Camping's Wager

By Razib Khan | May 22, 2011 3:29 pm

I’ve had to deal with vulgar* expositions of Pascal’s Wager my whole life from friends and family. The basic logic is “you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!” There are many ways to critique this “argument”, but the bizarre media circus around Harold Camping’s prediction of apocalypse illustrates an extreme case of one the major issues with the wager: people turned their lives upside down based on their sincere belief. If they were right, they would be “Raptured.” If they were wrong, what did they have to lose? Well, it turns out a lot. Their life savings, their jobs, their self-respect. It reminds me of the logics which you encountered after the Branch Dravidians fiasco. Some members of this cult were faced with the choice: follow the Messiah, or follow the false Messiah. They struggled with the possibility that if they turned their back on David Koresh they were turning their back on the Messiah. But of course this really wasn’t a 50/50 proposition. The risks, as we now know, of continuing to follow Davis Koresh were actually rather high. Belief was not without cost.

I’m not here denying all material and psychological benefits to religious belief. I can accept the concrete importance that religious institutions have in facilitating civil society and channeling social energies. I can also accept the power of religious belief in pulling people through difficult life circumstances. I am not an atheist who believes that religion is the “root of all evil,” and I am in general agnostic as to whether religion is beneficial or deleterious to human flourishing (this is a really complex question embedded in your normative frame). But, I do want to enter into the record that belief is not without some potential costs. The “bet” of belief is not one where you gain all the upside without a risk of downside. I believe the naive attraction of vulgar wagerism is that believers often have a difficult time understanding that the kooks like Harold Camping and his followers are not different in kind, but rather a bizarre twist on the normal. Conventional orthodox Christians have to grapple with perplexing predictions in the Bible itself. Camping clearly lacked balance and perspective, but he and his followers were all too human.

When faced with Pascal’s Wager from friends and family I rarely bother to rebut it. I change the topic as best as I can. I’m not interested in discussions of religious philosophy, especially when I know that my interlocutor is likely to get upset and perplexed at startlingly new perspectives. But now I wonder if the media circus around Harold Camping’s failed prediction, and the human tragedy consequent from the belief in him by his followers, will allow me to rapidly respond in shorthand to Pascal’s Wager. “How did Camping’s Wager turn out?”

* I qualify with vulgar because I am well aware that Blaise Pascal’s arguments were considerably more subtle than the reductions formulated by the typical believer.

  • Darkseid

    “I am in general agnostic as to whether religion is beneficial or deleterious to human flourishing…”

    I’d be interested in hearing everyone’s arguments, for and against, on this question. If everyone were taught purely science would the world be better off? Almost certainly. However, that’s like saying “I wish it were 7 o’clock.” It’s neither here nor there and doesn’t reflect reality but, instead, an ideal.

  • Razib Khan

    #1, to be clear, i’m not saying that the question is unknowable, which would be classic agnosticism. rather, how you estimate the sign of the cost vs. benefit is sensitive to parameters. but, as a practical matter unless you can re-program the human brain i’m pretty sure that theism will be the majority position.

  • Darkseid

    ah, i see. i assumed you’d read a bunch about it and it seemed to be a wash. i’ve always entertained reading books like Bob Wright’s about this issue but i usually end up reading the Wiki summary and deciding it wouldn’t change my mind in the sense that it’s too hard to tell. most importantly, i believe in Nick Wade’s theory of its genetic roots so it’s not really a relevant point to make. i still like making fun of religion, though:)

  • Razib Khan

    ah, i see. i assumed you’d read a bunch about it and it seemed to be a wash.

    there’s a difference between a value of 0 with a small confidence intervals, and a value of 0 with huge confidence intervals. i’m closer to the latter. though the fluctuations in the value you get is as i imply above contingent upon the parameters i think (your “values”). finally, i’m close to the not-even-wrong position which suggests that religious impulses are pretty much impossible to eliminate in most people anyway.

  • BlakeG

    So when evaluating Pascal’s wager and the like, in probability theory, what we’re doing looking at “Expected Value”. The expected value of an act is the sum of the products (utilities x probabilities). So Exp(A) = [Pr(C1)][U(C1)] + [Pr(C2)][U(C2)]].
    Ironically, it seems to me that Camping did the opposite of what he should have done (or what someone keen on Pascal’s Wager would have suggested). Camping put himself in a situation such that he had everything to lose and nothing to gain. So, I wouldn’t use the “Camping’s Wager” retort with my Christian friends. (Though, already being a Christian myself, I can’t say they’ve used it on me, lol).
    Btw, Pascal’s wager assumes that Christian theism and ~Christian theism are equally probable, which you don’t have to grant. Furthermore, it runs into problems when you point out that there are a lot more hypothesis on the table than just the two.

  • DK

    Blaise Pascal’s arguments were considerably more subtle

    Not really. His argument was quite literally “everything to gain, nothing to lose”. Nothing’s subtle about it. “All else being equal” is assumed, naturally. Of course, there is no such thing as all else being equal.

  • Razib Khan

    DK, my understanding is pascal was really a jansenist who leaned toward fideism. so the argument was a means, not the end. anyway, i don’t want to get into the details, as it’s not that interesting really….

  • John Emerson

    This has come up before here and I’ll say again that I think that new religions are like historical experiments, and most experiments give negative results. Out of the dozens of new American religions of the 19th c., Christian Science, Mormonism, 7th Day Adventism, and the Jehovah Witnesses, minimally, have survived, and Mormonism is booming. Many others lasted for awhile and then disappeared (the Oneida colony).

    Here’s a 20th c. cult which worked in entertainment: semi-poro baseball, music, and an amusement park.

    The significance of experimentalism is that, after a religious conversion, people are willing to do things differently than the conventional way. Normal lifestyles are actually both restrictive and wasteful, because of the need to be respectable keep up with the Joneses. So religious who don’t spend their time and money conventionally have some slack that they can do new things with.

    But the new way of doing things doesn’t always work. I think that it’s close to the “random variation and selective retention” of evolution.

    Here’s a Norwegian religious reformer who was an industrial force:

    I think that this is a little bit like the “madness and genius” or “sickness and genius” arguments. In that case, it may not be that madness helps genius, but that the duties of normality, convention, and routine harm genius just by preempting time. Sickness or madness, if they get people away from routine, might only incidentally help genius express.

  • John Emerson

    The early history of the Druze is extremely mysterious for many reasons, but the original doctrines were very extreme and probably wouldn’t have been viable, but the first prophet was killed, and probably the second, before something viable was attained. But even the early versions must have had some positive value.

    Ibn Khaldun thought that religion was one of the ways by which solidarity (‘asabiyyah) could be attained.

  • mcb

    Doesn’t Pascal’s wager depend on a God which cannot tell whether a person is truly faithful or just playing it safe?

  • Mr Z

    Religion, all of them, are corrosive to society both specifically and in general. Think of that little old grandma on the church pew, practically harmless yet by stopping to tell my mom she is praying for my salvation she reminds her of the self perceived failure to get me on the path to heaven, pushing the knife in a little deeper and twisting the blade. None of that pain would be possible without religion. That ‘harmless’ grandma is motivated by her religion and faith to torment my mother. That little old grandma has a vote, and she votes for the brave christian politician who works to save America from godless homosexuals. There is no passive side to the question of religion. You are either actively promoting the bigoted oppression of others and xenophobia of religion or you are fighting it.

    There is no harmless position. If the believers kept their beliefs at home in their bedroom and did not share, well then there might be a harmless part. That isn’t how religion works. All the Abrahamic faiths are admonished to spread the word, convert all they contact, or suffer the woes of hell and damnation. It is not possible to sit on the fence and be either a good believer or a good human.

    If you can remain agnostic about it you have not or will not allow yourself to see the harm that is inflicted on others in the name of gods. There is no human endeavor that comes without possible cost or risk. Even the belief that the holy grail of AI will be achieved one day comes with risks. There is nothing that can be said is good in religion that cannot be sourced elsewhere, and without the dangers attached to it as when you get it from religions. Many will tell you that religion is about love and compassion but in truth the three emotions that cannot be separated from religion are fear, hate, and pride. Religions are born of them, feed on them, and will die without them. Yep, even grandma has those emotions rattling around inside her. Talk to her and see. You’d be surprised.

    Tell a Christian you have proof (from the bible) that non-Jews are not going to heaven. Watch what happens. They practically self-destruct… even before you can tell them you are kidding.

    The problem with not getting off the fence? You are not helping to stop the corrosive parts of religion from ruining your society. If you live in a flooded part of the US, sitting on the fence about whether something should be done is only doing harm to those that need help. The religion argument is the same. If you’re not helping, you’re blocking the way for someone who would. Get off the fence.

  • Julia

    Isn’t atheism still a belief-system though? Basically a “I believe there is no God”? Since there is no way to prove what happens after death, it seems like any theory would be just a “belief”.

    There was a video on a Huffington Post article interviewing a couple who was due to have a baby next month who’d quit their jobs and were living off their savings in order to do nothing but prepare for the Rapture. I wish that there would be a follow-up on how they’re dealing with this. They put themselves in a precarious situation with a baby due in just a couple weeks.

  • John Emerson

    . None of that pain would be possible without religion

    Just not true. Parents and grandparents can make their kids miserable without religious help. Any kind of firm belief can get them there.

    Religious movements advocate for good things and for bad things, for pretty much any interpretation of the word “good”.

  • Razib Khan

    yeah, i’m kind of john’s page. i think we need to move away from simple sloganeering, for or against christ. also, let’s keep the discussion away from alt.theism debates circa 1995. i’ve gone through all that 😉

  • joel

    Isn’t atheism still a belief system?………Well not to believe something is the same as believing something isn’t true or didn’t happen. So Yes Atheism is a belief system but…..
    An atheist genrally doesn’t believe in that, that has no logical proof. Science has already prooved itself logical beyond reasonable doubt. The idea that a diety can give purpose in life & help people to be a better person in the eyes of society is great. But science prooves every action has an equal reaction thus meaning that religion also creates evil. An atheist who believes in no such greater power does not have to proove anything, so there is no action in doing so, they basicly live there life excepting that they are here & in i personaly put this down to evolution. Action & Reaction.

  • joel

    Please note: im not in anyway trying to state that religion is the casue of all evil, cause it definitly isn’t. Evil or what we percieve as being very bad is casued through the nature of man kind

  • Rex the Wonder God

    The two wagers are not readily comparable.

    Firstly, Pascal did not frame his Wager in terms of a particular interpretation of a particular creed (Even though one might infer he meant to be understood as pointing to some view of the Catholic conception of God, I do not see it; the most I see in his framing of the wager is of A God – singular.). Rather, he framed it in terms of conducting one’s life AS IF God (A God) actually existed, regardless of one’s intellectual convictions, or belief, or both, as to whether God actually existed (and as THE God). Such a wager leaves abundant room for both personal conception of God and personal interpretation as what might be the will of such (A) God.

    By way of contrast, Camping framed his “wager” in terms of his own peculiar interpretation of a particular approach to a particular creed, with no allowance for the individual to challenge him on any of those levels, despite that there happens to be much room to challenge him intellectually on each of those levels on their own terms, without even getting into a dispute over the existence of God (or A God).

    Secondly, the underlying basis for Pascal posing his Wager is that he could not conceive of any, or at least any material, downside to following his tip, no matter its correctness or no (He of course was a man of his times, but this blog does not wish to go there, so I will just skip along.); whereas the same cannot be said of the Camping “wager”, to put it rather mildly.

    So, responding to one’s relatives asking after the former by citing the latter is to commit obfuscation; but, in the circumstances, I should think Pascal would approve of it as a gambit.

  • Razib Khan

    So, responding to one’s relatives asking after the former by citing the latter is obfuscation.

    you meant conflation, right? obfuscation doesn’t make sense.

    yes, i am aware of the context of pascal’s argument. that’s why i referred to *vulgar* pascal’s wager. whatever the details of pascal’s intent, it’s seed has gone in a much different direction operationally. i even put a note clarifying this issue.

    p.s. and people, i linked to the critiques of the wager on wikipedia for a reason. you don’t need to repeat them :-)

  • Rex the Wonder God

    Actually, I did mean obfuscation, which I do not believe necessitates impugning the user’s intent (mindful of your point about your relations being very likely resistant to new information to the point of effective immunity).

    I would concede the relevance of the term you suggest, conflation (and maybe elision as well), as being a less-than-entirely distinct means by which what I shall call Khan’s Gambit could operate; but I meant to refer more to ends than to means. Loving, and being able to live with, one’s relatives, it seems to me, very often requires such diplomacy.

    obfuscate …
    1. To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand …
    2. To render indistinct or dim …

  • Razib Khan

    uh, ok. this is kind of a weird discussion at this point. not too interested in arguing the connotations of ‘obfuscation,’ so i’m closing the thread :-)


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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