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.

Pascal’s Wager and the Giant Meatball

English: raw meatball, before frying it עברית:...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blaise Pascal said in the seventeenth century that we ought to choose to believe in God because an assessment of the consequences tells us that we have more to gain by doing so. If God does exist, we gain infinitely by believing and we lose infinitely by not believing. If God does not exist, we (presumably) gain finitely by not believing and lose finitely by believing. Because the infinite consequence of our decision in the “God exists” world will always outweigh any finite consequence of our decision in the “God doesn’t exist” world, we stand more to gain by choosing to believe.

Pascal builds his argument upon the assumption that there is no way to reasonably determine the existence of God. Therefore, we must “wager” by weighing the possible outcomes. His argument also presumes, however, that it is reasonable for a belief to be determined by weighing the consequences—that belief is no different from any other action in this regard. My position is this: to hold a belief on any ground other than a justification of its truth-value is either irrational or non-rational. If it is decidedly impossible to justify the truth-value of a proposition, then it is irrational to believe the proposition.

Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to a different scenario. Suppose I believe that there is a giant invisible space-meatball speeding towards Earth that will knock it into the sun, and the only way to survive is to steal a local space ship from the shipyard and travel to the moon colony (this is a sci-fi example). I tell my friend this, and he is extremely skeptical. He says that I can’t prove it is true. I respond that he cannot prove to me that it is false. We mutually agree that we will never reasonably determine the truth-value of my claim.

But then I tell him we stand more to gain by choosing to believe that the space-meatball exists. If it does exist, we will gain our lives by believing, but lose our lives by not believing. If it does not exist, we will gain or lose little relative to our lives. My friend reluctantly agrees, and we spend the rest of our lives on the moon as ship-stealing fugitives, anxiously awaiting a giant cataclysmic meatball that never comes.

It is clear that using this wager-mode of thinking without giving any attention to the truth-value of one’s beliefs could be fairly disastrous if it results in dangerous behavior. The difference between this example and the example with God, is that if I can remain skeptical about the meatball and travel to the moon, I will still accomplish my goal if the meatball exists. However, I cannot merely act in life as if God exists and make it through the pearly gates. I must legitimately believe (at least in the Christian tradition). This means that I must believe despite an ability to falsify or prove the claim in order to accomplish my goal of not burning in hellfire for eternity.

Pascal wants to treat belief in God more like an action than a belief. It isn’t a physical action though. When it comes to justifying physical action, one may wager in terms of desired outcome. In complex cases, one must weigh possible outcomes in conjunction with risk. If I want to buy a clown nose at Walmart, I must think about the possibility that they don’t sell them and the risk that I will arrive to find that they have none. If I call, and the person says they have them in stock, I reason that I have reduced the risk that I won’t be able to purchase one at the store. The decision of what action to take is dependent both upon what I predict to be true and what I want to happen.

When it comes to belief, the thought process does not include desired outcome. Belief, by definition, is the mental state we have when we regard a proposition as true. So it must be grounded in a justification of whether or not a proposition correctly describes reality in order to fulfill its function. Therefore, the mental process leading up to belief is the means by which we figure out what is real and what is not. If all this is accurate, I think it follows that it makes no sense to believe something without having at least some justification for it. And I am fairly certain that to know what belief rationally entails while disregarding it purposefully is downright irrational.

Since belief in God is required to accomplish the goal of not suffering at the hands of demons forever, people who do not believe are thrust into an odd position. In order for an agnostic to believe in God, one must disregard the entire function of belief. This is what Pascal asks us to do. An agnostic must therefore decide between a rational decision to not hold a belief and a decision to cast rationality aside in favor of soul-insurance.  Many would call this faith and would agree that believing in God necessitates that one disregard rational thought in this case. Some have no problem with this. I used to have trouble understanding how it is possible, but there is no doubting the evidence that it is possible for human beings to hold beliefs that contradict other beliefs. It happens all the time.