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RS 190 - Amanda Askell on "Pascal's Wager and other low risks with high stakes"

Release date: August 6th, 2017

Amanda Askell

You've probably heard of Pascal's Wager: That it's rational to believe in God, because if you're wrong it's no big deal, but if you're right then the payoff is huge. This episode features philosopher Amanda Askell, who (though not religious herself) argues that it's much trickier to rebut Pascal's Wager than most people think. Amanda and Julia also discuss how to handle other decisions where a risk has very low probability but would matter a lot if it came true -- should you round them down to zero? Does it matter how measurable the risk is? And should you take into account the chance you're being scammed?

Amanda's Pick: "Infinite Utilitarianism: More Is Always Better" by Luc Lauwers and Peter Vallentyne

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

 Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (7)

I wonder if there isn't some sort of L'Hopital's Rule going on when you start getting into infinities and multiplying them to get some utility value.

If for example in the finite case of someone asking you how much you trust them and you say 1 to 1,000 then they offer you $5,000 tomorrow for a $1 today, just them offering you this may decrease your probability of trusting them to 1 to 10,000 then they offer you $50,000 tomorrow for a $1 today which decreases your trust again (and so on).

The same could be said of someone offering 1 day in heaven, then upping it to 2 days, then 3 days, etc. I don't think you can just "skip" to offering infinite days in heaven. Each day they offer you the trust you give them reduces more than the value of that day. And so on such that the "infinite" heaven days don't overcome your skepticism.

I think "skipping" to infinity too soon may be the source of the irrationality of the decision. Similarly if you calculate A x (A^-2) as A goes to infinity and skip to saying A is infinity and A^-2 is non-zero so the product must be infinity you actually get the wrong result.
August 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Rosenberg
This is delightful to listen to, but can intelligent people not refrain saying "like" in the same unnecessary way that morons do?
August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJake
Concerning the multiple gods problem, there is an easy answer. Which god lifts up his people the most? What that really means is which god has provided his people with the best instruction manual for life?

As we look around the world, which societies are the best and who is their god? Also, note which societies are the worst and their god. Obviously, any god who cannot lift up his society is not worthy of following.

In the West the instruction manual for life is known as the Bible. It is the West that rose above the rest. This suggests that following the God of Christians and Jews is the best strategy.
August 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
Believing in a proposition is the state of having been convinced that the proposition is true. You cannot will yourself to believe in something simply by bypassing the required dialectic process. It's not like you can just take a blue pill and suddenly believe.
All the talk about infinities and risk assessment in this episode is unnecessarily tedious, in my opinion.

I'm reminded of an old Sufi prayer that says (paraphrasing): "Lord, if I worship you because I fear hell, then send me to hell. If I worship you because I yearn for heaven, deny me heaven."
August 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
I think discounting is largely the answer, and possibly it should be further explored as to why it's a good answer personally but not a good answer for decisions about all of humanity. If I acquired good evidence that a god would grant me eternal joy if I murdered my family, I still wouldn't do that. Why? I think that clearly demonstrates the value of finite negative can outweigh an infinite term positive. Discounting nicely explains why an infinite term positive may have very little value - it's far off, uncertain and therefore warranting a higher discount rate, etc.

A astonishingly small probability times a concrete value (something clearly not worth killing my family for), means I don't need to take the wager seriously.

I suppose that leaves the question of whether one should push a button that made *all* of humanity believe in god, but that's a bit of a different question and developing the ethical framework to answer it would probably be half the battle.
August 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Temple Run Game online....
August 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdnan
Interesting discussion. You didn't seem to give enough weight to cost as it relates to benefit and odds. In the lottery example. If someone is giving you the ticket, the cost is zero making the odds and benefit less relevant. As the cost goes up both of those become more relevant. Also in religion. The cost of Pascal's wager in Christianity is relatively low, as I understand it, you can basically live whatever life you want and just say you "believe" on your death bed. Whereas in orthodox Judaism, for example, you have to live an entire life constrained by hundreds of rules, e.g. limiting types of food, "resting" on the Sabbath, separating from your spouse for nearly 2 weeks a month, etc.

Would be interesting to factor these into the discussion.
August 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

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