting it all wrong? In the sea of „pros and cons“ articles on PW, I found an article [1] with a slightly different interpretation and it makes sense. When PW was brought up in a specific context of the writing, it was never meant to be magnificently misused like it usually is. It was not about what will the person believe or not believe in, but why it doesn't. As Pascal concludes: “At least get it into your head, that if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so“… „It is the heart that perceives God, and not our reason.”. In simple words, people who find God responsible for their happiness will believe and the ones who find him responsible for their misery will not, no matter the reasons. The best proof that people didn't get this point is, how people like to call it, the Atheist's Wager. It basically says you should be good and kind and leave the religion alone. In the end, if God is kind, he will forgive you for being an atheist (infinite gain). If he punishes you for being good, then the whole story about forgiving and loving God falls apart and you shouldn't worship him at all. It sounds as dramatic as the above one because it was created in response to that classical binary interpretation. Yes, PW will work for some people to get rid of some personal doubts and make it convenient for them. But it should not be a bet and that is why I think PW should not be used for making decisions. Decisions nowadays, excluding theology, should be solely fact-driven and scientifically or statistically backed up, because the questions that we ask in science are much more complex, give multiple choices, and need solid proof. It seems to me the PW is often used when these proofs are leveled. The society and religion in Pascal's time left no other choices than the two mentioned and that is probably why it went wrong. But the religion today is not a choice between A or B. Humans are freer to evaluate, choose, express themselves, live the way they want to, and basically, they are free to think. Try to think why you do not want to believe in God, why masks could not be beneficial or why you do not support the AI, and when you realize why, then you will be ready to make a clear decision. Use the point of PW as a tool to remove the noise (passion, emotion) that is blocking you to see things through facts - as a scientist. As Pascal himself says: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Does it make any sense? References: [1] https://unherd.com/2019/03/weve-got-pascal-all-wrong/
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Anja M
Anja M4 years ago
Sorry for a later answer, but I will try to see if I grasped it clearly. :) Indeed, I agree with you, Pascal did not try to make believing or non-believing in God an easy task by posing this choice chart. Also, he was into solving gambling problems, and that's how theory of probability rose. I am mentioning this to highlight the practical side of it. If we acknowledge this, maybe it would be a bit easier to untangle the problem of PW and God. I think you are also right on that point, the clash between the scientific development and religious matters. And at first site, this proposition can seem beneficial: "I have nothing to lose if I believe.", but then "matters of the hearth" appear, and although there may be much, as we know, they are not enough to make you believe in God, and really shouldn't be. Again, that people are freer today can be contentious. Yes, there are many liberties one couldn't have dreamed of in the medieval times, but overall, when it comes to the questions of religion and generally, "thinking with one's own head", well, there are too many new restraints that don't seem that way. For example, but this is very broadly speaking, once religious' dogma is now a scientific one, for better and worse. Now when it comes to science and PW: usually, due to the complexity of matters, it isn't used for decision-making just like that. However, since science is never really conclusive, and we have pressing matters (like the ones I mentioned: yes/no AI, for example) we wage for that "leap of faith" (pun not intended) based on the calculations we have so far + the potential outcomes/hopes out-waging each other. So do you think we should exclude it or similar mechanisms in such processes, as well?
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jnikola4 years ago
The proposed idea definitely has a solid basis, but I think the problem with e.g. the AI, Internet privacy, and gene editing is that we cannot set the wage as the Pascal did. God was a symbol of salvation, infinite life, and unquestionable kindness. The above mentioned are not. Face masks are a bit less questionable, but still not a safe bet (respiratory problems, CO2, etc.). As long as we are not 100% sure of the subject "nature" and the outcomes, we should, in my opinion, try to use one of the alternative decision-making systems used in business (https://www.atlassian.com/work-management/strategic-planning/decision-making/models).
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On vaccines and face masks

Anja M
Anja M Sep 02, 2020
It seems how many of those contra vaccines appeal to the moral objection I talked about. Usually, it sounds like this: "Perhaps vaccines are a well-conceived idea, but there are not really produced in the purity promised, because there is always someone having a gain (usually financial) other than the primary one, which is the population health." But, the problem with such attitudes is that unless they rely on the proof of, say, some pharmaceutical company bad intentions, they end up in the conspiracy theory pool, since "someone" and "some" gain, no matter how appealing, can neither be proved nor disproved, and that is exactly the characteristic of conspiracy theories. Also, the most informed decision can be made when one actually examines the quantity and quality ratio of those who got a certain vaccine. Something similar happens with pros and cons of wearing face masks. We deliberate for yeses/nos upon informed decisions. Look at this example: • We weigh the potential gain vs. the loss of wagering on a face cover. We estimate these two outcomes and (for the sake of this thought experiment) assume history will show masks donning protects others. If you wager in favor of face covers, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. If you wager against a mask, you maintain the freedom to live mask free but risk the lives of others — Infinite loss with finite gain. • Wager, then, without hesitation, that masks work to stop the spread. If we cover our face and the science is correct, then we prevent infecting and possibly killing others. We suffer minor inconveniences and temporary invasion of personal liberty — Infinite gain with finite loss. For more on this, see: https://medium.com/the-apeiron-blog/a-philosophic-approach-to-face-covers-during-the-pandemic-44e865c183a9 It seems the problem arises when people disagree upon different types of masks; their efficiency depending on the material and open/closed spaces to even begin the discussion. There are those who don't even recognize the difference in this and other viral infections and start from that premise. However, the premise the article on the above link tries to establish is that even if there is the slightest possibility a mask would protect us, it is still a better decision than a status quo or the opposite slightest possibility. The same reasoning as with the AI.
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