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McBrayer's New Paper on Pascal's Wager

McBrayer, Justin. "The Wager Renewed: Believing in God is Good for You", Science, Religion, and Culture 1 (3):130 (2014). Here's the abstract:

Not all of our reasons for belief are epistemic in nature. Some of our reasons for belief are prudential in the sense that believing a certain thing advances our personal goals. When it comes to belief in God, the most famous formulation of a prudential reason for belief is Pascal’s Wager. And although Pascal’s Wager fails, its failure is instructive. Pascal’s Wager fails because it relies on unjustified assumptions about what happens in the afterlife to those who believe in God verses those who do not. A renewed wager can avoid this difficulty by relying solely on well-documented differences between those who believe in God verses those who do not. Social scientists have put together an impressive set of data that shows that theists do better in terms of happiness, health, longevity, inter- personal relationships, and charitable giving. Hence, most people have a strong reason to believe in God regardless of the evidence.


Angra Mainyu said…
Hi, EA

I'd like to raise a couple of issues:

1. The dilemma against the hiddenness argument doesn't work, because the hiddenness argument at most presupposes that belief in God would be a good thing if God existed, but it does not presuppose that belief in God is a good thing if God does not exist.
A defender of the hiddenness argument may thus reply that God does not exist - as the hiddenness argument shows! -, and she's not committed to the claim that belief in God is a good thing.

2. McBrayer not distinguish between epistemic and means-ends rationality (m-e rationality), and says that rationality requires that one adopts the best means of achieving one's goals. That is m-e rationality, but not epistemic rationality.
If one were able to increase the probability one assigns to a certain hypothesis by choice, doing so for practical reason may well be m-e rational, but some of us would say it would still be epistemically irrational.
Extreme example: if Bob is realistically threatened with torture and death if he does not believe that religion X is true, and the people making the threat have the means (and he knows that) to ascertain whether he's lying (future neuro tech, or whatever the means are), it may well be that given his ends, it's m-e rational for Bob to believe that religion X is true; it may even be that given his entire evaluative stance, that's what he [m-e] should do, assuming he has the capability to manipulate his own beliefs like that. But it would still be epistemically irrational for Bob to believe that X is true, given the observations, arguments, etc. (We may pick any religion to be X, from Wahhabist Islam to Greek Paganism). That may or may not be problematic for McBrayer.

3. The studies McBrayer presents, at best, provide evidence about correlations (though there is much to be said about that), but we may have a lot more evidence to the contrary in specific cases, when we have much more info about a specific person. Granted, this does not work for most people, but it would entail some of us have good practical reasons for not even attempting to believe in God.
On that note, for at least some [many] people, it's proper to assess that an attempt to believe in God, would not only fail (and that's beyond a reasonable doubt), but also would cause the person a lot of grief and suffering while trying to believe something like that (e.g., by engaging in religious practices the person reckons are both dishonest and immoral given what she knows).
Granted, he's only arguing that most people have good practical reasons to believe in God, so this isn't a direct objection, but still an interesting consequence of arguments from practical reasons.

4. When commenting on the Crusades, 9/11, etc., McBrayer says that the harm is caused by a specific religious belief. But that undermines his case, since - for example - there seems to be no good evidence that belief in God alone - aside from participation in certain specific religions, churches, etc. - increases charitable giving, and it seems plausible it's the practices associated with specific religions that do, and he's not arguing for specific beliefs (that would invite other issues).
Also, he questions the causal effectiveness of religious belief in the case of the Crusades or the Iraq war. But behaviors like opposition to same-sex marriage (or even relations), or promoting the belief that people who divorce and remarry are behaving immorally, or even banning divorce and remarriage (usual in Latin America for most of the past century), abortion, same-sex relations or marriage, etc., are very often motivated by religious belief, and so are plenty of recent terrorist attacks.

There are other issues, but it would get a bit long.

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