Friday, 11 January 2013

Freewill and Pascal's Wager

Most people would generally accept that we have freewill to act. i.e. we can raise our arms as and when we will. However is the same true for our beliefs? Do we have freewill to change our beliefs in the same manner we can raise our arms? i.e. merely by thinking about it ? Lets consider a thought experiment:

Suppose you and your loved ones are kidnapped by an evil psychopath (say "Jigsaw" from the "Saw" series). Jigsaw then asks you to change your beliefs about the colour of the sky i.e. to convince yourself that sky is not blue but rather yellow (like the colour of a taxi). You have a set amount of time. If you fail to do so then you along with your loved ones would meet a horrible death . On the other hand if you do succeed , you and your loved ones will be set free and in addition you will be rewarded a Billion US$ for your troubles. Lets also assume that Jigsaw can read your mind to determine if your new convictions about the colour of the sky are genuine are if your just merely  pretending to believe.

Given such a situation - where the penalty to disbelief is so fatal and reward to beleive so great - would you be able to change your beliefs merely by will ? Would you be able to convince yourself that when we look upwards towards the sky the colour we see is Yellow not Blue ? we can easily make many other examples like these e.g. convincing yourself that earth is flat,  or that  you are Hitler.

When I think of these thought experiments it seems to be very strongly that at-least in case of some beliefs we have no freewill. We cant merely will ourselves to start believing something else by our whims .Instead beliefs can only be changed either through (a) systematic brainwashing or, (b) by intellectual force : e.g. requiring the person to face up to evidence and arguments for and against his/her position. The position that we have freewill over our beliefs is referred to as Doxastic Voluntarism.

Pascals Wager

If voluntarism is false (which seems to be the case given the above thought experiments) then what implications are there for pascals wager ? Roughly speaking ,Pascal invites us to ignore the whole debate concerning arguments and evidences for God and instead calculate which position minimizes our risk and maximizes the reward. (the risk and rewards being hell and heaven etc). He then concludes that atheism is the most risky position and thus a prudent person would "bet" on  theism.

However this so-called bet requires an atheist to merely will himself to believe that God exist . But as we have seen , given the falsity of Voluntarism, such a feat  does not seems to be possible for ordinary human beings. An atheist cant choose to just believe in god no more than a theist can just choose to believe that god does not exist (assuming that he is not already in doubt on that particular question). Hence the argument is completely irrelevant from the point of view of the Atheist.

One point worth mentioning is that  Pascal himself attempts to address  this kind of objection. But it seems to me that he takes the brainwashing route: he requires the atheist to stop thinking and reading anything against theism , participate in theistic rituals and so on  and with time he expects that the atheist would come to believe genuinely. I find this unpersuasive. Firstly I still suspect whether such a brainwashing would indeed work given how important the question of God and atheism is to our lives. Secondly it raises a question: Is that really what a morally perfect God wants? that we should reject reason entirely and that we use psychological conditioning tricks to force ourselves to believe in him ? how is this kind of belief even moral let alone rational ? It seems to me that a faith that arise Through self-brainwashing is not a faith worth having.

Therefore to the list of  many other weaknesses of Pascals wager, we can add yet another entry as to why   we must reject the wager  : Because it relies on the dubious notion of Doxastic Voluntarism.

1 comment:

  1. Well, considering beliefs as extensions of thoughts in general, it follows naturally that we do have freedom over our beliefs if we have freedom over our thoughts. But just as you can attempt to lift boulders without actually doing so, you may also attempt to change your beliefs with varying degrees of success.