The Death of Pascal’s Wager

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 13, 2010 in Video

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{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark April 14, 2010 at 12:00 am

O.K., but suppose a Christian apologist convinced you that at the very least, the evidence for Christianity is better than that of any other religion, even if it’s not in itself very convincing. Then the standard response given by this video – that for any wager, there is a whole host of competing and equally likely anti-wagers – would no longer apply.

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Hermes April 14, 2010 at 4:15 am

Mark, discussing fantasy is a wonderful thing. Any statisticians out there want to address this hypothetical? Say, limit other claims to 99 religions. Also, discard what the video identifies and also limit the Christian ones to a single unified claim, for example Lutheranism or Catholicism (not the current sectarian fractal).

Note that in the above, I’ve discarded nearly the entire argument of the video, as well as the wise recommendation to search for knowledge that is credible. It is that length that is necessary to resurrect Pascal’s faulty gambit.

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Aaron April 14, 2010 at 5:15 am

The movie made me realise something I had taken for granted. There is no guarantee that “God” has revealed his one true religion. After all, we have only known most religions for at best 5,000 or so years, yet humans have existed for maybe 200,000 years. What guarantee is there that WE are in the privileged position, yet many before have passed away ignorant of the “one true faith”.

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Reginald Selkirk April 14, 2010 at 5:52 am
Mark April 14, 2010 at 6:05 am

To answer the question I posed above, let me link to the following paper by Elliott Sober and Gregory Mougin here. It helped me with some lingering doubts I had about the standard responses to Pascal’s Wager like the ones in the video.

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Bill Maher April 14, 2010 at 6:06 am

Mark, having slightly better odds still makes it deplorably low and one of millions of choices.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 6:14 am

Mark, having slightly better odds still makes it deplorably low and one of millions of choices.

I’m not sure that matters. Say a belief is “Pascalian” if the rewards of believing it (if it’s true) are infinitely good and the penalties of disbelieving it (if it’s true) are infinitely bad. Then if there are three incompatible Pascalian theistic beliefs A, B and C such that P(A) = 19%, P(B) = P(C) = 15% and P(atheism) = 51%, it could seem intuitively prudent to adopt belief A if you have the power to artificially alter your beliefs. This is true even though P(A) is low, and indeed even though P(A|theism) is low.

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lukeprog April 14, 2010 at 6:18 am
Hermes April 14, 2010 at 6:21 am

To answer the question I posed above, let me link to the following paper by Elliott Sober and Gregory Mougin here.

Correct link (?): http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/Mougin&Sober.94.pdf

(The blog software requires a leading http:// or translates the link as a local one on commonsenseatheism.com.)

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Transplanted Lawyer April 14, 2010 at 6:33 am

But even if it were true that Christianity (of some sort) had an edge in plausibility over other “Pascalian” religious propositions, the real scenario is between dozens, if not hundreds, of competing and mutually exclusive “Pascalian” propositions, as well as hundreds more “non-Pascalian” but theistic propositions, as well as at least dozens more “non-Pascalian,” non-theistic propositions, and the final possibility, secular rationalism.

This more realistic probability array looks something like this, with “Pascalian” alternatives noted by an asterisk:

P(Christianity) = .02% *
P(Judaism) = .01% *
P(Islam) = .01% *
P(Hinduism) = .01% *
P(Buddhism) = .01% *
P(Shinto) = .01%
P(Confucianism) = .01%
P(Taoism) = .01%
P(African tribal animism) = .01%
P(South American tribal animism) = .01%
P(Australian aboriginal animism) = .01%
P(Zoroastrianism) = .01% *
P(Mithraism)= .01% *
P(Wicca)= .01% *
P(Voudou)= .01%
P(Santeria)= .01%
P(Hawaiian polytheism)= .01% *
P(Classical Greco-Roman polytheism)= .01%
P(Norse polytheism)= .01%
P(Egyptian polytheism)= .01%
P(Mesopotamian polytheism)= .01%
P(Maya-Olmec-Aztec polytheism)= .01%
P(Solipsistic insanity)= .01%
P(The Matrix)= .01%
P(Secular Rationalism)= 99.75%

While in such an array Christianity is twice as likely as any of the other Pascalian possibilities, and all but one of the non-Pascalian possibilities, the enhanced probability of Christianity is not significant enough that prudence dictates altering one’s beliefs.

Further, I posit that it is not possible for one to intentionally alter one’s beliefs anyway.

Further, I posit that an objective analysis of Christianity as opposed to other theistic propositions reveals that it is actually no more likely to be true than any of the others.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 6:52 am

I don’t really see a principled difference between my highly simplified scenario and your more realistic one. In mine, P(A|theism) is only about 38%, whereas in yours, P(Christianity|theism) is much lower. But either way, they’re both low; and so I could take my intuition in the first case to transfer over to the second.

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Transplanted Lawyer April 14, 2010 at 7:03 am

The issue is whether Christianity has more intuitive appeal as a “safe bet” than atheism. Faced with the overwhelming likelihood that there is no supernatural at all and a vast array of very unlikely theistic possibilities, one theistic choice that has only a minimally increased plausibility as compared to the others lacks any significant enhancement to its intuitive appeal.

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Justfinethanks April 14, 2010 at 7:13 am

O.K., but suppose a Christian apologist convinced you that at the very least, the evidence for Christianity is better than that of any other religion

Then the apologist has just abandoned Pascal’s wager and then it still doesn’t apply. Pascal’s wager tries to argue, ignoring whether or not it is more probably true or not, that it is pragmatic to believe in Christianity over atheism.

As soon as you say “Well, but Christianity is more probably true than those other religions,” (which I certainly don’t grant, because I don’t see how it could be more probably true than deism for example) then you have stopped caring about pragmatism and stated caring about truth value. But the whole point of Pascal’s Wager is to ignore truth value in favor pragmatism. And as soon as you ignore pragmatism again, I am again allowed to bring atheism to the table.

So, no matter where you go, the whole thing just collapses on itself.

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Jscottkill April 14, 2010 at 7:41 am

Justfinethanks,
It’s clear that you haven’t read Pensées; if you had, you’d have a better understanding of the Wager in light of other religious claims. I’m not suggesting that Pascal’s Gambit is all that persuasive; what I am suggesting is that you not knock it until you’ve tried it.

I’m also uncertain that deism should be counted as a religion.

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Reginald Selkirk April 14, 2010 at 7:44 am

Should I apply Pascal’s wager to those e-mails I get from the nice gentleman in Nigeria? After all, if they were true, the potential reward would be great..

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Hermesq April 14, 2010 at 8:51 am

To flip Pascal’s Wager on it’s head, I contend that there are few to no Christians that really believe in an eternal afterlife. They demonstrate that by their actions. As such, the probability of cashing in on PW is near zero even for the self-described faithful.

To see what I mean, take a look at The Problem of Faith. It gets very interesting starting at the 2:30 mark, and point driven home at 4:00-5:15.

Christians are welcome to tell me where I’m mistaken, and where The Problem of Faith video fails as well.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 9:04 am

The issue is whether Christianity has more intuitive appeal as a “safe bet” than atheism. Faced with the overwhelming likelihood that there is no supernatural at all and a vast array of very unlikely theistic possibilities, one theistic choice that has only a minimally increased plausibility as compared to the others lacks any significant enhancement to its intuitive appeal.

Why is that? Intuitively, all Pascalian beliefs have expected utilities greater than that of atheism; and since it’s rather difficult to compare the utilities of two Pascalian beliefs, it seems (intuitively!) plausible that one should go with the highest probability Pascalian belief.

One thing you might want to call into question is whether expected utility is really the only thing that practical rationality tells us to maximize. Nick Bostrom has a nice paper called “Pascal’s Mugging” illustrating this.

Then the apologist has just abandoned Pascal’s wager and then it still doesn’t apply. Pascal’s wager tries to argue, ignoring whether or not it is more probably true or not, that it is pragmatic to believe in Christianity over atheism.

Huh? It’s true that my hypothetical response involves evidential considerations, but it still has a very Pascal-esque conclusion (namely, it’s prudent to be a Christian if it’s marginally more probable than any other religion, no matter how improbable it is next to atheism).

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Justfinethanks April 14, 2010 at 10:27 am

Huh? It’s true that my hypothetical response involves evidential considerations

Then what exactly is the point of bringing in prudential considerations?

Here’s my problem with how people present Pascal’s wager. They emphasize prudential considerations, but not to the point that it brings non-Christian religions (that might have a more pleasant heaven or a more unpleasant hell) to the table. And then they emphasize evidential considerations, but not to the point that it overwhelms prudential considerations and brings atheism back to the table for serious consideration.

They basically mix these two concerns until they get the result they want.

So why exactly should I consider your odd mixture of the prudential and the evidential the best one, as opposed to one that tilts the scales in favor of Zoroastrianism?

It’s just a very, very odd way of doing epistemology.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 10:40 am

Then what exactly is the point of bringing in prudential considerations?

The point of the many-gods objection is to show that one doesn’t have a prudential reason to be a theist, going by Pascal’s logic. My point was that adding in some very weak evidential considerations (i.e., those that don’t require showing theism is overall probable) may cast this line into doubt.

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rvkevin April 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

I’m not sure that matters. Say a belief is “Pascalian” if the rewards of believing it (if it’s true) are infinitely good and the penalties of disbelieving it (if it’s true) are infinitely bad. Then if there are three incompatible Pascalian theistic beliefs A, B and C such that P(A) = 19%, P(B) = P(C) = 15% and P(atheism) = 51%, it could seem intuitively prudent to adopt belief A if you have the power to artificially alter your beliefs. This is true even though P(A) is low.

This is assuming the only possibilities of gods are those demonstrated by the traditional religions. If we are to include gods that value reason, the atheist would be in a better position to receive the reward. For this reason, disbelieving it and it being true does not always result in punishment. Wouldn’t it be much more likely a god would reward the rational as opposed to the irrational? If not, why?

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toweltowel April 14, 2010 at 10:52 am

Mark,

Why can’t atheism be a “Pascalian” belief? After all, perhaps God exists, but rewards atheists with eternal happiness, and punishes theists with eternal unhappiness.

In general, it looks like any belief can be “Pascalian”, depending on what sort of afterlife God has arranged. And then we’re back to evaluating beliefs on epistemic grounds, as opposed to prudential grounds.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 11:54 am

Let G = “God exists.” Let T = “If God exists, God is theist-friendly” and A = “If God exists, then God is atheist-friendly,” where God is said to be x-friendly if he sends adherents of x to heaven and non-adherents to hell. Then we can simplify things by assuming three possibilities: ~G, G&T and G&A. The utility of belief in theism is then P(~G)U(false belief in God) + P(G&T)U(heaven) + P(G&A)U(hell), and similarly the utility of belief in atheism is P(~G)U(correct disbelief in God) + P(G&T)U(hell) + P(G&A)U(heaven).

It’s not obvious how to compare these, since they both involve positive and negative infinite quantities. Perhaps Pascal might say: “Let us imagine that going to heaven is as good as going to hell is bad. Let us also pretend that they are finite in magnitude m, so that U(heaven) = m and U(hell) = -m. Then the utility of belief in theism is P(~G)U(false belief in God) + (P(G&T) – P(G&A))*m, and similarly the utility of belief in atheism is P(~G)U(correct disbelief in God) – (P(G&T) – P(G&A))*m. Now, since P(G&T) – P(G&A) is so tiny, the first term of both expressions dominates the sum when m is even moderately big. Atheism is clearly the better strategy here. However, when m gets big enough, the first term of both expressions starts to become negligible next to the second. And when this happens, since P(G&T) > P(G&A) because of certain apologetic arguments, theism starts to come out ahead. Now in actuality, the utility of heaven and the disutility of hell are both infinite: m is actually bigger than any number you choose. So theism must be the better strategy.”

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toweltowel April 14, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Mark,

But the original point of the many gods objection is that there’s no basis for privileging any particular afterlife reward/punishment arrangement as more likely than any other. So I’m not sure why P(G&T) would be greater than P(G&A). And it’s hard to even imagine what “apologetic arguments” could help.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Yes, and I was saying that perhaps there is a basis for privileging certain afterlife arrangements over others, namely, perhaps one religion has evidence that’s marginally better than any of the others.

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Bill Maher April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Mark, being the most convincing religion is like being the hottest waitress at Denny’s.

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Jacopo April 14, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Mark, being the most convincing religion is like being the hottest waitress at Denny’s.  

Or the world’s tallest midget.

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Zeb April 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Until this video, all the arguments I’d heard against the Wager seemed to me to fail (including most of the ones in this video). However I had never considered the possible god who gives infinite reward to atheists and infinite punishment to others. That may be the death stroke to the Wager. However Mark makes a good point: we’d have to be able to say P(G&A) is greater than or equal to P(G&T). How ironic that atheism has to be false if it is to be the more pragmatic choice in the wager.

Mark, I think you concede too much when you say that U(false belief in God) is greater than U(correct disbelief). Personally I envy the lives of my religious heroes (of several religions, some of which must be “false”) more than the lives of my atheist heroes. If atheism is true I want to know it, but not for reasons of utility outside of the pleasure of believing I don’t believe falsehoods.

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toweltowel April 14, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Mark,

You’re right, I dropped the ball a bit. But even given your suggestion that some particular religion is more likely than all the others, that still wouldn’t show it to be more likely than the hypothesis that God rewards atheists and punishes theists. So I don’t see how the argument manages to get started.

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Zeb April 14, 2010 at 1:38 pm

By the way, does anyone know of any case of an agnostic or atheist actually taking up Pascal’s Wager?

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lukeprog April 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Zeb,

Good question! If nobody knows of anyone doing that, maybe theists will finally stop pestering atheists with the wager, since they’ll realize it never works.

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Mark April 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Well, I presume that we have no evidence whatsoever that God rewards atheists and punishes theists, and I don’t find the prior probability of this hypothesis much higher than its reverse. So if there are some religions like Christianity which are theist-friendly, and these have some small modicum of evidence, perhaps that would do the trick.

Good question! If nobody knows of anyone doing that, maybe theists will finally stop pestering atheists with the wager, since they’ll realize it never works.

I tend to think Pascal’s Wager is mainly for believers. “Don’t trouble yourself to think too critically about your religion! You have nothing to gain and everything to lose!”

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Jeff H April 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Good question! If nobody knows of anyone doing that, maybe theists will finally stop pestering atheists with the wager, since they’ll realize it never works.  

Yes, but if it ever DOES work, the payoff will be infinite!

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Hermes April 14, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Zeb, the faults of Pascal’s Wager are well known and easy to find. Just punch pascal’s wager into a search engine and hit enter. Most of the links on the first page will cover the common and not so common criticisms.

Criticism aside, the point I bring up is that Pascal’s Wager is rarely given by a Christian as a primary reason for them being a Christian. Yet, they bring it up to non-Christians when they themselves aren’t interested in it. Very strange.

Personally, if I were attempting to convince someone of my case I would not lead with material I don’t think would be potentially convincing to my doppelganger.

* * *

Back to the errors…

Consider the first five results from a search for Pascal’s Wager;

#1 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager

Specifically: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager#Criticisms

#2 – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager

#3 – http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/wager.html

#4 – http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/pascals-wager.htm

#5 – http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/theistic-proofs/pascals-wager

I would generally agree with the first three and the fifth.

Note that the fourth link is to a Christian apologist, Peter Kreeft. He writes;

“Most philosophers think Pascal’s Wager is the weakest of all arguments for believing in the existence of God. Pascal thought it was the strongest. ”

Now, read the other links then — with them at hand — walk through Kreeft’s take on the Wager (ignoring his odd miscategorization of agnostic knowledge claims as incompatable with belief systems such as different theisms or non-belief systems like generic atheism).

Note that while Kreeft does a decent job of summarizing Pascal’s position, he does not deal with the criticisms of the Wager itself shown in the other links. Some of those criticisms were mentioned to Pascal at the time, while Dostoevsky (quoted to bolster the Wager) was about 200 years after Pascal’s time when most criticisms of the Wager were already formulated.

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Zeb April 15, 2010 at 2:38 am

Hermes, thanks but I have heard and rejected all the objections other than the possibility that God (or something) rewards unbelief and punishes belief.

I reject the “many revelations” objection because the wager only gets you to the point of seeking faith in the true god. Any god who rewards true believers might (perhaps would likely) offer means of finding true faith to all earnest seekers, and through humble prayer and study such a seeker might find the true faith. As long as that is a possibility it would be rational for a wagerer to say, “I will assume there is a god and for the moment leave aside knowledge of the true faith is, ready to accept what intimations I may find in seeking.”

I reject the “anti-wager” because I evaluate a good religious life as being most utilitarian even without eternal life. In fact I am inclined to reject as ungodly any religion or any part of any religion that detracts from the quality of earthly life of the person living it or any other person that that person affects.

And I reject the “can’t choose belief” argument due to my and a lot of other people’s experience. For better or for worse I think it is pretty common that people go from accepting (out of internal obligation) propositions that they don’t believe, to finding reasons to genuinely believe.

If I were in a position of unbelief I doubt I would find the wager useful if I put the probability of a faith rewarding/punishing god at less than 25%, and it would be inconceivable if I put it at less than 1%. I would still say though that seeking faith would be the technically rational utilitarian choice unless I put the probability of a faithless-rewarding/punishing god equal to or greater than a faith rewarding god.

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Hermes April 15, 2010 at 5:36 am

Zeb, thanks for the reply. I don’t understand your comment on ‘the wager only gets you to the point of seeking faith in the true god’; there are many potentially ‘true’ deities, with ‘truth’ not being limited to existence, and there are many seekers that say they have found the proper one or are on the right path to the proper one. That is another conversation as are your other comments, and one I’m willing to follow, but I am not primarily interested in those answers.

Here’s what I am interested in;

Do you personally consider Pascal’s Wager to be convincing to you and/or a part of the reason why you consider (or do not consider) Christianity specifically valid?

If so;

I have no questions. You would be one of the few people who I’ve ever met who emphasizes Pascal’s Wager is personally convincing as opposed to it being just an extra idea in addition to what they find personally convincing.

If not;

I. Why do you think Christians bring Pascal’s Wager up to non-Christians? (If you notice this yourself.)

II. What is your short list? (If you are a Christian and consider Christianity as both a religion and a theological point of view valid.)

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Hermes April 15, 2010 at 5:47 am

Edit: Drop “theological point of view” and use “theistic point of view” instead in the following part;

II. What is your short list? (If you are a Christian and consider Christianity as both a religion and a theistic point of view valid.)

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darktango78 April 15, 2010 at 10:37 am

A video about how poor Pascal, an awesome philosopher and mathematician, is now largely known for his wager, when it was just a minor thought experiment he wrote in the margin of a book.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTHN_eQaEaI

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Hermes April 15, 2010 at 10:53 am

darktango78, unfortunately his one big goof gets press because he was such an impressive intellect in so many other things, and — importantly — people are using his justified fame to push an unjustified idea.

Along those lines, Newton — considered by some to be the most intelligent person in history — is rightly criticized for being into alchemy.

Smart people have the ability to convince themselves of absurdities. Sometimes that is because nobody else is available or willing to challenge them on their mistakes.

Unlike Pascal, Newton does not have people promoting alchemy under his name, so his goof is largely ignored. Yet, if there was a doctrinal arm of a dogmatic group that felt the need to promote alchemy, you can bet that they would mention Newton at every opportunity.

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Zeb April 15, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Hermes, I have never considered that it applied to me because I have always felt confident in God’s providence (even when I did not believe in Christianity), and I stopped believing in a hell as infinite punishment before I ever heard of the wager. Now that you force me to think more closely about it, maybe I should try to adopt one of the more strictly Pascalian after-life belief systems just to hedge my bet.

I don’t think I have heard Christians actually try to use the wager as a rhetorical tool. More often I hear it brought up by atheists as an example of dumb theist arguments, as a historical curiosity or irrelevant puzzle, or as a metaphor for some real world policy choice.

My reasons for being a theist are the argument from contingency and something maybe like the “sensus divinorum.” My reason for being Christian is personal revelation.

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Hermes April 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Zeb, thank you.

For reference, as an atheist, I hear some variation of Pascal’s Wager on a very regular basis from Christians. It is equally annoying as it is embarrassing. For reference, when the Muslims bring up their own version (with added details on how bad Islamic Hell is and how great Islamic Heaven is) this argument is just as effective as the Christian one.

As for hedging one’s bet by conscious choice or sheer will, as has been pointed out in the criticisms of PW, a deity that is consistent with Christian teachings would know^^^ they are doing that and would not accept such an overt hedge unless it condoned deception or the person held the idea as true with as much seriousness as they would in picking the right chamber in a game of Russian Roulette.

This level of seriousness, of course, is not seen in reality much if at all.

.
.
.

^^^ – Or maybe not. The Bible itself is not consistent on this issue.

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Hermes April 15, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Related from the good folks at The Atheist Experience: Pascal’s Wager Debunked.

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Zeb April 15, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Hermes, I appreciate your respect. I still don’t see what the errors in Pascal’s wager are (outside the one I acknowledged above), but since I am not about to change my beliefs to a Pascalian system, I will have to think about it more. Here’s why I don’t think the objections you raise defeat the wager.

Your first link says that it may well be possible to choose to one’s beliefs based on desire rather than (or even in opposition to evidence), within limits. For starters, theists are accused of doing so all the time. People do it often in personal relationships and in evaluating their chances of success in all kinds of endeavors. The question of “doxastic voluntarism” will be answered by psychology and neuroscience, but I think there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that beliefs often result from desires, not evidence.

But if your point is simply that an omniscient god would not accept belief based on desire, I still disagree. But let’s differentiate between feigned belief and real belief acquired by deliberate effort not motivated by truth seeking. Pascal’s claim was that through efforts such as ritual, righteousness, and prayer one could attain real belief. If a person could honestly say, “I started going to church because I was afraid of hell, but now I believe it’s all true,” according to many forms of Christianity god would have no reason to condemn that person.

Your final challenge to the sincerity of most Christians’ beliefs is a good challenge that I would like myself and all Christians to think about, but that video says some really ridiculous things about human nature. Everyday we all make choices that we know are not rational in cost/benefit/risk analysis. We are not utility optimizing machines. Lots of people in health care professions smoke cigarettes. I skip physical exercise, consume unhealthy food and waste time on unproductive diversions even though I know doing the opposite would make me happier in this life. We Christians surely don’t all have the strength of faith we claim, but we are also humans who are as motivated by fear and laziness and consumption-lust as anyone else is, in opposition to rational utility optimization.

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Zeb, a long detailed response … didn’t survive a restart of my browser.

I will say this; I think that some ideas I have about how theists think is solidifying based on your comments. For that, I thank you for your response and I regret not being able to return the favor.

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Zeb April 16, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Hermes, I am sorry to have lost the opportunity to read your thoughts. I’m satisfied leaving the question open as to why, though Pascal’s wager may be technically rational, almost no one, including myself, would act upon it.

Something occurred to me today though. I think one of the biggest divides between theists and atheists, at least people who think on the level of this blog, is between accepting and rejecting personal experience and intuition as evidence for belief. I do accept private evidence, but if I judged private evidence to be totally unreliable for the same reasons that Luke does, but still had the same intuitions about the existence of God and the afterlife that I do now, I think I might be worried enough about the possibility that my intuitions were right that I would take the wager, and use it as a rational defense for my choice. But without palpable hope and or fear about the afterlife, I don’t think the rationality (if it is) of Pascals Wager is compelling enough to change ones lifestyle and belief system.

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Zeb, I have no problem with intuition or personal experience. [See Malcolm Gladwell's Blink for a cursory overview; note that I do not completely agree with him.]

While I de-theized (?) — or simply reverted back to atheism — at an early age (8-12?), and have since had no gods, I do not reject mythos or intuition. Why should I?

To make this a bit concrete;

* When I leave my house or close a car door, I make sure I check my keys before pulling the locked door shut.

* On the other end of the scale, if a voice ‘speaks to me’, I am ready to hear it. I appreciate and respect my imagination, and find it strange that others do not. [example: While insightful, I personally take it as sad that Ms. Gilbert had to hunt for and justify her genie/genius/muse as opposed to just accepting it.]

[ Note on respect: This is not a trivial word. I do not respect someone I do not know. I can be cordial. I can be polite. I can not respect a stranger. Respect comes after years, and is tentative and limited. ]

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Hermes April 16, 2010 at 8:51 pm

In addition, there is no life after death. I go into detail on this issue here.

The Christian idea of eternity increases problems for them. It does not resolve anything except very superficially.

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Zeb April 17, 2010 at 5:18 am

I like your list except item 11, I just don’t understand what you mean by it. We who believe in some sort of afterlife must use insights like yours to refine our concept of what afterlife could possibly mean, but I don’t think you have defeated the concept.

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Hermes April 18, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Zeb, the point of the list was to show that it is not required to have a belief in an afterlife or to reject a belief in an afterlife when there are facts available to us to answer a related question; Is it possible to ‘go’ to an immaterial part of reality?

The answer to that question is no; the soul is bound to the brain.

The items in the list step you through the evidence for that claim.

For now, let’s investigate the landscape….

* * *

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that there is an immaterial area that exists and allows incorporeal entities to exist.

Further, let’s say, that there is a way for normal humans to unambiguously identify such an immaterial area and that on investigation let’s say we actually found one. During the investigation, we also detect what seem to be entities roaming around in the immaterial area, and that there seem to be different zones in this immaterial area. The different zones in the area seem to be wonderous, strange, horrifying, sublimely peaceful, … they seem to be many things, yet most seem just to be incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, after dozens and dozens of years, we can not determine anything unambiguously human about the entities, or definitive about that area. The entities, and their slice of reality, are simply beyond our understanding.

This, as can be expected, does not stop people from trying to make sense of it. Many people of Earth attribute this immaterial area as an afterlife, and start to label the different zones with names like ‘Valhalla’, ‘Hades’, ‘Limbo’, ‘the Elysian Fields’, ‘dream time’, ‘Amenthe’, ‘Tartarus’, and even ‘Hell’ as well as ‘Heaven’. Some people make claims to have communicated with the entities or to have received messages through the movements of the entities. Most people including experts in many fields admit that they are clueless, yet fascinated, with the immaterial area.

* * *

Now, with that an as a given, the list shows that from what we know about life we can see there is no such thing as an incorporeal soul. As such, there is no way to move from a material area into an immaterial area.

Now wait!, you may say, Isn’t this just the bias of a materialist? Aren’t you presuming the conclusion you want to arrive at?

No. First, when I started to make the list I thought that I must have been missing something. The case for an incorporeal soul must be strong, and when I spell it out someone — somewhere — will show what mistakes I’ve made or details I’ve forgotten. After posting a version of this list many many times, it dawned on me that there really wasn’t a case — let alone a strong one — for incorporeal souls. It was at that point that I started this thread.

Secondly, I’m not a materialist, and I even granted that there may be immaterial areas in the above example, though the evidence we have about life is explicitly based in verifiable material claims.

As such, if there are immaterial claims that can be added to this discussion — claims that are both unambiguous and do not require specific presuppositions — then they can be added to this discussion. Currently, I am unaware of them.

In philosophical terms, since matter is part of reality, if something is shown to be true in a set of facts based on matter then it can not be made un-true by assertion of non-matter claims about reality. Those non-matter claims must be consistent with what we determine about the material world. Note that this allows us to demonstrate that our understanding of matter is flawed, but it does not throw out material claims entirely because they are not to our personal liking.

* * *

Step by step

I. Q. Is it possible that ‘we’ exist elsewhere, and the bodies we are in are just shadows of ‘us’?

A. No. There are many examples that show this is not the case. For example, when sober people often say one thing, and when drunk (or over stimulated) they give a different answer, or act entirely differently. People suffering from dementia also can give different answers depending on if they are currently taking medicine to treat the dementia or not. Just not getting any sleep for a day or two can lead a normal person to think bizarre thoughts.

II. Q.

keep in mind that the list wasn’t my attempt at first saying there’s no such thing as an afterlife then m

on item 11 & 3 …

11. Think back to #3. Now, with that in mind, where do ‘we’ go if our brains suffer a stroke or other damage? Are there surpluses of souls hanging around, waiting for brain damage before they can be inserted into a live body?

3. All of our thoughts while we are alive are contained in a structure of neurons. This can be seen in a variety of well documented cases from Phineas Gage through to the impacts of severing the corpus colosum and the impacts of traumas such as strokes and alzheimers as well as the structures found that map nerves to a variety of tasks and thoughts.

11 flows from 3 and some of the other items.

Mind/body dualism has no support. It is demonstrable that ‘the mind is what the brain does’[Pinker] is an accurate description.

, then when the brain is damaged, what happened to the soul?

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Hermes April 18, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Grr …. ignore that last post. It was not ready. I must have misclicked when someone pulled me away.

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Zeb April 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Well, I am fascinated and eager to read what you really wanted to post then.

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Hermes April 19, 2010 at 4:08 am

[ Sorry for the delay and the earlier goof. The weekend was glorious ... and the week is filling up. ]

Zeb, the point of the list was to show that it is not required to have a belief in an afterlife or to reject a belief in an afterlife when there are facts available to us to answer a related question; Is it possible to ‘go’ to an immaterial part of reality?

The answer to that question is no; the soul is bound to the brain.

The items in the list step you through the evidence for that claim.

For now, let’s investigate the landscape….

* * *

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that there is an immaterial area that exists and allows incorporeal entities to exist.

Further, let’s say, that there is a way for normal humans to unambiguously identify such an immaterial area and that on investigation let’s say we actually found one. During the investigation, we also detect what seem to be entities roaming around in the immaterial area, and that there seem to be different zones in this immaterial area. The different zones in the area seem to be wonderous, strange, horrifying, sublimely peaceful, … they seem to be many things, yet most seem just to be incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, after dozens and dozens of years, we can not determine anything unambiguously human about the entities, or definitive about that area. The entities, and their slice of reality, are simply beyond our understanding.

This, as can be expected, does not stop people from trying to make sense of it. One line of reasoning is that since an afterlife realm is often said also to be ‘beyond our understanding’, this immaterial area is a strong candidate for an afterlife realm. On that track and others, many people of Earth attribute this immaterial area as an afterlife, and start to label the different zones with names like ‘Valhalla’, ‘Hades’, ‘Limbo’, ‘the Elysian Fields’, ‘dream time’, ‘Amenthe’, ‘Tartarus’, and even ‘Hell’ as well as ‘Heaven’.

Some people make claims to have communicated with the entities or to have received messages through the movements of the entities.

Most people including experts in many fields admit that they are clueless, yet fascinated, with the immaterial area.

* * *

Now, with that an as a given, the list shows that from what we know about life we can see there is no such thing as an incorporeal soul. As such, there is no way to move from a material area into an immaterial area.

Now wait!, you may say, Isn’t this just the bias of a materialist? Aren’t you presuming the conclusion you want to arrive at?

No. First, when I started to make the list I thought that I must have been missing something. The case for an incorporeal soul must be strong, and when I spell it out someone — somewhere — will show what mistakes I’ve made or details I’ve forgotten. After posting a version of this list many many times, it dawned on me that there really wasn’t a case — let alone a strong one — for incorporeal souls. It was at that point that I started this thread.

Secondly, I’m not a materialist, and I even granted that there may be immaterial areas in the above example, though the evidence we have about life is explicitly based in verifiable material claims.

As such, if there are immaterial claims that can be added to this discussion — claims that are both unambiguous and do not require specific presuppositions — then they can be added to this discussion. Currently, I am unaware of them.

In philosophical terms, since matter is part of reality, if something is shown to be true in a set of facts based on matter then it can not be made un-true by assertion of non-matter claims about reality. Those non-matter claims must be consistent with what we determine about the material world. Note that this allows us to demonstrate that our understanding of matter is flawed, but it does not throw out material claims entirely because they are not to our personal liking.

* * *

Step by step

I. Q. Is it possible that ‘we’ exist elsewhere, and the bodies we are in are just shadows of ‘us’?

A. No. There are many examples that show this is not the case. For example, when sober people often say one thing, and when drunk (or over stimulated) they give a different answer, or act entirely differently. People suffering from dementia also can give different answers depending on if they are currently taking medicine to treat the dementia or not. Just not getting any sleep for a day or two can lead a normal person to think bizarre thoughts.

This is why we can’t stand outside of our own selves; there is no incorporeal soul.

II. Q. Can’t our souls just be transferred by a supernatural means into an immaterial area — like Heaven — upon death?

A. That proposal, to be blunt, doesn’t even make sense. Why? Because of what we see in reality. For example, when some people with severe epilepsy, have their corpus callosum severed, the right and left hemispheres of their brains are effectively isolated. They have become two people in one body.

This leads to fragmenting the idea of where ‘souls’ go, and the results are absurd;

Do both parts of someone with a severed corpus callosum go to an immaterial area? Does one go to a ‘heaven’ and another a ‘hell’? How about a psychopath who is one because of a biological error (tumor, birth defect) that cuts them off from their potential empathy? Does the whole ‘soul’ go to a ‘hell’ for the murders, or does only the traumatized part? 100%? 0.3%? 50/50? If the whole goes to one place or another, is it good that the non-psychopath parts must remain with the psycho?

* * *

Mind/body dualism has no support. It is demonstrable that ‘the mind is what the brain does’[Pinker] is an accurate description. Saying that it is not the case requires that the facts we know in one part of reality be consistent with those we assert in another.

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Zeb April 19, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Those non-matter claims must be consistent with what we determine about the material world.

I couldn’t agree more. Our religious and spiritual beliefs must be winnowed by scientific and rational knowledge. One of the main differences between wise theists and smart atheists is that we think the two can coexist, they seem to disagree.

On to the topic at hand. You apparently equate the soul with the mind. I agree that it is pretty well demonstrated, though not yet with 100% certainty and totality in my opinion, that “the mind is what the brain does”. However, even without the revelations of neuroscience there is plenty enough reason to categorize all thought, feeling, memory, and at least most of “personality” as external objects. In any moment I find it obvious that I am perceiving everything that would be called my mind just as I am perceiving the room around me. So it is not at all surprising to learn that mental objects are brain-things just as much as sensory perceptions ultimately are. But what is the thing that is perceiving my mind? You say that there is no such thing as an incorporeal soul. The only two traits that I would confidently assign to an incorporeal soul are consciousness and will. I make that assignment because I, like many atheists, find it impossible to believe that those traits as such could arise from and be located in matter. Of course such atheists are the ones who deny the existence of consciousness and will as such, but their position seems to me to reject the underlying purpose of philosophical discussion itself, and I can only say “speak for yourselves, robots.” :)

What do you think of the descriptions of mystical experience, either ecstatic experiences common to Christian and Muslim mystics, or the everyday sort of Zen no-mind of Eastern religions? If these people’s descriptions can be taken at face value, they lose all the attributes of the soul as you define it. They speak of a union with God, or suchness, or whatever, and a total loss of self consciousness and in some cases world consciousness. And yet of course they ultimately retain their personal identity, even while their personality, thoughts, feelings, memories are absent. I do presume that these experiences have direct neurological correspondences, and may be completely explainable by brain events. My point is that all the particulars of the mind are gone, or at least radically changed, but the person is still there, and specifically the thing that is constant is the thing that is conscious of whatever is going on, and the thing that wills in regards to whatever is going on. I should have mentioned that another trait common to mystical experience reports, besides the perception of oneness, is an attitude of continuing submission.

So this, I would say is the soul that may proceed into an immaterial part of reality, and nothing in your list touches on it as far as I can tell. Thank you very much for sharing though, it was very interesting reading, and I look forward to anything else you may have to share if you’re interested in continuing the discussion.

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Hermes April 19, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Zeb, I just posted a long message here … http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=6594#comment-41082 … and am going to sleep. I can’t promise a prompt response, but I’ll attempt a thoughtful one sometime Tuesday.

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Hermes April 22, 2010 at 4:31 pm

You say that there is no such thing as an incorporeal soul.

QED.

The only two traits that I would confidently assign to an incorporeal soul are consciousness and will. I make that assignment because I, like many atheists, find it impossible to believe that those traits as such could arise from and be located in matter. Of course such atheists are the ones who deny the existence of consciousness and will as such, but their position seems to me to reject the underlying purpose of philosophical discussion itself, and I can only say “speak for yourselves, robots.”

I’m neither; I hate solipsistic flavored arguments (and don’t really care about arguments that focus on will or consciousness being real or not), yet I don’t grant that will or consciousness are obviously incorporeal or immaterial.

Do you have an example where consciousness and will do not require a body?

A few notes;

I. I am not talking about any entities in the hypothetical (or an actual) immaterial area that I mentioned earlier. As such, this argument is *absolutely not* about the existence of any immaterial entity, such as a deity. Those conversations are separate from the one we are having now. (It could be that the early Jews had it right (no afterlife) just as many other religions did, but as they believe that Yahweh indeed exists and has a plan for all humans.)

II. Can we avoid consciousness entirely? Unless you can keep to very simple and unambiguous demonstrations of your point on this, consciousness conversations can lead to long and detailed rats nest about abstractions that almost never conclude with anything distinct. We could end up arguing over things neither of us could demonstrate even before we get back on topic here — a joy I’d like to avoid.

III. FWIW, I have no problem with consciousness and will except when they sidetrack larger more discussable topics.

* * *

On the will…

If you drink alcohol does your will change? If you have been under anesthesia for an operation, but not knocked out, does your will change?

As an example, I had to have some molars removed when I was young, and I remember distinctly that the anesthesiologist gave me Sodium Pentothal — just enough for me to be numb but not to put me asleep. For the span of about an hour, if someone said “Now, we are going to remove your left arm.” I would not have resisted. I would have been entirely OK with that.

We see a similar thing with people who are unable to feel pain (CIPA). Do they have a will? Yes. Do they understand pain? Unfortunately not and they often see no problem with injuring themselves, let alone understanding what to do when they are hurt. If they were suddenly cured, would they suddenly have a different will? I say yes, because if someone came up to them and stuck them with a needle, they would react much differently. Their feelings would change and how they express themselves would change just as mine changed while under Sodium Pentothal.

Note: I am in rough agreement with those who say that society is both the source and repository for much of what we claim are our personal thoughts, feelings, desires, … . A feral or severely neglected human, for example, is not in the same category as one who has benefited from even modest social interaction with a few other people. Like someone suffering brain traumas, they are damaged and may never recover. We’ve extended the (mostly) positive social interaction through technical means from stories told, song sung, writing, letters, and a blink in time ago telegraphs, radio, telephones, broadcast TV, satellites, computer assisted communications, and mobile phones and communications devices of various types.

Socialization and awareness of others starts early and can be seen in the actions of children who will fall down outside of the view of adults, look for a parent or other familiar adult, then — and only then — break into blood curdling screams of agony.

[ more later ]

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Zeb April 22, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Hermes, I’ll wait for the rest of what you are going to say, except to clarify that since I acknowledge the mind to be most likely completely a function of the brain, then mental conditions are not a part of what I mean by consciousness or will. Drugs or disease or any other physically internal or external condition may alter the options available to the will, but I would say it is the will that chooses between the available options. I don’t say this as a retreat in the face of neuroscience, but as a result of what seems to me to obviously be the case when I observe my situation.

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Hermes April 24, 2010 at 6:33 pm

What do you think of the descriptions of mystical experience, either ecstatic experiences common to Christian and Muslim mystics, or the everyday sort of Zen no-mind of Eastern religions?

First off, that’s such a wide category that I can’t answer it with any finesse.

I gave this response before, and it may be appropriate;

==========================================

That does not mean I can not have experiences that others would call religious or even theistic. As far as I can tell, the issue is one of attribution not of experience. I’m fully willing to experience things in a meditative state or to be enthralled with nature or the world beyond my toes or even to ’speak to people’ in my mind as people used to speak of being inspired by muses and geniuses. Yet, I see no reason to force a layer of anything else on to those experiences, or to even to deny them if they come. When theists make claims about experiences they often reach pre-existing sectarian conclusions. Of those who have a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion experience the details may point to the city of Mecca or an ashram on the river Ganges, yet they’re back at the same position as before conversion experience or confirmation experience.

==========================================

So, an experience can be the same for different people, yet what they attribute to the experience — including narrow ideas of spiritualism or not — can be quite different.

If these people’s descriptions can be taken at face value, they lose all the attributes of the soul as you define it.

The list is not a definition, but a description of what we know about reality and can unambiguously share with each other. If there are definitions at all, they arise from what reality provides.

As such, the list is possibly incomplete (likely), incorrect (probably in some parts, but not overall), or missing an important feature of reality that we can share unambiguously (not likely; I’ve looked and I’ve asked and the silence is quite amazing).

If the list is mostly complete, has fairly minor errors, and does not miss any critical feature of reality, then the conclusions flow from it and need no more embellishment or extra attribution.

They speak of a union with God, or suchness, or whatever, and a total loss of self consciousness and in some cases world consciousness. And yet of course they ultimately retain their personal identity, even while their personality, thoughts, feelings, memories are absent. I do presume that these experiences have direct neurological correspondences, and may be completely explainable by brain events.

Hold that thought…

My point is that all the particulars of the mind are gone, or at least radically changed, but the person is still there, and specifically the thing that is constant is the thing that is conscious of whatever is going on, and the thing that wills in regards to whatever is going on.

That is not unambiguously demonstrated to be true.

I should have mentioned that another trait common to mystical experience reports, besides the perception of oneness, is an attitude of continuing submission.

That — including attributing any experience as mystical — is an extra layer, not essential to the experiences themselves. They are cultural and/or personal additions.

So this, I would say is the soul that may proceed into an immaterial part of reality, and nothing in your list touches on it as far as I can tell. Thank you very much for sharing though, it was very interesting reading, and I look forward to anything else you may have to share if you’re interested in continuing the discussion.

The list shows that there is no room for immaterial existence. If there is anything real that the word soul applies to, it is expressed as the ancient Greeks did (and well, as the Romans did too); it speaks more about the features of the living — such as breathing — and less about some afterlife.

Note that this is something that many doctrines of different religions would be in complete agreement with, even those with a supernatural element. For example, the ideas of death in the Old Testament are not in conflict with this not completely out of alignment with this either. The additions that include some form of incorporeal/immaterial after-life-ceases essence are from non-Jewish sources such as the Christians and other more distantly related religious sects.

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Hermes April 24, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Hermes, I’ll wait for the rest of what you are going to say, except to clarify that since I acknowledge the mind to be most likely completely a function of the brain, then mental conditions are not a part of what I mean by consciousness or will. Drugs or disease or any other physically internal or external condition may alter the options available to the will, but I would say it is the will that chooses between the available options. I don’t say this as a retreat in the face of neuroscience, but as a result of what seems to me to obviously be the case when I observe my situation.

Clear as mud.

Each time we identify an attribute of a ‘soul’, we can point back to something material as the junction of it. That goes for everything from basic emotions to complex social interactions. The material may be a person’s brain or it may be the social environment in conjunction with the person’s brain.

If you disagree, then you need to offer demonstrations that are unambiguous. I’ve attempted to do this all along the way.

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Zeb April 24, 2010 at 8:50 pm

In the course of my own crisis of faith and epistemology, which was a lot like Luke’s actually, I tried to set up my own foundationalism. I started with: I perceive. Thus: I am that which perceives that which I perceive. Second: I will. And: I am that which wills that which I will. By “perceive” I simply meant “to witness any sort of thing”, and by “will” I meant “to incline toward an available option.” Though I eventually moved beyond absolute skepticism of anything not rationally based on foundational truth, I still find those statements to be essential, prior to any other sort of evidence or argument. If you disagree with those statements than I doubt I can say much more about this topic (though if you think you have sufficient knock down arguments against them I’d like to hear them, I just can’t imagine being moved on those points). If you agree, then I again put forward the capacity to perceive (which I referred to as “consciousness”) and the capacity to will as important features of reality that we can share unambiguously and that are missing from you list.

I am not committed to the idea that the spiritual part of a person, the soul, travels onward in time after death apart from the body into a non-material world. There are other models of Heaven and Hell and Eternity that I think fit acceptably within Christianity. But if the soul does travel into some afterlife without a body, I would expect it to carry with it only the consciousness (ability to perceive), the will, and the ontological identity of the person. All other attributes, I agree, are almost certainly contained totally in the body. But I see little good evidence or argument for, and a lot of good argument against the belief that consciousness and will are produced by the body. And so it is that nonmaterial part of oneself that may see what awaits in an afterlife, for which Pascal’s Wager might matter.

My point in referring to mystical experiences was not to give evidence for spirituality, it was just to show that people can lose all the things you were associating with the ‘soul’ – thoughts, emotions, personality – but they retain their consciousness, their will, and their identity. You take issue with my statement that “the person is still there.” Are you denying the continuity of personal identity, or maybe the actuality of personal identity at all?

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Hermes April 25, 2010 at 6:01 am

You could argue with a mechanic or a psychologist on any list of things you think are essential, but I don’t think you would get very far. Right or wrong, eventually the mechanic will use his tools, manuals, experience, and peers, and the psychologist will use her individual experience and that of the other members of the field she works in. That is the level of what I’m presenting. One of application, not speculation; personal perspectives are not the tail that wags this dog.

“If you disagree … If you agree, …”

As Laplace said, I have no need for that hypothesis in formulating the list, just as I would not need it to describe the motions of a planet or you would need it to order a meal at a restaurant.

I looked, I thought, I wrote, I got comments from others, I looked some more, I thought some more, and re-wrote.

It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong on those ‘being essential’. They are topics that are currently irrelevant and as such I’m not even addressing them. That is, I see no need to address that until you show how they are relevant to the conversation any more than a mechanic or a psychologist would consider them relevant to theirs in any critical application.

The work is yours to do at this point as I’ve done mine.

* * *

I do not reject ‘spiritual experiences’. The focus I had was on attribution. I think that people are mistaken. That said,

* * *

The exception I gave to “the person is still there” is that you phrased that as if the facts in the list were stripping off many parts and yet there was still an incorporeal/immaterial ‘person’ that remained. My request to you is simple and basic to human communication; Show me.

So far, I’ve had individuals go over the list for weeks to even months and many say that they disagree — but can’t say how the list is either incomplete or in error. I know it’s not perfect. That I fully admit. If I spent more time on it myself, I could probably make a half dozen major changes and expand it to a dozen or more pages of text.

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Hermes April 25, 2010 at 6:08 am

[ correction of second block of text, drop the trailing "That said," ]

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Hermes April 26, 2010 at 8:39 am

Here’s another example of exertion of will, this time through something that can be considered a spiritual experience; Deep meditation.

In normal situations, humans do not monitor or control basic autonomic systems such as breathing or heart rate.

Through an exertion of will, though, the autonomic breathing rhythm can be easily changed, and we can even stop breathing for from seconds to a couple minutes. Some people can control their breathing for many minutes. The record is over 10 minutes (one case 13+ minutes, and a new one that is somewhat being disputed of almost 15 minutes).

There are many other examples of this control ranging from the pain response to controlling other bodily functions such as skin temperature or heart rate. I personally can meditate and stop my heart for the span of a beat or two, a skill a friend of mine who was a marksman also developed to improve his ability to shoot. I think that I can also change my skin temperature as well, but I have not measured that so on that I could easily be mistaken.

Note that these events do not require immaterial explanations, and can be unambiguously described as expressions of will. Each of them can be verified using simple and direct methods as well as through the use of complex tools and technologies.

Additionally, there are times where we aren’t exerting our will or when our wills are not optimally expressed. For example, while sleeping or tired or malnourished or under the influence of some medicine or recreational substance. Some people explicitly reject recreational substances that interfere with their own awareness and ability to control their own actions. Wouldn’t that be silly if the will weren’t only influenced by those substances but was not actually changed? I mean, if I have a strong will, would I be able to exert that will as strongly if I were under the influence of Sodium Pentothal again? What about the magnetic field helmets, or open skull direct neural stimulation using an electric probe?

These situations are not similar to putting petroleum jelly on a pair of sunglasses. The will of the person with the sunglasses is not changed, just their ability. People who know better when sober or well rested do get in automobiles and do other tasks that if they were outside viewing the situation — where they are drunk or just about to fall asleep — they would not do.

Another example: People who are kept awake over the span of just a few days will hallucinate.

While different people do not react the same under different stressors, there is still a change in expression for the same person from the normal state to one that includes a substantial stress.

Additionally, at night, during a storm, if the power goes out we do not have a different will. Yet, someone who suffered a stroke can have a change in personality — that complex package that includes our will — that is permanent. The will changes, the person changes.

So, again, if there is some incorporeal soul (not an entirely corporeal one), did the person before the stroke have one soul and the person after the stroke end up with another? That line of questioning makes no sense. We know what happened just as we know that a person at 3 years old is not ‘the same person’ as the one at 30 years old, though we treat the continuation of the 3 year old over time as if it were the same person. In some ways that is true, in others it is not. We know these things. That’s why people don’t ask those types of questions to investigate where the first soul went. If we did, we’d have a potential infinite regress ala Zeno of souls being swapped in and out; pure insanity. Meanwhile, it is unambiguous to look at the body of the person for the reasons that they effectively became someone else, and to treat the body as correlating exactly to the person. That body can be said to include a will or consciousness or whatever, but it is not a shell for some detached incorporeal entity to drive around by remote control. All these things are integrated and none show up independent of a body.

Dualism that requires the incorporeal is invalid. It has no demonstration of support beyond abstract argumentation that is detached from all non-abstract demonstrations. If it had support, then a demonstration could be provided. So far none have done that demonstration, and I find that to be quite interesting and unexpected. What I initial thought was that there were examples that were credible pointers in support of incorporeal dualism, even if those pointers were not conclusive.

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Zeb April 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I keep thinking we’ve come to a dead end in our conversations, but you keep baiting me back in. I’m glad there is still more to discuss.

Can you tell me exactly what your contention is with what I have said?

I will state my position as simply as possible: Among a person’s attributes there are three that are real but not material. They are consciousness, will and one that I have alluded to but stated outright, identity. Because these attributes are real but immaterial, I hang them on the soul, which I define as the spiritual part of a person. If there is an immaterial world such as the common conception of Heaven, it is the soul, consisting of at least the three attributes, which could proceed to that world.

I’m not sure if you are mainly contending that those attributes are not real, or that they are in fact material, or that their consideration is irrelevant to the question of whether there is something that can be called the immaterial soul. You have in places attacked the reality, immateriality, and relevance of these attributes, but I’m not sure where you stand on each and exactly what I need to defend.

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Hermes April 27, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Among a person’s attributes there are three that are real but not material. They are consciousness, will and one that I have alluded to but stated outright, identity.

First off, I don’t reject the idea of a soul that does not require immaterial foundations. A demonstration of a soul could be given using just brains and social organizations. Neither do I reject the idea of a personal and/or socially based will, consciousness, or identity. At a minimum, they are handy conventions and I’m happy to accept them without question at that level. Arguing over these kinds of things is like arguing over the true meaning of the color yellow.

All I’ll ask for now is an unambiguous demonstration — not an abstract argument — that there is an immaterial aspect of human beings. If one can be demonstrated, then the conversation can move on to the more esoteric aspects of if it can qualify as an ‘incorporeal soul’ and what that package does and does not include; the discussion can then include issues similar in structure to ones on the color yellow as there will be a non-abstract basis for having some of those more esoteric and abstract discussions.

Without some positive demonstration of support for the basic claim, though, I have no reason to consider incorporeal souls (or a subset or anything similar to an incorporeal soul) to be likely.

Realize that on a practical level, I feel little concerns over dismissing claims of immaterial souls till a demonstration of them is provided. This is no different from other claims that might be valid in a limited philosophical and/or abstract way, but are not trivially valid because they are demonstrable or unimportant enough not to require a demonstration.

Immaterial existence — as opposed to casual references to attributes like color — is potentially quite important. If it is actually real it should be taken very seriously.

I would consider it a ‘win’ for me if someone shows me one example; I would immediately stop being wrong, and I would have a better understanding about reality and thus could probably make better choices and conclusions.

* * *

As for will, consciousness, identity, or souls I’m glad to accept any one or all of these as valid examples of immaterial existence. I ask only one thing. Can you demonstrate that any of these are unambiguously immaterial?

In the case of a will — while I am not required to do so — I have given multiple examples where a will is tied directly to the brain through to society at large and gave reasons why a will was not immaterial.

The 11 items in the list referenced before are along the same lines.

While I do not have the burden of proof to show that there are no incorporeal souls, I am happy to take on some of that burden as an effort to reduce the time needed to discuss these topics and arrive at a better understanding of reality.

For example: If someone proposes that the world-wide flood described in Jewish/Christian/Muslim Genesis accounts was actually true, I could leave it at “Show me.” and be fully justified in doing so. To hurry things along, I can also list off the actual evidence against such a claim.

With the Genesis flood example, this does not mean that I would have to reject all potential readings and interpretations of the story that don’t require accepting things that are demonstratively false;

* Regional flood a few thousand years ago? No problem. It might actually be interesting to discuss some of them by focusing on what we actually know about many societies in the region(s) and any actual disaster(s) they recorded.

* Every living thing on Earth that wasn’t on the boat drowning? That’s a big deal and requires an amazing amount of support. (Honestly, I consider it laughable.)

In this instance, to start, I’m only asking for one demonstration of one example. Something similar to showing that the Genesis flood story was based on a regional flood not that all the mountains were covered.

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Zeb April 29, 2010 at 2:24 am

I have one demonstration for the existence of identity, consciousness, and will: you experience them. I have one further strong argument for them: their presumption is a necessary prerequisite for communication. That is to say, the denial of real identity, consciousness, and will should be rejected for the same reason that solipsism should. It is not enough to allow that they are handy conventions, short hand for complex, blind material (or social) processes. If there isn’t really a ‘you’ there, and if you don’t really perceive the form and meaning of this, and you don’t really will to understand and respond, there is no “we” and no communication. But you haven’t argued against the reality of identity, consciousness, and will as such, so I’ll leave that for now.

So they’re real, but are they immaterial? Here the burden of proof is equally on both of us. If they are real, they must be either material or immaterial, so your materialist stance (on these items) requires a defense. It is a positive claim you are making, and quite an extraordinary one. Unfortunately my claim (once the reality of I+C+W is established) is a negative one. How could the immateriality of something be demonstrated? All we can do is investigate and fail to find the material of some existing entity, and perhaps argue that and entity could not be material. You have refused to allow abstract argumentation (I hope you will forgive my ‘prerequisite for communication’ argument since it’s one you use against solipsism), so all I can do is point to the failure of science to find the material source or location of real I+C+W.

[More to come, in which I will respond to your demonstrations of the materiality of will and identity]

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Hermes April 29, 2010 at 9:19 am

A few clarifications and comments in the forms of notes;

* The first paragraph of your current response was not necessary. If it was useful to prime your pump for later comments, that’s fine.

* I’m not a materialist, and I do not need to refer to materialism to support my position (more in a moment). This specific discussion lends itself to counter examples that are based in material, and as those are unambiguous and I’d like to move away from ambiguous abstractions that is what I’ve provided.

* The claim that is made by some religious groups (and even some non-religious and even non-theistic people) is that there is an immaterial area of reality that an essence of a person can move to, such as the list provided on the 18th of April. That claim — that there is an area and that a person’s essence can go there — requires support. As such, the only question I am asking is “Show me” — demonstrate — that there is support for some aspect of that. I am not denying that there is a possibility that there is such a thing on a philosophical or speculative level, only that I see no demonstration for positive support of that conjecture. In the absence of positive support, I believe (not a knowledge claim!) that there is no such thing and thus (as a practical step) dismiss the unsubstantiated claim.

* To get a demonstration, I’ve lowered the bar way down to requesting a single example, not a complete irrefutable package of evidence and logical reasoning. Just one. It doesn’t even need to be an abstract intuitive category such as the three you’ve mentioned. It could be a secondary effect demonstrated with a material example that has an immaterial explanation. (I have no doubt that could be very difficult.)

* If one can be provided, then that means we could say that the possibility of a transfer from material to immaterial is open but that it is currently not fully described or formed. To say more, we’d have to have additional details.

* In the end, I’ll go with what is most likely true even if it isn’t consistent with materialist claims. Why? I’m not a materialist.

* I’ve addressed will as explainable using material claims alone. I commented on consciousness. I’m not sure how identity is relevant except as an informal box for things like will and consciousness.

* An unambiguous demonstration does not necessarily require or demand a material basis.

* I can understand how some topics that seem intuitively well understood or supported can be maddeningly difficult to unambiguously demonstrate or even (sans demonstration) to give a basic explanation about. If this was not so with this topic then we might be having a much different conversation.

* A tangentially similar conversation: [ part 1 ]
[ part 2 ].

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