Monday, November 19, 2012

Praguestepchild's Wager


Blaise Pascal
Pascal's Wager is basically a cost/benefit argument for believing in God. It is also interesting because, as Wikipedia puts it:

Historically, Pascal's Wager was groundbreaking because it charted new territory in probability theory, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated future philosophies such as existentialism, pragmatism, and voluntarism.
Pretty awesome innovations. But Pascal's Wager itself fails, in my opinion, because it cheats by using infinity, which really isn't a number.

As someone who trained as an engineer, I'm pretty familiar with trade-offs. All design problems are about balancing trade-offs. Put a bigger engine in a car, you get more horsepower, but also more weight, more cost, worse handling, less-fuel efficiency, etc.

This is why Pascal's use of an infinite trade-off strikes me as cheating. In real life there simply are no infinite trade-offs unless one is a psychopath (my life is infinitely more valuable than anyone else's, so let the world burn).

Infinity is a pretty bizarre concept for us mortals. David Hilbert had some fantastic insights on infinity, but I'm not convinced that our understanding of infinity has progressed much since Hilbert.

Now let us look at a more realistic cost/benefit argument. Even if you are totally convinced that the conventional wisdom--heart-healthy whole grains are nifty, SFAs and dietary cholesterol clog your arteries, etc--is correct, don't you owe it to yourself to at least read through one of the Dark Triad of books on evolutionary diet: The Primal Blueprint, The Paleo Solution, & The Perfect Health Diet (or if they prefer ebooks and ancap philosophy, they could read Richard Nikoley's new book) just on the outside chance that the conventional wisdom is totally wrong? Especially if one is obese and/or suffering from a DOC like diabetes?

Obviously this doesn't mean that all alternative viewpoints should be considered equally. I for one don't place much stock in things like acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, etc. But that's because these things haven't been shown to have a sound footing in rigorous results based science.

I've taken the liberty of dubbing this particular variant of Pascal's Wager, Praguestepchild's Wager. It seems like a no-brainer: what is the trade-off of time and money in buying and reading a single book against the entire rest of your life with mediocre to bad health and an early grave? And yet I've rarely been successful in getting people to take this wager, even when I buy the book and give it to them.

As Seinfeld would say:


I don't think it's as counter-intuitive as it seems when so baldly stated. One of the problems with Pascal's Wager is that even if one buys into what I would consider to be a false dilemma, I don't think it's possible to will oneself into a belief of God. Likewise, I don't think there are many smokers who don't know on a philosophical level that smoking is detrimental to health. A heavy smoker is really wagering a shortened, unhealthy life (not to mention the monetary cost of buying two or three packs a day) against jonesing for another cigarette. It doesn't make logical sense, except in the logic of addiction. But of course we humans aren't always perfectly rational creatures.

In the same vein, a lot of people know they should eat better, but don't bother, although the fact that the conventional view of eating better is salads with low-fat dressing and brown rice doesn't exactly help things along.

There's also the fact that the general public has a serious case of health-awareness fatigue. People have been told that everything they do is bad for them for so long that they don't pay much attention anymore.

And finally, the majority of people in this world are simply uncomfortable with questioning authority. Whether it's the authority of their doctors, the mainstream media, or their political ideologues, they've got their paradigm, damnit, and they are sticking with it.

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