[I know Pascal's Wager isn't a hard logical problem for a Bayesian to tackle. However, please read the following account of how it helped me become more rational.]

I was a Christian when I was a boy. I believed in the miraculous birth and resurrection of Christ, heaven and hell, God on high answering prayers, and so on and so forth. I also believed in Santa Claus. When I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was 9, my faith in the other stuff I'd been told was somewhat shaken, but I got over it, as I was told that everyone did.

When I was 15, I went to a summer program for weird kids (i.e. nerds) called Governor's School. Each week at Governor's School, the entire group of us was addressed by a pencil-necked, jaded philosophy professor called Dr. Bob. (Full disclosure: I am a jaded and pencil-necked person myself.) One week late in the summer, after he'd gotten our trust with other Astounding Insights, he told us about Pascal's Wager, concluding that we should all be Christians. And he left it at that.

We all found this very strange, as Dr. Bob had seemed rather unfriendly to religion before without ever having said anything outright irreligious. In fact, I didn't like him very much because I believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and I didn't entirely like being forced to think about that belief too much. But Pascal's Wager was too much: I had always just believed because I'd been told by trustworthy people to believe, and here was this guy I didn't like saying I had to believe.

So, I couldn't get it out of my mind. You all know Pascal's Wager (and even have Yudkowski's Pascal's Mugging to boot), but I'm going to take it apart the way 15-year-old Scott did:

I thought: "If Heaven and Hell are real, then it would be best for me if I believed in them. If they aren't real, it wouldn't hurt for me to believe in them, because we're all just dead anyway, in the end. That's straightforward enough."

I objected: "But God doesn't just want our belief in Heaven or Hell, I thought. He wants our love and devotion. Heaven and Hell are just ways of getting Kohlberg 3's and lower to go to church and learn the right way of believing (Another thing we'd all learned by that point was the Kohlberg stages.) Like using Santa Claus giving gifts at Christmas to keep little kids good."

I recalled my 10th Christmas: Ohhhhhh.

I stopped believing in God.

Truth is the thing we need to know to plan, so that we may live better lives. Trust is valuable for reducing our mental workloads in determining the truth, but it can be used as a weapon. The purpose of lying is to control other people, to make them behave the way you want when the truth would cause them to behave differently, or perhaps just have a greater chance of behaving differently. Pascal's Wager laid bare the promise of Heaven and Hell: It is an attempt to control other people. If these people, who always say I should trust them, already want to control me, they'd probably be willing to lie to me. Once I saw that, the lie was plain.

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So if some gave you a bad argument for atheism, would you go back to Christianity?

His point his that the form of Pascal's wager makes it clear that Heaven and Hell are an incentive structure, which is apparently evidence against god existing.

It was more evidence against the trustworthiness of those claiming God existed. Particularly suspicious was that it was an incentive structure that looks a lot like the Santa Claus incentive structure purported by the same people, but that I was "allowed" to stop believing in.

The pattern actually doesn't match, since Santa Claus is an intentional deception from adults to children, while religion is a large-scale self-deception. (Most religious leaders are as sincere in belief as their followers, thanks to the selection process in major world religions.)

I see the practical difference you are stating. However, the match in incentive structure--well-behaved person gets mind read by supernatural being and gets supernatural rewards for good behavior and supernatural punishment for bad behavior--is a good wake-up call to the person who otherwise doesn't believe in the supernatural.

Likewise my attempt to describe the rationalist version of Santa Claus/heaven...

The biggest problem with this whole line of thought is the conclusion that if Heaven and Hell are incentive structures then they cannot exist. Your statement that they are incentive structures is a statement about their purpose, not about their existence. In order to disprove them, you have to attack their existence and I fail to see that evidence provided here.

You're correct that the OP as it stands is not a thorough, logical proof in the non-existence of God. A couple of commenters below pointed out the same gap in logic. What I'm leaving out here is my life story from age 9 to age 15. There was lot of growing in those years, and at least one major crisis of faith that I came out of with faith still intact, due to the occurrence of a seemingly unlikely event I desperately prayed for. Ultimately, I believed because I thought it made me part of a club of the blessed, like a Sam's Club for good luck. I didn't have any other reasons to believe. It was that plain framing of Pascal's wager that caused me to step outside my belief and examine it. At the time that I realized my own reason to believe in a personal God looked a lot like the general reasons for believing that Santa Claus is a real person, there was nothing else around to sustain my irrational belief in God, so it collapsed. I was otherwise a very rational person, particularly good at analyzing questions and arriving at useful answers. Pascal's wager removed my blind spot where belief in God was hiding.

[-][anonymous]13y00

methinks: If you find out that there is a very good reason for which people would talk about Heaven & Hell, whether it existed or not, doesn't that make the hypothesis that Heaven & Hell don't exist more plausible (given what I think SRStarin's priors were, roughly)? Isn't the correct update in this scenario in favor of "Heaven & Hell don't exist"?

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Did you eventually find out if this sort of realisation was what Dr. Bob had been hoping to trigger all along?

I never did. However, I did talk to Governor's School friends later on about Dr. Bob, and they had the same impression that I did--that he did not like the idea of unfounded faith but had to be careful about how he addressed that to an audience in a state with a lot of fundamentalists willing to get people fired for saying the wrong things about religion.

If these people, who always say I should trust them, already want to control me, they'd probably be willing to lie to me. Once I saw that, the lie was plain.

Of course they're willing to lie to you, your immortal soul is on the line. If they believed their lies were true then that says something about their epistemology, which could count as evidence against their beliefs, but you'd need to make that argument. Either they were lying and thus you don't have strong evidence that their actual beliefs are also unreasonable, or they were honestly describing their beliefs in which case they're not just trying to control you and thus you can't use that as evidence that they'd be willing to lie to you.

Yudkowski

Why must people do this? Really, why?

What became clear to me was that it could be turtles all the way down. That if I'm being lied to, that perhaps the liars were lied to and came to see that as the appropriate way of getting people to do the things they "ought" to do. In fact, if you read the Old Testament of the Bible, lying for your belief system is quite highly valued. I didn't bring that up here because I hadn't read the Old testament at that point.

I guess my goal here was to recall what rejecting control by lies was like for me.

Where you quote the name "Yudkowski" and say "Why?", are you objecting to my misspelling of Yudkowsky, or annoyed that I dropped his name?

Where you quote the name "Yudkowski" and say "Why?", are you objecting to my misspelling of Yudkowsky, or annoyed that I dropped his name?

Objecting to the misspelling. It might have been an honest mistake in your case but it happens enough that I reckon it must be purposeful, and if it is, I don't know why.

Your post was a good story, by the way. I'm just wary of reaching correct conclusions via potentially incorrect means. It might not apply in this case.

The misspelling was accidental--I have several friends with the -ski name ending and so I botched the spelling.

I did simplify my story. When I write about myself, I usually tend to go on WAAAAAY too long, so I tried to be succinct here.

If some of the evidence for the original belief was statements by people presumed to be honest....

That these people are bothering to establish a church and meet regularly is evidence that they believe something about their beliefs is very important. That they'd lie about heaven and hell is evidence that they think their actual beliefs are very important indeed. Thus figuring out that they'd lied about heaven and hell would be some evidence that you can't trust anything they're saying, but also evidence that you should be very careful not to dismiss the entirety of their beliefs.

I'm saying that the arguments given in the OP are not nearly enough to justifiably break from Christianity if one previously believed in it.

Of course not. I understood that as calling attention to the possibility, getting over the stopsigns and looking around.

When I was 15, I went to a summer program for weird kids (i.e. nerds) called Governor's School.

The one in North Carolina?

Yes, the Western one. There's also an Eastern one

I went to East in '06. Nice to see another LWer from NC.

Perhaps that event is an icon for a process of rejection that had been creeping into your mind more gradually. I recall asking my father about a line from Henley's Invictus, "Deep as the Pit from pole to pole". I wanted to know the referent for 'pit' and whether the author wanted me to read the line as figurative, and, if so, did the pit represent feeling low. In response, my father shouted, "Blasphemy !" For the first time, I consciously realized he was more interested in magic then meaning . But, looking back, I think that event stays in my mind as a point at which I became conscious that my beliefs differed widely from my father and family. It is an icon for a series of less dramatic modifications and rejections.

[-][anonymous]13y00

The biggest problem with this whole line of thought is the conclusion that if Heaven and Hell are incentive structures then they cannot exist. Your statement that they are incentive structures is a statement about their purpose, not about their existence. In order to disprove them, you have to attack their existence and I fail to see that evidence provided here.

[-][anonymous]13y00

The biggest problem with this whole line of thought is the conclusion that if Heaven and Hell are incentive structures then they cannot exist. Your statement that they are incentive structures is a statement about their purpose, not about their existence. In order to disprove them, you have to attack their existence and I fail to see that evidence provided here.

[-]Angela10y-10

I used to assume that the probability that heaven and hell existed was not zero, and I lived much of my teenage years by Pascal's Wager, partly because I was scared of what my parents would say if I stopped believing in God and partly because I had heard of miracle stories and not yet worked out how they had happened and I could not bear the thought of life being meaningless. Then I realised that if there were a non-zero probability of me having eternal life then the probability of me currently being in this first finite fraction of my life would be zero. Since I am currently on Earth the probability of eternal life must therefore be zero.

[-]rkyeun12y-10

Pascal's Wager of course ignores the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is the one true deity, who has made the universe as an intentional deception so there would be no evidence for gods in it. Those who correctly apply rationalism and determine that belief in gods is unjustified are reasonable enough to go to heaven. Those silly enough to believe things just because they heard themselves say them just now are condemned to double-hell (which is twice as bad as regular hell) for double-eternity (which is twice as long as regular eternity). There, now the equation favors atheism. And if it doesn't yet favor atheism in your mind because you're still thinking up Pascal's Wagers for all other religions and their gods, keep in mind you can only consider the possibility of a finite number of gods who might exist with the time allocated your computing device, and simply change the multiple of two in "double-hell" and "double-eternity" to some arbitrarily high constant that scales with how much time you're willing to waste on figuring out that constant.