By Kevin Moore
Table Of Content
Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Moore
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Published in the United States of America
First Publication, 2014
Meta House Publishing
7905 Williamsgate Circle
Crestwood, KY 40014
Dedicated to the godfather of theistic apologetics, Alvin Plantinga
Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century physicist, mathematician and Christian philosopher, would have done well to have hedged his bets on the argument that now famously bears his name, “Pascal’s Wager.” However, Pascal overplayed his hand by going beyond the very bounds that he set for himself, namely, the bounds of uncertainty. And the end result was an unearned conclusion that, given his errors, is too easily ignorable.
But what if Pascal hadn’t had overplayed his hand? What if Pascal had truly stayed the path of uncertainty in order to investigate the feasibility of wagering on the afterlife? What would he have found? I believe that he would have found something like the argument of this book. The project of this book is simple. Given our uncertainty about the afterlife (along with a few more ingredients), there is a sort of life that is untrumpably wise when it comes to the possibility of an afterlife. And this book is the presentation and defense of an argument that aims to prove this claim. In sum, I believe that one could take this book as the argument that clearly justifies and defends the Psalmist’s well-worn words, “the fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” (Psalms 14:1, 53:1).
While I have intended this work to be accessible to a wide audience, as I believe that its implications affect everyone, my approach to this work will not be attractive to all. In the mere presentation and defense of my argument, I have opted to speak most directly, and in a personal way, to those who I believe my argument is likely to have the greatest effect upon: the non-theist and religiously agnostic. Beyond these groups, my hope is that those who have interests in the fields of philosophy of religion, theistic and Christian apologetics, epistemology, ethics or decision theory will also find value in what this work has to offer.
Moreover, I have made my best effort, herein, to present a rigorous philosophical argument in a concise, readable and practical way. However, where my sacrifices for these considerations leave my project insufficient in some regard and the reader with unanswered objections and questions, I have created a website to address such shortcomings: www.Untrumpable.com. Further editions of this work will draw on the conversations that occur there, while also giving credit wherever credit is due.
I would like to thank Alan Hàjeck, Jeff Jordan, Christian Lee, Tim Mainwaring, Ross Inman, Travis Berkley, Shaun Wilson, and Matt Stover for reading and commenting on earlier versions, or portions of versions, of this manuscript. Though I am sure that I have not avoided every substantial objection to my argument, with their help, I know that I have avoided many. Thank you. And lastly, I would like to thank my beautiful, intelligent and supportive wife, Ginny. A man needs at least one fan in his life. Thank you for always being mine.
On Responsibility and Wisdom
I have given a lot of thought as to why I believe that there is a God. I won’t bore you with the full details of my endeavor, but I will share with you its fruit. The short answer is, I don’t know. If I had to take my best stab at an answer, I would say something like this: “Whenever I contemplate the nature of the universe and ask myself whether I believe that all this, this whole world as I find it, is a product of mere chance, I always find myself with the same answer, the same belief: No, it’s not.” Obviously, this isn’t an argument for God’s existence. I don’t intend it to be. Rather, it’s just a rough and ready report of why I might believe that there is one.
I could, of course, be wrong about this. Perhaps my belief that God exists is just a byproduct of the way that the world is and the way that I am. Maybe god-belief is just one of the many things that you get when a person like me winds up in a place like this but, then again, maybe not. To be honest, I know neither how my belief that God exists was initially caused nor how it is continually sustained. Though I have some guesses, given my specific brand of theism, overall, I must admit that I am in the dark.
Now, I am not saying that there aren’t good arguments for God’s existence. (And by “good” all I mean is that many people find at least some of them compelling, when considered either individually or jointly.) I’m just saying that whenever I reflect upon these arguments, I always find some aspect of them unsatisfying as a proof for theism. And due to this dissatisfaction, I always come away with a fairly high degree of confidence that these arguments play little role whatsoever in forming my belief that God exists.
Is my situation the norm? I think so. I think that the vast majority of people who think that they know why they believe that there is a God are probably wrong. It’s not that I think that the majority of believers in God are liars. I just think that they are wrong. And we can obviously be wrong without being liars.
But why is this? Why do so many people feel that they must understand why they believe that God exists? Why aren’t people more comfortable with simply not knowing? I think that our general discomfort here is largely grounded in two false views. The first is the view that our beliefs are under our direct voluntary control; that is, that our beliefs are like choices for which we are directly responsible. And the second is the view that our beliefs are reasonable only if we are aware of good enough reasons for them (whatever “good enough” amounts to). But why should we accept either of these views?
Let’s first address the view that our beliefs are under our direct voluntary control. To what extent are we responsible for our beliefs? It seems to me that whenever we are responsible for our beliefs, we are only so indirectly. That is, while it may be within our power to make it such that some belief is either formed or not formed in us, it is not within our power to just, at will, form a belief (or even prevent a belief from being formed). For example, I can make it such (indirectly) that I believe that there is a gorilla in my living room by, say, first voluntarily acquiring a gorilla and then placing both him and myself in my living room. However, I can’t just at will and regardless of my evidential situation believe that there is a gorilla in my living room. Additionally, while I can make it such (indirectly) that I don’t have any specific beliefs about who was, say, the 19th president of the United States of America (by intentionally avoiding certain sorts of history books and other relevant materials that may be able to overturn my lack of beliefs), I can’t just at will not believe that Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th president when I encounter certain sorts of evidence under certain conditions.
But if we are to be directly responsible for our beliefs, then we must be able to form beliefs simply by endeavoring (or trying). For example, if your arm is under your direct control, all you must do to move your arm is endeavor to move it. And as long as nothing is otherwise preventing you from moving your arm, you will. But how would one go about endeavoring to believe something (directly)?
Perhaps, if I only knew how to endeavor to believe something (directly), I could. But the problem is, I don’t. My wanting something to be the case isn’t enough to form the belief that it is, as there are all sorts of things that I want to be true while I don’t believe that they are. For example, I want it to be true that I have a million dollars but I don’t believe that I have a million dollars. Also, my imagining or pretending something to be the case (even while also wanting it to be the case) isn’t enough to form the belief that it is, as I can pretend that all sorts of things are the case while also wanting them to be the case without ever forming the belief that they are. For example, in addition to my wanting there to be a million dollars in my bank account, I can also pretend that there is without ever truly believing that I have a million dollars.
Admittedly, I haven’t tried this exercise for very long (both wanting and pretending something to be the case that I don’t already believe is the case). So, perhaps if I did this exercise for years on end, I would eventually wake up one day and find myself with the relevant belief. But even if this process worked, it should be even clearer (if it was not before) that our beliefs are not under our direct voluntary control. That is, however beliefs form, beliefs are not made like choices. Beliefs are made more like fruit. Let me explain.
The fruit (the beliefs or lack thereof) that we possess may be greatly influenced by our choices, just as a plant may fail or thrive based upon whether we choose to water it. However, by and large, fruit is a product of two things: (1) how some fruit-bearing plant is (its nature) and (2) how its environment is (the nature of its environment). And this is no different for us. Your beliefs (and non-beliefs) are largely a product of both how you are and how your environment is. Yes, you seemingly do have some direct influence over both of these factors. But your influence over your beliefs is not direct. If you want to influence your beliefs, you must influence either yourself or your environment in some manner and hope that such influencing works out in your favor. But what you can’t do is simply believe whatever you choose. That’s simply not the way beliefs work. And so, it seems that the best that we can ever do, if we want to acquire (or prevent) some belief, is do our best with what is within our direct power and hope that whatever we are doing is enough to result in either the formation of some desired belief or the prevention of some undesired belief.
Next, let’s look at the view that our beliefs are reasonable only if we are aware of good enough reasons for them (whatever “good enough” amounts to). Overall, I think that our rejection of this view should be a natural consequence of our rejection of the view that we are directly responsible for our beliefs. For if beliefs are more like fruit and less like choices, then why should we think that we would be aware of the reasons that either constitute or fail to constitute their cause?
Please hear me correctly. I am not saying that logical reasons are unimportant. I am not saying that logical reasons are insufficient for changing our beliefs. And I am not saying that when our beliefs change for logical reasons that we can’t be aware of such occurrences. I am simply rejecting the view that the goodness of any and every belief depends upon our being aware of some good-enough reason for it.
What is my good-enough reason for this view? On one hand, perhaps my rejection of the view that our beliefs are like choices justifies my rejection of the view that the goodness of our beliefs depends upon our awareness of good-enough reasons for them. But, on the other hand, perhaps my rejection of the view that the goodness of our beliefs depends upon our awareness of good-enough reasons for them is good-enough simply because sufficient reasons to accept such a view have failed to overtake me. And, if the latter is the case, then why should the goodness of my rejection of the relevant view depend upon my being aware of such a failure?
Here are the facts: my failure to accept the view that the goodness of our beliefs depends upon our awareness of good-enough reasons for them is due (most plausibly) to some sort of evidential failure on the part of such a view. Given this sort of evidential environment and given my constitution (the way that I am), my rejection of such a view seems beyond reproach. Why should anything else be demanded of me? That is, why should I also have to be aware of these facts?
What is the significance of all this? I believe that it is something like this: inasmuch as we are committed to the practice of evaluating ourselves and others, let us focus our evaluation primarily upon that for which we are directly responsible and could be ultimately blameworthy: our voluntary choices or actions. For when do we ever (rightly) hold a person responsible for the things that occur totally beyond their control? We do not. And we should not. A person can only rightly be held responsible for an event’s occurrence (or nonoccurrence) to the degree that such a person’s voluntary actions (or inactions) contributed to an event’s occurrence (or nonoccurrence). Our voluntary actions (and inactions), whatever they may be and only to whatever degree that we may actually engage in them, are the only sorts of things for which we are directly responsible and for which we can be ultimately blameworthy. The only way that we can be indirectly blameworthy for anything is if we are in direct control of something.
And so, here is a relevant question: if we want to evaluate such voluntary actions or choices, how should we evaluate them? For there are many ways of evaluating voluntary actions. And given such a plurality of ways of evaluating such actions, which metric or standard of judgment stands supreme, if any? That is, is there any way to evaluate the goodness or value of voluntary actions that either is able to trump all others or, at least, not trumpable by any other? I don’t know if there is one metric that is categorically better than every other for evaluating voluntary actions. However, I do believe that there is at least one way of evaluating actions that is at least as good as any other, a metric that is untrumpable. It is according to the metric of wisdom.
To begin to show this, let’s first look at wisdom. “Wisdom” seems to pick out something in the ballpark of know-how for protecting one’s threatenable interests. “Wisdom” seems to pick out something other than mere know-how. It seems to pick out a sort of know-how. For example, while it seems incorrect to call one’s mere know-how for cape-tugging, spitting, mask-pulling and messing around with others “wisdom,” such know-how does seem to count as wisdom when we also know that such actions should be avoided when relative to Superman, the wind, The Old Lone Ranger and Slim, respectively.
I believe that such an understanding points us towards wisdom’s relativity. Wisdom is always relative to some interest. And another interesting thing about wisdom is that wisdom seems to be maximally inclusive. That is, there is no threatenable interest (threatenable for all we know) according to which some wisdom cannot be relative. Thus, wisdom is like philosophy in that both wisdom and philosophy are primarily second-order interests. For example, just as for any discipline you pick, there can be a second-order philosophy of that discipline (e.g., the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mathematics and even the philosophy of philosophy), there can be, for any interest you pick, some wisdom for that interest.
Therefore, the reason that the metric of wisdom is an untrumpable metric for evaluating our respective actions is a result of two factors. The first has to do with the nature of wisdom and the second has to do with what would have to be true of any evaluative metric that was able to trump the metric of wisdom. Overall, given wisdom’s nature and a concern over the well-being of our interests, there couldn’t one.
To show this, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some evaluative metric that is able to trump the metric of wisdom, an evaluative metric that, based upon the judgment of its evaluation, we would be willing to change our behavior. Now, if there is such an evaluative metric, then there will be some consideration in virtue of which we would be willing to change our behavior, based upon its evaluation. For (1) whenever we act rationally, we always act for reasons and (2) the reasons for which we act are always grounded in our cares, interests, goals, desires and the like. So, for you to be compelled to change your behavior based upon some evaluation of your behavior that evaluation would have to reveal something negative about your behavior for which you cared. However, given wisdom’s maximally inclusive nature for such cares, interests, desires and the like, there is no reason that wisdom cannot be relative to such a care. And if not, then there cannot be a metric for evaluating your actions that is able to trump the metric of wisdom. Wisdom is always available for your interests and no other consideration is aimed at handling your interests better.
Now, with this foundation, (1) that voluntary actions are the appropriate objects of our evaluative judgments and (2) that the metric of wisdom is an untrumpable standard for evaluating such objects, let us begin the argument of this book.
Allow me to take you on a brief tour through the philosopher’s paradise: the realm of possibility, the realm of possible worlds. Imagine, if you will, an endless number of distinct worlds, worlds that are, respectively, every way that things could be, for all you know. I am using possible worlds merely as a conceptual aid. So feel free to imagine that these worlds are just as real as our own, if you find it helpful. Moreover, as we tour this realm from our respective armchairs, here are three simple rules for its navigation: (1) to the exact degree that you can clearly conceive of something, you should be able to find it here as a part of at least one of these worlds; (2) to the degree that you find something inconceivable, it may as well be impossible, because no matter how hard you look, you won’t be able to find it within any of these worlds; and (3) mis-reporting your conceptions is easy; so be careful.
Now, as we explore our philosopher’s paradise, the realm of possible worlds, I want you to try to locate our world within that logical space. It is there; for our world is actual and whatever is actual must be possible. But which world is it? Is our world very surprising or interesting? Is it one where everything is just as it seems? Is it a world where Christopher Columbus really sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and the history books are mostly accurate? Or is it a world where little is as it seems? For example, is our world a world where something like the movie The Matrix is true, a world where everyone experiences life virtually, as a so-called brain in a vat? Or is our world like the movie Inception, where everyone is experiencing life through layers of dreams? Or perhaps, is our world one that just popped into existence five minutes ago with everyone’s memories pre-formed in them?
Now, it is likely that you have some beliefs about which one of these many worlds is actual and, consequently, which worlds are not. But here is the question: how can you tell? How can you tell that our world isn’t like The Matrix, or Inception or that the whole world, just as it is didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago with all our beliefs in place? What are the earmarks of truth, the earmarks for determining actuality?
The truth is, there are no (global) earmarks of truth or actuality and you can’t tell which world is ours simply by looking or running some test for actuality. There is no evidence with which you are acquainted that rules out the possibilities that I previously introduced and, for that matter, a host of even stranger ones. And if you think that there is some evidence with which you are acquainted that is able to rule out all but one of these worlds, evidence that you wouldn’t have if one of these very surprising worlds were actual, then you are simply not being charitable enough with what is consistent with your evidence base, your evidence for how this world really is. And this problem, the problem of multiple possibilities given some evidence, is what I will refer to as “the problem of our evidential gap” or “the problem of uncertainty.” For all we know, that is for all we know evidentially, our world could be very different from how we likely believe that it is. These are just the facts.
Now, let me be perfectly clear. I am not suggesting that our world is one of these very surprising worlds. I don’t believe that it is. Moreover, I am not suggesting that we cannot know (according to some humble definitions of “knowledge”) which of these possible worlds is actual. I am not endorsing any sort of skeptical position. I am just pointing out the facts, namely, that for beings of such limited cognitive powers like ourselves, there is an unbridgeable gap between the evidence that we have about our world and the world as it truly is.
Moreover, I recognize that many people use “certainty” and its cognates to talk about a certain degree of confidence that one can have in regard to his or her beliefs, a degree of confidence that one can have even if he or she is wrong about things. In this book, I will not be focusing on such a usage. For while such a usage may tell us something interesting about some believer, it, in and of itself, tells us nothing interesting about such a believer’s evidence for his or her beliefs. And my concern with uncertainty, at least at present, is evidential.
So, why does our uncertainty matter? It matters because whenever we have such an evidential gap along with three more ingredients, namely, (1) interests worth protecting, (2) voluntary or controllable actions and (3) a certain kind of knowledge or evidence about our world, we have all the ingredients for something that is very significant for our ultimate well being: we have room for betting, wagering or gambling on the afterlife.
How so? While it may be debatable whether we have all the ingredients to make wagering upon the afterlife possible (showing that we do is one of the primary projects of this book), what constitutes gambling is much less controversial. Just think about any casino game. Casino games are little more than opportunities to voluntarily control the degree of risk to some interest under uncertainty. And aren’t we under these same conditions all the time in regard to the possibility of an afterlife?
Wagering is just how we are all forced to respond to uncertainty, especially in regard to the afterlife. Whenever we choose some course of action, we are placing a bet, by the very nature of our choosing, upon whether our choice will have either favorable or unfavorable consequences for our interests. We can’t avoid wagering on the afterlife because we can’t avoid choosing a course of action. For in life, consciously choosing to do nothing always counts as choosing to do something, as long as doing nothing is a voluntary choice.
But of course, despite all appearances, we can’t even be certain whether our uncertainty truly plays a significant role in our lives. The assumption that our uncertainty plays a significant role in our lives is based upon the assumption that we are more than mere passive experiencers. However, for our uncertainty to play a significant role in our lives we must actually make choices. That is, we must actively determine at least some of our life’s path.
But we can’t even be certain that we determine any of our respective life’s paths, can we? For though it may appear to us that we make a great many choices, as we have seen, appearances can be deceiving. Our evidence for such experiences does not preclude the possibility that every aspect of our life is determined by something other than or beyond us.
So, maybe we make our way in the world and maybe our way in the world is made for us. Maybe we are not just brains in a vat, like in The Matrix. Maybe we are brains in a vat whose every thought, emotion and action is programmed into us by the whims of another being in, say, another realm or by the physical interactions of particles beyond our control. Given our evidence, given merely how things seem, we can’t be certain, can we?
We can’t. All that we can do, in regard to placing our respective wagers on the afterlife, is our best, whatever our best (in reality) turns out to be. Maybe we will find out that, contrary to appearances, we could affect little to nothing in regard to our life’s path. Perhaps we will someday find out that we never truly placed any bets at all, that they were all placed, in a sense, for us. Perhaps we will find out that we were nothing more than mere passive experiencers, with no real creaturely freedom to speak of, who went through the entirety of our lives guided by the marionette strings of a master puppeteer or the physical interactions of particles beyond our control. But then again, maybe we’ll find out that appearances were not deceiving.
Maybe we will someday find out that we placed a great many bets. Maybe we will find out that it was within our power to affect much in our lives and that we did. Again, in our uncertainty, all that we can do is our best (whatever our best turns out to be) and hope that this whole thing that we call “life” shakes out in our favor in the end or at least not against it.
For it is plausible that our life will eventually shake out. That is, it is plausible that we will eventually find out (in some manner of speaking) whether we have wagered well or wagered poorly in life, overall. For as we are all aware, life, or at least life-as-we-know-it, has both a beginning and an end. But life-as-we-know-it may not be all that there is to life. Perhaps life continues beyond the grave. Perhaps what we call “death,” in this life, is what others call “waking” in some sort of Matrix-type realm.
Given such possibilities, our evidence and our interests, all that we can do is our best and hope that things shake out in our favor in the end, or, again, at least not against it. And when life eventually shakes out, we will (in one way or the other) find out how well we have wagered, overall. Either the grave will be our end and we will find out (so to speak) that our overall wagers on the afterlife ultimately did not matter much or perhaps what we call “the grave” will not be our end. And if the grave is not our end, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll find out that our overall wagers on the afterlife did matter greatly. For inasmuch as we are forced to place bets in life, by dint of our voluntary actions or choices, whether we like it or not, we are exposed to the grave risk that we will wager poorly (or unfavorably) and that, as a result of our wagers, we will suffer great loss.
The best that we can ever do whenever we are exposed to risk, the best that we can ever do whenever we are forced to wager, is to wager wisely. For we can always afford for things to work out in our favor but not always so against it. So how do we do this? How do we wager wisely?
In this chapter, I am going to introduce a straightforward wisdom decision theory, a theory that facilitates discerning both the wisdom and foolishness of wagers. We can think of this wisdom decision theory as a sort of cost analysis for bet-hedging or risk minimization while making decisions under uncertainty.
And such a wisdom decision theory goes like this (roughly). If you want to discern the wisdom of some specific course of action, consider two distinct and specific possible worlds (or scenarios). The first world should be a world where the action under consideration works out in your favor, relevant to some interest. And the second will be a world where the action under consideration does not. Now, with these considerations, begin to construct a table. Let your action under consideration set the facts for the first row in your table. And let your two possible worlds set the facts for two distinct table columns, respectively. Next, consider an alternative course of action and let it, likewise, set the facts for a second row.
Generically, we can picture such a table in the following way.
Diagram 1: Generic Wisdom Decision Theory Cost-Matrix
Now, in order to put your wisdom decision theory table to use, I propose that you think of each block (blocks 1- 4) as containing the perceived countable units or measurable quantities of some relevant interest. For example, if you were considering your own satisfaction as the interest under evaluation, you might think, first, of satisfaction in some measurable or countable way and give such units a name. Accordingly, you might employ a fictitious name, like, say, “cones,” to refer to these countable units of satisfaction. And you might think of each block as containing the appropriate number of subjectively perceived cones of satisfaction.
According to the wisdom decision theory on offer, if you calculate the foreseeable real and complete costs for unfavorable consequences to your two actions, to the best of your ability, the action that has the lowest cost will be the wisest action, relative to both the interest under consideration and the alternative course of action. And choosing the action with the lowest cost for relative unfavorable outcomes should be thought of as one’s minimizing their risks or hedging their bets.
Moreover, according to this wisdom decision theory, there is a very clear line of demarcation between foolish and non-foolish bets. A foolish bet is a bet such that (1) it is extremely risky according to our relevant knowledge that lends itself for determining which action would constitute a wise (or minimal risk) bet and (2) the potential risks or costs are such that, if suffered, they would be unaffordable for our relevant interest. (Note: determining whether an action is foolish is far easier than determining which action is the wisest possible action.)
For example, if you were considering whether it would be foolish to sell your home in order to use the proceeds to play the lottery, then you may have a cost-matrix that looks something like the following. (Here, only for the sake of simplicity, we are assuming a fairly direct correlation between financial costs and cones of satisfaction.)
Diagram 2: Example Wisdom Decision Cost-Matrix for Selling Your Home In Order To Play The Lottery
In Diagram 2, we can see the following:
Block 1 = The benefit of one’s selling their home in order to buy, what would turn out to be, winning lottery tickets is 1 million cones of satisfaction.
Block 2 = The cost of one’s selling their home in order to buy, what would prove to be, losing lottery tickets is 200,000 cones of satisfaction.
Block 3 = The benefit of one’s not selling their home in order to buy what would have been winning lottery tickets (while never knowing that such lottery tickets would have been winners) is zero cones of satisfaction. (While I set this cost at zero cones of satisfaction, depending upon one’s outlook and optimism for such wagers, there could be some cost associated with the regret of not giving one’s self a chance to win. For most people, however, this cost, if present, would be nominal, given the odds and cost of entry.)
Block 4 = The cost of one’s not selling their home in the face of such improbable odds in order to buy what would have proven to be losing lottery tickets, which may come in the form of relief, is -5 cones of satisfaction. (This negative cost actually counts as a modest credit (probably in the form of relief or delight) for realizing a wiser course of action and taking it.)
According to such a wisdom decision theory, since we can always afford for things to work out in our favor but not always so against it, we need only worry about blocks 2 and 4: the blocks that give us the costs for some actions’ not working out favorably. Why, then, even include blocks 1 and 3? Blocks 1 and 3 could be eliminated without detriment to some wisdom decision cost analysis. I have added them to this cost-matrix merely to help us think through all the factors that may play a role in determining the true costs of some actions’ not working out in one’s favor, as one cost to any course of action will always include the absence of some relevant potential benefit associated with an alternative course of action. But for all intents and purposes, if one is careful enough in counting the real and complete costs of some actions’ not working out in one’s favor, blocks 1 and 3 can be safely excluded from your matrix.
Now, regarding the above cost-matrix (Diagram 2), we can see two things. First, we can evaluate the costs associated with blocks 2 and 4 relative to one another in order to determine which path is the wiser of the two. The block with the lowest cost will be the wiser action. This reveals that wisdom is a degreed property of actions. That is, some actions can be wiser than others relative to the same interests. And second, we can evaluate whether any of the courses of action under consideration would qualify as foolish. If either block 2 or 4 has a positive cost, the course of action associated with that block could be foolish. Given that a foolish action is one that is unaffordable (according to our knowledge that lends itself for determining how to minimize our risks), if either cost would foreseeably bankrupt some interest immediately or eventually, if suffered, that action would be a foolish action. You cannot indefinitely make debits to some account without also making or receiving some cost-offsetting credits.
In the previous example, for most of the people in this world, we can safely conclude that selling one’s home in order to buy lottery tickets is not merely less wise than the alternative (not doing so). We can also conclude that such an action would be foolish. For in this example, the costs of buying so many losing lottery tickets is just too high, given the sort of hit that our assumed relevant interests can bear.
So here we have the foundation for a wisdom decision theory. Using such an evaluative matrix as a tool, one can compare the costs (relative to some interest) of multiple courses of actions. The action that has the least cost should be thought of as the wisest (relative) action, as it would minimize one’s risk the most (relative to some interest). Moreover, whenever we evaluate the costs of actions (relative to some interest), we may find that some of them are not just wiser than others, we may also find that some of them are unaffordable. That is, given what we know, some courses of action will be foolish.
Now, as I said before, the best that we can ever do whenever we are exposed to risk, the best that we can ever do whenever we are forced to wager, is to wager wisely. For we can always afford for things to work out in our favor but not always so against it. However, if we want to know which actions either are or are not truly affordable, we need to apply our wisdom decision theory in the evaluation of our interests and values. For actions are always either wise or foolish relative to some interest. And consequently, one action can be wise relative to one interest yet foolish relative to another.
So given such contrary wisdom decision results, if we want to know which actions are either truly wise or truly foolish, we need to properly and wisely evaluate our interests. Or, to put it another way, if we want to know what is either ultimately wise or ultimately foolish, we need to know both what our interests are and their value relative to one another.
Consider the following examples.
While it may seem foolish both to steal a car and to do so without making any effort to conceal one’s identity or evade capture, what if a person—we’ll call him “Sammy”—wants to get caught because the only person that Sammy cares about has been given only 5 years to live and is sentenced to life in the same prison where Sammy would soon call “home” for, let’s assume, no more than 5 years, given Sammy’s clean record?
Or while it will be wise to pursue higher education if one wants to become a surgeon, what if such a person is married with children and is concerned with the high stress and divorce rates of those who enter into such programs and residencies already married?
The wise or foolish choice in each of these scenarios is not so clear, is it? Or perhaps, for you, it is. Again, what is ultimately wise or foolish will be relative to our greatest interest, respectively. So you see, for almost any story that we can tell explaining why some action would be either wise or foolish relative to some interest, there is almost always another sort of story that we could tell which is capable of undercutting the wisdom or foolishness of the initial story by providing other details about some other greater interest.
Thus, when it comes to determining which actions are ultimately wise and which actions are ultimately foolish, we must do two things: (1) we must evaluate the costs of our actions relative to our greatest or unshakeable interest and (2) we must factor in all that we know and, given our uncertainty, all that we either know that we don’t know or all that we fear that we may be blameworthy for ignoring. And with the introduction of these considerations, let us advance into our next topic.
On Wagering On the Afterlife
Given what I have said so far in regard to the role of uncertainty, wisdom and the possibility of an afterlife, should we be worried? Maybe. Maybe not. The answer to this very important question depends upon whether, as I mentioned in chapter 2, all four ingredients for gambling on the afterlife are present in our lives. I have already established two of these ingredients: (i) the presence of uncertainty and (ii) that we must presume that we are directly responsible for at least some of the actions in our lives. Thus, there are two more ingredients that I still need to establish in order to prove that wagering upon the afterlife is possible. One of the remaining ingredients is whether we have an interest worth protecting that is threatened by the possibility of an afterlife. And the other is whether we have enough knowledge about our world, despite our uncertainty, to know how to minimize our risks against such a threat. So, in the remainder of this chapter, I will address each of these final concerns.
1. The Unshakeable Interest Issue
Do we have an interest worth protecting that is threatened by the possibility of an afterlife? I believe that the answer to this first issue is fairly straightforward. Yes, there is an interest that every well functioning human being can’t avoid valuing. It’s themselves. Find a person who has no regard for their own well-being and you will find a very poorly functioning human being. Self-interest is perhaps one of the only interests that pertains to us in every possible world in which we both find ourselves and find ourselves functioning well.
I am not saying that a well functioning person is someone who only acts for their own self-interests. That surely is not the case. I am saying something much more reasonable. I am saying simply that if you are a well and fully functioning being, you can’t disregard your ultimate well-being. Our ultimate well-being is just too salient an interest to neglect. It’s an unshakeable interest.
Now, if we are to fully understand the value of such an interest, we need to make sure that we are not limiting our appraisal of its worth only to life-as-we-know-it. For example, think about your current life, its potential quantity (or duration) and its quality. Your earthly life’s duration is finite. And its quality generally fluctuates; sometimes things are good and sometimes things are not. And for this reason, while threats to our respective earthly lives can be severe, we know that our earthly lives are not our greatest threatenable interest. However bad things can get on earth, they can only be so bad for so long, for death is inevitable. And while we know that many people’s well-being has been dreadful at times, who knows if the well-being of anyone’s life has ever been as bad as it possibly could be?
These considerations are sobering. For how can we be sure that such threats to our ultimate well-being in the afterlife are bound by the same limitations as they are in this life? For example, what is the afterlife’s actual duration, if there is one? There is nothing inconceivable about the afterlife being eternal or without end. And, if there is an afterlife, what will it be like for us? What will be the quality of our experience? The only conceptual limitations that there seem to be for how good or how bad things could be is either maximally good or maximally bad. So, here are the facts: for all we know, (1) the duration of the afterlife could be as long as eternal or without end and (2) the quality of our lives during such an afterlife stay could get as bad as maximally unfavorable. This is potentially a serious threat. This is our greatest great.
2. The Threat Issue
Of course, the simple fact that things could be unfavorable in the afterlife does not entail that such a possibility constitutes a real threat. For such a possibility to constitute a real threat, as opposed to, say, mere impending doom, such a threat must not only be avoidable but it must also be avoidable in the right sort of way.
For example, an afterlife scenario where everyone automatically has to live out each of their worst nightmares would be threatening but not avoidable. And an afterlife scenario where you only have to live out your nightmares if, say, you ever ate mangoes is both threatening and avoidable. However, neither of these scenarios count as a real threat. Real threats need that last key ingredient: the right kind of avoidability. For why should anyone have any apprehension about eating mangoes?
So are there any afterlife scenarios that constitute a real threat, i.e., scenarios that (i) are to be avoided because they are undesirable, (ii) are avoidable and (iii) are avoidable in the right sort of way? Yes. There is a sort of afterlife scenario that counts as a real threat. It is the possibility that the afterlife is both just and severely retributive. In other words, it is the possibility that the afterlife is a ‘place’ where we get our just deserts and what we deserve is highly undesirable.
Why does a just and severely retributive afterlife count as a real threat? It’s because it has all the right ingredients: (1) the severity of the retribution is highly undesirable for our most relevant interest; (2) just retribution is avoidable retribution; and (3) the presence of just retribution would imply that presence of our having the right sort of know-how for avoiding retributibution.
But are we aware of such a threat? For the sake of argument, let’s momentarily assume that there are some actions that we should be apprehensive about performing, i.e., that we have the requisite sort of know-how to mKe a just afterlife possible. Now to show whether we are aware of an afterlife that counts as a real threat, all we need to do is ask whether we can conceive of an afterlife scenario that is both just and severe in its retribution. (Note: when we are asking whether we are aware of some possibility or scenario, we are asking whether we can conceive of some possibility or scenario. We can, of course, also ask whether we think that such a scenario is actual or plausible. But it is important to see that these are different questions. Being aware of a possibility is being able to conceive of a possibility. I explicitly address the role of plausibility and expectations when it comes to wisdom under uncertainty in my chapter entitled, “Objections and Replies.”)
So are we able to conceive of such a possibility? Of course we can. And, here’s an example. What if, as I alluded to earlier, what we call “death” in this life is what others call “waking” in some sort of Matrix-type realm? And, what if this other realm is ruled by some maximally just and severely retributive beings who hold every waking-person accountable for all and only their pre-waking voluntary actions? Given that such a Matrix-type realm is clearly conceivable, we must acknowledge that if the requisite know-how for avoiding retribution is present, then there is an afterlife scenario that counts as a real threat and we are aware of it.
I will say more about such an afterlife scenario later. But the problem that we are rapidly approaching is obvious: given our uncertainty about the afterlife, why should we have any apprehension about performing any action? Why should we think that we have the requisite know-how to make just retribution possible? For if we are using conceivability as our guide, then, for any action that you pick, we can easily conceive of two afterlife scenarios: one where such an action is favored by an afterlife-judge and one where that same action is not. So, given our uncertainty about the afterlife and such canceling-out scenarios, why should we have any apprehension about performing any actions? And this question brings us to our next question.
3. Are Wise Afterlife-Wagers Even Possible?
Assuming that there are wise wagers on the afterlife, it is easy to imagine how a severe and justly retributive afterlife would constitute a real threat to our unshakeable interests. Of course, at present, this is an enormous assumption. However, I do believe that given the amount of reflection that such an issue deserves, given its gravity, we ought to be able to see that we do have enough information to wager wisely on the afterlife, i.e., we do have the requisite sort of know-how for avoiding retribution in a just afterlife.
One of the ways that we can state the problem that we are addressing is thusly: given that there is so much uncertainty concerning the afterlife, we must acknowledge the very real possibility that, for all we know, our very best attempts to wager wisely on the afterlife may have maximally unfavorable results. That is, for all we know, reality could be such that our every attempt to secure our own self-interests or overall well-being in the end could backfire in the worst possible way.
To prove this, simply imagine a scenario where the actual world (the way that the world really is) is such that it is ruled by a malicious being that always rewards actions both unjustly and severely. That is, imagine a scenario where the ruler of the afterlife is a being that punishes the actions that we take to be wise afterlife wagers and rewards the actions that we take to be foolish ones. If such a scenario were actual, then our very best efforts to secure our own overall well being in the end, by living in the way that we perceive to be appropriate for such a reward, would be rewarded with the worst possible outcome to our interests. No doubt, such a reality would be maximally unfortunate for many.
However, the question is, should such a possibility influence us, even slightly, to either not attempt to hedge our bets on the afterlife or not seek to do our best in minimizing our risks to our own overall well-being? Tabling the issue of whether we even have enough knowledge to minimize any risks to our unshakeable interests, I think that we can address this problem fairly straightforwardly.
One of the first aspects of our knowledge that will contribute toward determining what constitutes a wise bet on the afterlife is this: the actual facts about the afterlife play no role, in and of themselves, in determining what constitutes a wise wager on the afterlife. That is, if a certain set of actions has unfavorable results, it is not the result of those actions, per se, that determine whether those actions were either wise or foolish.
To show this, consider these two examples:
Not-Wise: If Tom’s sticking a screwdriver in a live toaster oven resulted in Tom’s being sent to the hospital and Tom’s being sent to the hospital resulted in the hospital’s finding, in Tom, a malignant tumor, you would not, in retrospect, say that Tom’s sticking a screwdriver in a toaster proved to be wise.
Not-Foolish: If state-of-the-art medical research confirms that regular consumption of a certain kind of fish reduces one’s chances of getting a certain kind of cancer by 500% and Cindy, wanting to prevent just such a cancer, ate the suggested kind of fish at recommended intervals and amounts, we wouldn’t then call Cindy’s fish-eating “foolish” if, as things turned out, unbeknownst to Cindy (and everyone else) the fish that she had been eating was consistently being contaminated at the local fish-market with a carcinogen that ended up causing the very kind of cancer in Cindy that she had been taking active steps to avoid.
Regarding Not-Wise (the screwdriver in a toaster story), you would say, assuming that Tom is of average worldly intelligence, that Tom’s action was foolish and that he just got lucky. You would say that things turned out favorably for Tom despite, perhaps, his best efforts to the contrary. But what you would not say is that Tom was acting wisely.
And regarding Not-Foolish (the fish story), you would say, assuming that Cindy shouldn’t have had any relevant fears about her fish market, that her actions were wise and that she just got unlucky. You would say that things turned out unfavorably for Cindy despite her best efforts to the contrary. But what you would not say is that Cindy was acting foolishly.
You see, what determines whether an action is wise or foolish has nothing to do with its unforeseeable results or consequences. Rather, it has everything to do with the care and knowledge that goes into making such a decision.
And this issue (the possibility of a maximally unfavorable afterlife despite our best efforts to avoid unfavorable outcomes), brings us to another issue, another aspect of our afterlife knowledge that influences which actions constitute wise bets on the afterlife.
Given our uncertainty about the afterlife, the uncertainty that leads us to acknowledge that there are an infinite number of ways that things could turn out, for all we know, there is only one sort of world that we need to worry or fear is actual. It is, as I mentioned previously, the possibility of a just and severely retributive afterlife. That is, it is the possibility that (1) appearances are not contrary to reality: we are able to voluntarily affect at least some things in this life, (2) we do have enough knowledge about our world to wager wisely on the afterlife, (3) our either doing our best or failing to do our best to wager wisely on the afterlife will yield the results that such wagers deserve and (4) such just deserts would constitute a serious threat to our unshakable interests, perhaps bankrupting them. All other possible worlds, all other possible realities, can be safely ignored.
Why is this? Because, given that neither wise nor foolish actions are determined in hindsight, as we have already established, we only need to worry about those worlds where at least some of our best efforts work out in our favor and at least some of our failures to do our best do not. Are there many possible afterlife scenarios where either our best efforts do not work out in our favor or where there is no postmortem existence or where our afterlife outcomes are solely up to the whims of chance or an unjust judge? Of course! But to bet on any of these worlds being actual, by living in such a way that would prove detrimental if the actual world were a world where our best efforts would work out in our favor, is foolish (given what’s at stake). It is the wisdom of fools to hope merely in chance (when wisdom is available for minimizing the risks for one’s interests.) There is just too much at stake, for all we know, to live as if our best efforts to wager wisely on the afterlife cannot or will not make a significant difference.
So what have we established so far? So far we have established three things. First, given that we do not know what is at stake on the quality of our earthly actions, we must assume that everything that matters is at stake, as to assume that little to nothing is at stake is to hope merely in chance, and it is the wisdom of fools to hope only in chance. Second, whatever constitutes a wise bet on the afterlife, if anything, it has nothing to do with the afterlife facts that lay, perhaps exclusively, outside of our available knowledge base. Accordingly, we may affirm that wisdom may be gained through hindsight but hindsight facts do not, in retrospect, determine either the foolishness or the wisdom of an action, if they were not available at the moment of decision. And lastly, we only have reason to worry or fear worlds where at least some of our best efforts in this life are retributed justly and severely, as every other sort of world would be foolish to bet on, by dint of our voluntary actions.
Now, with these three things established, we finally have a suitable foundation for addressing the supreme and pressing question of which earthly actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife. In the following, I will focus on three (minimal) aspects of our current knowledge that lend themselves for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife (I identify two more important aspects of our current knowledge in the last chapter of this book). I draw each of these three things from the third point in our foundational knowledge: that we only need to fear a justly and severely retributed afterlife.
A justly retributed afterlife, an afterlife scenario that constitutes a real threat, is not merely an afterlife where one’s earthly actions have a direct relationship with their afterlife consequences (positive or negative). A justly retributed afterlife is an afterlife where we would be blameworthy for ignoring which actions ought to yield favorable afterlife returns and which actions ought not yield favorable returns, that is, a standard according to which we could rightly be held accountable. For how can a world truly be just without such available knowledge, without such a standard? I don’t believe that it can. And, if there is no such standard, then there can be no such thing as a wise wager on the afterlife.
So, with this, let’s begin our examination of the three things that comprise some of our current knowledge for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife.
A. Why The Golden Rule Is So Profound And Universally Accepted
The first aspect of our available knowledge that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife has to do with what we can learn by examining the object of our afterlife hope. And this hope is that, however things shake out, they do not shake out against our favor in the end.
We know about how we wish to be treated (at least we have some knowledge about these facts). Generally, unless we are not functioning well, we treat ourselves in this way all the time. That is, we generally treat ourselves in a way that we evaluate as favorable treatment. It is because we know how to treat ourselves well that we know how to treat others well. It is because we know how to treat ourselves well that The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is such a universally accepted and profound guide to our actions. So inasmuch as we treat ourselves in a way that we would evaluate as favorably, we prove that we know what constitutes favorable treatment of persons like ourselves.
So what is the consequence of such understanding? Given that we are constantly proving that we know what constitutes favorable treatment of others, if we are hoping that we will be treated favorably in any possible afterlife, we should conduct ourselves in accordance with such knowledge. For what could be our reasonable defense if we were held to, and only to, the standard by which we treated others? We certainly couldn’t claim that the use of such a standard would be unfair. For wouldn’t that simply be an acknowledgment of guilt, an acknowledgment that we have treated others unjustly?
B. Our Standard of Judgment
The second aspect of our available knowledge that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife comes from what we can learn by examining our own standard of judgment. Whenever we judge another, that is, whenever we evaluate another’s actions in some qualitative manner (e.g., in some sort of they-should-or-shouldn’t-have way), we are implicitly giving our approval to both some rule for judgment and, by dint of the way that we respond to others in light of this rule, which sort of treatment we deem as acceptable or fair. That is, roughly, whenever someone treats us in some unfavorable way, we will respond to them in a manner that is in accordance with either retribution or clemency. Either we will administer to such a perceived ‘wrongdoer’ his or her just deserts (as we have both determined and approved) or else we will respond to them in a manner that is in accordance with something other than justice, perhaps in a manner that seeks things like forgiveness, reconciliation and mercy. And whenever we do so, we are in some manner approving that such a standard of judgment (both the rules and the retribution) is both good and acceptable by us.
Moreover, it seems that this aspect of our current knowledge is directly related to The Golden Rule. When we judge others uncharitably and unmercifully, we are not only implicitly affirming such a standard for judgment, but we are also (most likely) not treating others how we would like them to treat us. And therefore, it seems that we have two good reasons to be careful with our judgments, for whenever we judge others in a manner that we ourselves would not want others to judge us, we doubly condemn ourselves.
The wise bet, as this relates to the afterlife, is to always seek to put oneself in the so-called “shoes of others” whom we are tempted to judge. And the wise bet is to always seek charity, mercy and forgiveness, as these are the very things for which we will hope if we ever discover that we have fallen short of the standard of another, especially in regard to those, perhaps in the afterlife, who may enforce more severe forms of retribution than our own. For, while our standard of judgment is a fair standard by which we could be judged and while our standard of retribution is fair to impose upon us, there is nothing that guarantees that our standard of retribution is the only fair degree of retribution. That is, while we may determine what counts as a fair degree of retribution for our transgressions, minimally, we do not get to determine what counts as a fair degree, maximally. We can put ourselves in the shoes of others. We cannot force them into ours.
C. The Approvals and Disapprovals of Our Own Conscience
A third aspect of our available knowledge that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife comes from what we can learn by examining our relationship to our own conscience, i.e., to whatever internal standard that we find within ourselves that lends either its approval or its disapproval to our deliberations and actions (past and present).
This point is related to the two others. But there is a subtle difference here. For inasmuch as we find ourselves with a conscience, we find ourselves with some sort of internal law, some sort of internal guide for self-regulation. And our perceived relationship to this sort of internal law is very different from our relationship to other sorts of laws that may be imposed upon us. For we don’t generally view ourselves negatively when we do not conform to some merely external law. For example, whenever we break the speed limit, assuming our motivation to obey the speed limit is merely external, we don’t perceive ourselves, generally, as a genuinely blameworthy or morally-flawed individual.
However, this perception of ourselves does not carry over to the violations of our own internal law. Whenever we violate our conscience, we are doing the very thing that not even we, ourselves, can countenance. And as a consequence, while we may confess otherwise, we know that, if we have ever violated our own conscience, we have done something morally wrong. That is, we know that such actions are, in a more serious sense, blameworthy.
Now, I am not saying, at present, that there will be any eternal consequences for such a self-inflicted verdict. I am simply saying that we are aware of such a verdict if we have ever violated our respective consciences. Somehow, our very constitution (our very being) imposed such a law on our actions. And if we couldn’t not be aware of such a standard, how can we reasonably deny its verdict? For if there is anything in the world that is worthy of the name “an evil” or “a blameworthy action,” it must include those voluntary actions that a person does even in the face of their own disapproval. Thus, wise wagers on the afterlife will not be actions that run contrary to the approvals of our conscience. For again, what could be our excuse if we were held to, and only to, the very standard that we found internally imposed upon ourselves?
Now, the point of these three (minimal) aspects of our current knowledge has nothing whatsoever to do with what we may believe would count as just retribution for any violations to these standards. Rather, the point of these three aspects of our knowledge is simply this: despite our uncertainty about the afterlife, there is some knowledge with which everyone is acquainted that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers upon the afterlife. And what makes these three aspects of our knowledge count as such is found either in (i) our very hope that others will keep such a standard (in the case of our knowledge of The Golden Rule), (ii) our implicit approval of such a standard (in the case of our own standard of judgment and retribution), or (iii) its undeniability (in the case of our conscience’s pleadings). Yes, each of these aspects of our knowledge is subjective (in that they may vary from person to person). But in their subjectivity, each would provide a just being with an objective standard for judging each and every person, respectively, even apart from any evidence that there would be an impending judgment or that there even is an afterlife.
Sure, it is possible (for all we know) that any retribution that we may receive for violations of such standards will not be as severe as it could be. However, wisdom tells us to not allow our hope for the best to be the primary dictator of our actions. And it encourages us in this by affirming the fact that when we seek to minimize our risks against the greatest threats to our interests, e.g., the most severe forms of afterlife retribution, we automatically minimize our risks for less severe cases. To hope for the best outcome, while ignoring the pleadings of wisdom, is a fool’s bet.
In perhaps the briefest terms, the argument of this book is as follows:
1. Foolishness occurs under the following three conditions.
a. When we are aware of a threat to our most relevant interests,
b. when we know how to minimize our risks to such a threat and
c. when we voluntarily choose, in the face of such an awareness and such know-how, not to try to minimize our risks to such a threat.
2. The possibility of a just and severely retributive afterlife poses the greatest threat to our most relevant interests.
3. Despite our uncertainty about the afterlife, we do know how to minimize our risks to such a threat.
4. Therefore, when we choose not to minimize our risks to such a threat, by living in accordance with such know-how, we are living foolishly.
However, before we discuss this argument’s conclusion and its consequences, let’s first take a brief survey of how we arrived exactly where we did.
We began in chapter 1 by establishing two things: (1) that there is only one sort of thing for which we could be held ultimately responsible: our voluntary actions and inactions and (2) that there is an untrumpable way of evaluating the goodness of such actions: according to the metric of wisdom.
Regarding (1), we concluded that our voluntary actions and inactions are the only sorts of things for which we could be held ultimately responsible because these are the only sorts of things that are under our direct control. Our direct and voluntary endeavors are where the buck stops when it comes to responsibility. And if we can rightly be held responsible for anything else, such responsibility would have to be parasitic upon such voluntary actions. And regarding (2), we concluded that wisdom is an untrumpable metric for evaluating our voluntary actions because when we assumed both that wisdom was trumpable and that we were concerned about the well-being of our interests, such an assumption led us to a contradiction.
Then, in chapter 2, we examined the role of uncertainty in our lives. Uncertainty (at least as far as the argument of this book is concerned) results whenever our available evidence does not exclude all but one possibility. And the consequence of this uncertainty or, as I have called it, our evidential gap, is that it is one of the essential ingredients for something that is, for all we know, very significant to our lives and ultimate well being. For whenever we have four things: (1) uncertainty, (2) voluntary actions, (3) interests worth protecting and (4) enough knowledge about our world, despite our uncertainty, to know which actions are riskier to our interests than others, all the ingredients for gambling are present. And the significance of gambling is not just that it implies that our interests are at risk, but it also implies that we are in control or responsible for the well being of such interests.
Next, in chapter 3, as the best that we can ever do whenever we are forced to wager is to wager wisely, I offered a wisdom decision theory as a tool for determining the wisdom and foolishness of actions. Given the maxim that we can always afford for things to work out in our favor but not always so against it, such a decision theory compares only the potential costs of actions not working out in our favor and tells us two things: (1) given multiple actions, how such actions rank relative to one another in regard to wisdom (the least potential cost will be the wisest relative action) and (2) given an appraisal of the fitness of some relevant interest, whether some course of action would be foolish. (An action is foolish, relative to some interest, when risk minimization is possible, for all we know, and such an action’s foreseeable costs would be unaffordable for unfavorable outcomes.) Thus, wisdom can be thought of, primarily, as know-how for evaluating and minimizing risks to our interests.
Then, in chapter 4, we brought all of these considerations together in order to address whether all the ingredients for gambling on the afterlife are, in fact, present for us. Having already established some of these ingredients, namely, our uncertainty and the fact that it would be foolish to assume that we are not directly responsible for at least some of our actions, we went on to address three more questions: (1) whether we have interests worth protecting; (2) whether there are any afterlife possibilities that threaten such interests; and (3) whether we have enough information about our world to know how to minimize risks to our interests under such a threat. And we answered each of these questions in the affirmative.
In short, we concluded that a just yet severely retributive afterlife poses the most serious threat to our unshakeable interest: our ultimate well-being. And that such a threat constitutes a real threat because we do have enough information about our world, despite our uncertainty, to make a just afterlife possible. For there is a minimum standard according to which a just being could both objectively and rightly hold each of us accountable, a standard that we either implicitly affirm or could not reasonably or guiltlessly deny, a standard according to which we would be blameworthy for ignoring.
And therefore, given that all the ingredients for gambling are present in our lives, not only are there voluntary actions that constitute wise wagers on the afterlife, but also we would be foolish, given the stakes, for not living in accordance with them. Thus, one’s failing to hedge his or her bets on the afterlife (or to fail to live in accordance with such bets) is a fool’s bet.
And I believe that such an understanding finally puts us in a position to understand the Psalmist’s well-worn words, “the fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalms 14:1, 53:1). The foolishness of atheism does not reside in atheism per se. That is, atheists are fools neither in virtue of their lacking the belief that there is a god nor in virtue of their believing that there is none. Rather, the foolishness of atheism resides in the deliberate decision to live as if there is none, very fortunately a decision that is not essential to atheism per se.
In sum, as we can always afford for things in the afterlife to work out in our favor but not always so against it, whenever we fail to do our best, given that there is some standard according to which we could rightly be held accountable, we are placing our hope in fortune alone. And to hope only in luck, when wisdom advises to the contrary, is the wisdom of fools.
Now, given such a conclusion, so what?
1. A Defensive Case For Theism (And Some Alternatives)
Given the involuntary nature of belief (chapter 1) and the sheer difficulty in determining why, in fact, any of us find ourselves with any of the beliefs that we do, I believe that a wise fear of the afterlife not only justifies living as if there is an afterlife, but it also makes any beliefs that may involuntarily result from such actions sacrosanct. For how could one’s involuntary beliefs be reproachable in any sense if they are the mere involuntary results of one’s taking the wisest possible steps to insure their unshakeable interests?
Are theistic beliefs ever formed in such a way? Who knows. But the point here is that, for all we know, they could be. And if they could be, then our ignorance ought to be enough to make such beliefs count as irreproachable. If our voluntarily following wisdom is irreproachable, then so is whatever follows, involuntarily, from such voluntary actions.
And the consequence of one’s theistic beliefs (possibly) being formed involuntarily by one’s voluntarily doing what is irreproachable is this: the only way to bring theistic beliefs under question is to first bring the wisdom of living as if there is an afterlife under question. However, given the foolishness of the contrary, theistic beliefs will always remain beyond reproach. Voluntarily doing whatever proves to be ultimately and untrumpably wise is always justified, warranted and reasonable. And if so, if one is doing their very best with whatever is within their control, again, how could such a person be blameworthy for whatever may result involuntarily from such irreproachable actions?
For such involuntary afterlife beliefs to be reproachable, man would seemingly have to have some duty to guard against such beliefs. However, even if such a case could be made (and perhaps some sort of carefully nuanced moral case could be), such a case, given this argument, would have to prove that carrying out such a duty is wiser than the alternative, namely, allowing for the involuntary formation of such afterlife beliefs.
But here is the problem. While such an argument (an argument against allowing for the involuntary formation of afterlife beliefs) may be able to establish that we do have some sort of duty to protect ourselves from some afterlife beliefs, I am highly doubtful that any argument could establish that we have a duty to protect ourselves from all afterlife beliefs. Such an argument would have to establish that we would be foolish and blameworthy for having any such beliefs. And given the very real possibility (for all we know) that there just may be a god or gods that value and are pleased with such involuntarily-formed beliefs and abhor an alleged duty to avoid them, such an argument may never be able to get off of the ground. For such an argument would not be able to appeal to the possible afterlife-consequences of such beliefs (our most pressing risk to our ultimate interests), as such appeals may only further enforce the very thing that such an argument would be designed to undermine. And thus, any argument, by appealing to the afterlife consequences of any afterlife beliefs, would be self-defeating.
You can’t make a valid case against all afterlife beliefs by appealing to the potential afterlife consequences of some of them. Thus, if the conclusion of an argument against allowing for the formation of afterlife beliefs is based upon premises that require us to have some afterlife conclusions, then it can’t make a valid case against allowing for the formation of any afterlife beliefs, as some of those afterlife conclusions will unavoidably count as afterlife beliefs.
I think that these points are very important and that we all should take them to heart. The task of identifying the true causes for our beliefs (and lack thereof, for that matter) is difficult, if not impossible (given our humble position, evidentially). And while we may think that we know the reasons for our beliefs (and lack thereof), we must acknowledge that, at the end of the day, we could be wrong. And if we could be wrong in the identification of such causes, while we mustn’t avoid putting any stock in our perceived reasons for our belief (or lack thereof), we should all recognize that the rationality, reasonableness and justification for our beliefs does not depend upon our best guesses at identifying these causes. For if our afterlife beliefs (or non-beliefs) are formed (or not formed) involuntarily, then we would all benefit from leveraging such a scenario to our benefit, especially if such afterlife beliefs are involuntarily formed while doing our very best to wager wisely on the afterlife, actions which are untrumpably wise and sacrosanct.
2. A Positive Case For Theism
Now, not only is the argument of this book able to defend, as sacrosanct, theistic belief (but not just theistic belief), it is also suited to advance theism, or, minimally, to advance a great many things consistent with theism. For not only are theists not doing anything reproachable, in virtue of their having theistic beliefs and living a life aimed at a just afterlife, they are doing something right.
Now, let this be perfectly clear: this argument does not say that non-theism (in any of its multifarious forms) is foolish, per se. If one’s non-theistic beliefs are neither voluntary nor involuntarily formed from foolish voluntary actions, then they, in and of themselves, are concededly as sacrosanct as any theistic belief. But this argument is not about beliefs. It’s about actions, voluntary actions. And here is the significance of this.
A fearfully motivated life (or at least a life consistent with a fearfully motivated life) is wise. It is untrumpably wise. Fear is why we buckle up. Fear is why we buy all sorts of insurance. Fear is why we tell our children not to take candy from strangers. The role of fear in our lives is both immense and largely positive. But the most significant thing about fear, as it relates to this argument, is that fear motivates many right and appropriate sorts of actions all by itself. Fear gets the job done. And generally, fear gets the job done well (or wisely), regardless of what we may or may not believe about a great many matters.
That is, regardless of whether one believes that they will be in a wreck, one is wise to wear their seat belt. Regardless of whether one believes that their home will burn to the ground, one is wise to carry homeowner’s insurance. Regardless of whether one believes that strangers will kidnap their children and do unspeakable things to them, one is wise to instill some sort of fear in the minds of their children about certain sorts of interactions with strangers.
The point is, our beliefs about what will or will not happen or what is or is not the case largely play no role whatsoever in determining whether some action is either wise or foolish. Again, the wisdom of some action is determined by comparing the cost of an action’s not working out in one’s favor against the cost of an alternative action’s not working out in one’s favor. The action with the lowest potential cost is the wisest action. And the foolishness of some action is determined by comparing the cost of that action’s not working out in one’s favor to the fitness or well being of some relevant interest. If the potential cost is too great or is unaffordable for such an interest, that action would be foolish.
And here is how all this translates into debates over theism (and the like): no belief whatsoever about the afterlife is able to make wise a reckless, unrestrained, dishonest, unloving and unmerciful life. It is foolish for anyone at any time to voluntarily live in such a way that, if they were to be held accountable for some earthly action, without clemency, they would regret that action in an I-knew-or-I-should-have-known-better sort of way, that is, a regret that does not depend solely upon the insights of hindsight.
For example, consider blasphemy or divine irreverence. Are atheistic or non-theistic beliefs capable of making blasphemy or divine irreverence wise? I think not. The potential cost of one’s living in a blasphemous-sort-of-way’s not working out in one’s favor exceeds the cost of one’s living in a non-blasphemous-sort of-way’s not working out in one’s favor, vastly, for all we know. Again, is there a possible world where (for all we know) just the opposite is true? That is, is there a world where blasphemy is rewarded by The Blasphemed and non-blasphemy punished? Or, is there a possible world with no postmortem existence? Sure. But to bet on any of these worlds’ being actual is a fool’s bet.
But if blasphemy proves foolish, even for the non-theist, and given which actions could plausibly be determined to be blasphemous by a being who believes that they are due ultimate respect, where is the line for which religiously-motivated actions are wise for the non-theist to casually dismiss? Is a lack of prayer wise, merely because one believes that there is no prayer-worthy being? Is a lack of divinely directed praise wise, merely because one believes that there is no one worthy of it? Is a lack of generosity, a lack of forgiveness, a lack of kindness, a lack of honesty, a lack of humility, a lack of purity, a lack of justness, ever wisely ignored and tolerated when one finds it within themselves? Is it ever wise to not seek, hope and plead for divine mercy and forgiveness whenever one’s conscience is troubled over one’s actions? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is, “No,” given our current knowledge that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife.
Atheism and religious agnosticism may be sacrosanct. But it is most certainly not clear that atheistically motivated actions enjoy the same appraisal. That is, while an atheist may act wisely in regard to wagering on the afterlife, such wisdom is not lent to such an atheist by their atheism. Theism directs people to live as if they will be held ultimately responsible for their earthly actions. Atheism does not.
In sum, to the degree that one fails to hedge his or her bets on the afterlife (or fails to live in accordance with actions that constitute hedged bets on the afterlife), they are making a fool’s bet.
Objections and Replies
Here, I respond to what I believe will be the most pressing objections to the argument of this book. In the event that you do not see your objection here, I have created a website where I will respond to further objections and concerns as they arise. You can find that page at www.Untrumpable.com.
1. Pascal’s Wager Again?
The argument of this book is merely a warmed-over version of Pascal’s Wager and we are not lacking in good reasons to ignore Pascal’s Wager.
In the preface of this book, without explanation, I offered that Pascal’s main error was his straying from his core premise: the premise of uncertainty. How exactly did Pascal stray from this premise? Pascal offered us a decision matrix that’s focus is the expected utility (or benefit) of actions according to varying outcomes. However, such a decision matrix is not appropriate for decisions under uncertainty. While expectations, plausibility, probability and the like play a role in calculating the complete foreseeable costs of our actions, these considerations should not be the primary focus of a decision matrix under the evidential conditions of uncertainty. Such considerations fail us too often. Wisdom knows this. And so, wisdom handles them better.
2. That’s Not What “Foolish” Means?
Your argument turns on a faulty notion of foolishness. And if you were just using “foolish” correctly, we would all see exactly how your argument fails.
I conclude that there are some sorts of actions that qualify as “foolish” because (A) we already have a working knowledge of how to use this term and (B) we know that actions that are foolish are undesirable and ought to be avoided. However, if we throw the term “foolishness” (and its cognates) out, it doesn’t really affect my conclusion.
Because, at the end of the day, we still know that: (1) a just and severely retributive afterlife poses the greatest threat to our unshakeable interests; and (2) our concern with wanting to minimize our risks to such a threat will be untrumpable. So, if someone objects to my use of “foolish,” I’ll concede. But it’s important to see that such a concession won’t negatively affect my argument. The force of my argument is not found in my definitions of “wisdom” and “foolishness.” Its force is found in our common intuitions that some actions are just too risky and, as such, ought to be avoided. Whether we have good names for such risky actions is inconsequential.
3. Voluntary Belief?
But what if belief is voluntary?
The argument of this book takes the position that (1) the only sorts of actions that can qualify as either wise or foolish are voluntary actions (the things that we do that are up to us) and (2) that our beliefs are not to be counted among such actions. But what if I’m wrong and they are? What if what we believe or don’t believe is up to us? Well, if this were the case, then the verdict would be simple: one would be foolish for failing to believe/disbelieve in accordance with wise belief-wagers on the afterlife, if there be any.
4. Fear Isn’t Conducive To Rationality?
You say (in chapter 5) that theistic belief is sacrosanct, even apart from evidence, if it is the involuntary result of voluntarily doing what is ultimately wise: wagering wisely on the afterlife. However, we generally do not link up fears and beliefs in such a charitable way. For example, we wouldn’t think that, say, a woman’s fear that there are spiders in her hair, apart from any evidence that there are, does anything positive, in and of itself, to such a woman’s belief that there are spiders in her hair. So, why should we view theistic belief any differently?
My conclusion that theistic belief is sacrosanct, if it is either the involuntary result of a fear of the afterlife or a result of wagering wisely upon such is based upon the following considerations: (1) belief is involuntary, (2) given our ignorance of how all beliefs are formed, a belief’s goodness should not be based upon either our awareness of its cause or our best guess at its cause, (3) concerns over one’s interests under the immense threat of a just and severely retributed afterlife are untrumpable, (4) not possibly could one rule out the possibility of an afterlife, evidentially, and (5) one has no global and untrumpable duty to actively avoid the involuntary formation of all afterlife beliefs. I believe that these considerations are sufficient to make theistic belief beyond reproach. And while there may be a pathological link between some fears and some beliefs, why should we believe that all such links are pathological?
Determining what is pathological is inextricably tied to determining what constitutes proper functioning. And while proper functioning makes sense within a theistic worldview, it does not (at least in any robust sense) within a naturalistic one. Thus, anyone who maintains that theistic belief, arising out of the relevant considerations, must be pathological can be safely ignored. For either they are lying (pretending to have tapped into the mind of The Designer) or their objection is grounded in a worldview that cannot make sense of proper functioning.
5. Uncertainty Doesn’t Matter Given How Much We Know?
If we can know that P without being certain that P (where “P” stands for some sentence or proposition) and we can’t both know that P and be wrong about P, as knowing something precludes our being wrong about that thing, then, given that we ostensibly know so much, why should we let our uncertainty make such a difference in our lives? That is, if I know that P and thus, am not wrong about whether P is true, then isn’t that at least as sure a foundation from which to make decisions as uncertainty?
In response, the reasons that the argument of this book begins with our uncertainty, as opposed to our apparent knowledge, is because, given the kinds of evidence that we tie to much of our knowledge, much of our knowledge—whenever we have it given our evidential gaps—is in some sense lucky. That is, given that the evidence that many of our beliefs are based upon does not exclude the possibility of things being contrary to our beliefs (as for all we know, we could be a brain in a vat or globally deceived about things), we are in some sense lucky if the world cooperates with many of the beliefs that we count as knowledge. And, as I have said numerous times, to hope only in luck is the wisdom of fools.
My response here is related to what I have said previously about there being no global earmarks for truth. That is, there is no non-dubious way of separating all your true beliefs from your false ones (unless, of course, you only believe that of which you can be certain). Those who believe that they can do this will either be begging the question or putting themselves on the path of a vicious infinite regress. Thus, to acknowledge that some of our knowledge is, in some sense, lucky is just to acknowledge that we are not in a position to non-dubiously separate our true beliefs from our false ones, where our beliefs exceed the bounds of certainty.
6. Is Wisdom Really Untrumpable?
Can concerns over wisdom really trump all other concerns? For example, concerns of faith and obedience often seem to run contrary to the pleadings of wisdom. And, for the faithful, shouldn’t the pleadings of faith and obedience trump everything else?
In response, wisdom is untrumpable because wisdom’s primary concern is our concerns, respectively. And there is no concern that wisdom must exclude. Thus, if we care about something, wisdom is able to advise us in this interest and advise us in such an interest well. Now, while it may be the case that issues of faith and practice sometimes run contrary to conventional wisdom, rarely do such issues run contrary to wisdom per se.
For example, the pleadings of conventional wisdom may advise against any great act of personal sacrifice, a sort of act that is common to many religious faiths. However, such a conflict is not a flaw on wisdom’s part. It is a flaw on conventional wisdom’s part. And it is a flaw on conventional wisdom’s part because conventional (or worldly) wisdom does not, generally, take into consideration those interests that we have beyond the grave, the place that poses the greatest threat to our unshakeable interests.
But, the argument of this book is not based upon conventional wisdom or worldly adages. It is based upon what wisdom has to say about how we ought to live given (1) our uncertainty, (2) our relevant interests and (3) what we could be blameworthy for ignoring. So what should one do if one finds his or her religious practice to run contrary to wisdom? Wisdom says to go with wisdom. But, more importantly, wisdom tells you why. For the demands of a religious faith to run contrary to wisdom, one must think that the demands of his or her religious faith will be more costly to one’s greatest interests in the long run than some alternative and available course of action. But if this is ever the case, there is one simple question that wisdom asks: why should you ignore wisdom’s pleadings? If there is true conflict between wisdom and some religious practice, this question should be unanswerable. For what reason could one give to this question that is not grounded in his or her interests, cares, desires, hopes or fears (all things that wisdom can advise in)? I will say more about such unanswerable questions later.
7. Doesn’t Consistency Trump Living a Lie?
“I’m an atheist. So why shouldn’t I live consistently with my beliefs or lack thereof? Doesn’t the argument of this book suggest that I should live dishonestly or disingenuously concerning my beliefs?”
Not at all. Just as, say, one’s wearing their seatbelt does not implicate that such a person believes that they will be in a wreck, one’s wagering wisely upon the afterlife does not implicate that such a person believes that there is an afterlife. One’s being an atheist does not entail one’s also being a fool.
8. Unwanted Consequences?
According to the wisdom decision theory of this book, isn’t it foolish not to take all sorts of extreme, awkward and socially isolating measures to protect one’s life. And if so, doesn’t such an obviously unwanted conclusion prove that the decision matrix of this book is both useless and ignorable?
No, and here’s why. The very reason from which this sort of objection arises is the same reason that gives us its proper response. The only reason that we know that some measures for protecting our lives are not worth the costs is because we know that the duration of our lives, respectively, is not our greatest threatenable interest. Generally, a person would gladly trade one hundred unhappy years for, say, fifty happy ones. Thus, when we are calculating what is either wise or foolish according to our ultimate interests, we first need to realize what our ultimate interests are.
Moreover, we would also do well to recognize that death, for all we know, does not pose the greatest threat to our ultimate interests. Death is unavoidable (and even if it does become avoidable someday, such a promise of eternal life cannot be guaranteed with the backing of certainty). Thus, our greatest interests are threatened most, both qualitatively and quantitatively, by the possibility of a just and severely retributive afterlife. And while wisdom will not advise all sorts of extreme measures for the mere protection of our earthly lives, no sum of extreme measures are able to outweigh the potential costs of getting a bet on the afterlife wrong.
9. What About Strong Evidence Against “Wise Afterlife Wagers”?
Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine finding yourself in what you perceive to be the afterlife. During this experience, the being you perceive to be the judge and ruler of the afterlife, tells you just two things: (1) “You are going to be given another chance at life” and (2) “When you return here, I will both punish every good action and reward every evil one.” Would such an experience be sufficient, contrary to the conclusion of this argument, to make it such that evil actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife, even if only for you?
I must concede that such an experience would likely give anyone some degree of apprehension about doing good. But is such an experience sufficient to make evil actions (e.g., actions that are contrary to your knowledge that lends itself for determining wise wagers on the afterlife) wise? I don’t think that it is. And the reason for this conclusion is that, even despite your perceived afterlife experience, you will still find yourself in a world replete with uncertainty.
In this thought experiment, uncertainty doesn’t disappear just because you have had an experience that leads you to believe that good will be punished and evil rewarded in the afterlife. Isn’t it possible (for all you know) that your experience was simply a very robust form of temptation set up by an evil being to encourage you to act in a way that is contrary to what you perceive to be good? And given this possibility, you should be just as apprehensive about doing evil as ever before?
So overall, what has your experience changed? I submit: nothing. When your perceived afterlife experience is complete and you return to life-as-normal, the following will still be true: (1) You will still hope, however things shake out in the end, that they will shake out minimally not against your favor; (2) You, despite your experience, will still be uncertain as to whether your perceived afterlife experience aligns with reality; and (3) You will still have reason to worry (or fear) a just afterlife where you are held accountable to and only to the standard of the good that you find through (i) your knowledge of what constitutes favorable treatment for yourself and, as a consequence, others, (ii) your standard of judgment for others and (iii) the internal standard that imposes itself upon you by means of of your own conscience. All this remains. And if all this remains, I submit the following: those who do evil should only hope for evil’s reward. If, as things shake out, evil is rewarded and good punished in the afterlife, then while good actions will not, in fact, work out in your favor, they will never constitute foolish wagers on such. The wiseness of an action is not determined in hindsight. And such an afterlife would not be just (the only sort of afterlife that you have reason to worry is actual), as there are no standards to which you could rightly be held accountable in such an afterlife that you could not reasonably or guiltlessly deny.
10. Terrorism Wise?
Does this argument make religiously-motivated genocide or terrorism wise?
I think that this question is related to the previous one in that the question here is the issue of whether evil ever constitutes wise wagers on the afterlife. And I have already concluded that it does not. However, using our wisdom decision cost-matrix, I can say more here.
Perhaps the most important perspective for determining what constitutes a wise action is the following: we can always afford for things to work out in our favor but not always so against it. Accordingly, when someone is contemplating whether to do some action, especially one as risky as treating others in an unfavorable way (to say the least), he or she should ignore completely the benefit of the action working out in his or her favor in the afterlife and focus solely upon the cost of the action not working out in his or her favor.
For I think that what generally motivates acts of terror in the minds of impressionable potential terrorists is the great hope that they believe lies before them: the hope that such actions will be greatly rewarded. But wisdom speaks thusly: “What if you’ve gotten things wrong? What if such actions do not work out in your favor?” Thus, the argument of this book teaches us all to avoid such risky afterlife-related behavior.
11. Fear is a Foolish Motivation?
“Theists are always telling us atheists that we can’t be good without God. First, we don’t need some fear of an afterlife or a belief in God to live morally. And second, what makes you think that any being worthy of the name “God” would be pleased with actions that are motivated out of a fear of punishment anyway? This argument represents everything that is wrong with religion. Fear is oppressive. And, for every action that it infects, it makes such an action intrinsically and thoroughly flawed, morally.”
This is a fantastic and powerful objection. But it is very important to note, from the very beginning, that such an objection does not constitute an objection to either any of this argument’s premises or its conclusion, namely, that there are wise wagers on the afterlife and, as such, it would be foolish to not seek to minimize one’s risks to their unshakeable interests by living in accordance with them. Do not miss this. For there is nothing in this objection that would make acting contrary to the actions that I have outlined as wise wagers on the afterlife wise. For instance, does this objection show that it would ever be wise to either violate one’s conscience or The Golden Rule, simply because one finds a fear of punishment in their motivations for such rule-keeping? No, it does not. While courage is a virtue, the virtue of courage, in and of itself, is not sufficient to make a foolish action either wise or morally beyond reproach.
And, thus, the only reason that this objection will carry any influential weight is due to the fact that we know that there are better ethical motivators than fear for living in accordance with wise wagers on the afterlife. And while I will speak more to this issue in the next objection, for now, let me say this: there seem to be two sorts of motivators for our respective actions. The first is an external sort of motivator. External motivators motivate our actions rationally. When we act for external motivations, we work towards some goal or end, generally grounded in our interests, by dint of some rational means or voluntary choices. The argument of this book is an example of such a motivator. That is, this argument’s conclusion provides us with (external) motives for living in a certain sort of way.
And so, when we act for external motives, we have a reason to act in a way that we may not want to act (in a sense) for a goal that we do. For example, due to external motives, one may eat broccoli for the goal of their health even though one does not want to eat broccoli for the sake of eating broccoli. And one significant point about external motivators is that they can exist even when other sorts of motivators are present. The mere fact that other sorts of motivators may influence someone’s actions does not undercut or dismiss the facts about external motivators. For example, the mere fact that someone eats broccoli for the sake of eating broccoli does not undermine the facts about broccoli’s health benefits.
And this brings us to the second sort of motivators for our actions: internal motivators. While internal motivators are not incompatible with external motivators, when one acts for internal motivators, he or she does not act in a means-end sort of way. Rather, they act naturally. When one acts for internal motivators, they are just doing what comes to them instinctively. For example, when jealousy arises in us, we are not becoming jealous with the intent of accomplishing some goal. We are responding to events naturally and, most likely, not by voluntary choice.
But here is the rub, in regard to the conclusion of this book. If one does not naturally live in accordance with wise wagers on the afterlife, what are they to do? Are they to just act both naturally and foolishly until they magically do otherwise? Of course not. For we must assume that we are not merely beings that are forced to act in accordance with whatever internal motivators we find within ourselves. We are beings that, when we do not like what we do naturally, we can act for other motivations, external motivations or higher-ordered motivators.
Now, very importantly, the argument of this book does not conclude that fear is the only sort of external motivation that one can have for living in accordance with wise afterlife wagers. It concludes that fear of judgment and retribution is one sort of external motivation for doing so. And, very importantly, it concludes that this sort of motivation is always present, even if someone finds some other sort of motivation (internally or externally) for living in accordance with wise wagers. Thus, as far as motivations go for living wisely in regard to the afterlife, the external motivation of this book is both untrumpable and not undermineable.
Is our fear or belief that actions motivated even partly by fear will not be pleasing to God able to make what I am calling “foolish wagers on the afterlife” wise? No. While such a belief or fear may motivate us to acquire some other sort of internal or external motivations for such actions, such a belief or fear does not change or undermine the conclusion of this book, namely, that there will always exist at least one good reason to make living contrary to wise wagers on the afterlife foolish. While you may not like or prefer such a motivation, it is always there, crying to you in the streets to avoid living in such a way such that if you were to be held accountable for your actions you would have reason for regret, a sort of regret that does not depend solely upon the insights of hindsight.
Finally, is fear of the afterlife oppressive? It certainly can be. For there are all sorts of interests that one may fail to pursue out of the motivation to wager wisely on the afterlife. However, here is the important question: what risks does a failure to pursue such oppressed interests pose to our unshakeable interests? The answer: none that can trump the risks of failing to hedge our bets on the afterlife by dint of living in accordance with wise afterlife wagers.
12. The Wisdom of Selfish Desires?
Doesn’t this argument promote the sort of over self-interest that we find morally repugnant?
The argument of this book concludes that living in accordance with wise afterlife wagers is in your best ultimate interest and to not do so is foolish. And what argument could one possibly offer that could overturn such a judgment while also being sufficient to motivate you to do otherwise, that is, to not live in accordance with wise afterlife wagers? For any rational (external) reason that ought to be able to motivate you to do otherwise would inevitably be grounded right back in your own interests. So, for those who do not live in accordance with wise afterlife wagers naturally, automatically or by dint of their very constitution, concerns over self-interests will always motivate their (rational) voluntary actions. And there is nothing immoral about rationality. The pleadings of rationality will always serve as a defeater for the pleadings of morality, if these two are ever alleged to be in conflict.
However, there is a distinction that may make this argument more palatable for those with ethical concerns, regardless of how well-grounded such concerns are. It is the distinction of acting in accordance with a rule and acting for a rule.
To make this distinction clearer, consider the following claim: acting purely for the interests of others is morally superior than acting out of the interests of self. According to this claim, if one wants to act in the most moral way (relatively speaking), they must act for the interests of others even when such a person deems some action to be against their own self-interests. But, again, why should anyone do this? What could be their motivation? Given the rule, as stated, it would even be immoral to act for the interests of others even if such a person wanted to act morally, as such a desire to live morally would inevitably be grounded in their own self-interests.
Does this mean that following such a rule is impossible? No. It just means that such rule-following cannot be possible when our interests are either in conflict or mixed with the interests of others. And, to the argument of this book, does this mean that such rule-following is contrary to being able to avoid foolish wagers on the afterlife? Not at all. Given our present knowledge that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife, it is possible to both live in accordance with wise wagers on the afterlife and to never act for our own self-interests.
How so? While acting for the pleadings of wisdom directs us to avoid foolish afterlife wagers, it is not the only way to avoid such wagers. For example, acting wholly in accordance with an attitude of love seems to get the job done just as well. So, while I do not think that rationality and morality are in any sort of conflict, the conclusion of the argument of this book does not entail that we can only wager wisely on the afterlife by looking out for ourselves. You can also wager wisely on the afterlife when you act solely for the interests of others. So, if you cannot get past the idea of wisdom’s and rationality’s pleadings that tell you to never act contrary to your own ultimate self-interests, as long as you are acting in accordance with love, it seems that you will do just as well. And just so I have stated it, selfish actions are not necessarily wise wagers on the afterlife. There are plenty of selish actions that run contrary to wise wagers on the afterlife.
13. What About Plausibility, Expectations, and Probability?
Where is there room in the wisdom decision theory on offer for concerns of plausibility, expectations and probability? If we must ignore them, then the wisdom decision theory being offered will yield the highly undesirable result of advising, as wise, actions that we know are foolish.
Overall, the wisdom decision theory that this book offers (a Minimax theory with room for regret and other psychological concerns as both costs and benefits) does not say that the perceived likelihood of an event’s occurrence (or non-occurrence) must be ignored when calculating the costs of some action’s not working out in one’s favor. Rather, the perceived plausibility and probability of an event’s occurrence (or nonoccurrence) are just further aspects that we must consider when determining the real and complete costs of our actions.
To show this, think about a game where you are offered the chance to win 1000 times any amount wagered for correctly picking the outcome in a single flip of a fair coin. If we ignore all issues of plausibility and probability, then the wisdom decision on offer will advise you to not wager anything whatsoever on such a game, as the costs of the game’s not working out in your favor will exceed the costs of your not playing at all. But, we know that this isn’t right. For we can generally afford to lose, say, $100 without taking an unrecoverable hit to our overall interests. And therefore, if we can afford to lose such an amount, given that we are being offered such favorable rewards and odds, one of the costs that we must factor in when counting the real and complete costs of some action’s not working out in our favor are the psychological costs for not playing. And it is here that knowing the benefits of an action’s working out in your favor (blocks 1 and 2 in our cost-matrix) come into play.
Would you not kick yourself for not taking a chance to play such a game for as many times as it was offered?! This frustration, this potential regret, is a cost. And such a cost must be counted, along with every other kind of psychological cost (positive and negative) that contributes to the real and complete costs of some action not working out favorably (along with any other sort of foreseeable consequences of such costs). As a rule, plausibility, probability, expectations and the like come with a cost. Count them.
Moreover, while the wisdom decision theory on offer always advises, as wise, the actions that minimize our risks the most, if we are to know which action minimizes our risks the most, then (1) we must consider the real and complete costs for the actions under consideration and (2) we must make sure that we are weighing those costs against the fitness of the most appropriate and relevant interests. Remember, something can be wise relative to one interest and yet foolish relative to another. So, make sure that whenever you run some wisdom evaluation that you are taking into consideration all your interests and all your interests ranked appropriately. I believe that this last point is sufficient to cover a whole host of objections that are grounded in my wisdom decision theory’s yielding undesirable results.
14. The Impossibility of an Afterlife?
But what if I do not believe that an afterlife is possible or that there even could be a being worthy of the name “God”?
If something like The Matrix is possible (and it is, for all we know, as there is nothing logically incoherent about such a general state of affairs), then such a possible scenario is all that the argument of this book needs to get off of the ground. For such a scenario shows us (1) how an afterlife may be possible without having to reconcile any major metaphysical concerns about personal identity and a continuous life after ‘death’ or the nature of some spiritually-based realm and (2) how the conclusion of the argument of this book does not depend upon the conceivability of a being that is worthy of the name “God,” as He is traditionally or classically defined.
Beyond this, even if one is not willing to grant such humble possibilities, this argument still calls into question how much stock one should put in their inability to conceive of such. For which is the wiser course of action, given what is at stake on the afterlife: to “go all in” on one’s perceived ability to conceive of what all is and is not possible or to hedge one’s bets on the afterlife, given the possibility that one has an unfortunate conceivability handicap? I emphatically affirm the latter.
15. The Diversity of Religious Testimony?
Given the diversity of religious testimony and the fact that one could not please all alleged gods at all times, how could it be wise to adhere to any single religion?
A religion is wise to the degree that it is consistent with wise wagers upon the afterlife. In chapter 4, I identified three sorts of actions that constitute wise wagers on the afterlife. And in chapter 7, I identify two more. So, inasmuch as some religion gets these five actions right, it will be a wise religion, at least to that degree. (I will say more about this sort of objection when I address the Many-Gods objection later.)
16. Rationality vs Wisdom?
What is the relationship between rationality and wise afterlife wagers? Does this argument suggest that those who are not living in accordance with wise afterlife wagers are irrational?
The argument of this book concludes, again, that those who are not living in accordance with wise afterlife wagers are living foolishly or else are not functioning well. And personally, I do not believe that foolishness is irrational. Foolish afterlife wagers are not in one’s best interest, for all we know. But doing what is not within one’s best interest does not seem, to me, to be irrational. It may be dumb, it is certainly foolish but it doesn’t seem, necessarily, irrational. I believe that an action can be in accordance with wise afterlife wagers and irrational. And I believe that something can be both rational and in accordance with foolish afterlife wagers. But, most importantly, this argument concludes that concerns over rationality are not able to trump concerns over wisdom.
17. Cost Analysis Problems?
“You say, roughly, that one action is wiser than another if its cost for an unfavorable outcome is lower than another and you say that an action is foolish if an unfavorable outcome would be, relative to some interest and some knowledge, unaffordable. However, what if the one running some cost analysis for some action either isn’t able to foresee a relevant cost that would reveal to them either the wiseness or foolishness of some action? Does such a person’s incomplete cost analysis trump the facts? Or vice versa? And what are the consequences of such a determination?”
This is an important question and one that I have only hinted at throughout this book for the sake of simplicity and readability. To elaborate on this objection, consider this: what if a smoker, who both is only aware of smoking’s therapeutic effects while strongly valuing their health, is unaware of smoking’s harmful health effects? Is smoking wise for them? Or, despite their ignorance, is it stll foolish (relative to the interest of their health concerns)?
One way to respond to these questions would be to make a distinction between objective and subjective wisdom. According to this distinction, on one hand, we could say that the full and complete facts about an action’s consequences, regardless of their foreseeability, determine what is wise or foolish, objectively. And, on the other hand, we could say that only the facts about an action’s consequences that a person either considers or should consider (when they are, say, giving the consideration the proper attention that it deserves according to both the interest at stake and their available knowledge) determine what is wise or foolish, subjectively. In my appraisal, both of these choices are not without some undesirable results. However, despite their problems, (1) the metric of wisdom is still an invaluable and untrumpable consideration for evaluating our actions (wisdom’s fruit proves its value) and (2) subjective wisdom is the only thing worthy of the name “wisdom.”
The reason that ‘objective wisdom’ is not a viable wisdom candidate is based upon the simple fact that we are not omniscient beings. We are beings plagued by uncertainty. And as such, any theory of wisdom that takes into consideration facts that we can only know through hindsight would be an impractical and useless guide and evaluator of our actions.
However, even though we can rule out ‘objective wisdom’ as a wisdom theory candidate, this fact does not make its alternative perfectly clear. The careful reader would have observed that I qualified the considerations that go into determining ‘subjective wisdom’ in (at least) the following way: “when they are, say, giving the consideration the proper attention that it deserves according to both the interest at stake and their available knowledge.” However, this qualification, as stated, is open to the same objective/subjective problem as above. Is this qualification to be understood objectively or subjectively? Ultimately, I believe that there is little room for objectivity in our determination of wise and foolish actions (for the same reasons that I have already given) and that, however we qualify or define ‘subjective wisdom,’ wisdom ought to be subjective all the way down.
What is the consequence of such a determination? Perhaps it is the unfortunate conclusion that to the degree that one lacks understanding and is a fool, they are doomed for perpetual foolishness, if only in the eyes of the wise and understanding. In other words, what qualifies as either wise or foolish for one individual or population will not qualify as such for all. And as one group increases in understanding, so does that group’s number of foolish actions. Does this mean that one’s not hedging his or her bets on the afterlife is not foolish for all? Perhaps, but only for a special kind of fool. And if one’s only valid objection to my argument is that they are too foolish to see how the ways that I have outlined constitute wise wagers upon the afterlife, I must concede.
18. The Many-Gods Objection?
The argument of this book has a strong family resemblance to Pascal’s Wager. How does the argument of this book respond to the Many-Gods and Mixed-Strategies objections to Pascal’s Wager?
The Many-Gods objection is an objection that arises naturally out of our uncertainty about the afterlife. For if we have so much uncertainty about the afterlife, how can we be sure of what constitutes wise wagers upon it? Perhaps the ruler of the afterlife is one of the ‘gods’ of one of the popular theistic religions and perhaps the ruler is nothing like those ‘gods’ at all. Perhaps, despite our best efforts to wager wisely on the afterlife, things will work out for us in some maximally unfavorable way, as, for all we know, it is possible that the being that rules the afterlife is such that they will punish all good and reward all evil. Thus, the Many-Gods objection is an objection that is based upon there being many competing actions (or bets) that all seem to count as equally choice-worthy, given our uncertainty about the afterlife. According to strict uncertainty, how could there be anything to tip the scales in favor of obeying one alleged ‘god’ over another?
The argument of this book responds with this: while our uncertainty about the afterlife forces us to wager upon the afterlife, our knowledge (especially our knowledge of any standard either that we could be blameworthy for ignoring or that we implicitly affirm) plays an essential role in our determination of which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife. For the only sort of world that we need to worry is actual, is one with a justly and severely retributed afterlife. And a justly retributed afterlife is possible only if we have enough knowledge to wager wisely upon the afterlife. (There could not be a standard, according to which we could rightly be held accountable, that tells us that we ought to do what we oughtn’t and vice versa.)
Moreover, since the very possibility of a justly retributed afterlife arises out of such knowledge and beliefs, competition for what constitutes wise wagers on the afterlife cannot be equal. And according to such inequality, competing ‘gods’ cannot be equally choice-worthy. For if any two ‘gods’ were equal in regard to which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife, then those ‘gods’ would not truly be in competition. And if any two ‘gods’ were in competition, then they could not be equally choice-worthy, as they could not be equal in regards to which actions constitute wise wagers on them. According to the knowledge that lends itself for determining which actions constitute wise wagers on the afterlife, one ‘god’ would have to edge out the other in regards to costs, perhaps arising out of the costs for regret. Beyond this, if our doing our best to wager wisely on the afterlife results in our failing to wager in accordance with truth, if God is both good and just (and we must bet as though he is), at least we will have an honest defense and will be able to appeal to his mercy, while hoping for the best. (It is beyond reproach to hope for the best after one has done their best.) But what could be your defense if you flout your know-how for wagering wisely on the afterlife?
Moreover, here are three more important ways that my argument avoids such an objection. First, my argument has nothing to do with god per se. (You can re-read my argument at the beginning of this chapter.) Rather, my argument is about how to wager wisely according to the only sort of afterlife that we have good reason to worry is actual. Second, my argument is not about beliefs and whatever else we may do involuntarily. And as such, my argument doesn’t even conclude that it is wise to believe that there is a just afterlife. It concludes that we would be foolish for living as if there is none. And lastly, inasmuch as one goes beyond my argument’s conclusion and chooses to live as if some particular religion is true, the wise way to pick a religion is still a matter of costs (inasmuch as one’s picking a religion is up to them). Accordingly, one should pick some religion only if (1) that religion is consistent with wise wagers on the afterlife (as I have outlined) and (2) if he or she would regret not picking some religion. If this is ever the case, the costs for regret for not choosing some religion will make not choosing less risky than choosing one.
Of course, wisdom alone may not be able to tell us which religion is true, given our uncertainty. But it is able to help us avoid the foolish ones. Beyond this, while I will say more in my final chapter about what constitutes a wise religion, what more can we do other than our best with whatever is within our control and hope in the goodness of God if we have failed in some regard? Choosing not to pick a religion, choosing to to try to honor God, is still a choice.
The Mixed-Strategies objection is a somewhat technical objection to Pascal’s Wager. Overall, it aims to show that if the expected utility (or benefit) of “wagering for God” (Pascal’s terminology) is infinite, then, for any action we pick that has a positive probability for resulting in our “wagering for God,” given the way that expected utility is calculated on multiple wagers, such an action will be equally choice-worthy as “wagering for God” (whatever that amounts to), as it will carry along with it an infinite amount of expected utility. Thus, in the end, according to Pascal’s argument and the Mixed Strategies Objection, all actions, including foolish ones, are equally choice-worthy, as it is plausible that even our worst actions will make it somewhat probable that we will “wager for God.”
In response, the wisdom decision theory that helps to form the backbone of the argument of this book is based upon the following principle: we can always afford for things to work out in our favor but not always so against it. Therefore, when it comes to determining the wisdom of some decision, we do not concern ourselves, primarily, with the expected benefits of actions. Rather, we concern ourselves with potential costs. And since the only infinite cost that we may decide to concern ourselves with (we would do well to avoid talk of infinite costs altogether), regarding the argument of this book, is the potentially infinite cost of failing to hedge one’s bets on the afterlife, if the Mixed-Strategies objection proves anything, it only strengthens its conclusion. That is, it proves that if the expected ‘benefit’ of failing to hedge one’s bets on the afterlife is infinitely negative, then any action that has a positive probability of resulting in a foolish bet on the afterlife has an expected ‘benefit’ that is infinitely negative as well. And I think that such a conclusion is fitting. Given what is at stake on the afterlife, (1) no amount of afterlife-foolishness whatsoever is suggested and (2) given any bad bets on the afterlife, no one should ever hope that they can gamble their way out of such a debt solely upon their own merits. (I will talk more about the foolishness of this hope in the next chapter.)
Is all hope lost, then? Of course not! Why? Because, very importantly, the wisdom decision theory of this book is neither based upon expected utility (positive or negative) nor infinite costs. It is based upon feared potential costs, which can approach maximality. And we can obviously fear something without expecting that fear to be actualized. What follows from this?
Given all of our uncertainty about the afterlife and, most likely, our many foolish wagers on such, respectively, none of us should expect things to work out in our favor. But whenever there is uncertainty, there is always room for hope. While we should neither wager on the afterlife being a maximally forgiving place nor on there being a maximally forgiving god, as it is the wisdom of fools to hope merely in luck, we still know that forgiveness and mercy are good and favorable. And if so, then we should utilize every opportunity to do our very best with whatever we have to work with. And then and only then hope, and perhaps plea for favor. For maybe, the afterlife isn’t as bad as it could be. And maybe, just maybe, if we both do our very best with whatever time remains and are honest about our failures, “who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:9). For when we take steps to insure our interests against the worst case scenario, we will automatically be taking steps to insure our interests against less severe scenarios.
On A Wise Hope
The concluding remarks of this book may leave your prospects for the afterlife seeming somewhat bleak. In sum, we have all wagered very foolishly on the afterlife. We, most likely in many ways and at many times, have all failed to hedge our bets on the possibility that the afterlife is both perfectly just and severely retributive. And in the end, while none of us should expect or adopt the attitude that he or she can wager his or her way out of such a gambling debt, what else can we do but our very best from here out, while also hoping for a favorable outcome? I can’t see how there could be much more.
Why shouldn’t we expect or adopt the attitude that we can wager our way out of such a debt? We noted in our response to the Mixed-Strategies objection that if we have any expectations about the afterlife, we should expect that we have earned the worst, i.e., that we are maximally in debt. But such an attitude isn’t just a consequence of our living in a world full of uncertainty where afterlife wagers are possible, such an attitude is also a wise place from which to hope. And here is why.
Given that The Golden Rule constitutes some of our knowledge for making wise wagers on the afterlife possible (chapter 4), we would do well to ensure that our attitudes about our foolish wagers on the afterlife are consistent with such a rule and do not, in and of themselves, constitute further foolish wagers on the afterlife. For example, consider the following attitudes: afterlife apathy and afterlife audacity.
First, let’s address the foolishness of afterlife apathy. I believe that any honest person will admit that he has either (1) not done to others as he would have those others do unto himself, (2) violated the verdict of even his own conscience or (3) judged others for things of which even himself was guilty. In other words, any honest person should admit that he has wagered foolishly on the afterlife. But so what? How does this matter?
It matters because one offense is often able to lead to many others. Think about it. How many times have you been wronged by another only to witness that initial wrong snowball into several others? For example, don’t we generally consider a lack of penitence or remorse for an offense to be a further offense, in some sense? Aren’t we generally more inclined to forgive and show mercy to those who are genuinely sorrowful about their wrongs, i.e., to those who we believe are responding appropriately to their wrongs? And if nothing else, doesn’t the possibility of reconciliation require such repentance? And therefore, inasmuch as we desire genuine remorse when we are wronged and see the value of such, we ourselves ought to have a penitent attitude about our foolish wagers on the afterlife, regardless of our beliefs about such. This is what The Golden Rule demands.
For who knows, in addition to offending our fellow man when we wager foolishly on the afterlife, perhaps we offend others as well, others with whom we may one day have to ultimately deal. And so, if we want to avoid these further sorts of potential offenses, we must make sure that, regardless of our beliefs about the afterlife, our attitudes about our foolish wagers on the afterlife do not constitute foolish wagers on such an afterlife in and of themselves.
Second, let’s address the foolishness of afterlife audacity. Not only is it foolish to not acknowledge our wrongs with a penitent attitude before whomever we may, for all we know, have to ultimately answer, it is also foolish to assume that we can right or offset our wrongs ourselves (in the absence of a very high degree of evidence to the contrary). That is, man should not expect that he can wager his way out of his just deserts in the afterlife, if there be any. Such a stance exceeds the wisdom of hope and enters into the realm of foolishness. For isn’t such a stance one of incredible arrogance? Keeping with the Golden Rule, how would you feel if someone had wronged you in some significant way and, instead of seeking your forgiveness, such a wrong-doer adopted the position that your forgiveness could be bought with whatever price the offender deemed as reasonable? Personally, I would be greatly offended not only by such a stance but also in the circumstance where someone undervalued my loss or her offense against me.
Therefore, one more thing that we can take away from The Golden Rule is this: if we acknowledge that we have (or may have) wronged another and want to avoid further offense, we should err on the side of overvaluing the potentially offended’s loss. And as any finite valuing of such a loss on our part could prove to be an undervaluing by the offended, wisdom demands that we value the offended’s loss maximally, i.e., deem it to be priceless. And when we value some potentially offended’s loss maximally, instead of risking an undervalued penance or atonement for our wrongs, we will be left with only one wise attitude for reconciliation, one wise attitude for righting our wrongs: the attitude that seeks and desires both an unearnable and undeserving forgiveness.
So therefore, if there is truly a wise religion or hope for the afterlife, such a religion or hope must not only be consistent with the wise wagers on the afterlife that I outlined in chapter 4, it must also be one that does not advise us that we do not need forgiveness or that we can compensate, offset or atone for our own wrongs, in regard to the afterlife. For based upon what we can know from The Golden Rule, the former would constitute the foolish wager of afterlife apathy and the latter would constitute the foolish wager of afterlife audacity. And if this is the case, we can rule out as foolish any religion or afterlife attitude that fails to get these matters right.
Now, having such insights from wisdom, it’s one thing to be generally optimistic, despite the bleakness of one’s circumstances, and it is another thing altogether to actually have a hope, i.e., some clear and distinct reason to believe that something will in fact work out well. So is there any clear and distinct reason to think that everything will work out well in the afterlife, despite our many foolish wagers? I do not know how many hopes for the afterlife remain as viable candidates, given the insights of wisdom. However, I do know that there is at least one, a very beautiful one, and I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to share this hope, my hope, with you.
I am a Christian. That is, I believe that the following story is true: God, The One With Whom all Men Must Deal, out of an amazing love for us, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his only son, did for man and woman, freely and as a gift, what man and woman could not do for themselves: in short, for all who believe, he saves them from death and gives them eternal life. That is the good news of Jesus Christ. And that, in brief, is my hope, the reason that drives out all my fears that God will deal with me only in regard to justice, only in regard to what my foolish wagers on the afterlife deserve, and not in regard to love and mercy. Moreover, this hope is this reason that leads me to living consistently with wise wagers in the afterlife apart from fear as a primary motivator. Such a hope leads me to live well out of love and thankfulness to The One who loved me when I did not deserve it. Moreover, I believe that it actually empowers me to do so.
Of course, such incredible news about the free forgiveness of mankind may sound consoling, but why should you believe that it is true? That is, why should you be consoled by this story, as opposed to another? I don’t know of any argument or reasons that are able to move every rational person to accept such a story. (I don’t even know of any arguments that can prove that we don’t really exist in some Matrix-type realm.) And to be honest, I am not even sure, at the end of the day, why I believe that such a story is true. However, if I had to take a stab at such a reason for my Christian belief (momentarily ignoring the direct role that God may play in the formation of my Christian belief), I would say that I believe such a story simply because I find it the most compelling. That is, when I hear the good news of Jesus Christ, remarkable as it may be, something about the very story itself seems to testify to its truth. Perhaps such a story simply meets my expectations for how a wholly good, just, wise and powerful god would woo the rebellious, self-serving, foolish and broken souls of this world, of which I am all too convinced that I am one.
Of course, evidentially speaking, the nature of the Christian gospel is not all that such a gospel has going for it. And if you do not find my present case for the gospel of Jesus Christ compelling, I encourage you to do your best at examining those far more common sorts of cases for this gospel before you neglect such a possibly (for all you know) great and costly gift. For when you examine your own expectations, doesn’t The Golden Rule exhort you to adopt such a charitable posture?
Now, how exactly is a case (or a sketch of such a case) for the gospel of Jesus Christ from its very nature supposed to go? First, we acknowledge that the good news of Jesus Christ doesn’t show up in a contextual vacuum. For example, we have, or at least we should have, (1) some appropriate hopes and fears about the afterlife, given our awareness of our own moral failings or foolish wagers upon such and (2) some expectations, given our knowledge of what constitutes wise and foolish wagers on the afterlife, about how any acceptance-worthy afterlife story must go.
For instance, drawing on the above points, we know that (1) if God is to be worthy of our allegiance, God must be good. As I have said previously, those who do evil in order to serve an evil being have no reason to hope for anything other than evil’s reward. Therefore, if we hope that things will work out for us favorably in the afterlife or minimally, not against our favor (and, of course, we do), we expect any allegiance-worthy story about the afterlife to be consistent with either God’s or the afterlife’s goodness. And to this point, I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ has no real competitor. For what greater demonstration of love could trump God’s own son, who is supposed to perfectly represent His Father’s nature, laying down his life to save and ransom, as a gift, those who were not worthy and did not reciprocate God’s love for them? In fact, such a story is so good that if the gospel were false and yet there is a good god who cared for mankind, such a god would have good reason to be embarrassed that he didn’t think of such a story first. How could a good god, who places such a high premium on belief, not own the most compelling story?
Moreover, we also know that (2) for a story about the afterlife to be compelling, its evidential force must speak directly to what we already believe or fear to be true about the afterlife. That is, such a story’s truth or falsity must matter to us; it must be align with our cares, fears and interests. For given the seemingly involuntary nature of belief, how could any story with strong religious implications compel our belief (evidentially) if it only gave us facts about that for which we did not care?
Admittedly, our hopes and fears are generally not truth-conducive; they, in and of themselves, do not increase the likelihood of some relevant thing’s being the case (for all we know). However, they certainly seem to be, empirically speaking, belief-conducive. And in the absence of any wisdom to do otherwise, there is nothing dubious about one allowing their hopes and fears to play their seemingly natural role in belief formation in regard to the afterlife.
And finally, at least for the present sketch of a case for the gospel, we know that (3) if any afterlife story is to be viable as wise, our acceptance of such a story must not be foolish. That is, our acceptance of such a story must not come at an unaffordable cost in the event that our acceptance of such a story does not work out in our favor (according to the possible outcomes for which we have reason to worry are actual: possible outcomes where our having done our very best to avoid retribution would have worked out in our favor). So how does the gospel of Jesus Christ fare here?
In the grand scheme of things, the gospel gets wisdom right. The gospel appeals to a very humble view of mankind and a very high view of God, claiming that all our foolish wagers on the afterlife are, in fact, offenses against God and that man’s only hope for salvation from the consequences of such offenses lies not within ourselves but within the goodness, love and grace of The One With Whom We Ultimately Have To Deal. Christianity tells us that we are saved by grace, through faith and not by our being able to wager our way out of our debts toward God, which is the very stance that wisdom advises.
Moreover, the knowledge that makes wise wagers on the afterlife even possible practically constitutes the entirety of the Christian ethic. In fact, practically everything that I have said in this book about wisdom in one form or another echoes various teachings of the New Testament. And the significance of this fact is not that this book is just an attempt to share various teachings of The New Testament with you. Rather, it’s that what can be known about wise wagers on the afterlife, by anyone and from any point in history, the gospel of Jesus Christ gets right. And therefore, if one’s accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ works out against his or her favor, it seems that it could only do so in worlds for which we have no reason to worry are actual, namely, worlds where our doing our very best to wager wisely on the afterlife and avoid retribution makes no positive difference.
How so? Well, if one’s accepting the gospel were to work out against their favor in the afterlife, again, assuming that such a person was doing his or her best to wager wisely on such, where would their failure lie? For what would they be worthy of any extra-judgment, judgment that exceeded their just deserts for their poor afterlife wagers? Could such an afterlife be just? I can’t see how. And while an unjust afterlife may prove favorable for many, the sheer possibility of such should have no influence whatsoever on the quality of our earthly actions. For, one last time, while we can always afford for things to work out in our favor, we can’t always afford the alternative. And so, we must do our best, in regard to the afterlife, because it is the wisdom of fools to hope only in luck.
So, in this brief sketch of an argument in favor of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the compellingness of its nature, we can see that the gospel gets right what any viable religion-candidate must get right. First, it paints a story about a God who is untrumpably good and worthy of our allegiance. Second, it speaks to our undeniable needs by giving our hope reason and assuaging our afterlife fears. And lastly, and very importantly, it does all this without ever directing us to do anything that would constitute a foolish wager on the afterlife. Again, is this why I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true? I don’t know. But I do know three things: (1) that these considerations speak to me more than any others; (2) given the involuntary nature of belief in a world replete with afterlife-uncertainty, inasmuch as anyone needs to be aware of their reasons for belief, such reasons are absolutely as good as any others; and (3) that I have never encountered counter-evidence sufficient to undermine this hope.
Will you find this case for the gospel of Jesus Christ as compelling as I do? I don’t know. At the end of the day, I don’t know how to counsel belief. However, I do know how to counsel voluntary actions. Therefore, I will close with this: while it may not be within your power to control any of your beliefs about the afterlife, it is ostensibly within your power to control at least some of your actions. And to whatever degree that you have such control, I urge you to do your very best to wager wisely on the afterlife and to be the sort of person who fosters neither afterlife apathy nor afterlife audacity. For who knows, maybe if you do well with what is within your power, everything that isn’t will ultimately work out in your favor. And if not, ultimately, what reasons for regret will you have?