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I discovered a discussion of logical fallacies inherent in Pascal's Wager. It occurred to me that a similar strategy could be used to sidestep the debate regarding determinism: It simply makes sense to believe in free will. What have you got to lose if it turns out there is no free will?

  1. If you exercise free will in a deterministic universe, you will probably be better off than a person who is apathetic or blindly obedient to the status quo. We might argue that such a person is destined to succeed.

  2. If you do NOT exercise free will in a deterministic universe, you are destined to fail.

  3. If you exercise free will in a random universe (is that the correct term for non-deterministic universe?), then you CHOSE to succeed.

  4. If you do NOT exercise free will in a random universe, then you chose to fail.

One major flaw with this scheme is that it doesn't account for ethics. An unethical person could exercise free will in exploiting or torturing people or waging war. Looking at it from another perspective, we might say the problem lies with how we define "succeed." Some might define success as victory on the battlefield.

It has also been argued that Pascal's Wager encourages sloppy thinking. Why try to prove or disprove something if you can instead cover your bets by simply believing?

Yet the question of determinism almost forces us to make one of two choices. Doesn't it make sense to make what most people would probably consider the better choice?

Pascal's Wager also erred in focusing on the Christian God, when the dead could just as well be judged by a Hindu god - or a panel of gods. Again, this variation limits us to just two choices, determinism vs free will.

Aside from the problems mentioned above, do you think this variation of Pascal's Wager is an improvement? In particular, are all the fallacies inherent in Pascal's Wager also inherent in this variation? Can you see any other fallacies?

  • Whether you do or do not exercise free will in a deterministic universe (whatever that means) you are destined to whatever determinism determines. And since we can't tell the difference between deterministic and random universes how are we to know how to exercise free will? A wager only makes sense if there is a way to distinguish the bets, but any usable by us distinction can not depend on how the universe is. I suppose some are better motivated by believing they "made a difference", but then others are by believing that "it'll all work out in the end", so either can lead to more exercising. – Conifold Jan 22 '18 at 23:43
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    I'm missing something: how can you exercise free will in a deterministic universe? By definition, deterministic means there is no free will. – barrycarter Jan 23 '18 at 16:17
  • Maybe my idea will make more sense if I rename it Blomstrom's Paradox. ;) – David Blomstrom Jan 24 '18 at 0:34
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The logic is sound, and reflects my personal thinking on the matter. I don't know if I have free will or not, but by choosing the best option I can with the information available (even if I only think I'm doing that) has to be the better option for the reasons you state above.

The problem however comes with the injection of the subjective; what really is a good decision?

You mention ethics, but that is only a part of the equation, and one that some people don't care about. A sense of ethics implies that to you, good means good for the community as a whole, rather than good for you personally. This is a very subjective word that will mean different things to different people, and will often look different with additional perspective.

If I shoot someone and kill him, is that a bad thing?

If I shoot someone coming at me with a knife and murder in his eye, and I kill him, is that a good thing?

If I shoot someone coming at me with a knife and murder in his eye, and I kill him, is that a bad thing given he was after the murderer behind me that I didn't see?

The list goes on.

There's a reason they say context is for Kings; ultimately if there is an afterlife or some form of judgement that decides how well we lived in whatever form, it would be grossly unfair for us to be judged if there is no free will. If there IS free will, then we can only be judged by what we knew at the time and what our goals were. The context behind our decision at the time is probably dwarfed by the context of our world and the knowledge of the impacts a decision had.

Take (for example) Adolph Hitler. Decorated war hero, Tee-totaler vegetarian with a good grasp of economics. He clearly believed in his country and wanted to make it great. Did his intention (a strong Germany, able to protect itself not only from the Treaty of Versailles but from militarily strong European neighbors) justify his choices or actions? Does it justify the results?

Everyone I can imagine would universally say No. The thing is, Hitler didn't wake up one morning and say 'I think I'll start a global conflict today and try to wipe out an entire ethnic group' even if that's what he ultimately did. One could also say that he didn't even do what was best for himself; he did what he thought was best for his country. That it ended up leaving his country in an even worse state than he found it proves that his choices were poor, but from his perspectives, at the time, they were good decisions insofar as he believed they would lead to a strong Germany.

Ultimately though, the events of WWII can be argued to have changed the way we reason on matters of ethnic cleansing. The very comparison to Hitler has swayed many leaders from a hard line on matters such as refugee crises, how to deal with ethnic minorities and the like. On a longer scale than we've considered in the past, Hitler's choices and actions have created a morality tale that has shaped the way we consider matters of social reform, ultimately for the better.

So; while the logic works, the fallacy here is an appeal to emotion. What constitutes GOOD and when should the decision as a result of free will be judged? At the time it's taken or at the time that the true consequences are understood? Even then, on what timescale?

I personally continue to act as if I have free will for the reasons set out in (as you've coined it) Blomstrom's Wager. That said, I'm not naive enough to believe that all my decisions will work out for the best or even that the consequences will align with my original intent. I do the best with the information I have at hand and hope that it's enough to leave the world a better place than I found it. If I'm ultimately judged for this (and that's a big if) then at least I can say that I did my best with what I knew at the time.

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I think you misunderstand the meaning of "free will". You say "if you exercise free will in a deterministic universe" - well, you can't.

You can make decisions that put you into a confrontation with the status quo. You can start a new job instead of staying in your old boring job. Or you can put up with your old boring job and continue doing it. It's not that the former is "exercising free will" and the second one isn't - if you have free will, then you can make either decision because you have free will. If you have no free will, then you can also make either decision, except that it wasn't free will, it was the totallity of your situation, of how you as an individual work, of all the little influences of the universe around you, that made that decision inevitable.

Nobody knows whether people have free will or not. We do know that lots of people make very good decisions, and lots of people make decisions that are very bad for everyone including themselves. So either people make lots of good and bad decisions based on free will, or people make lots of good and bad decisions without having free will.

  • Yes, I should have written "IF YOU PRETEND to exercise free will in a deterministic universe" or "IF YOU THINK you're exercising free will in a deterministic universe." – David Blomstrom Jan 22 '18 at 22:45

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