Letters to a concerned Free-thinker, Letter #3: The Great Wager

Dear Thinker.

Across your journey of self-enlightenment, you shall meet many a con-man who offers their version of reality in manners that are palpable to your ears. You will meet men who speak eloquently, look sophisticated, and yet hold irrational beliefs based purely on their situation; the situation that chance allowed them to be born into. I am talking of course to the men in suits who adorn themselves in the relics of conformity and piety – sharp in wit, sly in tongue: Devils of their craft. The tongues of these vipers are curved in manners that appear tantalizingly brilliant, yet are hollow and raw. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, hiding their nature in the words they espouse, hiding their allegiance in the manner of sophistication they appear. You may as well ask who they are. They are the men who use solely arguments, solely rhetoric, solely language to get by in life. Who pass the gates of acceptance, but fail to get in the gates of science. The men and women, who never back up their statements, who never support their claims, who always result to prove themselves by applying a smoke screen to cover up the faults in their arguments: the theologian, the con-man, the liar, the politician, the deceiver of facts, and promoter of an agenda. These men are the ones who hold sway to the irrational…mostly that is. Once in a while slips through the guarded gates of reason a diplomat – an emissary of the irrational; adorned in decadent dress, willing to offer one last fair grace. Blaise Pascal is one of these diplomats. 

A man of the classical tradition, Pascal was a mathematician by day and a theologian by night. He came up with the popular wager known as, “Pascal’s wager” (The great gambit). We can see from what he espoused in Pensees that this argument was not given in jest; it was given as an ultimatum to the side that had yet to give its obedience to a super-natural deity: the atheist. As clothed in sheep’s wear this argument makes itself due. One is offered a heads or tails kind of deal. One is told that there are four options, in each option one is asked to weigh the odds; one is asked to make a cost-benefit analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of not believing in a God’s existence…the Christian God that is. These options can be expressed as so:

1. If you believe and you find out there is no God, when you die, then you lose nothing.
2.     If you don’t believe and you find out there is no God, when you die, you lose nothing.
3.     If you don’t believe and you find out there is a God, when you die, you lose everything.
4.     If you believe and you find out there is a God, when you die, you gain everything.
Therefore a belief in God is more beneficial either way.

When this argument came knocking on my door, on a cold day in the month of July, by a desperate school teacher who wanted me to restore my faith in God, this argument made me chuckle. There are many faults with the gambit that it is scarcely surprising why it is still used as an argument for belief. The structure of the argument is rather tedious when one is exposed to it by the naivest of believers on a monthly basis; it is embarrassing also to see apatheists encounter it for the first time, as they have the faintest idea of how to rebut it. It is used by the most infantile believers on non-believers; and for this reason it has to be rebutted at once, and what better way than in this letter to you.

There are three problems that I have found with this argument, and they can be expressed as so: 

The first and most obvious problem with this argument is the lack of clarity as to which God is being mentioned. Is one to suppose that this is the Christian God? What about the Islamic God? I do not find reason to believe that this argument excludes those options; for each of the variety of gods mentioned will change the variables of the outcome given to the assessor, who will have to weigh the options. Instead of a hell as in the Christian sense, there would be an Islamic Hell, which happens to be given to the infidel who does not believe in Allah’s existence (you are screwed in other words.) The second problem with this argument is that it is not an argument for the existence of a God; it is, instead, an argument for the belief in the existence of a God. This is problematic because of the nature of what warrants a belief. For one to believe in something they must be given justification, one cannot simply will their belief into existence. Though there may appear to be reasons given to believe in a God’s existence, those which can be summed up in the line “save your ass from damnation”, these are not good reasons. I cannot scare someone to my position, and if I do it is purely an act of coercion on my part. The final criticism one has to the argument, and one which should be noted, is the sheer gullibility it assumes of the assessor. Is God so easily tricked by an act of faith? Is God really to take such weak a believer? What about the doctrines of the holy texts? Are they null and void all of a sudden? How weak faith in God must be for such an argument to still hold water. It insults the assessor by assuming them gullible enough to take – what can only be described – as a con of the most dastardly of fashion. In almost a belittling tone it comes to us with the word, “you are so easily fooled, you most certainly will take my wager”. If this is Pascal’s best attempt at convincing the free-thinker, then he has failed in the highest regard. 

As you can see my friend this is the kind of rhetoric we are against; convoluted word games that present premises in structured-a-manner, and in such a diabolical of fashion. It does damage to the mind to see such dissention. It is for this reason that I have brought it upon myself to present its refutation here, in the hopes that at least one more mind may be speared by such hallowing of argumentation. As a young free thinker be aware of whom you meet and what they say – especially how they say it. Do this, and you will always be ready to take on anything.

Knowledge is Power.
use it.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson

Letters to a Concerned Free-Thinker, Letter #2: Socrates and Knowledge:

Dear thinker.

A confident stand on the Limitations of a person’s capability to fully know about their existence is a defining step in the maturity of a human being; as to be self-aware of those limitations gives person grounds, not only to improve in their understanding, but also their perspective as well. Knowledge begins when enquiry begins; to ask leads to finding answers, by which one uses methodologies (ways of finding out the answers to questions they have) to systematically approach the problems they have. These methodologies are often Socratic and scientific in nature. Methods by which one finds answers grows one’s understanding, and further moves those limitations away; moving the boundaries of ignorance away from their position of knowledge. Though ignorance may still be looming just beyond one’s vision, and may still be there, the individual’s knowledge is in its best ability to counter it. However, to expand upon the boundaries of one’s knowledge they need to understand what opposes them: they need to take into account what ignorance is. Ignorance means, “lack of knowledge” or the “absence of knowledge”. Knowledge is defined as: The expansion of enlightenment, achieved through the process of learning and discovering, which seeks to allow or increase one’s ability of thought and understanding.  Long winded in nature, it still gives one prominence to understand the nature of thought, and its enquiry.

Socrates was the first philosopher, who is best known for the development of the ‘ask and seek’ methodology now known as the Socratic Method. Socrates employed this method in response to the sophist leaders of the day – men, often in the high positions in the Greek government, who were trained in rhetorical tactics, such as persuasion and oration. Sophists were religious leaders – the ‘go-to-guys’ – the individuals that were the arbiters of knowledge. They were the individuals that Greek society trusted for leadership, knowledge and power. The Socratic Method was developed in response to these sophists; sophists who withheld knowledge from the general public. Socrates started with the acknowledgements of his un-knowingness – the acceptance of his own ignorance. He loved wisdom, and he sought to ‘question everything’, including that of authority. 

The Socratic Method became popular in the 4th century [B.C.E] among the youth in Athens, who at that time had set lives, either becoming a soldier or a scholar; well females became wives and the cattle of the day. Socrates developed a following, which initially consisted of his pupils Plato and Xenophon, but grew slowly over the following two years; these followers became renowned future philosophers, who would go onto advance upon Socrates’ teachings. However, when the sophists got wind of Socrates’ following, in the high courts of the Greek government, their response was swift and brutal. The sophist leaders outlawed meetings and arrested Socrates. It was in 399 B.C.E, and under the captivity of the Greek authorities, that Socrates was placed on Trial; it was to be the greatest trial in Ancient Greek history.

 Surrounded by his fellow pupils and before the Greek courts, Socrates laid witness to a barrage of accusations against him. In those days Greek courts were performance halls, where spectators would vote upon the guiltiness of the accused. Meletus, one of the accusers, had laid the charge of impiety and the corruption of the youth against Socrates. Socrates, having only sought to promote free-thinking, scepticism and wisdom fought valiantly against the charges laid against him. Socrates had only informed the people of Athens to think critically, and to question their authority figures, who he believed were leading the people of Athens down the path of destruction. Plato records the trial in his book, Apology. The result of the trial, though valiantly defended by Socrates, resulted in 56% of the jury voting against Socrates favour. Socrates was thus given two options: The first was to renounce his teachings and go into hiding; the second was the death Penalty. Socrates chose the latter of the two options.

 The Greek Soldiers took Socrates before the Sophists; in a large imperial like manner, the guards thrust Socrates before the court room floor (Phaedo is a Platonic piece of work outlining all the occurrences that Plato witnessed). The sophists wished for Socrates to renounce his teachings before the court, and go off into exile in the outskirts of Athens as a disgrace. Socrates sought not to allow them to get the final word, and instead said before the court a long speech that highlighted the importance of learning and the future of the state. He said that he would rather “die” then give up what he thought to be right and Just. So the sophists allowed him the option to take his life…and he did. Socrates ate Conium, a flower that caused death upon digestion. Before the court and his followers, he gave up his life: the true sense of strength. After Socrates had given his life, the Greek government began to outlaw his teachings; they cast laws against gatherings and so forth.

The story of Socrates tells us as people the value of what it means to stand up against authority; it tells us as people what it means to die for what one knows to be right and just. Socrates example showed the sheer passion he had for everyone, as he wanted to show the value of wisdom, enquiry, and justice: true justice. He taught that when one expresses their ideas, they should be prepared to defend them; for true character is shown in those that can defend their ideas despite the opposition they are posed. Socrates embodied this to its bitter conclusion; He chose death when he could have had life. Socrates death is a statement to the power of human determination, and to the power of the human condition. Socrates death is also a warning for us to not be contempt in our knowledge; to seek out new-found knowledge through enquiry, all in the betterment of ourselves and the world we choose to live in.

Knowledge is Power

This letter I write to you now.

Written by: Anthony Avice Du Buisson

Letters to a Concerned Free-Thinker, Letter #1: Purpose:

Dear Thinker.

The worst human crime that one can bestow upon another, the crime that one should not seek to spread, is the crime of appropriated purpose; it is a crime to tell someone what their purpose is.

I once was asked by a stranger, well walking past the usual corner store that I pass on my trips home from my department, the question:“What is the purpose of life?” Having been at that time not particularly interested in existential musings – more interested in stock numbers – and not really in the best frame of mind to talk to as well, I responded with a question of my own, “What is the meaning of your life?“- All in the expectation of avoiding conversation. However, what I did not expect was his quick and strange response, “the meaning of my life is subjective: purpose is not”, and the stare that accompanied it. Instead of engaging further, I sought to rush home as soon as possible and get away from the individual. It was during that night that the most peculiar thoughts came to my mind; thoughts at which I now express here.

The question that the stranger has initially asked, well strange, was in fact an objective question. If one is to consider the question, “what is the purpose of life?” and compare it with the question, “what is the meaning of your life?” one will notice an interesting difference. Well the latter is easily recognised as being a subjective question on the basis of the pronoun “your”, the former, however, is not as easily recognisable. The former carries with it an objective property, this being the noun “purpose”, which can be either taken subjectively (depending on the context), or objectively (again, depending on the context).  Depending upon how the individual views the question, the answer to it will shape their mental framework. If one viewed the question in a subjective manner, then the answer would depend upon the person assessing it; the street sweeper might find the purpose to their life in the medial task they do. If, however, one were to view the question in an objective manner, then the answer would not be determined by the person assessing it; the street sweeper might find the purpose to their life as not being in the medial task they do, and in some external factor. Objectivity is not the ideal form of a property; objectivity is rather the maximum potential of a property to be ideal. Instead of purpose being strictly the ideal vision of a system, purpose is instead the maximum potential for that system to be ideal. The biological purpose of a mammal is to reproduce and spread their genes; however the mammal can only get as close to that ideal. I distinctly remember my writings as an adolescent, who was still wondering about my place in this cosmos. Some of the notes have been provided below:

The first time someone tells you what your purpose is, is the moment you know that they are deciding an answer for you. No one can answer the question for you; no one!

It is you who answers it. For that answer you give is one that, not only is one of liberty, but freedom as well. Humans seem to want control over their neighbour’s lives, more so then they should. From religious apologists to concerned passers, everyone seems to want to have a say in each other’s destiny. It is, however, always bad; we all, after all, share a ‘room’ with our neighbour, and what we do in that room affects what our neighbour will do. Yet, purpose and meaning are still our own to decide; our neighbour may share the same room, but in effect we have our own book to write. We keep our own book on a shelf, or a different shelf (dependent what types of shelves you get cheap), the point is there are separate books, one for us and the one for our neighbours. By having the liberty and freedom to the contents in the book with which we write in, it will allow one the greatest of rights. The problem comes when others start writing in our own book.

When your neighbour writes the contents and decides what happens next, directing you in what way they wish you to go, you will have your freedom impeded upon. Putting this into perspective, the people who tell you the answer to a question that only concerns you are the ones threatening your liberty and freedom. People must be aware of their neighbour’s activity, if it concerns their interests. This is not to be taken as ‘peaking over your neighbour’s shoulder, while they write’ (though there will be those that do, to you, and you may do it in-spite of your neighbour), or ‘taking your neighbour’s book and scanning through its contents’, no. It is to say to be aware of your neighbour’s presence. People forget about the company they keep, and it is this forgetfulness that can prove their downfall.

As one can see by my writings, I have since developed in my attitude towards the book one places on their shelf. Though everyone has the liberty to write what they wish, and in that affect live the way they wish, there will always be a collision of ideals. We live in unison to others, we interact with others on a daily basis, some by accident, others not. The stranger that I had met only asked me a question that I should have given a proper answer to, but in my arrogance I left it. In some way I have left a tiny note in their book, but I do not think it is one that I might approve of…but that is how the wind blew that day. Looking back on some of my notes, and recollecting at the nature I wrote them in; I cannot help but mention one last note:

For meaning and purpose may be yours to decide, the answer is not always permanent; it is forever changing as time and circumstance allows it to do so. For the look in the room may grow weary with time, but as long as there is the author to write out the book of their life, the room will always be vibrant, and will always live on. When all the time is up and the last words written, it will join a great library where it will remain as an omen of what once was the author’s words.

This I write to you.
Knowledge is power.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson 19/02/2014
(revised 7/04/2015)