How I Defeat Sam Harris’s Attack on Pascal’s Wager

Several years ago, Sam Harris set out to refute Pascal’s Wager in the pages of the Washington Post. Harris began as follows:

The coverage of my recent debate in the pages of Newsweek began and ended with Jon Meacham and Rick Warren each making respectful reference to Pascal’s wager. As many readers will remember, Pascal suggested that religious believers are simply taking the wiser of two bets: if a believer is wrong about God, there is not much harm to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins eternal happiness; if an atheist is wrong, however, he is destined for hell. Put this way, atheism seems the very picture of reckless stupidity.

But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager.

When looking through the “many questionable assumptions,” it quickly became apparent to me that Harris doesn’t understand how the Wager can work.  So first, let me spell it out and then we can return to Harris critique.

I was not raised as a Christian.  I became a Christian, and remain a Christian, because of reason and evidence.  However, I also recognize the limitations of the human intellect. Since my Christian faith is not rooted in intellectual certainty, I fully concede that I could be wrong.  I could be deluded.  That naturally leads to the following question – “What if I am wrong?”  It’s precisely at this point that the Wager comes into play.  For if I am wrong, if when I die I simply cease to exist, the answer becomes “So what?”  It’s not as if I will ever know or notice it.

Let’s now turn to Harris’s critique:

But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager. One is the notion that people do not pay a terrible price for religious faith. It seems worth remembering in this context just what sort of costs, great and small, we are incurring on account of religion. With destructive technology now spreading throughout the world with 21st century efficiency, what is the social cost of millions of Muslims believing in the metaphysics of martyrdom? Who would like to put a price on the heartfelt religious differences that the Sunni and the Shia are now expressing in Iraq (with car bombs and power tools)? What is the net effect of so many Jewish settlers believing that the Creator of the universe promised them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? What have been the psychological costs imposed by Christianity’s anxiety about sex these last seventy generations? The current costs of religion are incalculable. And they are excruciating.

Harris is simply trying to shoehorn his standard “Religion Is Eeevil” talking point that is sustained by intensive cherry picking and confirmation bias.  Yet for the purpose of this argument, we need not even challenge his meme.  All I have to do is notice the simple fact that Christianity has incurred no incalculable, excruciating cost to my life.  On the contrary, I am confident that if I could replay the tape of my life to go back and reject Christianity, this new, non-Christian life I would be experiencing would entail far more costs and stress.  Note, I am not saying that would be true for all.  I just know it to be true for myself.

At this point, Harris might claim that I should not be so self-focused and instead consider the costs of religion to society.  But again, even if I accepted his dark views on religion, I would simply note that having me abandon Christianity to become an atheist would not change a thing. I am not significant.   If I became an atheist tomorrow, Sam Harris would still be going on and on (and on) with the exact same complaints about the eevils of religion.

It’s not quite clear how this first argument was supposed to be a challenge to the Wager, as it looks more like some tangent forced upon us as a consequence of Harris trying to squeeze his standard talking point into his essay, but nevertheless, we can see how this first argument fails: 1) I do not suffer some incalculable, excruciating cost to my life for being a Christian and 2) even if Harris is correct about the Great Costs of Religion to Society, me becoming an atheist changes nothing.

Let’s move on to the more direct attack on the Wager:

While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth; and the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.

First of all, is there anyone other than Harris who thinks Pascal’s Wager is some Argument from Analogy?  Here is how the Argument from Analogy works:

Argument from analogy is a special type of inductive argument, whereby perceived similarities are used as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_analogy

The Wager does not use perceived similarities as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed.  It’s simply a crude cost/benefit analysis.

Secondly, given the Wager is a wager, it’s not an issue of it being “valid.”  It’s whether or not it is wise.  Whether it is smart.  And the answer to that question will depend on a) the actual wager being made and b) the person who makes the wager.

Yes, I think when it is an issue of choosing between atheism and Christianity, the Wager is wise.  As I mentioned above, if I am wrong, and the atheist is right, I’m left with the unanswerable question – So what?  When I die, I simply cease to exist.  I have incurred no cost.

So let’s look at Sam’s other examples.

Christianity vs. Islam?  In that case, the Wager seems rather useless, as costs incurred for being wrong cancel each other out.

Christianity vs. karma and rebirth?  If I am wrong, it simply means I’ll get another chance.  And another.  And another.  It is always wise to bet against karma/rebirth because the cost is so minimal.

Time vs. Newsweek.  This is simply a silly, ad hoc choice that does not truly exist. You don’t get to game the system by making up and inserting a fate of fiery damnation for the sole purpose of hijacking the wager.  Remember, the Wager applies only after all the beliefs are laid out and the strength of each belief is assessed.  A smart bettor is not conned by someone else gaming the system.

Finally, we get to this:

But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe something, he must also believe that the belief under consideration is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.

From my position, the “greatest problem with the wager” is easily defeated.  I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence.  As I explained, the Wager comes into play after the evidence is considered.  The Wager exists due to the fact that none of us can purchase intellectual certainty.  The human brain is too limited and too fallible.  The Wager is the response to the question, “I don’t think I am wrong, but what if I am wrong?”

From where I sit, Harris’s objections to Pascal’s Wager are rooted in confusion and ignorance.  His objections fail.

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82 Responses to How I Defeat Sam Harris’s Attack on Pascal’s Wager

  1. As I recall, in the original Wager Pascal suggested that people’s beliefs tend to follow their actions. So, if you act like you believe in Christianity — go to church, do good works, etc. — then sooner or later you will genuinely come to believe, even if you only started out by making a self-interested cost/benefit calculation.

  2. iblase says:

    he got a Washington Post op ed to trot out the same old tired ‘refutations’? His ilk always seem delighted to trash the wager but always end up looking foolish for not even understanding it.

  3. Stardusty Psyche says:

    How can one wager a belief at all?

    If a person puts a gun to my head and demands I say “I believe X” when I actually believe not-X, and then I say “I believe X” I don’t actually believe X, I merely believe that if I don’t say “I believe X” I am likely to get shot in the head.

    If X is that god exists, and the gun is hell, and god can read my mind, and god hates liars as much as god hates atheists, what have I gained?

    Pascal’s so called wager isn’t a bet at all, it is simply like flipping a coin such that heads you win, tails I lose.

    I am incapable of willing myself to believe something is true, at least as I am now. Now, I suppose, if I were subjected to enough violent brainwashing, forced to repeat something over and over under deprivation and in fear of my life, perhaps I might eventually suffer some kind of psychotic breakdown and somehow some zombie-like part of me might begin to think god is real.

    Is that the best the all loving, all powerful, all wise creator of the universe can do, terrorize me into a zombie-like state of fear and deprivation such that I break down mentally and can no longer think for myself, only repeat the words of the tormentor god?

    Sorry, a few words on some parchment found in a cave are not enough to instill that much terror in me, particularly given that no matter which one I might believe I will always be violating some other equally torturous threat.

    Pascal’s wager isn’t a bet at all, it is just a no-win threat.

  4. TFBW says:

    Hell isn’t the threat God uses to coerce action from people; it’s just the punishment owed to us for our sins.

  5. Ilíon says:

    To put it another way, Hell is the natural result of our sinfulness: Hell — which is Death — is where we are are “going” *unless* we can be rescued from it.

    Surely everyone is familiar with the illustration of the (thoroughly) modern person caught up in a flood, who refuses to avail himself of three different rescues as the flooding gets progressively worse and his situation progressively more desperate. Upon dying of drowning, he remonstrates with God for not rescuing him, and God replies that he sent three rescues, all refused.

    Calling Hell a “threat God uses to coerce action from people” is as absurd as calling the flood in that illustration a “threat God uses to coerce [accepting rescue] from people”.

  6. Ilíon says:

    On the other hand, calling Hell a “threat God uses to coerce action from people” does tell us something about the person making the accusation, to wit: that person wants to do what he *knows* to be contrary to “the way things ought to be” … and doesn’t want anyone to be able to say that one ought not do these things.

  7. I get the impression that some people want to take the neutral position as far as God is concerned, and demand that he simply leave them alone.

    That’s exactly what God does. If you consistently ignore him, he ignores you right back and simply lets nature take its course.

  8. Gary says:

    The problem with all this is that Pascal wasn’t actually presenting this as a wager. Pascal was a Jansenist. Jansenism was a theological movement that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace and predestination. He was pointing out even though everyone should choose to believe in God, sin has so hardened our hearts that without the Holy Spirit changing our hearts, we will never make the wise choice of believing in God. Harris demonstrates Pascal’s point by his (failed) attempt to show that believing isn’t the wise choice.

  9. TFBW says:

    @Gary: it’s been a while, but that’s not the impression I got when I read Penses.

  10. Stardusty Psyche says:

    ILion
    “On the other hand, calling Hell a “threat God uses to coerce action from people” does tell us something about the person making the accusation, to wit: that person wants to do what he *knows* to be contrary to “the way things ought to be” … and doesn’t want anyone to be able to say that one ought not do these things.”
    Do what things? The things that will keep me out of the Jesus hell? The things that will keep me out of the Muhammad hell? The things that will keep me out of all the different hells ever imagined?

    To stay out of all hells is impossible, because I am required to do different things to avoid each. One way or the other, we are all going to some god’s hell.

    TFBW
    “Hell isn’t the threat God uses to coerce action from people; it’s just the punishment owed to us for our sins.”
    My “sins” are god’s fault since I am merely acting upon the natures he created me with, and he is all powerful, and he knew I would act as I do before he even created me, and he could have created otherwise. Justice means holding responsible the one who created the situation with perfect foreknowledge, could have created otherwise, and freely chose to create as he did.

    It seems you have a very strong self loathing that I lack. You seem to feel that if you did not say you were sorry for your “sins”, say lusting after X (whatever it is you lust after), you would deserve to be tortured for all eternity. So, god makes you such that your nature is to lust after X, so you do lust after X, but you have so much self loathing that you feel somehow bad for having those feelings, so you feel a need to apologize for having the feelings you were created to have, and all those who fail to apologize to your particular imagined deity deserve to be tortured for eternity.

    So, if you catch your son with a girly magazine and he refuses to apologize naturally you chain him down in the back yard, pour lighter fluid on him, and light it, but not enough to kill him, just enough so he screams in agony as he is severely burned, every day for the rest of his life, you burn your son some more, and when he relents in your backyard hell you deny him, tell him it is too late, he must suffer excruciating torture for all eternity because he had the free choice to not lust after those girls, and he had the free choice to apologize, but he refused, so this torture you are inflicting is all his fault.

    There is your “loving” god.

  11. TFBW says:

    My “sins” are god’s fault since I am merely acting upon the natures he created me with … It seems you have a very strong self loathing that I lack.

    No, I have a sense of agency that you lack. I know there are plenty of times I’ve done the wrong thing when I could have done the right thing. Thankfully, forgiveness is available, but you have to admit some kind of culpability in order to ask for that, so I guess you’re avoiding that option.

  12. I reckon probably more atheists believe in the fire-and-pitchforks version of hell than Christians do.

  13. Ilíon says:

    I reckon probably more atheists believe in the fire-and-pitchforks version of hell than Christians do.

    Indeed.

    Myself, I strongly suspect that Hell is three things, simultaneously:
    1) this present life;
    2) the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” and “lake of fire” at judgment, which Jesus warns of;
    3) annihilation.

  14. grodrigues says:

    @nihilist2christian:

    “I reckon probably more atheists believe in the fire-and-pitchforks version of hell than Christians do.”

    I do not know exactly what you mean by “fire-and-pitchforks version of hell” but that Hell is real, that it is a punishment (and contrary to atheist caricatures, not merely for the deeds of this life), that it is eternal, is standard doctrine of the majority of mainstream, orthodox Christian churches. Of course, the ignorant blather of some atheists is just that, ignorant, simply because they are not interested in understanding or knowing the truth, they are just scoring rhetorical points and gotchas. Best leave them alone to their own irrationality, pray for them and trust in God’s mercy. Likewise of course, since only God knows the state of the soul at death and only He is the judge, no one on earth has the power or authority to say person X or Y is going, or has gone to Hell. There is a very strong scriptural case to be made that Judas ended up there, but that is about it. What we do know, is what tends to lead to Hell, but the thief on the cross by the side of the Lord also shows that God’s mercy is infinite and that until the moment of death one’s own eternal fate is not sealed.

  15. I think Matt does a better job talking about this than Sam.

    Also the Simpsons had a quote about this – what if you’ve picked the wrong religion and you’re just making God mad?

  16. Ilíon says:

    I do not know exactly what you mean by “fire-and-pitchforks version of hell” …

    How can you not, it’s been a part of popular culture for lifetimes? example

  17. pennywit says:

    I don’t think you “defeat” anything. The same tiresome arguments about Pascal’s Wager have been going back and forth for a while, and they will continue to go back and forth. That said, I interpret Pascal’s Wager a little differently than some folks do. I think it’s an injunction to live as if God exists on the assumption that living that sort of life will bring you benefits and make you a better person whether or not there actually is a God.

    There’s also something to be said from people that the 1990s TV show Babylon 5 called “seekers” — people who continually look for a metaphysical truth even in the face of skepticism and evidence there may not be a metaphysical truth at all. Their nobility, the show posited, is in their unfailing quest for something greater than themselves, whether such a thing exists or not.

  18. Stardusty Psyche says:

    TFBW
    “No, I have a sense of agency that you lack. I know there are plenty of times I’ve done the wrong thing”
    So your agency failed. Why? Who is to be punished for the fact that you are utterly incapable of living your life without your agency failing from time to time? Is that your fault? Apparently your self loathing says it is.

    Since god created you with an agency he knew would fail then he is to blame for your failures, on his omnipotence. If I build a device that fails because I intentionally built that failure into the device knowing it would fail then that is my fault. Say, I build a chair, and I could have used 4 sturdy legs, but instead I intentionally cut a deep notch in two of the legs such that when somebody sits in the chair it breaks, just as I knew it would, just as I planned for it to break, and the person falls down.

    Who is to blame for that person falling? Is it the person who could not help but fall, or is it my fault for intentionally building a chair with the plan that the chair would fail and a person would fall and be hurt?

    Isn’t it the maker of a booby trap the one at fault for the suffering inflicted by the booby trap?

    God is the booby trap maker for us all. He is to blame. For the victim of the booby trap to blame himself is self loathing, which you have.

  19. TFBW says:

    So your agency failed.

    No, you idiot, I chose to do the wrong thing. This was not a failure of agency, it was a failure of morality. I deserve the punishment for my actions precisely because they were my actions and they were morally wrong. I could have done the right thing, but I chose not to. I was not trapped, tricked, or coerced into doing the wrong thing: I simply chose to do it at various times for base reasons such as the desire for revenge, personal gain, or simple expedience.

    Clearly, in your world-view, there is no possible way you can be to blame for anything.

  20. grodrigues says:

    @TBFW:

    “Clearly, in your world-view, there is no possible way you can be to blame for anything.”

    Stardusty is a moron but to be fair, as I understand it (the caveat is important since he, being a moron, expresses himself very sloppily and frequently incoherently, and one has to do some legwork to reconstruct his argument in a minimal respectful way), his argument is not exactly how you characterize it. He is arguing by reductio that since God by His omniscience knew you would fail, even if of your own free choice, then He is at least partly to blame. This can go forward a couple of ways (either denying agency, blame God for allowing you to sin, etc.), but whatever the way the argument is still crap and easily refuted, but invoking free choice alone does not quite do it, something more is needed.

  21. Ilíon says:

    ^ humility (i.e. surrender of eqotistical-pride) and intellectual honesty. But no one is holding his breath, waiting for the Psychotic Dustbunny to acquire either of those virtues.

  22. Stardusty Psyche says:

    TFBW
    ” I could have done the right thing,”
    No, you could not have throughout your whole life. No human being is capable of always doing the right thing. Every human being makes mistakes.

    “I deserve the punishment”
    Self loathing on display. For you, your innate inability to always do the right thing is a reason you deserve punishment, and not just a proportional punishment, rather, you feel you and all those like you deserve to be literally tortured for eternity for the “fault” of having inevitably done the only thing you could do, the only thing any human can ever do, fail from time to time.

    Those of us who do not hate ourselves realize that from time to time we will make mistakes, and there can be negative consequences for those mistakes, but then, after coping with those negative consequences and making amends to the extent feasible, I move on with my life, hopefully learning something from my mistakes, but not feeling like a bad or defective person deserving of eternal punishment obligated to beg to avoid it.

  23. Stardusty Psyche says:

    Grod,
    “God by His omniscience knew you would fail, even if of your own free choice,”
    Clearly your legwork is inadequate, Perhaps you deserve eternal torture for having made this mistake? After all, your misstatement of my position was, by your lights, your free choice, therefore your fault.

    An omniscient being anywhere rules out free will everywhere. But that was not the point I was making, rather it was an ethical point that the maker of a booby trap is the one who is ethically responsible for the negative consequences regarding those who are trapped and injured by the device the booby trap maker created.

    “the argument is still crap and easily refuted,”
    Yet you do not do so. Your displayed capabilities here are to misstate my argument, hurl expletives, and make unsubstantiated claims as to your own ability to present a refutation.

  24. TFBW says:

    @grodrigues: In short, you’re saying (playing Stardusty’s advocate) that God is responsible for moral failings because he has foreknowledge of how we will use our agency, and while it would be possible for us to do the right thing without special intervention on his part (i.e. agency), the blame falls on God when we do wrong because he could have tweaked us in some way which preserved agency but changed our choice to the right one.

    Let’s suppose that’s true for the sake of argument (despite its dubious qualities). It doesn’t change my observation about Stardusty’s world-view, in which he can take no blame for anything. If anything, it makes it clearer why it must be so. It’s a watertight blame-shifting philosophy.

    Still, I’d be interested to hear what Stardusty thinks God should do about it in the context of Divine Judgement. In effect, his claim to God is, “you were wrong to create me as you have.” What does he expect God to do in order to correct this alleged error? Has he even thought this through?

  25. Ilíon says:

    Keep in mind that the very logic which allows the Psychotic Dustbunny to claim that the responsibility for his immoral choices falls on God, rather than on himself, likewise applies to to his moral choices.

  26. TFBW says:

    … the maker of a booby trap is the one who is ethically responsible for the negative consequences regarding those who are trapped and injured by the device the booby trap maker created.

    I agree. The point where we differ is in the idea that the mere capacity to do wrong—moral agency itself—is the equivalent of a booby trap. I consider that position quite ludicrous. Booby traps exist for the sole purpose of causing harm. By analogy you must be claiming that moral agency is nothing but harmful. As Ilíon implies, above, if we are prevented from doing wrong via our own agency, then we can take no credit for the good we do via that agency, as the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

  27. TFBW says:

    @Stardusty

    No human being is capable of always doing the right thing. Every human being makes mistakes.

    A distinctive feature of Christianity is that Jesus is the exception to this rule. I don’t expect you to accept that point, but I thought I’d mention it, since you brought it up.

    Speaking of things you’ve brought up which aren’t true, “an omniscient being anywhere rules out free will everywhere,” is also false. An omniscient being anywhere simply rules out the possibility of keeping any secrets, not making free-will decisions. Just don’t think you can surprise an omniscient being with your spur-of-the-moment decisions in the same way you can surprise anyone else.

  28. Ilíon says:

    ^ Also, the Omniscient Being knows that the Psychotic Dustbunny doesn’t even believe the stuff he says/writes.

  29. grodrigues says:

    @TBFW:

    “Let’s suppose that’s true for the sake of argument (despite its dubious qualities). It doesn’t change my observation about Stardusty’s world-view, in which he can take no blame for anything. If anything, it makes it clearer why it must be so. It’s a watertight blame-shifting philosophy.”

    No qualms here.

    @Stardusty Psyche:

    “After all, your misstatement of my position was, by your lights, your free choice, therefore your fault.”

    It is true that for an act to be truly moral, and deserving of praise or blame (or punishment), it must be free, but it does not follow that every free act, in virtue of being free, is therefore culpable. But it would be surprising that you got this much right, now would it?

    “An omniscient being anywhere rules out free will everywhere. But that was not the point I was making, rather it was an ethical point that the maker of a booby trap is the one who is ethically responsible for the negative consequences regarding those who are trapped and injured by the device the booby trap maker created.”

    Try to read a bit more carefully will you? In your rush to prove yourself right, and being an idiot, you miss what is right there in front of your own eyes. Here, I will even quote it for yourself: “He is arguing by reductio that since God by His omniscience knew you would fail, even if of your own free choice, then He is at least partly to blame. This can go forward a couple of ways (either denying agency, blame God for allowing you to sin, etc.), “. Notice the second sentence in the parenthetical remark? Notice the “then He is at least partly to blame”?

    Now, as promised elsewhere, I am leaving you to your own devices. Your argument is still crap, but since in your rush to score points you cannot even read right and lack the humility to accept even the most minute of corrections (“hopefully learning something from my mistakes”? the lack of self-awareness is astounding, as well as entertaining in a perverse way), it would be a waste of time to refute it. It could still be done for the benefit of the audience, but I am confident that the audience can see through your Frankfurtean BS. You can have the last word for what I expect it will be more bravado and ignorance and stupidity. But hey prove me wrong, it would be nice. May the Blessed Virgin Mother, through her continual intercession, in supplications and tears, obtain for you the unmerited graces so that you may come to your senses, to right and sound judgment, and God willing, maybe even conversion. Peace out.

  30. Ilíon says:

    After all, your misstatement of my position was, by your lights, your free choice, therefore your fault.

    What a hypocrite; what a God-damned hypocrite.

  31. Ilíon says:

    The Psychotic Dustbunny’s “argument” go like this —

    *) I deny ‘free will’, ergo God (nor you) has no moral authority to pass moral judgment against my actions.

    *) You affirm ‘free will’, ergo I have moral authority to pass moral judgment against your actions (even if I have to lie to make your actions “immoral”).

    This is actually a very common stance with ‘atheists’, but rarely put out there so clearly.

  32. Stardusty Psyche says:

    TFBW
    “Booby traps exist for the sole purpose of causing harm.”
    Not when placed by what we might loosely call “the good guys”. The purpose of a booby trap may be a greater good, say, defeat of an aggressive dictatorial power. The justification for using such a harmful trap is that the booby trap maker is not all powerful, and such means are the only means available, and the booby trap maker is acting ultimately in self defense for the greater good that the good guys win.

    That justification vanishes in the case the booby trap maker is both omnipotent and omniscient. In that case the booby trap maker can foresee exactly the harm that will be inflicted on individuals who are themselves relatively powerless and themselves innocent in the overall struggle (being omniscient), and the booby trap maker can avoid that harm and solve the problem by other means (being omnipotent).

    On omniscience and omnipotence the argument for a greater good is invalidated, with the only remaining explanation for the booby trap maker using such avoidable techniques of needless suffering is that the maker is evil, malicious, and malevolent.

    There is your Christian god.

  33. TFBW says:

    Stardusty, you are making some major leaps in your reasoning there. Some of your conclusions might follow from your premises with the addition of further premises and intermediate steps, but I’m not going to try to guess what the missing pieces are. I suspect, however, that if you took a close look at what’s necessary to make your argument complete, other implications would follow that you wouldn’t like.

    This sounds to me like an echo of the “Teletubby World” argument that we’ve had elsewhere, and which has never been addressed in a clear and satisfactory way. Yes, an omniscient and omnipotent God could have prevented evil by making a world in which nobody is capable of or sufficiently inclined to do evil. This would be Teletubby World. I don’t see that you’ve ever presented an alternative to this, or explicitly stated that you would be for or against Teletubby World. Then again, I haven’t seen you really pursue anything except opportunities to accuse God of evil and malice, so I guess clarification of your own philosophical position beyond that brand of bland, self-righteous, blame-God-for-everything anti-theism isn’t a priority for you.

    I’m interested in any rationally coherent argument. You seem to think you have one, but it ain’t so. You’ve started with the conclusion “God is evil” and worked your way back to premises which you think support it, but it doesn’t pass the audit test of working forwards from the premises to the conclusion: there are too many non sequiturs. A non sequitur is not a fatal flaw: it might just be a case of missing detail, but the missing detail might also hide the fatal flaw in the argument, so missing detail is unacceptable.

    If your goal is to actually persuade me of your case, that’s the kind of bar I expect you to clear. On the other hand, if you’re just here to rant like an ideologue possessed, you’re doing fine.

  34. Phocaea says:

    It seems Harris’ point is that, in the absence of evidential reasons, Pascal’s Wager may be applied equally to any claim. It would appear you’re saying that you have evidential reasons for Christianity in particular, and therefore his assumption that Christianity is on par with the other claims he listed is false. However until you explain what those evidential reasons are, you are merely making an assertion and have not “defeated” Harris’ argument.

  35. Michael says:

    However until you explain what those evidential reasons are, you are merely making an assertion and have not “defeated” Harris’ argument.

    There are several lines of evidence for the truth of Christianity. Over the years, I have provided two. Since one was triggered by Harris himself, I’ll refer to it here.

    But let’s not make the mistake in thinking that Harris, or an atheist like him, must concur that I have provided evidence. Harris is not The Authority who decides for us all whether or not “evidence” exists. The world does not revolve around him.

    In this context, it is sufficient for me to point out that the Wager is not being used in isolation. If, after a serious investigation, I have used reason to conclude that evidence exists, that is good enough. From my perspective, where the Wager comes into play after the analysis of the evidence, Harris’s argument about the Wager is defeated. For it assumes that reason, and evidence, were not in play prior to looking to the Wager.

  36. Phocaea says:

    Well we agree that we should not take the opinion of “The Authority” as our own. I would go even further by saying I don’t care about anyone’s opinion of an argument. I want to see the argument so I can assess it myself. I’m not just going to appropriate someone else’s opinion.

    Harris’ claim is that you have no evidence, and you can’t rationally will yourself to believe a proposition for which you have no evidence. That’s the “greatest problem” with Pascal’s Wager, according to Harris.

    You counter by saying that you do have evidence, but, as far as I can tell, you’re still merely asserting that. The link you provided doesn’t even mention Christianity. Perhaps as a result of my limited understanding, I don’t see how a point that makes no reference to Christianity in particular becomes an argument for Christianity in particular.

    Again, I don’t care about opinions of arguments. I don’t think you should care either. I want to see the argument and decide for myself. If someone only makes an assertion, it’s not far from them asking that I just appropriate their opinion.

    …whether or not “evidence” exists.

    There is something Orwellian about putting quotes around that word. In order for conversation to have meaning, we must assume that we live in a shared reality that contains shared facts. Facts are facts. When facts become “facts”, the shared reality no longer exists.

    To turn your assertion into an argument, I would recommend a two-step approach that focuses on facts. First, provide the facts that support your argument. Facts, being part of our shared reality, should be shared by all.

    The second step is to explain why those facts support your argument. This is the more complicated part because it involves interpretation, and interpretations may differ, while facts do not.

    This two-step approach is helpful because discussing interpretations is useless if the underlying facts are not agreed upon in the first place. It might be that we can’t agree on the facts, and if that turns out to be the case, we will have saved all that time discussing interpretations.

  37. TFBW says:

    Facts, being part of our shared reality, should be shared by all.

    I used to think that, too. My experience in recent years has caused me to abandon the belief that humans have the kind of rational faculty you describe here. It’s a real problem.

  38. Kevin says:

    Phocaea, Michael has already addressed your attempt at setting up yet another “Is There Evidence for God” thread.

    I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence. As I explained, the Wager comes into play after the evidence is considered. The Wager exists due to the fact that none of us can purchase intellectual certainty. The human brain is too limited and too fallible. The Wager is the response to the question, “I don’t think I am wrong, but what if I am wrong?”

    Whether you or Sam Harris or anyone else agrees with Michael on the merits of Christianity does not affect Michael’s position as to the purpose and practicality of the Wager.

    The Wager has nothing to do with an atheist pretending to know that God does not exist. It is not a “proof of God” argument, but a practical statement as to the wisdom of committing to certainty in atheism, to the strange belief that there is “no” evidence for God. That certainty will gain you nothing and potentially cost you everything.

  39. Michael says:

    I want to see the argument so I can assess it myself. I’m not just going to appropriate someone else’s opinion.

    Indeed.

    Harris’ claim is that you have no evidence,

    Harris’ claim is nothing more than Harris’ opinion. And like you just said, I’m not just going to appropriate someone else’s opinion.

    Harris’ argument against The Wager depends on us all appropriating his opinion. Like I said in the title, I have defeated Sam Harris’ argument against The Wager. His argument is built on the foundation of his own, personal opinion. His argument is thus defeated, from my perspective, by the mere and simple fact that I don’t buy into his opinion. Nor am I under any rational obligation to agree with it.

    and you can’t rationally will yourself to believe a proposition for which you have no evidence. That’s the “greatest problem” with Pascal’s Wager, according to Harris.

    And here is where Harris argues against straw men. I have never met one Christian who would agree that there is no evidence for Christianity, but they decided to wager on it being true to help will themselves into believing it. I don’t do this. Just who does?

    You counter by saying that you do have evidence, but, as far as I can tell, you’re still merely asserting that.

    Which is good enough to neutralize Harris’ “no evidence” assertion.

    The link you provided doesn’t even mention Christianity. Perhaps as a result of my limited understanding, I don’t see how a point that makes no reference to Christianity in particular becomes an argument for Christianity in particular.

    The link provides evidence for theism. In fact, a form of theism where the deity shows an interest in humanity. If we’re down to Christianity vs. Atheism, it would seem clear to me how such evidence tilts toward the former.

    Look, here’s evidence for Christianity.

    There is something Orwellian about putting quotes around that word. In order for conversation to have meaning, we must assume that we live in a shared reality that contains shared facts. Facts are facts. When facts become “facts”, the shared reality no longer exists.

    Yet facts are not the same as evidence. Facts can become evidence, but only when one brain assigns certain meaning to the facts. From there, the trick is getting other brains to concur with that perspective. So, as you see, evidence is not objective reality. Facts are detected by things like the retina. Evidence is seen by things like the mind’s eye.

    To turn your assertion into an argument, I would recommend a two-step approach that focuses on facts. First, provide the facts that support your argument. Facts, being part of our shared reality, should be shared by all.
    The second step is to explain why those facts support your argument. This is the more complicated part because it involves interpretation, and interpretations may differ, while facts do not.

    I know all about this. I spent years with this approach proposing/defending the hypothesis that life, thus evolution, could have been designed. That second step is infinitely more complicated than most people realize.

  40. TFBW says:

    Sure, the second step is harder than the first, but I think people underestimate the difficulty of the first step. I know I did. Facts are objective things out in the world, so they should be part of our shared reality, right? Well, yes, in theory, but in practice there is always a subjective mind which engages in analysis to determine what those facts are, so there’s a great deal of variance. I mean, it’s about as immediate (in the sense of not-mediated) a fact as one can have that “consciousness exists”, and yet there are people who take the stance that it outright doesn’t, or it’s an illusion (seems to exist, but doesn’t). How are you going to have the second-step discussion about the metaphysical implications of consciousness unless you agree that it exists in the first place? Cut that Gordian Knot for me, if you can.

  41. Ilíon says:

    ^ Shorter version: “Data is theory driven.”

  42. Michael says:

    Sure, the second step is harder than the first, but I think people underestimate the difficulty of the first step. I know I did. Facts are objective things out in the world, so they should be part of our shared reality, right? Well, yes, in theory, but in practice there is always a subjective mind which engages in analysis to determine what those facts are, so there’s a great deal of variance.

    I agree. We just had an example of this a few days ago. The atheist Club insisted that I claimed “all atheists do X.” That’s a factual claim about something I supposedly wrote. But I never wrote any such thing. Club was not able to quote me. Instead, she had to heavily (and falsely) interpret my writings (in light of assumed motives) to bring that “fact” into existence. Needless to say, there is no communication possible when people cannot even agree on what facts exist.

  43. Dhay says:

    @ Phocaea:
    I have eight (If I counted right) responses in the “Sam Harris Promotes Sam Harris Memes” thread which critique Harris’ “NOTHING IS MORE SACRED THAN THE FACTS” — the emphasis is original to Harris, presumably it’s his way of doing what Michael does with quotation marks — official meme.

    Those responses are too voluminous and detailed to aggregate as a loooong reply to you in this thread, so I’ll simply link you to the first and last; if you copy/paste (or type) ‘nothing is more sacred than the facts’ into your browser’s Ctrl-F search box you should find them all quite easily.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/sam-harris-promotes-sam-harris-memes/#comment-26848

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/sam-harris-promotes-sam-harris-memes/#comment-35030

    The executive summary is that I don’t have much time for Harris’ notion of FACTS, and you shouldn’t, either.

  44. Phocaea says:

    I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence.

    Your original assertion isn’t about general theism but about Christianity in particular. That is an indispensable part of countering Harris’ argument that Pascal’s Wager applies equally to all belief systems (mentioned in my first comment).

    The second link you provided, like the first one, may be used in support of other religions, for example Islam. See “The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam: The Qur’anic Principle of Wasatiyyah” published by Oxford University Press.

    From the title I gathered you were going to present an argument that defeats Harris’ argument. However if you’re only going to make an assertion and not an argument, then you are not far from just asking others to appropriate your opinion.

    How about ignoring opinions altogether and just looking at arguments? Imagine a world in which everyone has the freedom to evaluate an argument for themselves. A world in which it doesn’t matter what opinion someone has about the argument. A world in which it doesn’t even matter who wrote the argument. All that matters is the argument itself and every individual’s freedom to assess it for themselves. That is my hope for this mini-world of blog comments. Can it be achieved?

    It would appear your strategy for defeating Harris’ argument is to show that one of his premises is false, namely that there is no evidence for Christianity in particular. So, let us see the argument.

    Earlier I gave the merits of the two-step approach of first providing facts and then explaining why those facts support your argument. To simplify things, how about just taking the first step for now? Just the facts. Let’s see if we can agree on what the facts are. If we succeed, we can move on to interpretation of those facts.

  45. Kevin says:

    So many of these atheists seems to think they have something figured out that no one else does, and that they must demonstrate their superior intellect by engaging in “evidence for God” debates, even if it is off topic, like this single-minded attempt by Phocaea, and even if they actually have nothing new or interesting or unpredictable to contribute, like this attempt by Phocaea.

  46. grodrigues says:

    @Phocaea:

    “To simplify things, how about just taking the first step for now? Just the facts. Let’s see if we can agree on what the facts are. If we succeed, we can move on to interpretation of those facts.”

    How about *you* start? I take the pen in front of me to be evidence for God’s existence. And the reason why it is evidence, is because it is a more or less indisputable fact and, as a premise in an argument, leads to the desired conclusion. Since the argument (arguments really) is in my judgment valid and none of the purported debunkings succeeds — most of the time, they are not even debunkings but exercises in ignorance and misunderstanding — the conclusion follows. There is nothing particularly surprising in all this, since it is the classical theist position, from Plato and Aristotle onwards to basically all the greatest classical Christian theologians, from St. Augustine to St. Thomas of Aquinas. It follows that it is evidence for any of the monotheist religions — this shrinks the space of possible true religions to a mere handful. Further argumentation is needed for Christianity, and such argumentation is where you would suspect it to be found.

    Now presumably, you disagree with all this. I gave an understanding of what evidence is and sketched why there is evidence for Christianity, So, let us start with the beginning, what would count as evidence of God’s existence for you?

  47. Dhay says:

    Since the link to Sam Harris’ Newsweek article is not provided in the OP I’ll provide the link (to Harris’ copy of it) so you can examine and discuss his whole argument rather than excerpts out of context.

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-empty-wager

    This is not the first time Harris’ article has been raised and discussed; here are the other OPs and the various responses for and against:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/sam-harriss-empty-attack-on-pascals-wager/

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/sam-harriss-empty-attack-on-pascals-wager/

  48. Michael says:

    Your original assertion isn’t about general theism but about Christianity in particular. That is an indispensable part of countering Harris’ argument that Pascal’s Wager applies equally to all belief systems (mentioned in my first comment).

    In my blog entry, I note: Yes, I think when it is an issue of choosing between atheism and Christianity, the Wager is wise. I think Christianity and Atheism are the top two world views most likely to be true. I then explain how the Wager is wise. I also explained how Harris’s notion of “the greatest problem with the wager” is easily defeated by someone in my position.

    The second link you provided, like the first one, may be used in support of other religions, for example Islam. See “The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam: The Qur’anic Principle of Wasatiyyah” published by Oxford University Press.

    The think Christianity is more likely to be true than Islam on other grounds. But now that you mention it, I would argue Christianity is the ‘Middle Path’ when compared to Islam/Judaism on one hand and Buddhism/Mysticism on the other hand. So the basic argument kinda applies there too.

    From the title I gathered you were going to present an argument that defeats Harris’ argument. However if you’re only going to make an assertion and not an argument, then you are not far from just asking others to appropriate your opinion.

    His argument, to the extent that there is an argument, has been defeated, at least from the perspective of someone in my position. His “costs” argument failed. His attempt to make The Wager apply in all situations failed. And his idea of the “greatest problem with the wager” failed. If you disagree, you’ll have to do more than disagree. You’ll need to go back and show why/how Harris is correct. Otherwise, you are not far from just asking others to appropriate your opinion.

    How about ignoring opinions altogether and just looking at arguments? Imagine a world in which everyone has the freedom to evaluate an argument for themselves. A world in which it doesn’t matter what opinion someone has about the argument. A world in which it doesn’t even matter who wrote the argument. All that matters is the argument itself and every individual’s freedom to assess it for themselves. That is my hope for this mini-world of blog comments. Can it be achieved?

    We’ve seen that Harris argument is built on his opinion. Thus, the relevance of opinion.

    It would appear your strategy for defeating Harris’ argument is to show that one of his premises is false, namely that there is no evidence for Christianity in particular. So, let us see the argument.

    Huh? If Harris wants us all to acknowledge there “is no evidence for Christianity,” he needs to make that case. He doesn’t get to purchase it by sitting there and pretending to be some Objective Judge. How does he know “there is no evidence for Christianity?” Perhaps he should start by telling us what he would count as evidence.

    Earlier I gave the merits of the two-step approach of first providing facts and then explaining why those facts support your argument. To simplify things, how about just taking the first step for now? Just the facts. Let’s see if we can agree on what the facts are. If we succeed, we can move on to interpretation of those facts.

    Okay, let’s get it a try. Here’s a fact.

    Sam Harris believes there is no evidence for Christianity. This is his opinion.

  49. Phocaea says:

    Sam Harris believes there is no evidence for Christianity. This is his opinion.

    We can agree on that, which is a start. However saying that something is an opinion does not mean it is false. So an argument is not defeated by saying that one of its premises is an opinion. Showing why a premise is false does defeat the argument.

    Opinion does not factor into it. Can you conceive of evaluating an argument on its own, not caring about who wrote it or what opinions the author has? All that matters is the argument itself.

    Each time you say that a premise is just an opinion, you may as well be saying, “I am not able to show why the premise is false and therefore I am not able to defeat the argument.”

    An Amazon tribesman might say that there is no evidence for electrons. If our only response is, “That’s just your opinion,” then we haven’t proved him wrong. If the tribesman makes an argument resting on the premise that there is no evidence for electrons, then we haven’t defeated his argument.

    But we do have reason and evidence for electrons. We are able to show that his premise is false by presenting the reason and evidence for electrons. That is how the tribesman’s argument is defeated.

    Likewise, you do have reason and evidence for Christianity. You are able to defeat the argument in question. So go ahead and defeat it. Show that one of the premises, “there is no evidence for God,” is false. Write as if you’re addressing the tribesman. He doesn’t have the information. You do. Show it to him.

    Make it simple by just taking the first step—just give the facts supporting your argument. Because we share the same reality, we share the same facts. Let’s see if we can agree on the facts. If we can do that, then we can proceed to interpretation of those facts.

  50. Kevin says:

    Sigh.

    Not that I’m worthy of your notice, but given that there is literally nothing Michael or anyone else can present that will change your mind, what’s the point of asking if you aren’t simply wanting to demonstrate how smart you are?

    And if you deny my suspicion that you are close-minded on the subject, why not counter that suspicion by giving an example of something that would count as evidence for God, and why? Let us know that this is a legitimate request from an open-minded individual and not a troll or ideologue.

  51. grodrigues says:

    @Phocaea:

    “However saying that something is an opinion does not mean it is false. So an argument is not defeated by saying that one of its premises is an opinion. Showing why a premise is false does defeat the argument.”

    Sigh. By your own logic you have not proved that Michael is wrong.

    So at best your crude footwork leaves us at a stalemate. But we are not even in a stalemate, as I have already sketched in this precise thread. Want to know more? Go read a book and do some of the intellectual hard work for a change, instead of scolding others for not doing it for you.

  52. TFBW says:

    Each time you say that a premise is just an opinion, you may as well be saying, “I am not able to show why the premise is false and therefore I am not able to defeat the argument.”

    No, he’s saying it’s one opinion (or premise) versus another, and not getting suckered into following the unwritten rule that Sam can just spout his opinions, whereas disagreement must be accompanied by evidence and analysis, thus arbitrarily burdening one side of the argument with all the work for no reason other than your innate scepticism towards it.

    Christopher Hitchens once said, “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” This maxim, Hitchens’ Razor, is corrosive to productive argument, but it’s a great way to brush off an opponent who makes you do all the analytical work, then suggests that your argument is weak because he still doesn’t feel inclined to agree with you. It’s not a productive maxim for dialectic engagement, but it’s good for rhetorical combat. Hitchens was a good rhetorician; credit where it’s due.

    If you want to engage dialectically, you’ll have to start acting more like you’re willing to share the burden of analysis, rather than just take one side for granted. All the condescending advice about how to reason is just making you look like a smug, arrogant dick out to score “gotcha” points against intellectual inferiors, at least from my perspective. Maybe you know a thing or two about critical thinking, but what do you know about dialectic engagement—actually understanding what it is that your opponent thinks, and sorting out the common ground from the differences? Not much, I’d wager, given that you seem to assume anyone who disagrees with you is simply deficient in their critical thinking skills.

  53. Michael says:

    We can agree on that, which is a start. However saying that something is an opinion does not mean it is false. So an argument is not defeated by saying that one of its premises is an opinion. Showing why a premise is false does defeat the argument.

    If the premise is merely an opinion, then the argument is opinion-dependent. That is, it will only resonate with those who happen to share the opinion. If the argument was intended to reach people with different opinions, it fails due it’s dependency on the particular opinion being held. Pointing out this dependency (which is often snuck in) neuters the argument and renders it impotent. In short, defeated.

    Opinion does not factor into it. Can you conceive of evaluating an argument on its own, not caring about who wrote it or what opinions the author has? All that matters is the argument itself.

    Did this in my blog posting.

    Each time you say that a premise is just an opinion, you may as well be saying, “I am not able to show why the premise is false and therefore I am not able to defeat the argument.”

    If your argument is rooted in your personal opinions, I have no rational obligation to embrace it, or even consider it. If you are trying to show me a truth, convince me I’m wrong, etc, then you’d need to go back to the drawing board. Either formulate your argument so it does not depend on your personal opinion or find a way to show your opinion is true.

    An Amazon tribesman might say that there is no evidence for electrons. If our only response is, “That’s just your opinion,” then we haven’t proved him wrong. If the tribesman makes an argument resting on the premise that there is no evidence for electrons, then we haven’t defeated his argument.
    But we do have reason and evidence for electrons. We are able to show that his premise is false by presenting the reason and evidence for electrons. That is how the tribesman’s argument is defeated.

    Let’s stick to reality. You assume the Amazon tribesman is going to be impressed by your “reason and evidence.” What if, after presenting your reason and evidence, the Amazon tribesman insists you have failed to provide any evidence. What’s next?

    I mention “sticking to reality” because I can’t recall ever seeing anyone change their mind because of “reason and evidence.”

    Likewise, you do have reason and evidence for Christianity. You are able to defeat the argument in question. So go ahead and defeat it.

    I did. Read the blog posting. Of course, you have a different opinion about that. And I’m supposed to share it, right?

    Show that one of the premises, “there is no evidence for God,” is false.

    LOL. And just who decides if I have succeeded in showing that? You? Sam Harris? A member of some intellectually inbred philosophy department?

    Look, I presented evidence twice and each time your flippantly (and weakly) dismissed it. You are free to continue entertaining with your posturing as someone “just trying to focus on the arguments,” but I don’t sense intellectual sincerity and honesty from you.
    Sorry.

  54. Ilíon says:

    yet another intellectually dishonest God-denier who will not admit when his position has been refuted:Show that one of the premises, “there is no evidence for God,” is false.

    P1: If there is no Creator-God, then ALL events and state-changes are caused by, and wholly explicable in terms of, mechanistic cause-and-effect;
    P1a/C1: If the physical world which we sense exists, then ALL events and state-changes are caused by, and wholly explicable in terms of, mechanistic physical cause-and-effect;
    P2: All acts of reasoning, and the conclusions thereof, are series of events and state-changes;
    C2: All conclusions of acts of reasoning are caused by, and wholly explicable in terms of, mechanistic physical cause-and-effect;
    P3: If there is no Creator-God, then ALL acts of reasoning, and the conclusions thereof, are caused by, and wholly explicable in terms of, mechanistic physical cause-and-effect;
    C3: If there is no Creator-God, then you/I cannot know that you/I have reasoned correctly, nor can you/I actually reason in the first place.

    BUT: I *can* reason soundly, and I *can* know that I have reasoned correctly;
    ERGO: *I* myself am proof that the proposition, “There is no evidence for God” is false;
    FOR: *I* myself am this much-demanded “Evidence for God”;
    AS: are you.

  55. Ilíon says:

    EDIT: and I *can* use reason to recognize-and-know if I had previously reasoned incorrectly

  56. Ilíon says:

    IF the claim, “There is no Creator-God“, is the fundamental truth about the nature of reality, THEN you (nor I nor anyone else) cannot reason. But, you can reason … even though you frequently choose to engage in anti-reason.

    So, either admit that the claim, “There is no Creator-God“, is *shown* and *known* to be false, or stop whinging when you are mocked for your anti-reason and intellectual dishonesty.

  57. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > Buddhists could use [Pascal’s Wager] to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth

    Arguably Buddhists already do use a version of Pascal’s Wager, they have done so since long before Pascal, right back to The Buddha himself.

    A firm faith in the Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth is an essential comfort and enticement if meditators, especially those with ordinary or poor rather than special talent, are to persist in their practice of meditation and mindfulness towards the goal of eventually achieving Nirvana, because as Sam Harris tells us:

    The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. Here, as elsewhere in life, the “10,000 Hour Rule” often applies. And true mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice.

    (Note that “and”: true mastery probably needs both, says Harris.)

    Karma is necessary to explain why so very few have the special talent required to attain Nirvana in one lifetime, and why the ordinarily talented doesn’t manage to; reincarnation so you have both multiple lives to re-try for the goal and the promise that if you practice diligently your karma might be good enough, next time round, for you to then have that special talent needed to attain Nirvana in that next lifetime or a subsequent lifetime – without that promise of eventually reaching Nirvana why should any ordinary, average meditator lacking that rare (“special”) talent continue to meditate?

    That is, Buddhists do have their own Buddhist version of Pascal’s Wager, betting on karma and reincarnation (rebirth) (and on Nirvana); without that bet, implicit because there’s apparently been no Buddhist Pascal to make the bet explicit – without that bet it isn’t worthwhile bothering to even start to meditate, the guy without special talent and a lifetime left is “probably” (says Harris) doomed to failure.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/new-atheisms-guru/#comment-9258

    *

    This also applies to the Buddhism-Lite [*] ‘Waking Up’ brand of meditation and mindfulness practices which Harris is promoting in the West.

    ( * ‘Lite’ because stripped of the more overtly religious traditional practices such as gilding Buddha statues to gain merit (good karma), full-length prostrations around Tibetan lakes, begging with a rice bowl etc etc, and stripped of the famous children’s tales and the story of Padmasambhava’s miraculous birth on a lotus leaf (which makes the virgin birth look unimaginative.) Harris reckons these traditions can be dispensed with and – if he is to promote any form of Buddhism successfully in the skeptical West – must be dropped and never mentioned.)

    *

    Harris says the Wager is:

    As many readers will remember, Pascal suggested that religious believers are simply taking the wiser of two bets: if a believer is wrong about God, there is not much harm to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins eternal happiness; if an atheist is wrong, however, he is destined for hell. Put this way, atheism seems the very picture of reckless stupidity.

    https://samharris.org/the-empty-wager/

    Adapting that to Buddhism, we get:

    The Buddha suggests that Buddhists are simply taking the wiser of two bets based upon the notion of karma and rebirth that he and they adopted from Hinduism: if a Buddhist is wrong about the efficacy of meditation and mindfulness, there is not much harm [*] to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins Nirvanic bliss; if a non-Buddhist is wrong, however, he is destined for an eternity of lifetimes of dukkha. Put this way, non-Buddhism seems the very picture of reckless stupidity.

    ( * Actually, several studies have shown that – especially when it’s long-term or intensive – meditation and mindfulness practice can and often does result in a range of harmful or very harmful side-effects including lasting harm. Looks like Buddhism and Buddhism-Lite are not a particularly good bet, some people do pay a terrible price for Buddhist religious faith.)

    *

    Let’s have a look at the third of the examples given as consquences of Pascal’s Wager:

    If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” … the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.

    I don’t see how a valid Wager can be used by the editors of TIME (or anyone else) to justify as a “good bet” that “anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.” That seems to be a non-sequitur, it doesn’t follow, there’s steps missing and I cannot envisage what they would be if they were put in place. Perhaps Phocaea would be so good as to fill in the missing steps to reach that particular conclusion, failing which I must conclude that Harris’ killer argument against the validity of the Wager is itself invalid.

    *

    But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

    If Harris calls it a suggestion, evidently Harris thinks or knows that Pascal never explicitly claimed that “a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence”. The question, then, is whether it is something that Pascal meant to imply and assented to, or whether it’s a problem that Harris imaginatively and wrongly infers.

    I in my turn am perhaps imaginatively and wrongly inferring that Harris is suggesting here that religious people are not rational and rational people not religious. That would be a mere slur, especially as Harris’ penultimate sentence is:

    I suspect no one ever acquires his religious beliefs in this way (Pascal certainly didn’t).

    Harris is arguing against acquiring religious beliefs via the Wager – “in this way (Pascal certainly didn’t [nor Michael, nor me, who did?])” – something that Harris is explicit in acknowledging he suspects no one ever does; which means he doesn’t actually know or know of anyone who has done so. It’s an attack on a hypothetical situation, an imagined rather than an evidenced situation.

    If nobody acquires their religious beliefs in this way, why ever is Harris bothering to argue against people acquiring their religious beliefs in this way? It seems the height of absurdity to argue against a non-problem.

  58. Ilíon says:

    Well, God-Deniers *do* love to wallow in absurdity.

  59. Phocaea says:

    There is no Authority that decides whether an argument is sound or unsound. Everyone has the freedom to evaluate an argument for themselves and decide for themselves.

    Rejecting a premise of an argument—i.e., rejecting its soundness—means only that and nothing more. There is no Authority that decides the “defeated” status of an argument. There are only counterarguments aiming to show that one of the premises of the original argument is false, or that its conclusion does not follow from its premises.

    Saying that a premise is an opinion is not a counterargument because it does not explain why the premise is false. If someone declares an argument “defeated” but refuses to bring a counterargument showing why this is so, he is trying to be the Authority telling everyone what is true and false.

    I am advocating for the unfettered freedom of each person to decide for themselves. Everyone gets to see the argument. Everyone gets to exercise their own individual judgment. No Authorities, please.

    Defeating Harris’ argument means bringing a counterargument for defeating it, not asserting it is defeated because you say so. When I asked you to support your claim that Christianity “is true because of reason and evidence”, I was not asking you to become the Authority dictating what is true or false. I was asking you to bring the counterargument opposing Harris’ argument.

    I presented evidence twice

    Until now I did not realize that, in your mind, you have already brought the counterargument via two links to your blog. The first is one that Harris makes,

    The things we are designed to do very well are to recognize the facial expressions of apes just like ourselves and to throw objects in parabolic arcs within 100 meters and all of that. The fact that we are able to succeed to the degree that we have been in creating a vision of scientific truth and structure of the cosmos at large, that radically exceeds those narrow parameters, that is a kind of miracle.

    The second is a general principle of taking the middle path, a principle found in Islam (which I already cited), Buddhism (the Middle Way is central to Buddhism), Aristotle (the golden mean), along with many other philosophies and religions.

    For you, those two general points imply that God exists, God is three persons, Jesus is one of those persons, Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity, Jesus was resurrected three days later, Jesus ascended into heaven, and Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. For you, it is “flippant” to reject this conclusion.

    For me, I see no clear implication from those two general points to Christianity in particular. But I am not the Authority on whether you have adequately supported your claim that Christianity “is true because of reason and evidence”. Each individual gets to decide that for themselves.

  60. TFBW says:

    Saying that a premise is an opinion is not a counterargument because it does not explain why the premise is false.

    One does not have to justify rejection of a premise; one must only accept the logical consequences of doing so. If the premise is the conclusion of some other argument, then let us argue the merits of that argument. A statement presented as a premise, however, is subject to rejection at whim, so long as you accept whatever else can be argued from the rejection of that premise.

    It’s one thing to presume to lecture; another thing to be wrong about something so basic in the process of doing so.

  61. Kevin says:

    Don’t bother, none of us are worthy of his attention.

  62. TFBW says:

    I usually write responses with third party readership in mind. “He who pleads his cause first seems right until another comes and questions him.” [Prov. 18:17]

  63. Ilíon says:

    TFBW:… one must only accept the logical consequences of [rejection of a premise].

    Similarly, when one accepts or advances a premise/proposition, one must also accept and admit the logical consequences of the premise/proposition.

    This is why the oh-so-common tactic of “Well, I’m and ‘atheist’ and I don’t believe/say that” is mostly just so much squid-ink. The proposition “There is no Creator” entails logical consequences; to advance the proposition is to advance the entailments.

  64. Michael says:

    Defeating Harris’ argument means bringing a counterargument for defeating it, not asserting it is defeated because you say so.

    Then let’s review.

    Harris claimed:

    But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager. One is the notion that people do not pay a terrible price for religious faith. It seems worth remembering in this context just what sort of costs, great and small, we are incurring on account of religion…..The current costs of religion are incalculable. And they are excruciating.

    I then respond and defeat this claim:

    Harris is simply trying to shoehorn his standard “Religion Is Eeevil” talking point that is sustained by intensive cherry picking and confirmation bias. Yet for the purpose of this argument, we need not even challenge his meme. All I have to do is notice the simple fact that Christianity has incurred no incalculable, excruciating cost to my life.

    Harris claimed:

    Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.”

    I then respond and defeat this claim:

    Christianity vs. karma and rebirth? If I am wrong, it simply means I’ll get another chance. And another. And another. It is always wise to bet against karma/rebirth because the cost is so minimal.

    Harris claims:

    But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

    I then respond and defeat this claim.

    From my position, the “greatest problem with the wager” is easily defeated. I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence. As I explained, the Wager comes into play after the evidence is considered.

    I other words, I did not survey Christianity to conclude there was “no evidence” for it, but then decided to will myself into believing it on the basis of the wager.

    Whether or not there truly is “no evidence” or not does not matter in this context. All that matters is that I didn’t, and don’t, follow the formula that Harris laid out.

    Saying that a premise is an opinion is not a counterargument because it does not explain why the premise is false. If someone declares an argument “defeated” but refuses to bring a counterargument showing why this is so, he is trying to be the Authority telling everyone what is true and false.

    If the premise is merely an opinion, then the argument, and it’s conclusion, is opinion-dependent. That is, it will resonate only with those who already happen to share the opinion. If the argument was intended to reach people with different opinions, it fails due it’s dependency on the particular opinion being held. Pointing out this dependency (which is often snuck in) neuters the argument and renders it impotent. In short, defeated.

    For you, those two general points imply that God exists, God is three persons, Jesus is one of those persons, Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity, Jesus was resurrected three days later, Jesus ascended into heaven, and Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. For you, it is “flippant” to reject this conclusion.

    I see. So if I were to present evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, that too would fail as evidence for Christianity because it would not have shown that God exists, God is three persons, Jesus is one of those persons, Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity, Jesus ascended into heaven, and Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

    What piece of data could possibly show all that you demand?

    Look, what you fail to grasp is that we have reached a sort of consensus between the two of us. You think atheism is true, I think Christianity is true. So we agree that all the other religions of the world are off the table. Thus, when it becomes a question of Atheism vs. Christianity, the two lines of evidence I have provided point toward Christianity and away from Atheism.

  65. Phocaea says:

    That is a considerable retreat from your original assertion,

    I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence.

    Note my first comment,

    It seems Harris’ point is that, in the absence of evidential reasons, Pascal’s Wager may be applied equally to any claim. It would appear you’re saying that you have evidential reasons for Christianity in particular, and therefore his assumption that Christianity is on par with the other claims he listed is false. However until you explain what those evidential reasons are, you are merely making an assertion and have not “defeated” Harris’ argument.

    By retreating to some generic theism, you are playing right into Harris’ hands when he says, for instance,

    If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell)

    As long as you fail to distinguish Christianity from Islam, you are supporting Harris’ argument, not defeating it.

    Are you retracting your original assertion of “I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence”? If not, then supporting it would create a proper counterargument to Harris’ argument. Make it simple by first giving the facts upon which your argument is based. Let’s see if we can agree on the facts.

    Earlier I asked,

    Can you conceive of evaluating an argument on its own, not caring about who wrote it or what opinions the author has? All that matters is the argument itself.

    Apparently the answer is “No.”

    You are still declaring an argument “defeated” because it depends upon a premise that someone believes to be true, which is all an opinion is. It remains utterly missed that calling something an opinion has no bearing on whether it is true or false.

    I can present an argument that the sun will rise tomorrow in Greenwich, England. A snuck-in premise of that argument is that the sun will not burn out before tomorrow. And it is absolutely my opinion that the sun will not burn out before tomorrow. Therefore my argument is “opinion-dependent,” and “pointing out this dependency (which is often snuck in) neuters the argument and renders it impotent. In short, defeated.”

    Yet until a counterargument is brought which contradicts one of the premises of my argument, or otherwise shows my calculations are incorrect, my argument that the sun will rise tomorrow in Greenwich has not been defeated.

    There is no Authority declaring what is or is not defeated. There are only arguments and counterarguments and the free exercise of each individual’s judgment.

  66. Kevin says:

    There is no Authority declaring what is or is not defeated. There are only arguments and counterarguments and the free exercise of each individual’s judgment.

    Yet you want Michael to name his evidence so you can declare it insufficient.

    Not that I’m worthy of a response from you.

  67. Dhay says:

    Phocaea > Note my first comment, “It seems Harris’ point is that, in the absence of evidential reasons, Pascal’s Wager may be applied equally to any claim. …”

    What does Sam Harris say?

    But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

    https://samharris.org/the-empty-wager/

    The greatest problem with the Wager is, according to Harris, a suggestion. We can be confident, however, that the content of that, er, suggestion is not anything that Blaise Pascal actually wrote, because if Pascal had actually written that “a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence”, Harris would have been able to provide evidence – a quotation – and wouldn’t have needed to insinuate a “suggestion.” So Harris’ claim that Pascal “suggests” that “a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence” is likely bluff and bullshit, and not Pascal’s Wager but instead Harris’ Parody.

    What else is there that makes it Harris’ Parody? There’s that “for which he has no evidence.” That claim of Harris’ – not of Pascal’s (see last paragraph) – is totally without qualification or nuance; an absolute unqualified “no evidence” is far too strong (and irrational) for it to be credible Pascal said it. What I see here is Harris voicing Pascal as a child voices its dolly.

    With this in mind I think we can more safely re-phrase Harris’ words as: “If Harris’ parody version of Pascal’s Wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.””

  68. Michael says:

    That is a considerable retreat from your original assertion,
    I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence.

    Huh? There has been no retreat from that position. Perhaps it would help if you provided the quote where I “retreat.”

    Note my first comment,
    It seems Harris’ point is that, in the absence of evidential reasons, Pascal’s Wager may be applied equally to any claim. It would appear you’re saying that you have evidential reasons for Christianity in particular, and therefore his assumption that Christianity is on par with the other claims he listed is false. However until you explain what those evidential reasons are, you are merely making an assertion and have not “defeated” Harris’ argument.

    Note my reply to your first comment:

    “In this context, it is sufficient for me to point out that the Wager is not being used in isolation. If, after a serious investigation, I have used reason to conclude that evidence exists, that is good enough. From my perspective, where the Wager comes into play after the analysis of the evidence, Harris’s argument about the Wager is defeated. For it assumes that reason, and evidence, were not in play prior to looking to the Wager.”

    Okay, let’s start a count. You never responded to my point. You just ignored it.

    By retreating to some generic theism, you are playing right into Harris’ hands when he says, for instance,
    If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet.” Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell)

    But in my latest reply, I noted that Harris claims it can be used to justify ANY belief system while it cannot: Christianity vs. karma and rebirth? If I am wrong, it simply means I’ll get another chance. And another. And another. It is always wise to bet against karma/rebirth because the cost is so minimal.

    Example #2 of you ignoring my point.

    As long as you fail to distinguish Christianity from Islam, you are supporting Harris’ argument, not defeating it.

    In the original blog posting, I note the Wager is not useful when it comes to Islam: “Christianity vs. Islam? In that case, the Wager seems rather useless, as costs incurred for being wrong cancel each other out.”

    Just because the Wager isn’t helpful at one place doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful anywhere (Harris’s point).

    That was example #3 of you ignoring my point.

    Are you retracting your original assertion of “I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence”? If not, then supporting it would create a proper counterargument to Harris’ argument. Make it simple by first giving the facts upon which your argument is based. Let’s see if we can agree on the facts.

    You still don’t get it. In order to use the Wager, I don’t have to “create a proper counterargument to Harris’ argument.” I can simply point out that “Harris’ argument” is premised on a personal opinion and, as such, there is no reason for me to take it seriously. From where I sit, “Harris’ argument” is defeated by pointing out I have no rational obligation to embrace another’s opinions, or even consider them. If he is trying to show us a truth, or convince us that we are wrong, then he’ll need to go back to the drawing board. Either formulate his argument so it does not depend on his personal opinion or find a way to show his opinion is true (and not just an opinion).

    You seem to think we are all supposed to embrace Harris’ opinion because he turned it into a premise and built an argument on it. That’s nonsense.

    What’s more, when I noted “I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence,” I am pointing out that I am not following Harris’s formula (Dhay calls it Harris’ Parody.) I didn’t will myself, as Harris would have it, into believe in Christianity when I knew there was “no evidence” for it. So not only is Harris’ argument rooted in subjective opinion, the opinion is nothing more than simple-minded stereotypes (that, btw, come from a Christian hater).

    Earlier I asked,
    Can you conceive of evaluating an argument on its own, not caring about who wrote it or what opinions the author has? All that matters is the argument itself.

    Apparently the answer is “No.”

    Er, when you asked this, I responded by pointing out I already “did this in my blog posting.” That’s the fourth time you ignored my point.

    You are still declaring an argument “defeated” because it depends upon a premise that someone believes to be true, which is all an opinion is. It remains utterly missed that calling something an opinion has no bearing on whether it is true or false.

    His opinion is false if it is meant to describe how someone like myself became a Christian. If he’s just sticking to the “there is no evidence” talking point that is popular among the New Atheists, I don’t need to show it is false. I merely point out he has failed to show it is true. That’s enough to defeat it, assuming he thinks we’re supposed to accept his claims as true.

    I can present an argument that the sun will rise tomorrow in Greenwich, England. A snuck-in premise of that argument is that the sun will not burn out before tomorrow. And it is absolutely my opinion that the sun will not burn out before tomorrow. Therefore my argument is “opinion-dependent,” and “pointing out this dependency (which is often snuck in) neuters the argument and renders it impotent. In short, defeated.”
    Yet until a counterargument is brought which contradicts one of the premises of my argument, or otherwise shows my calculations are incorrect, my argument that the sun will rise tomorrow in Greenwich has not been defeated.

    I have a tiny surprise for you. It is also my opinion that the sun will not burn out before tomorrow. We share that opinion. And what did I write about this all?

    “If the premise is merely an opinion, then the argument is opinion-dependent. That is, it will only resonate with those who happen to share the opinion. If the argument was intended to reach people with different opinions, it fails due it’s dependency on the particular opinion being held. Pointing out this dependency (which is often snuck in) neuters the argument and renders it impotent. In short, defeated.”

    There’s the fifth time you ignored my writings.

    There is no Authority declaring what is or is not defeated.

    Did I “declare” this? Let’s look at what I wrote.

    From my position, the “greatest problem with the wager” is easily defeated…..From where I sit, Harris’s objections to Pascal’s Wager are rooted in confusion and ignorance. His objections fail.”

    I even made this clear in a later comment to you:

    From my perspective, where the Wager comes into play after the analysis of the evidence, Harris’s argument about the Wager is defeated. For it assumes that reason, and evidence, were not in play prior to looking to the Wager.”

    Since I am careful to qualify my claims, those do not count as “declarations.” On the contrary, it’s careless people like Harris who declare things such as “there is no evidence.”

    Anyway, that’s example #6 of you ignoring what I wrote.

    There are only arguments and counterarguments and the free exercise of each individual’s judgment.

    And then there is you ignoring what I write, ignoring my arguments and counterarguments, all while trying to posture as if you are merely trying to discover truth.

  69. Phocaea says:

    I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence.

    State the facts upon which that argument is made. By failing to do so six times, you have so far offered great support for Harris’ premise that you got nothing.

    If we encountered someone who knew nothing of electrons, we might say to him that we believe electrons exist because of reason and evidence. But if every time he asks us to state the underlying facts supporting our belief, we dodge the question by talking about opinions or moving the goalpost to some abstract idea or analogy, consistently refusing to divulge even the facts—not once, not twice, but six times—then he may reasonably suspect we got nothing.

  70. Kevin says:

    Michael, Phocaea is desperate for you to explain the reasons you believe Christianity is wrong so he can tell you how wrong you are. Hopefully you’re aware he isn’t even remotely interested in any other conversation, nor speaking to anyone else.

  71. Kevin says:

    Whoops, explain the reasons Christianity is right.

  72. Dhay says:

    Phocaea ignores me, too. And in that and in a number of other ways he reminds me strongly of [string of sockpuppet accounts].

    *

    The elephant in the room is that “The Empty Wager” – the title and subject of Sam Harris’ article (then blog post) as quoted by and critiqued by Michael in the OP – “The Empty Wager” bears scant resemblance to the real thing, to Pascal’s Wager.

    https://samharris.org/the-empty-wager/

    I’m no philosopher – nor is Phocaea, on the evidence of responses so far – but it’s plain to me that Pascal’s Wager is far longer, more comprehensive and more subtly reasoned than Harris’ Empty Wager parody. Pascal’s Wager is also an individual’s – an individual Jansenist Christian’s, and one who takes as a starting point his opinion that God, judgment, heaven and hell can neither be proved nor disproved, at that – an individual’s wager weighing the cost/benefit of him personally receiving the infinite benefit of an afterlife in heaven, overwhelming the finite discomforts attending being a good Christian in this life; or him personally receiving the infinite discomforts of an afterlife in hell, overwhelming the finite pleasures attending being a bad or non-Christian in this life; if there is a God, that is: with these contrasted with the finite benefits and discomforts of living as a good or bad Christian or atheist if there isn’t a God.

    Harris’ Empty Wager, in contrast with Pascal’s Wager, treats the question of whether there is or is not a God as settled: there simply isn’t a God **. Therefore the Empty Wager excludes Pascal’s Wager’s infinite rewards or punishments attendant upon judgment, heaven and hell and focuses (contra Pascal) solely on the pros and cons in our current life of being a Christian or an atheist. Harris’ Empty Wager is in practice an Atheist’s Wager.

    ( ** Ting! With one wave of his magic wand Harris has dispensed entirely with the need to address the complexity and subtlety of Pascal’s philosophy and he shortly thereafter dismisses Pascal as a mere mathematician peddling a cute but worthless mere analogy. That’s stage magic, that’s deception, that’s denigration not philosophy. Judge for yourselves which of the two is the serious philosopher.)

    And Harris’ Empty Wager becomes emptier again; if Pascal were alive today Harris would have him factor into the costs/benefits to himself personally of living the Christian life: the impersonal social cost of millions of Muslims believing in the metaphysics of martyrdom; the (implied huge) price on the heartfelt religious differences that the Sunni and the Shia are now expressing in Iraq with car bombs and power tools; the net effect of Jewish settlers believing that the Creator of the universe promised them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean. These social costs, which Harris claims are incalculable and excruciating are no part of Pascal’s Wager – which would in any case count finite sufferings, even if somehow all of Harris’ social costs could be suffered by one individual modern Pascal, as nothing compared to infinite benefits.

    Harris has misrepresented Pascal’s Wager as being Harris’ own very, very different Empty Wager. It’s Harris’ straw-man Empty Wager, and only that one, that Harris’ article attacks.

    Does Harris engage with Pascal’s Wager at all? Well, he says he does: “If the [Pascal’s W]ager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a “good bet” … the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.” But such an extraordinary claim requires at least ordinary evidence, and Harris provides but an unsupported assertion. Not only that, he has shown such a poor understanding of Pascal’s Wager and such an eagerness to substitute his Empty Wager parody version of it, I fully expect that had Harris made himself clearer it would turn out that what Harris calls “Pascal’s Wager” is yet again Harris’ Empty Wager.

    Harris also claims to engage directly with Pascal’s Wager when he claims: “the greatest problem with the wager … is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe something, he must also believe that the belief under consideration is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.” There’s a word or two missing there, without which it doesn’t make sense: it should read – my addition in bold – “ it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if you knew that He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him”; with that addition it makes sense but is a mere banality, nobody would ever with honesty claim to believe God exists while knowing the contrary.

    Pascal took as a starting point that God, judgment, heaven and hell can neither be proved nor disproved. Pascal’s Wager certainly doesn’t fit into Harris’ scheme. Nor do Pascal himself or any Christian then or since; Harris tells us “I suspect no one ever acquires his religious beliefs in this way (Pascal certainly didn’t)”, Harris doesn’t know of anyone who has. Harris continues, nonetheless, “But even if some people do…”; to which the answer is simple: they don’t.

    *

    There’s several versions of Wager in Harris’ article: Pascal’s Wager is roundly ignored by Harris except to make unsupported claims about it; Harris substitutes the straw-man Empty Wager, a parody version with scant relation to Pascal’s.

    *

    There’s another Wager hiding there if you know the background: Harris starts with a claim that “The coverage of my recent debate in the pages of Newsweek began and ended with Jon Meacham and Rick Warren each making respectful reference to Pascal’s wager.” Harris, who in his slightly earlier 01 April 2007 blog post entitled “Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren” links to the coverage text, is lying – he had access to the text so the misrepresentation is deliberate – lying when he claims that there was reference to Pascals’ Wager (or any other bet, wager or gamble etc) at or near the beginning of the text: there wasn’t. He’s lying when he claims Meacham referrred to Pascal’s Wager (or any other bet, wager or gamble etc) at or near the end of the text: he didn’t.

    And he’s lying when he claims Warren referred to Pascal’s Wager at or near the end of the text; Warren does make reference to “betting my life” right at the end, with a clarifying passage shortly before that, but it’s obviously not Pascal’s Wager: Warren’s Bet is not a wager like Pascal’s, one based upon infintes outweighing earthly finites, it’s based upon “…even if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.” Warren’s Bet is a bet, based on experience of life as a Christian, that when life is lived as a Christian it’s a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live. Pascal’s Wager it ain’t.

    WARREN: …If I did not believe that there is a Judgment, if I believed Hitler would actually get away with everything he did, that would be a reason for great despair. The fact is, I do believe there will be a Judgment Day. God is not just a God of love. He is a God of justice. So death is a factor. On the other hand, even if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20100206171101/http://www.newsweek.com/id/35784/page/3
    [of 3, the navigation links are at the bottom.]

    *

    Finally, in the responses, Phocaea shoots off at a tangent to Pascal’s Wager, a tangent to Harris’ Empty Wager and a tangent to Warren’s Bet – shoots off at a tangent with Phocaea’s Wager; which can be roughly but surely not inaccurately summarised as, “Bet you can’t prove there’s a God”.

  73. Ilíon says:

    I’m no philosopher – nor is Phocaea, on the evidence of responses so far –

    *Everyone* is a philosopher; it’s just some are less careful about it than others are, and are less concerned with reasoning properly, and are less reticent to outrun the data. And that goes double for those who get paid to philosophize.

  74. Ilíon says:

    … with that addition it makes sense but is a mere banality, nobody would ever with honesty claim to believe God exists while knowing the contrary.

    True. However, if atheism is the truth about the nature of reality, no one can honestly claim that it is immoral for a person to “claim to believe God exists while knowing the contrary”. That’s one of the amusing things about atheism — if it is the truth about the nature of reality, then it is utterly irrelevant to reality … which seems rather to be one of the points of Pascal’s Wager.

  75. Dhay says:

    Phocaea >

    I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence.

    State the facts upon which that argument is made. By failing to do so six times, you have so far offered great support for Harris’ premise that you got nothing.

    I looked for “Harris’ premise that you got nothing”, but could not find it: instead there’s a “suggestion” by Harris (which he attributes to Pascal and obviously considers a ludicrous suggestion, his “the editors of TIME could use [the Wager] to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation” takes the piss out of the idea) — a dismissed “suggestion” by Harris that:

    But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

    If Harris doesn’t take the, er, “premise” (you call it) seriously, why do you? and why should anyone?

    Your “Harris’ premise that you got nothing” appears to be itself nothing: there isn’t one; therefore so far from having “great support” it’s unsupportable. You yourself “got nothing.”

    *

    The sentence of Michael’s that you have chosen to quote in your apparent demand that Michael justify to you his thinking that Christianity is true is a sentence out of context; it continues:

    As I explained, the Wager comes into play after the evidence is considered. The Wager exists due to the fact that none of us can purchase intellectual certainty. The human brain is too limited and too fallible. The Wager is the response to the question, “I don’t think I am wrong, but what if I am wrong?”

    What part of “none of us can purchase intellectual certainty” and “The human brain is too limited and too fallible” do you not understand?

    The bottom line of the OP is:

    From where I sit, Harris’s objections to Pascal’s Wager are rooted in confusion and ignorance. His objections fail.

    From where I sit Harris’ inane ramblings about Pascal’s Wager and his own, different, Empty Wager are rooted in confusion and ignorance. His objections fail.

    Yours likewise.

  76. Ilíon says:

    Michael:… the fact that none of us can purchase intellectual certainty.

    Strictly speaking, that claim is false. Strictly speaking, that claim is self-refuting, for at face-value the claim is itself an assertion of “intellectual certainty”.

    That we cannot “purchase intellectual certainty” about *all* matters does not mean that we cannot “purchase intellectual certainty” about *some* matters.

    Here are just a of the things of which a person can “purchase intellectual certainty” —

    – That he himself is;

    – That he himself can know some truths;
    – That he himself can *know* that he knows truth;

    – That he himself can reason truly/correctly;
    – That he himself can *know* that he has reasoned truly/correctly;

    – That he may be mistaken about what he believes to be truth;
    – That he can *know* that he was previously mistaken about what he believed to be truth;

    – That he may reason falsely/incorrectly;
    – That he can *know* that he had previously reasoned falsely/incorrectly;

    – That there exist real, universal, necessary, and transcendent moral obligations between persons;
    – That these real moral obligations may be discovered and known;

    – That the Creator-God is — for the denial of the Creator *just is* the denial all the previous items;
    – That the Creator is a Who, not a What — for the denial of the Creator’ personhood *just is* the denial all the previous items;

    – That the God is *one/unity* — for an assertion of a multiplicity of Creators-of-All-Else is a self-contradiction;
    – That the God is *one/unity* … and *yet* is a multiplicity of Persons — for to deny this *just us* to assert that “moral obligations” are either arbitrary, or are grounded in the nature of contingent human persons; that is, it is to deny the universal, necessary, and transcendent nature of moral obligations;

    Oddly enough, regarding the things of which a man may “purchase intellectual certainty”, the great god ‘Science!‘ is utterly mute (and moot).

  77. Michael says:

    State the facts upon which that argument is made. By failing to do so six times, you have so far offered great support for Harris’ premise that you got nothing.

    You are confused about Harris’s argument. He writes:

    But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

    You seem to think the argument hinges on the Christian truly having “no evidence.” But as we have seen, the “no evidence” claim of Harris is a personal opinion. When I have pointed this out, you have complained. But you have not shown me to be wrong. If the argument rests on the “no evidence” claim, I need merely point out that arguments depends on a personal opinion and thus applies only to those who happen to share that subjective perspective on reality. Since I don’t, Harris’s argument fails. It is defeated. Your increasingly desperate attempts to get me to provide “the evidence” is a distraction from this defeat.

    Yet, in reality, I don’t think Harris’s argument hinges on the Christian truly having “no evidence.” I think what we have here is a description of how , according to Harris, the Wager works. That is, the Christian, recognizing he/she has no evidence, supposedly wills themselves to believe Christianity via the Wager. But this description is not accurate. As I noted, “From my position, the “greatest problem with the wager” is easily defeated. I accept and embrace Christianity because I think it is true because of reason and evidence. As I explained, the Wager comes into play after the evidence is considered.”

    So either way you play it, I have defeated Harris’ argument.

    As for your comments:

    State the facts upon which that argument is made. By failing to do so six times, you have so far offered great support for Harris’ premise that you got nothing.

    In your mind. Yet, as I showed above, you have a track record of ignoring my points and arguments (as you ignore the points and arguments of others). If you can’t follow the arguments of myself and others, why would you think any of us care about your opinions on these matters?

    Oh, and here’s a seventh example of you ignoring what I wrote:

    I see. So if I were to present evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, that too would fail as evidence for Christianity because it would not have shown that God exists, God is three persons, Jesus is one of those persons, Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity, Jesus ascended into heaven, and Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
    What piece of data could possibly show all that you demand?

    Finally:

    If we encountered someone who knew nothing of electrons, we might say to him that we believe electrons exist because of reason and evidence. But if every time he asks us to state the underlying facts supporting our belief, we dodge the question by talking about opinions or moving the goalpost to some abstract idea or analogy, consistently refusing to divulge even the facts—not once, not twice, but six times—then he may reasonably suspect we got nothing.

    LOL. You and your track record of false analogies. Let’s just say that there are some differences between believing electrons exist and believing Christianity is true.

  78. Michael says:

    Kevin: Michael, Phocaea is desperate for you to explain the reasons you believe Christianity is wrong so he can tell you how wrong you are. Hopefully you’re aware he isn’t even remotely interested in any other conversation, nor speaking to anyone else.

    I seem to recall not too long ago we had another atheist who would ignore everyone else and thus got banned. Hmmmm.

  79. Michael says:

    Dhay:Phocaea ignores me, too. And in that and in a number of other ways he reminds me strongly of [string of sockpuppet accounts].

    Think Phocaea can be the latest incarnation of JB/Norman/Paul A/Alison/Jonathan Blair?

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2019/05/16/god-of-the-gaps-atheism-4/#comment-32039

    I’d say very good chance. Since ignoring others while obsessing with me has become his/her tell, I would suggest he/she interact with others in the next incarnation.

  80. Dhay says:

    Phocaea If we encountered someone who knew nothing of electrons, we might say to him that we believe electrons exist because of reason and evidence. But if every time he asks us to state the underlying facts supporting our belief, we dodge the question by talking about opinions or moving the goalpost to some abstract idea or analogy, consistently refusing to divulge even the facts—not once, not twice, but six times—then he may reasonably suspect we got nothing.

    I’ll let Sam Harris say what I think of that:

    [it was] never more than a cute (and false) analogy [with] an undeserved air of profundity.

    https://samharris.org/the-empty-wager/

  81. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence.

    No, I don’t think Pascal said that anywhere. What he definitely did say was — my emboldening:

    “I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?”—Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?

    True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. 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. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.—”But this is what I am afraid of.”—And why? What have you to lose?

    But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.

    The end of this discourse.—Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

    [Pensées #233]

    No, the unbeliever or doubter is not exhorted to (as Harris claims) “knowingly will himself to believe propositions for which he has no evidence”; the unbeliever or doubter is instead exhorted to try living the Christian life in order to see for himself because he will surely find it to be (as Rick Warren put it in his debate with Harris) “a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.” Or there’s Pascal’s own words to the same effect: “You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful.”

    So no, Harris’ “knowingly will himself to believe propositions for which he has no evidence” is fantasy.

    *

    Between Michael’s already thorough critique and the responses I’d say that “Sam Harris’ attack on Pascal’s Wager” — the thread title — Sam Harris’ attack has been thoroughly debunked.

  82. Dhay says:

    What’s with Sam Harris lying? He’s the guy who claims he never lies, not even seemingly tiny lies (eg Santa) to his children; he claims he never lies because:

    We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions—such as the poetic license I took at the beginning of this article ** —and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust.

    https://samharris.org/the-high-cost-of-tiny-lies/

    ( ** It’s just a blog post, there’s no link or other indication that it ever got accepted and published, as an article, elsewhere. So that’s a tiny lie told in a blog post about never telling even tiny lies.)

    Not lying is so important to him, he says, that:

    I’ve written a short book about this.

    So let’s hold Harris to his own definition in that book:

    To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.
    (Lying, Harris, 2013, P.4)

    Did Harris honestly believe his Washington Post article readers (see OP) did not expect honest communication? Did Harris honestly believe his Washington Post article readers expected dishonest communication? Those are rhetorical questions, of course: of course they expected honest communication. Did they get it? A previous response of mine argues, emphatically No. Which means that Harris lied to his Washington Post readers about Pascal’s Wager (as well as lying to them about his Newsweek debate with Rick Warren.)

    So how does a man who says he never lies lie? The clue is in the dates, I think: the Newsweek and Washington Post articles were published in 2007, his blog post and Lying book in 2013. It looks like at some time between 2007 and 2013 Harris decided to re-brand himself as “Honest” Sam Harris, the guy you can safely buy a second hand car from, the reliable guru and thought-leader, the guy whose articles, books, posts and pronouncements can be trusted implicitly and without question because he never misleads and he never ever lies, not even tiny lies.

    Or so he says, lying.

    *

    Why should Harris lie to Washington Post readers? Ultimately, only Harris can answer that; but I do have some observations:

    Jon Meacham, a Newsweek editor, was the moderator of what he describes as a long and (mostly) amiable chat between Harris and the well known pastor, Rick Warren; Meacham then edited the transcript for length etc and published it in Newsweek as “The God Debate.”

    http://web.archive.org/web/20100218073335/http://www.newsweek.com/id/35784/page/1 [and 2 and 3]

    Judge for yourself, but my own opinion is that Harris got well and truly patronised by Warren and will have been judged even by his own fans to have lost the debate.

    Harris has a long history of hating to lose debates, and of denying he actually did lose debates; he has mourned that debates are not like Brizilian Jiu-Jitsu (or Mixed Martial Arts) bouts which have an unambiguous winner with the loser “tapping out” (signalling) their submission; to read him you would think that all of his debate opponents should have (metaphorically) “tapped out” – rather improbably, given that you have to lose a heck of a lot of bouts before you get competent enough to win the majority of bouts.

    One tactic he has used extensively in order to claim a debate win in written exchanges is to add a postscript with his further devastating reply – actually, he’s already lost the debate, this is the equivalent of declaring that although he was down on the mat in an armlock, screaming, hey look, he won, really because he could have wriggled like this, pushed like that and turned the tables completely. From a man who has posted about how a revered martial arts master fooled himself and his students for years, but was felled by one blow in a real bout, the post-debate wriggling looks ludicrous.

    Here, Harris seems to have looked to reimagine the debate ending as a victory for himself by telling his fans that if he had wriggled like this and pushed like that he would have turned the tables completely. The final paragraph of the debate was Warren stating what I call Warren’s Bet – it’s not Pascal’s Wager; evidently Harris decided to pretend it was Pascal’s Wager and that it had been referred to in the debate several times when it hadn’t (bigging up it’s perceived importance and Harris’ revisionist “win”); then to trash a strawman Empty Wager with trashy arguments – this is how he would have won the debate decisively if only he’d had the last word.

    Note that the debate was published in Newsweek: one would expect a follow-up article to be published there as well, but no,”The Empty Wager” was published in the Washington Post instead. The cynic in me says that Harris would never get his blatant lie (prominent in the opening sentence) about what Warren and Meacham said, past Meacham the relevant Newsweek editor; therefore Harris either tried and failed to get “The Empty Wager” published in Newsweek or decided his chances were better with a Washington Post editor, someone ignorant of the debate, someone who wouldn’t spot the lie.

    Why lie? I’m open to other suggestions, but it seems plausible and likely that Harris didn’t want to lose face in front of his fans.

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