General Thoughts on Epistemology III: We Are All Cosmic Gamblers

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a preface to this post, it is crucial for me to communicate that I am setting aside the discussion about “knowledge” as my primary pursuit. The reason, as I explained in part II, is that the use of the word has become muddled. My position is that philosophical skepticism about “knowledge” of the external (physical) world attempts to solve a presently unsolvable problem, and therefore, “knowledge” may not be the best term to use when attempting to describe how we gather and store data in our brains. Instead, I will focus on the interaction between human beings and the external world on its own terms. Hopefully what follows is indicative of this.

A while ago I wrote about Pascal’s Wager, contending that he removes the essential components from what it takes to justify a belief. His argument was that, when looking at belief in God in a cost-benefit analysis, it is more beneficial to choose to believe in God. I reject his presumption that a person can rationally choose to believe something exists while disregarding all evidence for or against its existence. However, his idea that it is useful to equate believing and wagering is worthy of consideration. My suggestion is that the process of making a wager is the best model to describe what is going on when we are deciding that something is the case. When we claim to have a belief, faith, trust, or even knowledge, what we ultimately have is a form of bet. This does not answer the question of how we ought to come to a belief, but my inclination is to say that this theory will help explain what these kinds of claims are, fundamentally.

There are a few “armchairish” observations sometimes taken for granted that hint at my suggestion being a good one: Assuming that humans all function the same in the following ways, 1) we use observations and cognitive processes to form beliefs; 2) we take action based on our beliefs; 3) sometimes mistakes, ambiguity, and/or external factors outside of our control cause us to be incorrect in/about our beliefs; and 4) replacing the word “belief” with “wager” in (1)-(3) results in a fairly coherent progression of thought.

Put simply, when we decide that P is true given the data we have, we are simultaneously placing a wager on P. In other words, we do not only think it is true now, but we are betting it will continue to be true as time goes on. Then, as we go about life taking action according to the wager, the proposition is tested by observations xy, z, etc. If these observations appear to connect logically and/or causally with P (if everything appears consistent), then we confirm it to some degree, and the wager is not changed. The risk adopted by the bet is that the proposition may be proven to be incorrect, and there may be some undesirable consequence as a result of the action(s) based upon the proposition.

This process is related to Jonathan Haidt’s psychological theory involving processes of the mind. He came to the conclusion that people have an initial reaction to some stimulus that consists of a snap-judgement. Then, what follows are a series of rational thoughts that he says “supports” the initial judgment. I agree with this general theory, but if we also add that it is possible for the rational thought to deny the initial judgment, the theory has an even wider application.

The nature of the game is that whenever we consider some question, we have an open field of possible truths that is narrowed whenever we rule things out based upon testing, observation, and logic. This thought isn’t new. It is reminiscent of the scientific method, which dates back to the Renaissance and early Colonial Era when it began to take shape. Most of the modern iterations of the scientific method assume that any theory is open and liable to change, not only because of more efficient and useful language, but also because the pool of data changes over time. A “wager,” I suppose, could be most analogous to a “hypothesis.” But hypotheses are more consciously contrived, and my goal for the “wager” is to be broad enough to refer to unconscious behavior, in addition to all matter of predictions, theories, and conjectures.

Note that merely “placing a bet” says nothing of my conviction in the outcome, the quality or quantity of information that is taken into account, the level of consciousness with which I make the bet, or the time-frame of my test. I may be unconsciously believing something ridiculous, or I could be making a detailed evaluation of a claim’s plausibility. Both would involve a wager of some form—a decision to hold some proposition to be true or at least to act as if it were true.

One might also point out that there are important distinctions between different kinds of wagers, namely temporal ones. There are wagers about what will happen (predictions), about what has already occurred (beliefs), and about that which is ongoing. Suppose my childhood friend and I see a squirrel darting through street, and he says, “I bet that squirrel will get hit by a car!” Our inclination would be to label this as a prediction, since the event has not yet come to pass. In continuing the story, suppose I were to respond, “I do not believe that squirrel will be hit by a car.” It seems odd at first that I would use the word “belief” for what should be another prediction.

The reason someone might make such a mistake, I think, hints at a deeper underlying theory like the one I have proposed. If both beliefs and predictions are forms of a wager, then there is an inherent predictive aspect in both of these terms. The substitution of “belief” for “prediction” is made because the character of “belief” has an inherent predictive quality about it, which makes it easily mistaken for a prediction. However, it still does not have the same set of qualities that “prediction” has. There is still room for distinction.

And the distinction is this: A prediction is a consideration of what has not yet come to pass; a belief considers what is ongoing or has passed. In my theory, they both still fall into the “wager” category. I can still comfortably replace both “I believe” and “I predict” with “I bet.”

The immediate worry that should arise is that it seems like I would be committed to saying that predictions, wagers, and beliefs are all the same thing. In response, I would say my claim is that wagers are broad enough to encompass all of these kinds of terms, and there is a predictive element to a wager. However, that element refers to a “first-order” qualification that beliefs, predictions, propositions, and the like contain in common an expectation of continued confirmation. And confirmation can only occur at points in time after a wager is made, regardless of its kind. Note that because people are continuously acting or not acting, each action must carry with it an implicit set of bets. Since this is always the case, it doesn’t seem that “beliefs” can be abstracted from “wagers.”

Secondary qualifications would make up the distinctions between the different kinds of wagers. For instance, expanding upon the distinction I made earlier: the content of a belief must be considering an ongoing or past phenomenon; the content of a prediction considers a future phenomenon.

To conclude, when we form beliefs and predictions, we are making bets on what we think is accurate. The discussion about whether we can verify knowledge globally is a bunch of bunk. It is pretty clear that sometimes we make mistakes, but our goal is to seek truth regardless. And ultimately, we all play the game. We are all cosmic gamblers.

10 thoughts on “General Thoughts on Epistemology III: We Are All Cosmic Gamblers

  1. Hey Mike, great post. Your substitution of ‘wager’ for ‘belief’ is an interesting one, and any epistemic theory promoting it would have to give up on any sort of absolute or guaranteed knowledge claims whatsoever. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that. What you are suggesting does make me think of the internalist/externalist debates in contemporary epistemology. In case you are unfamiliar with them, here is a link: http://www.iep.utm.edu/int-ext/
    Again, great post and I’ll definitely be following you.

    • Bill, thanks for the feedback!

      Yes, I have heard of internalism and externalism. I allude to the “external world” in my previous posts, but I don’t really delve into the debate using this framing because it depends on an ambiguous definition of “knowledge.”

      I would commit myself to the notion that there is no way to verify or deny the entire body of knowledge categorically as some attempt to do with the external world. I also don’t think we NEED to verify or deny it. It’s just there. That’s our default position. (This is the subject of my previous post.)

      So I think we place wagers on whether or not something is “absolutely” and objectively true, and when it pans out and passes our tests, we commit ourselves to certain “absolute” truths. (which may be different from whether or not the wager is guaranteed—I’ll think more on that).

      • So these “absolute” truths are only absolute in as far as we take them to be, but that, in no way, makes any sort of guarantee about the actual world. A very reasonable view to hold in light of how many absolute truths people have held over the years that have turned out to be bullshit.

        Here’s a question: What do we say about commonly held beliefs that have never given us reason to doubt their validity? Take gravity for example (not what the math says about the theory, but the fact that all of us are firmly planted on the Earth at this moment), on your line would we have to say that we all have wagered on the same thing (i.e. that there is in fact some invisible force holding us to the ground)? Let me put it a different way: What do we say of wagers placed on seemingly universal (at least from a human standpoint) propositions such as “space has three dimensions” or “I am in time” or “why can’t I fly away?” Are they just sure bets, or would those sorts of propositions have to fall into a different category?

        Here’s a further question (though a psychological one): why do we need to wager on absolute truths? Why are contingent truths not enough for humans?

        I will definitely check out your other posts, I found your blog at three in the morning so I’m surprised what I wrote even made sense. Cheers!

  2. (I’ll preface this with the notion that this answer will just be straight out of my brain. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve read some things and had some conversations with brilliant people. This is just my personal theory in development. So take my view for what it is worth.)

    These are some really great questions! And the way you describe the nature of “absolute” truths is very well framed. The thing I would add is this: we ultimately have to do the best we can with what we have. I think this will be an important point in my answer.

    The best way to think about how we interact with the world is that it happens in stages. The first initial interactions with the outside world is for the most part automatic (call these “intuitions” if you will). We observe phenomena and intuit things largely non-rationally/subconsciously. The secondary stage of thought is the rational/conscious stage, where we deliberate “on purpose.” (Objectivists split this into three stages: sensory/perceptual/conceptual. I am talking about something similar to the latter two I guess.)

    We use the rational/conscious thought to examine our intuitions. So using this framework in conjunction with the wager-belief framework: when my brain notices that everything is attached to the floor for whatever reason, on the perceptual level, it automatically develops a rule for dealing with it, perhaps not in any particular language. If this is unintentional, it seems at first difficult to apply an intentional state, like making a wager, to it. But I think there is still room for the theory here, as you will see.

    When I go through the conceptual process, on the other hand, I weigh different factors that I’ve observed and use logic to put something together in my brain that seems correct. Insofar as I’ve decided on a conclusion based on my thoughts, I’ve placed a bet on that conclusion.

    Now there is a crucial part of the equation where we get to see if the wager pans out. And this happens when we take ACTION. It is a form of test to see if our decision was correct, and since we are constantly taking actions, I think there is room to say that we are constantly winning and losing bets whether they be placed via conceptual or perceptual thought processes. (I think we also can test our wagers through the thought process itself using logic.)

    Philosophers have been using the word, “proposition” a lot, and I think its use is very similar to the way I think all belief essentially works, which is through a wagering process.

    Aside: We don’t have a very good way of distinguishing between the perceptual and conceptual. If I had to explain it in a simple and practical way, I would probably say it has something to do with how well we focus our attention. This doesn’t mean I can’t make a case for this distinction, just that it’s hard to distinguish between the two based on our current levels of understanding in cognitive neuroscience and psychology.

    To answer the second question: I’m not sure yet if I agree with the multiple-worlds theory that the idea of “contingent truth” presupposes (I’ll have to read and think more on it). But if we concede the theory, I would flip your implication that contingency gives us less than a wager. I think there is more baggage to theories about contingent truth than with the wager theory. By comparison, it is extremely simple.

    I hope I was able to answer your questions!

    • Sorry Bill, I just realized I may have misinterpreted your second question. Let me try again:

      It sounds like you are questioning why we should care about “absolute truths” at all as opposed to just understanding that all truths are contingent. If this is your question, one way I can answer is by saying that I am flirting with causal determinism. I think it has some merit, and if causal determinism ultimately beats out its competitors, then we should think of everything in the physical world as an “absolute truth,” and the only thing that really limits us is the imprecision of our language.

      On another note, this may be a better answer: I also think there is utility in treating certain things as absolutely true. There is no reason for me to question falling through the floor if my molecules align perfectly as explained by theories of quantum physics. Because even if the theory that it could “possibly” happen is true, the chance of it happening is so statistically insignificant, it may as well be zero, thus justifying my use of an absolute rule that states: “I will never fall straight through the solid floor due to a particular alignment in my bodily particles.”

      Furthermore, I think simple “absolute truths” are pretty useful, but they are characterized differently than most critics believe. The criticism will usually be something like the following: “You can’t make a rule that the floor will be there because it might not be there tomorrow… or you could be dreaming… or an evil genius could be tricking you.” I don’t think there is any reason for me to account for all of these things; it’s not really useful to talk about non-falsifiable factors. My claim about “absolute truth” is that the floor is there, all-things-considered. The open nature of the claim is built-in, but ultimately I am just relying on sense data/brain to understand the data/maybe even other people for extra confirmation.

      Excerpt from a conversation I had with a former prof of mine:

      Picture a conversation: 1) “Your hand isn’t there.” 2) “Yes it is.” 1) “Well I guess there is no way to tell.” 2) “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

      The interesting thing is, maybe the skeptic is right. But I think my position is that person (2) is still going to use that hand given his sense-data regardless of what he believes.

      • Stop flirting with causal determinism, she’s a complete slut 😛

        It sounds like you are simply changing what is meant by “absolute truth” (setting causal determinism aside). Perhaps that is the right move, there has been a lot of confusion over philosophical “problems” because of the way terms are defined. The whole free-will problem has to do with poor definitions in my view, and I think once the issue has been framed correctly that there is no problem at all. Good move though, toss out the extraneous stuff and go with what works. I am definitely not a philosophical pack-rat.

    • I think you are right in saying that the unintentional rule being applied to a perception could be framed in the terminology of a wager. Think about it like this: We first encounter these sorts of perceptions that we make universal rules out of when we are infants. As our brains develop, so too do the capacities to recognize concepts like causality and the axioms of time. But even before we have develop that sort of cognitive ability, we are still manipulating objects (toys, pacifiers, etc) in the world and noticing patterns. I think it is these patterns that would be useful for the sort of theory you are espousing. We notice the same event happen repetitiously and our brains recognize the pattern there, and from that pattern an unspoken rule develops about when that event will happen again. Implicit in that rule is a wager being made that under the same circumstances that event will happen again.

  3. At the very least, I do not accept the “theory of the forms” version of absolute truth. For a time, I used call it “perfect knowledge.” I am completely behind your thought that far too many “problems” are ultimately semantic issues, and many historical philosophers have been stuck in mud for not recognizing it. It is sometimes easy to forget that we are the authors of language. Therefore, if we are going to use it for EVERYTHING we think about, we should treat the shaping of our definitions as a, if not THE top priority in the order of argument and discourse.

    The bit you describe about growth from childhood to adulthood is exactly something I had in mind. In addition, the capability for using these mental/logical tools develops at the same time as our physical brain. I try to use the word “rationality” very carefully, but I think that could be a word to describe what develops over time. As our tools for thinking (greatly enhanced by our steady mastery of language) grow, we become better at conceptualizing and abstracting things—more attentive to the theories themselves.

    I am very glad that I am getting some confirmation of my theory from a fellow traveler, and I appreciate your taking the time to read!

  4. Pingback: Cosmic Gambling and Decentralization « Strategery for Philosophization

  5. Pingback: General Thoughts on Epistemology IV: The Difficulty of “Faith” « Strategery for Philosophization

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