Turn off your radio

A Wager and a Reformulation

Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of a famous argument known as Pascal’s Wager:1 maybe there’s a God and maybe there isn’t, we don’t know for sure. If there is a God and you believe in Him, then you’ll be saved and whisked off (presumably post mortem) to an eternity of happiness, and if you don’t believe in Him, then when you die you really die. You get what utility you get out of life and nothing more. If there is no God then when you die you really die, whether or not you believe in Him, getting whatever utility you get out of life and nothing more. By this reasoning, you should believe in God, no matter how small a prior probability you assign to His existence, because if He exists then the expected utility of believing in him is infinite, and if He doesn’t exist, you’re no worse off than you would have been anyway. So you might as well believe.

Now obviously there are a number of problems with this argument that people have pointed out over the years. It can’t convince a strict atheist (that is, someone who thinks there is a zero probability of God’s existence). The notion of infinite upside utility might be unsound (a possible subject of a future Pyrosophy post!). What if you believe in God, but the wrong God, or the right God but in the wrong way? (Some of you might recall a televised skit in which Rowan Atkinson, playing Satan, welcomes a group of recently-deceased Christians to hell: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid the Jews were right.”) Can you really just make yourself believe something you don’t already believe, simply by virtue of being persuaded by an argument that it would be to your advantage to believe that? And all in, God might be rather less than impressed with people who will believe in Him principally to save their sorry butts from annihilation.

Noting some of the problems, Gary Gutting, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame2 and a contributor to the generally-awful New York Times blog The Stone, proposes a revision, “Pascal’s Wager 2.0.” (cute) Gutting admits some of the defects of the previous argument but nonetheless claims that, if there were something like a God, it would be very good for us to have some sort of relationship with Him. We ought therefore to do what it would take to open our minds to the possibility of God.

The argument begins by noting that we could be much happier by making appropriate contact with such a power. The next question is whether there are paths we can take that have some prospect of achieving this contact. Many people, including some of the most upright, intelligent and informed, have claimed that there are such paths. These include not just rituals and good deeds but also private spiritual exercises of prayer, meditation and even philosophical speculation. A person’s specific choices would depend on individual inclinations and capacities.

It’s as if everyone has a radio, tuned to the spiritual ether. Some people, the religious, hear God. Other people, whom Gutting calls religious agnostics don’t hear God, but keep their radios turned on and tuned in, hoping someday to hear God.

The wager calls for some manner of spiritual commitment, but there is no demand for belief, either immediately or eventually. The commitment is, rather, to what I have called religious agnosticism: serious involvement with religious teachings and practices, in hope for a truth that I do not have and may never attain.

Gutting thinks a relationship with God would be so wonderful that it would be irrational to turn off one’s radio, on the grounds that there is nothing to hear. “Religious agnosticism demands only that I reject atheism, which excludes the hope for something beyond the natural world knowable by science.” So. for Gutting, the only sorts of people who ought to exist in the world are the religious and religious agnostics.

Should one keep the radio turned on and engage in religious practices. Well…

The Whisperer in Darkness

Gutting’s argument, to be sound, requires that we partition the possibilities for the universe roughly like this. Either there is a God, who is at least super-powerful and super-wise and super-good (which He would have to be, in order for any relationship one might have with Him to be characterized as necessarily of great benefit to oneself), or there isn’t a God, and the universe is pretty much just what we can observe with science and that we should conclude that the nature of reality is just what physics says it is. But as readers of this blog may have guessed, I think this is a false dichotomy. There is at least one more possibility, which is that the universe is the creation of an at-the-very-least super-evil, super-wise, and super-powerful being, who created the universe as a sort of giant chamber of horrors in order to dine voluptuously off the suffering the creatures trapped therein. Following that brilliant theological parodist John Zande I have hitherto called this being the Owner of All Infernal Names, but I shall henceforth call It the Artifex Atrox, that is, the horrid maker. It has a pleasing comic-book supervillain sound to my ear, and as a comics writer that makes it too hard to resist.

Now in Zande’s understanding of this Artifex Atrox, It is hidden from the view of the creatures in the universe. Can’t have them realizing the foul nature of the universe and committing mass suicide or turning antinatalist, after all.

To ensure that the stream of misery flows uninterrupted…to guarantee that Creation is free to unfold in forever more self-expressive, self-complicating, and creative ways, the Impartial Observer recognizes that existential despair and the potential for organized hostility in the form of self=annihilation must be averted or else the universe would quickly become meaningless or worse, entirely antithetical to its architect and sole reason for existence.3

Zande is probably right, but if he is the Artifex Atrox might be missing out on what is in a way an important opportunity for suffering. After all, thanks to centuries of religion and the urgings of people like Professor Gutting, there are people out there with their radios tuned in, praying, meditating, contemplating sacred texts, doing sacred drugs, fasting in the desert, dancing around naked under the full moon at the summer solstice, what have you. Their radios are on and tuned in. Would it not be fitting for the Artifex Atrox to broadcast across the ether?

Let’s imagine that there is a certain kind of Artifex Atrox, an Artifex Atrox Susurrans, that as Its name implies, whispers to us, or at least some of us. A.A.S. is of course never actually present when It would generate hard evidence of its existence; It withdraws its tentacles immediately whenever pesky scientists and their probing instruments show up, disappearing like supposed psychic phenomena whenever James Randi shows up. But at opportune moments It returns and whispers to people as they pray, meditate, dream. And what does it whisper? There are some rather obvious things: “you must extirpate the heretics by fire and sword.” (See Deuteronomy 17:2-20). “Sexual practice X is an abomination and you must suppress it, even to the point of putting its practitioners to death.” (See Leviticus 20:13.) To the Blues: “Land X is my sacred land, and you must eliminate the Greens therefrom, sparing only the virgins whom you may take as your slaves.” (See Numbers 31:7-18.) And in parallel, to the Greens “Land X is my sacred land, and you must eliminate the Blues therefrom.” You know, religion stuff. Stirring up religious conflict and egging on theocratic oppression are truly marvelous ways of engendering all sorts of suffering, and the Artifex Atrox would be missing a real trick if It failed to do these.

“Ah,” you might say, “but surely we get other things from religion which are valuable. Like hope, for instance.” Yes, hope. Whispering to people that there is hope would be perhaps on of the Artifex Atrox Susurrans very best tricks, because only if we have hope do we carry on. Hope helps us go on living. Hope encourages us to have children. And hope therefore is a remarkable way of making sure the Artifex Atrox gets Its meals in the future. This is the lesson, the real lesson underlying the myth of Pandora. I’ve tried to explicate the lesson in comics format before. In that, I was only following in the footsteps of Nietzsce, in Human, All Too Human.

Die Hoffnung. – Pandora brachte das Fass mit den Uebeln und öffnete es. Es war das Geschenk der Götter an die Menschen, von Aussen ein schönes verführerisches Geschenk und “Glücksfass” zubenannt. Da flogen all die Uebel, lebendige beschwingte Wesen heraus: von da an schweifen sie nun herum und thun den Menschen Schaden bei Tag und Nacht. Ein einziges Uebel war noch nicht aus dem Fass herausgeschlüpft: da schlug Pandora nach Zeus’ Willen den Deckel zu und so blieb es darin. Für immer hat der Mensch nun das Glücksfass im Hause und meint Wunder was für einen Schatz er in ihm habe; es steht ihm zu Diensten, er greift darnach: wenn es ihn gelüstet; denn er weiss nicht, dass jenes Fass, welches Pandora brachte, das Fass der Uebel war, und hält das zurückgebliebene Uebel für das grösste Glücksgut, – es ist die Hoffnung. – Zeus wollte nämlich, dass der Mensch, auch noch so sehr durch die anderen Uebel gequält, doch das Leben nicht wegwerfe, sondern fortfahre, sich immer von Neuem quälen zu lassen. Dazu giebt er dem Menschen die Hoffnung: sie ist in Wahrheit das übelste der Uebel, weil sie die Qual der Menschen verlängert.4 Hope.—Pandora brought the box containing evils and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, a gift of most enticing appearance externally and called the “box of happiness.” Thereupon all the evils, (living, moving things) flew out: from that time to the present they fly about and do ill to men by day and night. One evil only did not fly out of the box: Pandora shut the lid at the behest of Zeus and it remained inside. Now man has this box of happiness perpetually in the house and congratulates himself upon the treasure inside of it; it is at his service: he grasps it whenever he is so disposed, for he knows not that the box which Pandora brought was a box of evils. Hence he looks upon the one evil still remaining as the greatest source of happiness—it is hope.—Zeus intended that man, notwithstanding the evils oppressing him, should continue to live and not rid himself of life, but keep on making himself miserable. For this purpose he bestowed hope upon man: it is, in truth, the greatest of evils for it lengthens the ordeal of man.5

Readers are invited to imagine other things Artifex Atrox Susurrans might whisper, perhaps has whispered, to you!

Now I have asserted before and I shall assert again that it is far, far more likely that the universe comes from an Artifex Atrox than from God, based on the obvious and manifest massive misbalance of suffering over joy in the world. So now Gutting’s wager doesn’t look so good. There’s some very tiny probability that if you do the religion thing and turn on your radio, you’ll have a relationship with God which would be good for you. But there’s a much larger probability that you’ll be hearing the whisperings of a kind of Artfiex Atrox, and that’s going to be very bad for you — and for others whom you can reach. Weighing the balance of probabilities favors turning off your radio.

But perhaps the Artifex Atrox does not whisper?

The Color out of Space

Now as I’ve written Zande is probably right to characterize the Artifex Atrox as having no presence in the universe, even that only detectable in dream states. The Artifex Atrox is thus not Artifex Atrox Susurrans but Artifex Atrox Absconditus. If that’s the case, one could reasonably then ask, what’s the harm in being hopeful about God, leaving one’s radio on?

It’s this: human beings are very bad at actually perceiving noise as noise and emptiness as emptiness.6 How else to explain the persistence of religion? If you tune your radio to an empty frequency what you’ll hear in only squeals and static, but if you have the right, religious cast of mind you won’t only be hearing that for long. Thanks to wishful thinking and confirmation bias you’ll be hearing the whispering even when there is no whisperer, no less than all those people who are constantly seeing the Virgin Mary in their waterstained plaster and the face of Jesus in the grilled cheese sandwiches. And since what you’re actually hearing are just the products of your own mind, what you’ll be getting back are you, including naturally all your bigotries and greeds and lusts and power-hunger, here transfigured from the Voice of You into the Voice of God. Gutting may engage in smug praise (really self-praise) when he insists on the “upright, intelligent and informed” character of religious believers, but the fact is that all those theocrats and genocidaires of the Hebrew scriptures (see supra) seemed equally clearly to be hearing the Voice of God.

It seems, indeed, whether the Atrifex Atrox is Susurrans or Absconditus; either way, It has succeeded in arranging matters so that we are hearing the whispers whether or not there is any whispering. However clever of the the Artifex! All condemnation to It!

Turn off your radios. It’s the only path to mental hygiene.


1For a much more thorough treatment of the argument, see the article on Pascal’s Wager in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Alan Hájek. Back to main text.

2That place with football team, remember? Now go out there and win one for the Gipper.. Back to main text.

3John Zande, The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator. N.P.: John Zande, 2015, pp. 21-2 Back to main text.

4Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister, Sec. 71 (1878). Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7207/pg7207.html on May 30, 2016. Back to main text.

5Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans Alexander Harvey. Sec. 71. Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38145/38145-h/38145-h.htm on May 30, 2016. Back to main text.

6The literature on the relevant biases and cognitive failings is vast, but a good book-length beginning would be Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Reason in Everyday Life. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008). Back to main text.

3 thoughts on “Turn off your radio

  1. The ability of people to create patterns which don’t exist is demonstrated by the perception of patterns – constellations – in the random stars we see. In fact, you might argue humans are “designed” not to notice randomness.

    The Artifex Atrox is just as (un)likely to exist as the Good Lord. The arguments against the Good Lord work just as well the other way. If there is a god it seems likely it is completely indifferent to – even unaware of – the human species and if it has concepts of good and evil they are completely different to ours.

    • Can’t quite agree with you there, as there’s an asymmetry between God and the Artifex Atrox. Belief in God starts out as a not-terribly-promising proposition, reliant an arguments that for the most part go back to Anselm and Aquinas. There are two problems with these. First, they’re pretty crummy arguments, and second, they’re just as good as arguments for the existence of the Artifex Atrox as they are for God. So start with a pretty small probability of God discounted further by the fact that that probability has to be split somehow with the Artifex Atrox. Need a prime mover? A terminus to a chain of causes? A being greater than which no greater being can be imagined? The Artifex Atrox can step into those shoes just as easily as can God. With God, furthermore, there’s an additional problem thanks to the evidential argument from evil (or from suffering, if you prefer). Since various attempts to answer this rather powerful and straightforward argument are likewise pretty crummy, it would seem that we need to discount the probability even further. But it seems that the evidential argument from evil actually works in the opposite direction for the Artifex Atrox: the observation that there seems to be a hell of a lot of purely gratuitous suffering in the world makes is less likely that there’s a God, but rather more likely that there’s an Artifex Atrox.

      Not sure how this observation would affect how we ought to estimate the likelihood of a purely indifferent creator, though.

  2. I derive too much joy from petty hedonism to be in agreement with the bulk of your essays here, but I was with you all the way through this one. As soon as you introduced the notion of the spiritual radio I was mentally screaming “but what if the signals coming in over it are HOSTILE? Turn that shit off!”

    Much more mundanely, I find myself having to practice a sort of defensive mental hygiene in today’s memetic landscape. Pernicious memes launched with evil or oppressive intent pack the public discourse; to engage them all and process them properly while remaining uninfected is a labor like returning an endless stream of tennis serves where each ball is as explosive as a hand grenade. It’s much safer (and less exhausting) to identify sources of hostile memes and filter them out of one’s personal information stream. Perhaps this predisposes me to the notion of practicing defensive spiritual hygiene as well.

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