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Jebediah’s Wager

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A response to Pascal’s Wager by Seth Kurtenbach.

Pascal’s Wager is an all too familiar argument for those of us in the skeptical community.  We like to point out that there are innumerable other gods for whom the same wager may be considered, thereby undermining the power of the original wager which usually focuses on Christianity.  We say, as did Richard Dawkins, “what if you’re wrong about Zeus, Ba’al, Wotan, or the great JuJu at the Bottom of the Sea?…”

You may know by now that a Christian will quickly point out that these deities do not threaten eternal damnation as punishment for lack of belief, and do not offer eternal reward for belief.  The strength of Pascal’s wager is its appeal to infinite reward and punishment.  It is a simple decision procedure called dominance reasoning which tells us that, given the possible payoffs, it is rational to believe that Jesus saves.  Even if one uses a slightly different decision procedure, expected utility, one is still rational to accept Jesus into his heart, because any non-zero probability, however small, multiplied by infinity is still infinite.  Thus, the Christian believes he has you.

But, you say, consider the infinite number of deities that can be cooked up wholecloth, which do threaten eternal punishment and reward.  We may not have discovered the one true god yet, and based on this uncertainty, there is no reason to favor Christianity in particular.  This response has its merits, particularly if it emphasizes human fallibility and uncertainty about the cosmos, but it is likely to have little affect on one’s interlocuter.  If the point is to undermine the strength of the wager itself, then I think there is a better way to do so.

And it goes like this.

Jebediah, proposing his Wager

Suppose Jebediah, a devout Amish, approaches you (a Christian) and proposes the following wager:

“Good fellow Christian, we believe in the same Lord our God, that He died for our sins, was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day He rose again.  We both know that accepting the Lord into our hearts carries with it eternal salvation; an infinite reward.  We both know that failing to accept the Lord into our hearts carries with it eternal damnation, an infinite punishment.  Now, as a member of the Amish community, I believe that one must shun the fruits of technology, and live as they did in the Bible, without buttons, zippers, and iPods.  Should one fall to the temptation of such devilry, one is surely lost and doomed to Hell forever.  I see that you have a smartphone, and a zipper, and you drive a car.  Good fellow Christian, what if you’re wrong?  What if you are judged at the Pearly Gates for endulging in such sins, and though you believe in the One True God, he casts you out for failure to keep the Laws?  We all know that a True Christian keeps the Laws.  Is your zipper, button, iPod, or car really more valuable to you than your soul?  Surely these items do not provide infinite satisfaction.  If you give them up, and live as the Amish, and we are wrong, then your loss is merely finite, but if you fail to give them up, and we are right, then your loss is infinite!  Listen to reason, and shun the iPod!”

Behold, Jebediah’s Wager:

1.  If you shun technology and the Amish have the correct theology, then you gain eternal reward.

2.  If you shun technology and the Amish have the incorrect theology, then you suffer a finite loss, but still live a rewarding life of simplicity and devout Christianity, and so may still receive an eternal reward!

3.  If you do not shun technology, and the Amish have the correct theology, then you suffer eternal punishment.

4.  If you do not shun technology, and the Amish have the incorrect theology, then you gain some finite pleasure from the technological comforts (mmmm, the joys of zippers!), and perhaps still an eternal reward.

Thus, by shunning technology, one is guaranteed an eternal reward in Heaven, and by refusing to shun technology, one will either suffer eternal damnation or perhaps eternal reward anyway.  Why gamble with salvation?  Take the sure bet, and shun technology.

How will the Christian respond to this?  If he or she does not immediately become Amish, then he or she realizes the weakness of Pascal’s Wager.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

3 comments on “Jebediah’s Wager

  1. Dave Muscato
    July 28, 2011

    Alternate title: Seth the Philosopher Delivers the Smackdown.

  2. Jerry Winn
    July 28, 2011

    And in reality, one need not even look to the more extreme ends of the spectrum like the Amish. All Christian sects have in-fighting between other denominations and even their own about the interpretation of biblical texts and how this applies to their life. The Church of Christ believes that those who attend other churches will not enter heaven, and there are other denominations with similar beliefs. Simply put, even if you observe the wager in accepting Christianity, there is no shortage of caveat wagers to preclude your entrance to heaven.

    Though many contemporary churches have attempted to gloss over these inconsistencies by emphasizing that “all one needs to enter heaven is to accept Jesus as their lord and savior,” this is a pretty new development historically, and many religious leaders, people, and churches disagree. This minimizes the amount one must wager… “I don’t have to do ANYTHING but accept Jesus as my savior? I don’t have to change the way I live, my beliefs about anything else, etc.?”

    Naturally, many contemporary churches struggle between this reassurance of the wager, and actually fostering the behavior change that they’re looking for. Some rely on guilt (“Jesus did all this for you, so even if you don’t have to be a better person, you should want to.”), others define “acceptance” as embracing the teachings of Jesus, creating a sort of No True Believer standard. Of course, doing so opens the floodgates to quibble over every conceivable interpretation of the text, often creating not only different wagers, but even irreconcilable ones.

    Thus, even one who accepts the Amish lifestyle will find it impossible to play all wagers safely. Some must be reduced to guesswork, and what are anyone’s odds of making the correct wager when any moderate number of odds are split evenly? Even if among five separate issues there are only two possible outcomes (a very optimistic scenario), one only has a 10% chance of wagering correctly. But in reality, people don’t guess… they resolve these dilemmas based upon subjective interpretations of the text (if they refer to the text at all) that are usually biased to begin with. It becomes a question of how much faith they have in those interpretations.

    In conclusion, it’s all pretty stupid.

  3. Jerry Winn
    July 28, 2011

    Eh, I need to brush up on my permutations and combinations, it seems.

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This entry was posted on July 28, 2011 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach and tagged , , , , , .
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