Pascal's Wager Meets the Toxin Puzzle: I Kinda Believe, Help my Kinda Unbelief (Keith)

Pascal's Wager Meets the Toxin Puzzle: I Kinda Believe, Help my Kinda Unbelief (Keith) January 11, 2009

I failed to bring my series of posts on the pragmatics of hell to any kind of a decent conclusion.  I was knocked out of commission for a while by a bad case of stomach flu: It was as if I had taken the toxin of The Toxin Puzzle— except that I was sick for more than just one day — and nobody was offering me any million dollars.  I’ll try to wrap things up a bit better here.

The lesson that seems suggested by the original Toxin Puzzle (concerning intentions, follow above link) and the modified Toxin Puzzle (about belief) is that in the case of states like intention and belief, you can’t get yourself into such a state by having a reason (even a very strong reason) to be in the state in question; rather, you have to have a reasons that recommend the objects of these states — the things these states “aim at.”  (Or maybe we should tone down that “can’t,” and say that having only the first kind of reason at least makes it difficult to be in the state in question.  I’ll get to this issue below the fold.)  The intention one wants to have in the original Toxin Puzzle has as its object the action of drinking the toxin, and what makes it difficult to form the intention is that the agent realizes she will have no reason at all to perform that action: When the time comes to drink the toxin, she will either have the money already, or she will have already missed her chance at it.  In either case, actually performing the action of drinking the toxin will accomplish nothing but to make her sick for a day.  In the modified version (about belief), the object of the belief the agent wants to have is the proposition that she didn’t eat anything the day before, and her problem is that, while she has great prudential reasons for being in the state of belief, she has no evidential reason to think that that proposition is actually true — and strong evidence (in the form of memory) that it isn’t true.

The situation of trying to form a belief for such reasons may have reminded some readers of Pascal’s Wager. . .

Pascal seems to advise believing in God for this prudential reason: If God does exist, then believing in God may be extremely rewarding, and disbelieving immensely costly; while, on the other hand, if God doesn’t exist, there’s not much to be gained or lost by believing either way.  (At times Pascal overstates this, and says there’s nothing to be gained or lost — which certainly isn’t right.)  So, the prudent thing to do is to believe that God exists.  As I wrote in my “Really Believing in Hell” post, when I was a young child, I got the message (loud and clear) that hell was a place I absolutely did not want to go to, and I got at least enough of the essence of Pascal-style reasoning to see what the prudent thing to do was in that situation, given my impression that believing in God was the key to salvation (if God exists): I absolutely should believe in God to cover my… well, I’ll say to cover my bases.  But then, of course, I ran into the Toxin-Puzzle-difficulty in holding a belief on such prudential grounds.

Pascal was very aware of this problem.  He imagines an objector saying, “[I] am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me
do?” Pascal doesn’t reply, “Just believe!,” as if this could be done by a simple act of will.  Instead, he advises an indirect route to belief:

You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way;
you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it.
Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all
their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would
follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow
the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the
holy water, having masses said, etc. …

I don’t know how often such measures work.  Being raised Protestant, I never tried the holy water and having masses said, but the “acting as if I believed” was something I tried — big time.  And the result?

I ended up in the damnedest (!) situation of simply not knowing whether I believed!  Did I now believe — did it work — or was I just getting good at pretending?  I couldn’t tell!

The problem was exacerbated by the great importance of avoiding hell.  Remember here one of the little twists I put on the puzzle toward the end of my post on The Toxin Puzzle about Belief:

Let’s now change the stakes.  Now suppose you are dealing with a very evil
billionaire, who is torturing and killing your loved ones right in
front of you.  He will stop — and you somehow know this to be so —
and let you and all your loved ones who haven’t yet been killed go free
with no further harm if and only if you really believe that you didn’t
eat anything yesterday when you enter his belief-o-meter in one
minute.  You are of course deeply traumatized by what’s happening in
front of you.  Can you form the belief?

I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some people under such great stress might not get themselves worked up into some state that in some ways feels like belief — and maybe that in some ways is at least what I’ve called “kinda belief” (see the paragraph toward the end of the “Really Believing in Hell” post that starts with the words “The notion of belief…”).  I desperately wanted to avoid hell if that was at all possible.  And that put me in a situation where I couldn’t tell whether, in my desparation, I had just worked myself into some type of pseudo-belief. 

Well, did I believe or didn’t I?  At the time I thought there was a definite fact of the matter, but I just couldn’t tell what it was.  Now, I suspect that neither “yes” nor “no” would be a definitely correct answer to the question of whether I believed.  My current suspicion is that if omniscient God, who knows everything there is to know, were to deign to answer that question, the answer would be something like: “My son, the notion of belief you people have is a mess.  And what was going on in your head at that time was an even bigger mess.  How these two messes matched up with one another is itself a very complicated matter, and neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ can accurately answer your question.  You kinda believed — and kinda didn’t.  It was awful.”  Or something to that effect.  (No doubt God would explain it much better!)

At any rate, whether I believed or didn’t, one thing is clear: That was not a good or desirable state to be in.  It is beyond belief that that’s what God wanted. 

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  • Albert the Abstainer

    Belief is focused on too much, and it is a mistake.
    If we are open to seeing and hearing there is through existence and our experience of it an apprehension. It is like a state change, one moment liquid, the next gas, and we sit at the point of transition. That transition is arrived at through negation, not will, via an overwhelming awareness of Presence which permeates through all forms. That we do not have forms to adequately express that apprehension supports this. It is the problem of belief, the form, taking primacy over what illuminates us at moments of negation. It is not unlike the problem of art forms and inspiration. Inspiration guides the artist through the process of creating a derivative of his or her inspiration. If he or she does it successfully, the form acts to negate the distance between artist and perceiver to reveal inspiration in the perceiver. I know, this is abstract, when the experience itself is simple, direct and undeniable.
    So here we are, we sit together in radiant light, and in that state we are in a common union, but then we step away, and trying to remember and encapsulate our experience we create ritual forms and narratives. These derivatives, these forms have a divergent quality and yet share a common experiential source. When they, like an art form, reveal the radiant, the form falls away. Or to quote Shakespeare, “Silence is the perfectest heralder of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much”. Form falls away, and that is revelation via negation.

  • Peter Boumgarden

    Thanks for concluding with your thoughts. I was looking forward to hearing what you were going say about this pseudo-belief concept and how it relates to your belief.
    I wonder then, having realized (or hoped) that God would respond as you describe here (e.g. ‘the notion of belief you people have is all wong’), how does one move forward from this place of mixed beliefs and mixed motives in religious life? In your own religious/ spiritual life, how do you as a philosopher understand your own faith and move forward in action? In other words, if not constantly trying to figure out what you believe (while still realizing it is unclear), what does your ‘faith’ look like pragmatically?
    Again, thanks for your thoughts on this topic… really quite interesting.

  • In a recent Dirty Jobs episode, Mike Rowe entered a sewage pumping plant and jokingly said, “I will be really good for the rest of my life because when I die, I don’t want to come back here.”
    Now granted it was a very funny joke, it does express how most people think in terms of making those choices: it’s reward/punishment theory, so Pascal’s wager may be more relevant than we all realize, especially at a most basic, nearly unconscious level.
    As far as the puzzle goes, the relationship between the knowledge that you ate something yesterday and his demand for belief would make passing the test quite difficult if not impossible. The certainty of your experience would likely interfere with the demand for belief, so I guess one conclusion coming out of your experiment is something that I have never considered before: belief to some extent requires a level of uncertainty?
    Now excuse me while I bury my head in a hole for a while 🙂