On Abyss Wagers
By Nathaniel Hellerstein
This essay describes a class of philosophical conundrums akin to “Pascal’s Wager”. For each of these “abyss wagers”, it is rational to bet against various negative scenarios, on the grounds that if any of these scenarios are true, then all bets are off; therefore the wagers have no downside.
The abyss wagers here described include: Pascal’s Wager, Smith’s Wager, the Dissenter’s Wager, Gödel’s Wager, Teller’s Wager, and the Android’s Wager. For instance, in Gödel’s Wager, the negative scenario is the inconsistency of arithmetic. According to Gödel, if the axioms of arithmetic are consistent then those axioms cannot prove their own consistency. Here I argue that it is rational to wager that arithmetic makes sense; for if it does not then all bets are irrelevant. Therefore betting on arithmetic (and logic and reason) is a bet that you cannot lose.
II. The Abyss
Blaise Pascal, the Jansenist who helped discover the theory of probability, proposed a famous Wager; is one to believe that God exists, or not? His reasoning was that if God does not exist, then it does not matter if one believes or not; but if God does in fact exist, then it would be far better to believe; and therefore belief is the better wager.
This gambler’s theology is undermined by its hidden assumptions, for there is more than one way to believe. Consider George Smith’s Wager:
If there is a theistic god, either he is just, or he is not. If he is just, he will not punish honest disbelief. But, if he is not just, there is no guarantee he won’t punish one unjustly, regardless of one’s belief or disbelief. Therefore, there is no downside to honest disbelief in any theistic God.
Here is a political version of these wagers. The government is just, or it is not. If it is just, then it will not punish honest dissent. But if it is not just, then there is no guarantee that it won’t punish you unjustly, whether or not you dissent. Therefore there is no downside to dissent. The Dissenter’s Wager!
I mentioned Smith’s Wager and the Dissenter’s Wager to my wife Sherri, and she scoffed. “No downside to dissent? Au contraire! It might draw the attention of the government, and the nail that sticks out gets hammered down!” I admitted that her logic has force; and it applies back to Smith’s Wager. There are plenty of reluctant theists, believing just in case.
So Smith and Dissenter Wagers are flawed; the chaotic breakdown case still allows for enough difference for not all bets to be off. The unjust god, and the tyrannical government, don’t oppress everyone equally - at least at first. In the beginning, they withhold enough threat and make enough distinctions to give cowards a refuge; but power corrupts intellect as well as empathy, so eventually they overreach, the people have nothing to lose, and the desperate logic of the Wager takes hold.