Hitchens’ Wager

On January the 18th the Trinity College Dublin Metaphysical Society hosted a debate on whether or not theism was a reasonable philosophical position. The speakers were Michael Nugent, Peter Hitchens, Ivana Bacik and Patrick Masterson. Whilst the debate is interesting on the whole this article will concentrate on one of the lines taken by Peter Hitchens. It, and Michael Nugent’s responses and positions on the matter, can be seen here:

Peter’s argument initially looks quite fresh and intriguing. It goes something like this:

  1. There is no way of knowing for sure whether or not there is a god.
  2. We are therefore faced with a choice, either believe in an ordered, just and purposeful universe designed by a deity, or believe in a chaotic and unjust universe arranged by accident.
  3. Faced with such a choice why would anyone side with the latter view?

Speaking after Peter, Michael Nugent pointed out that Peter’s choice lacks fair assessment of likelihood and that furthermore there are apparent social benefits to secularism that could influence a person’s approach to it. Fair objections.

But the major problem with Peter’s argument is that it is Pascal’s Wager dressed in a new coat. It’s actually much the same version as one that was put to effective artistic use in a bestselling book (and its blockbuster film adaptation).

In the original Pascal’s Wager the argument is that because the threat of Hell and rewards of Heaven are so absolute and eternal, the believer has nothing to lose whilst the non-believer jeopardises his eternal soul. It urges the adoption of the precautionary principle in accepting faith because if Christian theism is incorrect you’ve lost nothing by accepting it, but if Christian theism is correct you lose everything through rejecting it.

Pascal, who was a formidably clever polymath, did not actually publish the wager. It was found amongst his notes after his death. He may well have foreseen the major objections to it – namely that Christian theism isn’t the only metaphysical model in town. The choice is not therefore between atheism and Christianity, but between every conceivable metaphysical position.

As Youtubers QualiaSoup and ThereminTrees point out, some iterations of the wager could even favour atheism. He also notes that there are, in fact, tangible losses to be made through accepting the wager – time wasted, integrity lost, political capital and moral support provided to religious institutions that don’t represent your actual position, and so on.

Peter almost certainly knows that Pascal’s Wager is intellectually bankrupt, and so he presents it in the form that doesn’t hinge on the threat of Hell, but rather the appeal of notions like justice, order and purpose.

His version still suffers from the same objections.

So the choice is not between deistic order and atheistic chaos – it is between every conceivable metaphysical imagining. This could include Lovecraftian cosmic horror, the notion that the deity is malign and that the only afterlife is Hell, wishy washy optimistic new agey spiritual utopianism, scientological notions that our real destiny is among enlightened alien beings, Hindu notions of karmic justice and reincarnation … and on and on and on it goes until the exhaustion of imagination.

Faced with this plethora of choice then why does Peter plump for (as Michael puts it to Peter’s approval) “traditional civil English Protestantism”? Peter says he is drawn to the justice inherent to his worldview, but the karmic justice of Hinduism would strike many as more proportional and orderly than the eternal sentences handed down by the God of the Abrahamic tradition.

In fact, if it is the appeal of the model that makes for the wisdom of the choice then why not even something more attractive than popular religious models presented thusfar? Something a bit like Scientology without so much of the brainwashy baggage?

So we could all be immortal aliens, who live in a perfect utopia, with perfect justice, with no concept of pain, illness or scarcity, or prejudice or fear, they all find each other perfectly beautiful and interesting and everything is lovely. They all behave perfectly all the time. Occasionally they get bored and play complex virtual reality games and our experience of being human is just one of those games. Our deaths are really just them completing the game, and then we go back to being these perfect beings enjoying their perfect existence.

Lovely eh? Why not choose that?

Ah! No evidence.

So in the end Peter’s position seems to be less about any robust principle or philosophy, and more about his own admitted affection for the careworn and fading aspects of the England of his youth.

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