Monday, January 3, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Pascal's Wager and Schrödinger's Cat

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else.

Arfurtrollington asks on Reddit:
I'd like to request Pascal's Wager.
Sure thing, bro. Pascal's saying, "Look. Either God exists, or he doesn't. It has to be one or the other, right? And you can't know for sure. You think you can, but you can't. Reason tells us fuck all about whether God exists or not, so good fucking luck with that project.

Which means you have a choice. You can either live like he exists, or live like he doesn't. Let's discuss some hypotheticals here. Let's say you live like God doesn't exist, and you do whatever the fuck you want. If you're wrong, you're going to Hell. And Hell fucking sucks. Imagine having Twilight read to you by Gilbert Gottfried for all eternity. You don't want that. Let's call Hell 'negative infinity'. If you're right, though, then you've fucked some bitches, acquired some currency, but now you're dead and none of it matters. Let's call that, 'dead even'. GET IT?! 
Okay. Now let's say you live like God exists, and you're pious as shit. You go to church, you give alms, you only have sex with your wife and only in the missionary position. The whole nine yards. If you're wrong, your life was boring as shit, whatever, but you're now dead and 'dead even'. But if you're right, you get to go to Heaven. And Heaven is fucking sweet, bro. Lesbians and cupcakes as far as the eye can see. It's 'positive infinity'.
So, you have to bet. It's the nature of life. You can't walk away from this bet - every action is equivalent to picking one option or the other. But if you pick 'God', your worst case scenario is no worse than your best case scenario if you pick 'no God', and your best case scenario is infinite fucking good. So you should choose to believe in God."
It's controversial, and Richard Dawkins suggests a couple of counterexamples that revolve around the idea that a benevolent God wouldn't send someone to Hell for using his reason to try to figure out if God exists, even if that reasoning is faulty, as long as that person was honest in his assessment. But wasting your life an dliving it fully aren't really 'dead even' - wasting your only life is definitely worse if you're wrong and there's no God. So you should live fully and do what you want.

More info:
Wikipedia's Page
Text from the PenséesOnline at Bartleby 
On Amazon: Pensées and Other Writings (Oxford World's Classics)
More from Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion


rubes6 asks, also on Reddit:
[Can you do] Schrödinger's Cat? ...Being a problem regarding simultaneous existence and nonexistence (or animation, rather), I think it is fair game.
Absbrolutely, bro. The thought experiment itself is simpler than you think; in fact, you probably get it and just don't realize it.
The thought experiment itself is, roughly, as follows:
We put a cat in a box (everyone knows bros prefer dogs) with an undecayed radioactive particle and a Geiger counter connected to a vial of poison gas. We then close the box. We have no idea when the particle will decay, since decay is random, but when it does, the poison opens and the cat dies. We can't know if the cat is alive or dead until we open up the box and check. Until then, we say the cat is in superposition; it's both alive and dead.
That's it. Until we check on the cat and 'collapse' the function, he's alive and he's dead. When we open the box, he'll become one or the other. Now, maybe you're thinking, "But bro, how the fuck can a cat be both alive and dead? It has to be one or the other. It's alive or it's dead, but it can't be both. That's some bullshit." Well, Schrödinger would actually agree with you - what most people don't know is that the experiment was invented as a reductio ad absurdum of a particular school of thought called the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Basically, Schrödinger was saying, "If what you guys are saying is true, then this equation says the cat is both alive and dead. And that is just fucking ridiculous. You guys must be way the fuck off."
Except that some of the people who believed the Copenhagen Interpretation really believed it, so much so that they bit the bullet and said, "In theory, yeah. And that's inconvenient for us, but it's worth it to have this otherwise baller-ass explanation." And then they tried to explain how it wasn't so fucking ridiculous after all. For example, some people say, "The equation doesn't just describe reality, it also describes how we know fucking nothing. We can't build an equation out of thin air, bro." The point is that the absurdity comes from the limits on the information we have, not on anything really screwy going on with the cat.
There are other explanations, some screwier than others, but the idea of the cat is simple enough - you're right, it is fucking weird that a cat is dead or alive. So any interpretation of quantum mechanics has to explain that before it makes any sense.

More info:
Wikipedia's Page


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  1. Having recently touched on Pascal's Wager mahself, this was good stuff broheim.

  2. Apparently I've come up with Pascals Wager without reading about it, and really it is just safer, in my opinion, to try to do good in life. But whatever floats your boat, bros don't judge. Except for necros. And Nazis.

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  4. The problem with Pascal is that he comes from a point of two options that there is either a Monotheistic God or there is none at all. However, it is fifty percent that there is no god but if you bet on the other fifty the options are infinite. Your chances of picking the right one are slim to none. So, as you said Bro “live fully and do what you want.”
    Love it Bro,
    Keep it up

  5. The problem with "live fully and do what you want" is that you may be wrong. What the previous commenter fails to see is that the issue of God's existence and character isn't a crap shoot. We're not throwing darts into space and picking the god that the dart lands on. I believe in God because I think the evidence supports his existence in an overwhelming way. We can disagree on how the evidence ought to be weighed and interpreted, but it isn't like I just picked the Christian God out of a hat. I think that the Christian God best makes sense of all the data (including the scientific data). We should only "do what we want" if we think that the question of God is (at least mostly) unanswerable. But that's just the thing, I don't think it is unanswerable. So I live "fully," defined as doing what I think God wants (as revealed via the evidence for God). My wife and I have a great time of it, too.

  6. "But whatever floats your boat, bros don't judge. Except for necros. And Nazis."

    So apparently, bros do judge. And as in the example, Nazis, bros should judge. "Meh, Nazis, Mother Theresa, whatever floats your boat," would be a repulsive statement. So even the guy that wants to position himself as 'non-judgemental and neo-tolerant" really knows, deep down, that there is a right and wrong, that we can know between them and that we should step in at times.

    We may haggle over where the lines are, but the whole, "Well, I don't judge" line is just a facade.

  7. Schroedinger's point with the cat was basically saying:

    "Look, there is no fucking way a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. It's either 100% alive or 100% dead at any given time, not some 50/50 bullshit nor any other spread for that matter. But until you actually open the box and look, you simply will never have enough fucking data and math that could tell you which one it is without looking. Drop all the science you want on that problem, all the known physics in the world (and prob'ly even all the unknown physics we haven't even worked out yet), and there's still no fucking way you can determine with absolute certainty whether the cat is dead or alive while the box is still closed.

    "Cuz quantum shit just works like that. You can work the odds all you want, but if some quantum subatomic shit like radioactive decay is involved, nothing about that angle is ever gonna be knowable for absolutely certain until you actually look at it or measure it. That doesn't have to mean that meanwhile it's in some kinda spooky twilight zone limbo or anything, it just means you Can't Fucking Know which way it actually is by using abstract deduction and calculation alone without looking."

  8. Look posers, I hear you've been ignoring multiple religions while discussing Pascal's wager. That's some cold hearted shit.

    Listen up chumps:

    #1: Pascal's wager assumes that God prefers fearful panderers to true believers. This heaven is reserved for those so scared shitless of death that they will ignore their scientific judgment and reasoning faculties to follow some pulp fiction written by desert nomads, or vikings, or tribal shaman, or whoever.

    #2: Pascal's wager assumes only Yahweh is an option. What a toolburger. There are several dominant religions in the world, each with their own exclusive heaven. If you think one is more "reasonable" than another, you're a fucking nutcase that needs to reconsider the mercury content of your drinking water. All you can do is confirm your own biases and choose the one that feels best to you, hiding from the others by burying your head in the sand.

    So the argument isn't between god and no god, but even if god, which god? Even if a certain god, what dogma? It's defunct unless you're the kind of self-hating asshole that claims to question their beliefs without the ability to relinquish them.

    #3: That shit's repugnant. In the words of William James: “When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness,–then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream!”

  9. In this phrase at the very end of the Schroedinger's Cat explanation, "'re right, it is fucking weird that a cat is dead or alive." I think you meant to say "dead AND alive." Right?

  10. No, it can't be both. It's simply impossible to know which it is.

  11. Isn't the point of the cat example that at our scale the cat is (as intuition suggests) either alive or dead. But that at quantum scales (where intuition is a less accurate guide) many unknowns do behave as though they were a superimposition of two or more possibilities.

  12. When we're talking about the atomic scale and above (and a cat would qualify), it is absurd to think of a cat being both alive and dead at the same time. When talking about the sub-atomic scale, it's not absurd to talk about a boson both spinning off to the left and to the right until it somehow effects some other particle or process.

    You can do quantum physics two ways: with allegory, or with complicated math. The math is internally consistent, the allegory most often makes no sense at all, and that's the point. The sub-atomic level acts very different to the visible realm, and this example is prime for that.

  13. Pascal's Wager would be foolproof if salvation were based on works. Which, thankfully, it isn't.