Blog Archives

Wagering on Free Will

If you don’t think the evidence can decide the question on free will, you might run a wager style argument, as some studies have suggested that belief in free will encourages moral behavior (Vohs KD, et al. Psychol Sci. 2008). 

Ah, but you object that wager-style arguments cannot motivate belief because you think doxastic voluntarism is false. Well, give it a shot and try to believe on the basis of this wager. And if you succeed, you will have more than pragmatic reasons for holding your belief. As William James puts it, “[t]here are… cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” (The Will to Believe, 1896).

Belief in free will may be just the sort of belief that verifies itself, if one is able to believe in it while admitting the evidence isn’t sufficient on its own to compel belief.  If one chooses to believe because one thinks it is not a possibility closed off by science, and assesses the merits of the belief from pragmatic concerns, then one has the sort of first-person experience of freedom that libertarians tout even in the face of Libet tests.

In other words, see if you can bring yourself to believe in free will by wagering on it, and thus experiencing direct evidence of doxastic voluntarism, i.e. direct control over your own beliefs.

Good Reasons to Believe: Alan Darley & Daniel Vecchio

Here is my interview with Alan Darley on his show “Good Reasons to Believe”.

My talk is called “Pragmatic Arguments for a Skeptical Age”.  Enjoy!

A Response to Law’s “Evil-God Challenge” via Aquinas and Pascal

I’ve been spending a bit of time thinking about Stephen Law’s Evil-God Challenge.   Though I don’t think the challenge is without a response, I think it is something all theists should take the time to ponder.

Law describes the challenge in the following way:

The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the problem of good – there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn’t the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing belief in a good god? (Law 2010, 1).

Law develops a symmetry thesis between Good-God and evil-god.  Any reason that a theist might offer to think the Good-God hypothesis is reasonable, can be flipped to show that the Evil-god hypothesis is equally reasonable.   The theist rejects the view that evil should count against the Good-God thesis on the grounds of various defenses, or theodicies.  Law points out that the proponent of evil-god could offer parallel defenses for why evil-god might allow so much good, thus restoring parity in reasonableness between the two hypotheses. If you are interested in how Dr. Law flips each of these theodicies, I recommend reading his article, and blog.

Glenn Peoples’ recent podcast outlines some responses to the “Evil-God Challenge” primarily by way of the moral argument. In the first section of the podcast, Peoples points out that if Law wants to interact with classical theism, as he claims to do throughout his paper, then he must contend with the actual views of the classical theist with regard to fundamental concepts of God, good, and evil.  The classical theist views goodness as a transcendental property of being whereas evil is thought to be a privation of being.  Peoples points out that the concept of a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally evil is incoherent for the classical theist.

I would develop a classical theist’s response to the evil-god challenge in the following way.  Good-God can be perfectly and completely good.  But in classical theism complete evil cannot exist.  Evil-god must, at the very least, exist, which is a good.  Law points out that evil-god must seek to fulfill his desire for evil.  But desire fulfillment is a good thing.  So Law admits that there are certain logical limits to how depraved evil-god could be.  He compares this to the limits many classical theists put on God’s omniscience, e.g. God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it (Law 2010, 18).  The problem, though, is that while there may be symmetry in the ways in which evil-god and Good-God are omnipotent, there is no symmetry between the way in which Good-God can be good and evil-god can be evil.  Thus, of the two “gods” Good-God is superlative and pure with regard to moral-value, whereas evil-God is somewhat adulterated and mediocre in comparison.

This is where Aquinas’ Fourth-Way becomes extremely important in the classical theist’s defense against Law’s argument.  Aquinas writes:

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God (ST I, Q. 1, A. 3).

Presented with either the completely good Good-God and the mostly evil evil-god, I think that the classical theist would find that it is more reasonable to think that a Good-God is the cause of the various degrees of goodness in the universe.  Evil-god, being somewhat good though mostly evil, is not the best explanation for the moral character of various entities throughout this world, since a more complete superlative explanation is forthcoming, caeteris paribus.  After all, there would seem to be some degree of goodness predicated of evil-god that cannot be accounted for by his evil nature alone.

To sum up, the classical theist would say that it is logically impossible that evil-God is perfectly evil, and that this means that there is asymmetry between the Good-God and evil-god hypotheses.    Further, the classical theist would say that the adulterated nature of evil-god’s moral character does not provide the best explanation for the gradations of goodness (and evil) we observe since a more complete paradigm can be postulated beyond evil-god as found in Good-God.

A second response that I would like to offer to the evil-God challenge is more of the pragmatic variety and is inspired by Blaise Pascal.  I consider this argument something of a fail-safe.  If all other attempts to address the challenge fail, there are still reasons to believe Good-God over evil-god simply because one has little to gain from belief in evil-god and possibly much to lose.  Conversely, belief in Good-God offers us little to lose and everything to gain.  Law asked for a reason to believe one over the other, but he didn’t say that the reason couldn’t be of a practical nature.

As a matter of fact Pascal did not think that the existence of God could be settled by theoretical arguments alone, yet he thought belief in God was far more rational than disbelief.  His wager is  essentially a quadrilemma resulting from crossing two sets of disjunctions:  1. Either you believe God exists or you don’t, and  2. Either God exists, or God does not exist.  Pascal’s wager takes into consideration  the possible outcomes of believing or not believing in God:

  1. If you believe in God and God exists, you have the opportunity to develop the proper relationship with God so that you could attain eternal life.
  2. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you your life on the presumption of this error, with some finite harms associated with living under such false presumptions.
  3. If you disbelief in God and God exists, you give up on the opportunity to develop a relationship with God and risk eternal damnation.
  4. If you disbelieve God and God does not exist, you are correct in your belief about God and have a more accurate conception of reality than theists–a small boon.

As a response to the evil-god challenge, I am suggesting that we simply add a bit more to the possible disjunctions.  We might say that the possibilities are that evil-god exist, Good-God exists, or neither of them exist.  You could believe in evil-God, believe in Good-God, or believe in no gods.  The result is nine possible outcomes:

  1. If you believe in Good-God and Good-God exists, then you have a shot at eternal salvation, an infinite gain.
  2. If you believe in Good-God and evil-god exists, then you will be tormented eternally, or annihilated.
  3. If you believe in Good-God and no God exists, then you will be in error and suffer the consequences of behaving a certain way due to an erroneous belief.
  4. If you believe in evil-God and God-God exists, it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  5. If you believe in evil-God and evil-God exists, then evil-God will torment you, because he wants to maximize evil and wouldn’t want to reward even correct belief.
  6. If you believe in evil-God and no-God exists, then you have lived your life with an erroneous belief and suffer the limitations in your behavior due to this error.
  7. If you believe in no gods and Good-God exists, then once again it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  8. If you believe in no gods and Evil-God exists, then he will torment or annihilate you, for he cares little that you were an atheist.
  9. If you believe in no gods and no gods exist, congratulations.  You believed something that is true, and you have the opportunity to live according to this true belief.  A small boon.

Overall, we see that belief in Good-God provides the best possible outcomes. Believing in evil-God offers no advantage whatsoever while believing in no gods offers the same possible limited outcome that Pascal expected the rational decision maker to reject in his original gambit.  But the only point we need to make is that it is not rational to believe evil-god from a pragmatic point of view whatsoever.

I don’t think Law could flip this without supposing that evil-God would offer infinite rewards for true-belief.  But if evil-god offers rewards, he fails to be maximally evil.   This would not be a matter of evil-god running up against the logical limits of evil, it would merely be an attempt by the proponent of the “Evil-God Challenge” to restore symmetry.  But in restoring symmetry in the wager, he destroys the symmetry between there being a maximally-Good God and a maximally evil-god–an integral hypothesis to the challenge.  Therefore, I don’t think any attempt to flip this theodicy could succeed.

There are some criticisms to Pascal’s wager and I cannot take them all on here.  I will limit myself to a couple.  1.  There are many revelations of God, what if we believe Good-God, but the wrong one?  2.  The wager motivates and insincere form of belief that may not be salvific.

Briefly, one could respond to the first point by saying that while the amount of revelations diminishes the possibility of correctly selecting the correct revelation of God, you can’t win if you don’t play.  In other words, this is not an argument against choosing to believe in a Good-God, it merely points out that such a belief may only be a necessary and not sufficient condition for reaping the reward.  So be it.  I don’t think this makes the decision to believe in Good-God any less rational.

Nonetheless, I do think that Christianity is the best religion to place one’s bet upon.  This is because I think the real true Good-God would offer a revelation.  Of the revealed religions, it is better to bet on a religion that believes immortality and some kind if salvation.  Why bet on a religion that offers no salvation when others that are on the table do?  Of salvific religions, it is better to bet on exclusivistic religion rather than a universal/pluralistic one.  After all, if a universalist religion is true, your going to be saved anyways.! Of exclusivistic religions, some offer salvation by works and others offer salvation through cooperation with grace.  It is more rational to be receptive to salvation by grace and do good works, then to do good works and not be receptive to God’s grace.  For if God wants good works, it is possible that those who believe salvation is a gift of grace might yet be saved if they also strive to live a good life.  So while the plurality of revealed religions might make the gambit a little more complicated, I still think we can still navigate it.  We are looking for a religion that is revealed, offers belief in salvation and immortality, is exclusivistic, and its theory of salvation is such that it is achieved through grace, but encourages good works.  I can only think of one religion that fits the bill.  And this does not even get into the historical arguments for the Resurrection!

My response to the second point actually draws upon my response to the first.  Pascal realized this objection, but noted that we can act into our belief.  Knowing that the rational decision is to believe in a Good-God, we can become sincere in our beliefs by participating in services, praying, and worshiping.  I think Pascal is describing a real phenomenon. The alternatives to belief in Good-God will eventually cease to be living options, if I can borrow a term from William James, and we will cease to entertain them in much the way we don’t entertain the possibility of Greek polytheism being true.  With only one living option, I think sincerity will set into place with time.

But even if we can’t act into the belief, Pascal does not think that the right belief will save us.  Rather, his wager removes obstacles to belief.  If the above analysis is correct, the most rational religion to believe is the one that claims salvation is a gift from God with which we must cooperate.  I may not be completely sincere in my belief, but some kind of belief is a necessary condition in cooperating with grace.  One does not earn one’s salvation through sincerity.  So if all we can do is cooperate with God’s grace for ulterior motives, then that is the best we can do.  I think God will meet us where we are and transform our insincere emotions to match the convictions of our wills.

Now this post has gone on far longer than I anticipated.  I would like to continue to refine my arguments.  But for now I hope to read some reactions from my readers.


Law, S. 2010. The Evil-God Challenge. Religious Studies. Vol. 46. Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/S0034412509990369

Why Pascal Won’t Get Mugged

Philosopher Nick Bostrom (2009) imagines that it would be quite easy to trick Blaise Pascal out of his money.  In fact, he thinks a mugger could use the reasoning Pascal applies in his own “Wager argument” to trick him into giving up his wallet willingly.  Bostrom’s fantastic dialogue culminates in the following manner:

Mugger: . . .Well, have I got good news for you! I have magical powers. I can give you any finite amount of money that you might ask for tonight. What’s more, I can give you any finite amount of Utility that I choose to promise you tonight.

Pascal: And I should believe you why?

Mugger: Trust me! OK, I realize this does not give you conclusive evidence, but surely it counts a least a little bit in favour of the truth of what I am asserting. Honestly, I really do have these powers.
Pascal: Your conduct tonight has not inspired me with confidence in your honesty.

Mugger: OK, OK, OK, OK. But isn’t possible that I am telling the truth?

Pascal: It is possible that you have the magic powers that you claim to have, but let me tell you, I give that a very, very low probability.
Mugger: That’s fine. But tell me, how low a probability exactly? Remember, you might think it all seems implausible, but we are all fallible, right? And you must admit, from what you’ve already seen and heard, that I am a rather atypical mugger. And look at my pale countenance, my dark eyes; and note that I’m dressed in black from top to toe. These are some of the telltale signs of an Operator of the Seventh Dimension. That’s where I come from and that’s where the magic work gets done.

Pascal: Gee . . . OK, don’t take this personally, but my credence that you have these magic powers whereof you speak is about one in a quadrillion.

Mugger: Wow, you are pretty confident in your own ability to tell a liar from an honest man! But no matter. Let me also ask you, what’s your probability that I not only have magic powers but that I will also use them to deliver on any promise – however extravagantly generous it may seem – that I might make to you tonight?

Pascal: Well, if you really were an Operator from the Seventh Dimension as you assert, then I suppose it’s not such a stretch to suppose that you might also be right in this additional claim. So, I’d say one in 10 quadrillion.

Mugger: Good. Now we will do some maths. Let us say that the 10 livres that you have in your wallet are worth to you the equivalent of one happy day. Let’s call this quantity of good 1 Util. So I ask you to give up 1 Util. In return, I could promise to perform the magic tomorrow that will give you an extra 10 quadrillion happy days, i.e. 10 quadrillion Utils. Since you say there is a 1 in 10 quadrillion probability that I will fulfil my promise, this would be a fair deal. The expected Utility for you would be zero. But I feel generous this evening, and I will make you a better deal: If you hand me your wallet, I will perform magic that will give you an extra 1,000 quadrillion happy days of life.

Pascal: I admit I see no flaw in your mathematics.

Mugger: This is my final offer. You’re not going to pass up a deal that we have just calculated will give you an expected Utility surplus of nearly 100 Utils, are you? That’s the best offer you are likely to see this year.

Pascal: Is this legitimate? You know, I’ve committed myself to trying to be a good Christian.

Mugger: Of course it’s legitimate! Think of it as foreign trade. Your currency is worth a lot in the Seventh Dimension. By agreeing to this transaction, you give a major boost to our economy. Oh, and did I mention the children? If only you could see the faces of the sweet little orphans who will be made so much better off if we get this influx of hard currency – and there are so many of them, so very, very, very many . . . .

Pascal: I must confess: I’ve been having doubts about the mathematics of infinity. Infinite values lead to many strange conclusions and paradoxes. You know the reasoning that has come to be known as ‘Pascal’s Wager’? Between you and me, some of the critiques I’ve seen have made me wonder whether I might not be somehow confused about infinities or about the existence of infinite values . . .

Mugger: I assure you, my powers are strictly finite. The offer before you does not involve infinite values in any way. But now I really must be off; I have an assignation in the Seventh Dimension that I’d rather not miss. Your wallet, please!

Pascal hands over his wallet.

Mugger: Pleasure doing business. The magic will be performed tomorrow, as agreed (Bostrom 2009, 444-445).1

I think Bostrom incorrectly characterizes how Pascal would respond to the “seventh-dimension” mugger of finite power.    When he is asked how probable it would be that mugger possesses magical powers to give any finite sum of money, Pascal answers 1:1 quadrillion. But it seems to me that it is more likely that a finite being has the magical power to conjure up smaller sums of money or utility than they do to conjure up larger sums.  So my Pascal would say something like: “We in the fourth-dimension have a magical ability too.  We can calculate the probability that a seventh-dimension mugger will be able to produce any given finite sum of money to an amazing degree of accuracy.  So if I ask you to produce finite sum n, I know the probability that you will be able to produce that sum is 1:1,000,000,000,000,000n Consequently, the likelihood that you will not make good on your promise always outweighs the potential reward for taking the risk. Sorry, you can’t have my wallet.” Interestingly enough, if the mugger were to claim omnipotence, and that he could give infinite utility to Pascal, then the risk and reward are balanced. One might just give a wallet to such a god.  But Pascal might just as well take a risk on Christ instead, since Christ never threatened to take his wallet in a dark alley!

Bostrom’s analysis trades on Pascal evaluating the likelihood that a mugger could produce ANY given amount of money rather than evaluating the likelihood that the mugger could produce a PARTICULAR amount of money. We are to take the probability of producing 1 quadrillion dollars as equally likely as the probability of producing 10 quadrillion. But why should we buy into this? If magical power is analogous to any other finite physical power source, then the likelihood that a given quantity of some effect will be produced is directly proportionate to the quantity promised. Sure, we could pretend along with Bostrom that Pascal is some kind of a buffoon, but I don’t think this sheds much light on Pascal’s wager.  It is just an uncharitable characterization of this genius of the 17th century.

1N. Bostrom (2009) “Pascal’s Mugging”, Analysis, Vol: 69 (3), pp. 443 -445.