Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, April 01, 2007



Piovs Pascalvs and Skepticvs Dvncanian

Let's picture two Roman centurions seated on Golgotha, under the cross, gambling not for Christ's clothes but for their immortal souls -- Pious Pascalus and Skepticus Duncanian. We're just in that moment after the martyred messiah has uttered his last words, "Father, father, why have you forsaken me?" and the sky has turned very, very dark. Pascalus is rather worried by this, concerned now that this Jewish prophet just might have been right, that there is only one true god, the God of Abraham and his fathers. Duncanian is not convinced. So Pascalus offers a wager.

Pascalus's Wager involves two options for what we believe:

Faith: We believe in God
Doubt: We don't believe in God

Then Pascalus gives Duncanian two possibilities for what might actually be true:

God exists
God does not exist

This offers up four permutations of possible combinations, which Pascalus then treats with the venality of the true moralist whereby one's principles are bought by the promise of (eternal) reward or imposed under threat of (eternal) punishment, ascribing a sort of costs/benefits analysis to each situation. Faith has its finite costs and benefits in reality -- on must give service, but one receives solace -- as does non-faith -- one is freed from the disciplines of service but one loses also the solace of certainty More important though are the infinite payoffs and penalties of Heaven and Hell. So Pascalus analyses the four outcomes thus:

Justified faith. We believe in God + God exists. The result: finite service + finite solace + infinite Heaven

Unjustified faith. We believe in God + God does not exist. The result: finite service + finite solace + zero Heaven

Justified doubt. We don't believe in God + God does not exist. The result: zero service + zero solace + zero Hell

Unjustified doubt. We don't believe in God + God exists. The result: zero service + zero solace + infinite Hell

Pascalus's idea is that no matter how we weigh up the costs and benefits of faith versus doubt during life, the result is always finite, and therefore trivail in comparison to the infinite payoffs or infinite penalities of the afterlife. Betting on faith is inconsequential in the worst case scenario but it offers an infinite payoff in the best case. Betting on doubt is inconsequential in the best case scenario but it incurs an infinite penalty in the worst case. As the only route to Heaven and the only way to avoid Hell, faith is clearly the safe bet.

Look at the way the sky has darkened, says Pascalus. It's clear that this Deus Irae of the Christians must be submitted to. We run the risk of defying the Divine Caesar of reality itself and paying an unimaginable cost for that crime, when if we submit, well, the worst that can happen is we waste a few words of breath praising him in life, then disappear into oblivion on our death. And the best that can happen? Why, they say the saints sit at the side of God in his Throne Room in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Kingdoms are such small things, says Duncanian. Wouldn't "Empire" be a better term for the Divine Caesar's domain?

I suppose so, says Pascalus. Yes, we might be senators in Heaven if we have faith! But if we doubt, we might end up slaves in Hell!

In an Empire all men but the Emperor are slaves, thinks Duncanian, remembering the Republic.

Zeus Irae

For Duncanian this whole wager is utter tosh anyway, requiring, he asserts, only the substitution of "Flying Entrail Monster" in the place of "God" (the Romans not having spaghetti at this time), for the tunnel vision to become self-evident. Pascalus makes no allowance for the Flying Entrail Monster, utterly failing to factor in the possibility that a situation where we believe in God but God does not exist might go hand in hand with an inverse situation for the Flying Entrail Monster, where we don't believe in the Flying Entrail Monster but the Flying Entrail Monster does exists. This opens up a new worst case scenario for those who would bet on faith -- infinite penalty of Hell for devotion to the wrong deity. Yea, for the Flying Entrail Monster will smite ye with his offal judgement.

We must make a million wagers then, he says. And believe in every God we can imagine, Flying Entrail Monster included.

You're just being silly, complains Pascalus. The Flying Entrail Monster is an absurd idea

Well, then, says Duncanian, please feel free to substitute any of those strange God-Kings the barbarians worship in the far-flung corners of the Empire -- Shiva, Buddha, whatever. In fact, surely this argument applies to our own Jove or, in the Greek, Zeus. You run the risk of defying Zeus by turning to this Christian God. It would be as if you stood before Caesar proclaiming Herod as the rightful ruler and the whole Empire his domain. Your argument applies as much to Zeus Irae as to the Christian Deus Irae.

This alone should be reason enough to disregard the whole wager, but one can never underestimate the tunnel vision of a Pious Pascalus.

OK, he says. You are assuming that in saying "God", I refer only to the specific Supreme Being as described by these Christian cultists; but you and I both know that those barbarian gods are simply our own by other names. The Germanic tribes have their own Jupiter and Mercury and such. What we're talking about is the King of Gods, the God of Kings. a Supreme Being that barbarians and Romans simply know by different names. To these Christians he is God, to the Jews YHVH. We might equally well call him Shiva, Buddha, or, yes, even the Flying Entrail Monster. These are simply different articulations of a single underlying proposition, that "we believe in a Supreme Being, a God". The Deus Irae and Zeus Irae are one and the same beneath these names. Perhaps, indeed, this is why the Christians follow the Jews in preferring to avoid the name at all, preferring to simply call him Lord.

Duncanian sighs. In that case, he says, the outcomes of faith and doubt are anyone's guess. The whole wager collapses in a potage of the contradictory doctrines that accompany those different names -- about whether Hell or Heaven even exist and, if so, who deserves which for doing what. If we remove the names we must remove the faces, the attributes, the scriptures, the cosmogonies, scour the statues to featureless lumps so that there is no distinction between this Supreme Being and that one. Ultimately, we must remove the very assumption that faith leads to Heaven and doubt leads to Hell.

I mean, you're a Roman, you idiot. Weren't you taught that there's neither heaven nor hell, but rather the single netherworld of Hades, that your quality of afterlife depends on how your living relatives commemorate you? That's what grave goods are for. Across the known world, in Gaul, in Egypt, everywhere, this is the way of things. We all know a Supreme Being has better things to do than concern himself with our poxy afterlives -- all of us except for these few fringe cultists with their Heaven and Hell. If you're going to pick a new cosmogony, Pascalus, you might as well pick one that had no afterlife at all, only the Nirvana of the Buddhists, say. Why, then you risk nothing!

The Deus and the Zeus might be different masks of one and the same Supreme Being, but if you are stripping him of these masks, looking for what's underneath, what makes you think this Deus-Zeus will be Irae at all? Suppose, he says, another self-proclaimed messiah should come along and tell you this Supreme Being forgives all, gathers every soul to Heaven and sends none to Hell. All that Christian nonsense of rewarding faith and punishing doubt is just a show of blood and thunder, a mask for scaring children. What point is there to your wager then? Faith and doubt are both inconsequential in such circumstances. Wherever you put your money you'd win or lose regardless.

Indeed, don't the Jews describe their Supreme Being as having the character of Athena? Wisdom, justice and mercy -- that's all they ever talk about. Surely this Christian revision of him should see doubt as a virtue at the heart of maturity, indicating a lively commitment to the acquisition of wisdom, and faith as a vice at the heart of infantilism, indicating a lazy reliance on trust in authority. Perhaps, in his wisdom, justice and mercy, your Divine Caesar will smile upon me, Skepticus Duncanian, for my independence, and send you, Pious Pascalus, to this Hell you are so worried about, precisely for being an obsequious fool.

When have you ever known an Emperor to punish loyalty? asks Pascalus. And what Emperor does not punish treason?

When an Emperor rewards sycophants and punishes wise cynics, says Duncanian, that rather implies he cares more about power and praise than about wisdom, justice and mercy.

A Skill Like Singing

A God who is truly omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, says Duncanian, will see through your craven flattery and my stubborn refusals, see that you are acting from self-interest as a child, while I am seeking wisdom as a man. A good Emperor surrounds himself with men, not children.

We are all children to God, says Pascalus.

Then I should think he'd want us to grow up, says Duncanian.

Although he lacks the historical context to articulate Kant's Categorical Moral Imperative, he describes a Supreme Being for whom something akin to this axiom is the ultimate measure of a man, a God who believes that one's ethical duty is to acquire and exercise wisdom, to evaluate and constantly re-evaluate one's beliefs -- including what one's ethical duty is -- by applying the utmost objectivity to one's own preconceptions and prejudices. This is simply your wisdom, justice and mercy, he argues, as a commitment to overcome one's own folly and vengefulness and viciousness.

The universality of this Supreme Being's standard renders this idea, Duncanian argues, far more likely than any of the models offered by the various religions of the known world, especially those which depend on divine revelations of the moral truths on which we are judged. Would a Supreme Being apply universal criteria but reveal them locally, thus unjustly handicapping the majority of human souls throughout human history who were born, lived and died outwith the culture to which the moral truths were revealed? Or would he rather apply a single universal criteria which requires no revelation at all, a judgement of a person's ethical value on the basis of, fundamentally, whether they are committed to the task of being an ethical human being to the best of their abilities?

If you were Caesar seeking singers for the court, would you tell a peasant in Tuscany, "This is how you must act to become a singer in the court: you must not eat pork; you must recite a certain verse five times a day; and you must genuflect in the direction of Rome," and then slay all those whose names were offered as potential candidates for not knowing your arbitrary standards? Or would you rather observe those candidates and judge whether they would make good singers in the court by the skill that they display?

Morality is not a skill like singing, says Pious Pascalus.

No, but ethics is, says Skepticus Duncanian. Is a good man he who simply does what he is told? Or is the good man he who refuses because what he has been told to do is wrong and he has the wisdom, justice and mercy to know this?

The good man, says Pious Pascalus, is he who follows God's Law.

As we, thinks Duncanian, we good soldiers of the Empire, have followed our orders and nailed this poor pacifist rabble-rouser to the cross above us.

And of all the corners of the Empire, he says, of all eras of history, your Supreme Being sends his messenger to a remote backwater, thousands of years after the greatest souls of antiquity are already dust, to stand on a hill outside of town and reveal that Law where only a handful will hear! It hardly seems wise and just and merciful to abandon countless heathens to damnation for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for never having heard the Law, unless there were some substantial benefit from such a local revelation.

Perhaps there is, says Pascalus.

Perhaps, says Duncanian, but if we are not talking of a skill like singing, if we are looking for obedience, for those willing to follow rules and capable of doing so, then for your God to be wise and just and merciful that benefit must outweigh the folly and injustice and cruelty of punishing those who would have obeyed had they only known the rules. Indeed, the more wise we are in recognising willingness, the more just we are in making the rules available to all, the more merciful we are in not denying the opportunity of salvation, and the higher the proportion of those born in the wrong time and wrong place, the greater this hypothetical benefit must be in order to outweigh the disproportionate costs of our folly, injustice and cruelty.

We are, after all, says Duncanian, talking of a wager. Of probabilities.

Think about it, he says. The probability of a Supreme Being using local divine revelation is in direct proportion to the probability of some unspecified hypothetical benefit of this act counterbalancing the weight of suffering it causes. The ratio of "potential chosen" to "necessarily heathens" offers us a measure of this hypothetical benefit's plausibility... which is not very high for your Christianity, one would have to say. And given that you posit infinite suffering for every lost soul, your highly implausible hypothetical benefit must be so grand as to outweigh not just an infinite amount of folly, injustice and cruelty, but an infinite amount multiplied by the number of lost souls.

If, says Duncanian, we assume that the purpose of judgement is to decide who spends eternity with God in Heaven and who is exiled to eternity in Hell, and if we accept the likelhood of a Supreme Being applying universal criteria which don't require divine revelation, and if we further accept that the specific universal criteria offered above are logical and plausible -- if we accept, in short that God would not discard a good singer just because he does not know the right song, not when it is God himself who decides who gets to know the song -- then what we end up with is a whole lot of doubters in Heaven and a whole lot of faithful in Hell.

So much for your wager, Pascalus.

The Sacrifice of Empathy

But that is not the God I'm talking about, says Pascalus. This isn't just about a hypothetical God. It's not about the probability of a Supreme Being like this or that. It's about a specific God, the God of this dead man on the cross above us, the God who darkens the sky above our heads even now, the God whose very definition includes that he sends the faithful to Heaven and doubters to Hell.

Fine, says Duncanian. In order for your wager to have any meaning whatesoever we have no choice but to make that assumption. We need to assume a belief system in which Heaven and Hell exist, a Deus Irae who works on a system of rewards and punishments, who gathers the faithful to his pie in the sky when they die and sends naughty-naughty unbelievers to the other place for insufficient sycophancy. We need to assume that your God is petty and twisted enough to inflict eternal torture out of hate and jealousy, that he would punish an ethical individual whose only crime was to refuse to pay lip-service to an idea they found absurd and/or abhorrent. In short, we must assume that you are indeed referring to a very specific Supreme Being as described by these Christian cultists.

Duncanian thinks of the last words of this Son of God on the cross, "Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?" and a chill runs down his spine. He thinks of the utter absence of empathy required to abandon one's own dying son, or to abandon the majority of humanity to Hell for not knowing the rules,

But the real problem, as Duncanian sees it, is that the choice between faith or doubt in Pascalus's God is actually a choice between following or not following the system of rewards and punishments associated with that God. The choice is not simply to "believe" or "not believe", but is in fact to "worship" or "not worship". It is not simply a matter of having faith but of practicing it, whether that means going to synagogue, church, or temple, whether it requires eating kosher, not shaving one's beard, or offering one's confession. In each case, with every variant of this Supreme Being idea, with every sect holding to its own contradictory doctrines on how one earns Heaven or Hell, we have a different God to believe in than Pascalus's.

OK, says Duncanian. Accepting for a second that the God we're dealing with is one whose only requirement for entry into Heaven is faith, and whose automatic penalty for lack of faith is damnation in Hell, we are faced with a new cost. Frankly, for me, an infinity of eternities in the most heavenly of paradises would not even begin to make up for the cost to one's humanity, for the utter abrogation of one's ethical and aesthetic judgement required to accept Heaven while others burn in Hell on the arbitrary terms laid down by such a God.

I hate to be a prig about this, he says, but at this point I start to question just what kind of God we're dealing with here, and just how righteous his followers really are.

The sheer hideousness of the concept abhors me, he says, the idea that this eternal bliss on offer must necessarily be attained at the sacrifice of empathy for those who suffer eternal torment. If our state in Heaven is one of bliss, it cannot be one of empathic sorrow; if we suffer empathically for the damned, Heaven can hardly be a state of bliss. Indeed, to suffer empathically for the damned and be unable to do anything to help them -- since their damnation is eternal and absolute -- this would be a form of torment in its own right. The only way to salve this torment would be to expunge empathy.

Well, we are centurions, you know, says Pious Pascalus. Empathy isn't high on our list of priorities.

A good soldier's way of looking at it, says Skepticus Duncanian, but I rather like empathy. It make me feel human. Without empathy we could not look upon this body on the cross above us and understand how terrible this moment is, what we have done, what we should not have done.

Oh, but he had to die, says Pascalus. You see, apparently his blood washes away our sins. It's sort of a good news / bad news thing, you know? The bad news is Christ has to be nailed to a cross. The good news is that gives the rest of us a totally clean slate, we get to start all over with all our sins forgiven... if we accept God, that is. I mean, now that he's dead, it doesn't matter that I hammered the nails into his wrists or switched the water that you tried to give him for vinegar! I mean, that's what I call good news!

Duncanian tries to imagine a world of people who think like Pascalus. He prays to Athena that it never comes to pass.

Duncanian's Wager

You just don't get it, says Duncanian.

To Duncanian this sacrifice of empathy is an inversion of ethics at the very foundation, and one that leads to a radical revision of the cost/benefit analysis. By any mature and sane -- which is to say intellectually rational and emotionally balanced -- judgement, he considers, to believe in Pascalus's God is surely to accept a monstrous evil as eternal cost. Bearing in mind that the sacrifice of empathy -- i.e. acceptance of the damnation of virtuous unbelievers -- must take place during one's lifetime, the real world cost of loss of empathy must also be factored in, so the new analysis looks like this:

The result of justified faith: service + solace + finite callousness + infinite Heaven + infinite callousness in eternity

The result of unjustified faith: service + solace + finite callousness + zero Heaven + zero callousness in oblivion

The result of unjustified doubt: zero service + zero solace + infinite Hell

The result of unjustified doubt: zero service + zero solace + zero Hell

Duncanian explains this to Pascalus, but he makes no extra claims, it should be noted, for any corresponding benefit in doubt. He's quite objective that way. A lack of faith in this God, he freely admits, entails neither a presence nor absence of empathy, so the retention of one's empathy and ethics cannot be assumed as a finite or infinite benefit of doubt. Nevertheless, if these are the potential outcomes of the wager, he argues, it is better to put one's money on doubt.

And that doubt, he says, might be a lack of faith in the legitimacy of Pascalus's God's rather than a lack of faith in his existence. These two positions should be considered as equivalent. When your God tells us he requires faith or we're damned to hell, one can assume he doesn't mean for us to believe in him but curse him as a cruel tyrant. An Emperor doesn't just want you to believe in his absolute authority; he wants you to accept it.

So, Duncanian, who has been listening to some of the weirder things these Christians have been saying, offers his own wager in the form of two options:

1. We believe that any real Supreme Being worth its salt would not give a flying fuck whether we worship it or not, but would care more about an individual's ethics; that Pascalus's God, if he demands worship on pain of perdition, can only be a mad, bad Gnostic demiurge of a motherfucker, acting as Supreme Being only in the absence of the true "Higher Power"; and that believing in such a "Higher Power" means believing also that Pascalus's God's days are numbered.

2. We don't believe in any of that shit at all.

My wager, he says, is that your belief in this Deus Irae requires a sacrifice of empathy and ethics that renders you anathema to the legitimate Higher Power, if such a thing exists. If such a thing exists, your faith is the very thing that will damn you.

A Hollow Paradise

Pascalus looks a little concerned at this, but more dubious than concerned.

So you're saying I'll go to Hell for having faith? he says. That's just twisted.

The kind of "Higher Power" I'm talking about, says Duncanian, doesn't use bribery or threats, doesn't require obedience to moral truths revealed in local divine revelation. This is the kind of "Higher Power" that sees no benefit that could possibly outweigh the cost of the suffering this would cause. It would evaluate individuals, if it evaluates them at all, solely on the basis of whether or not one has done one's best to be a man of empathy and ethics. Heaven and Hell could not be imposed as eternal rewards or punishments on the basis of such evaluations. Those who were qualified to enter Heaven would refuse to enter, since to do so would require them to sacrifice their empathy for those in Hell. Those who would not refuse would be excluded on the basis of being callous arseholes.

Of course, says Duncanian, it might be a rather good test of character, to offer a man Heaven if he sacrifices empathy. Maybe such a Heaven would be a damn fine way to gather all the callous arseholes together, with their callous arsehole of a God, give them a hollow paradise to reject if they have the decency to do so, a chance to question their own piety before it is too late.

And if they don't, says Pascalus, then your God comes in and smites them with his wrath! Throws them into the fires of Hell to burn for all eternity!

Duncanian shakes his head sadly. Pascalus has clearly not even noticed his avoidance of the word "God", or of masculine pronouns. He's not even sure the "Higher Power" he's talking about should be spoken of in such crude anthropomorphic terms.

Even if these callous arseholes were to be punished, he says, the duration and degree of any punishment could be no higher than is acceptable to those exercising their ethical judgement to the best of their abilities, with empathy as a factor in that judgement. For all their self-righteous psychopathy, when the shit hits the fan, the craven followers of your God will not suffer any wrathful smiting, for this type of "Higher Power" would not punish them outrageously. The loss of empathy, the punishment they have inflicted upon themselves, would be more than sufficient. Why imprison someone who has already made of their own soul a... a black iron prison that in their delusion they believe a glorious Empire. That hollow paradise might be torn down, but eternal damnation? That's your guy's province.

Ah, says Pascalus, but what if exclusion from Heaven is the only punishment? What if Hell is simply the absence of God? Surely even this "Higher Power" is quite entitled to avoid the company of arseholes? Then you would still end up with saints in Heaven and sinners in Hell.

OK, says Duncanian. Assume this "Higher Power" doesn't inflict anything more severe on arseholes than leaving them to their own devices, leaving them to screw each other over in the shattered husk of their heavenly citadel. Even then it has to limit the duration of this self-inflicted misery, there being no just reason to exclude someone reformed by the experience, someone who has remembered what empathy is and changed, chosen to follow the categorical moral imperative. All that this "Higher Power" wants, if it wants anything, is for them to grow the fuck up. If any of your God's followers ever want to rejoin the civilised society of post-heaven eternity, then it would hardly be wise and just and merciful to refuse them.

The door out of that hollow paradise, that black iron prison, must always be open.

Place Your Money

So how, says Duncanian, does this belief play out as a wager? Well, you're working from the basis of a faith in your Supreme Being so you're committed to a lack of faith in any "Higher Power". This has two follow-throughs:

If your faith is justified, but there is a "Higher Power", then the benefits of Heaven become finite, ending abruptly with the overthrow of a demiurgic tyrant. At which point you might well reconsider the wisdom of your choice.

If your faith is unjustified, and only this "Higher Power" exists, you miss out on all those heavenly rewards altogether. In fact, you might well be in for a rude awakening on the other side when you realise you're considered a vengeful and vicious fool, a callous arsehole.

In both cases you suffer the huge cost of loss of empathy extending into eternity. And as for the other options -- whether your faith is justified or not, even if that "Higher Power" doesn't exist, it doesn't change the fact that you're a allous arsehole, whether it's for all eternity, sitting smug in your palatial grandeur while good men burn in Hell, or for the short time of your mortal life, squandered in pious servitude, ended in meaningless oblivion, leaving a heritage of shame and misery.

Yeah, but I'd still get the palatial grandeur, wouldn't I? says Pascalus. If I'm right. And you won't. What will your faith in a Higher Power do for you if you're wrong and I'm right?

You miss the point, says Duncanian. Since I'm working from the basis of a doubt in your God, it doesn't matter whether I have faith in a "Higher Power" or not:

If my doubt is unjustified, whether I have faith in a "Higher Power" or not, there's the chance that it exists, in which case the costs of Hell become finite, ending with the overthrow of the demiurgic motherfucker, or there's the chance that he doesn't, in which case I'm just screwed.

If my doubt is justified, whether I believe in a "Higher Power" or not, either it does exist, which would be rather nice all round, or it doesn't, in which case all that really matters is that at least there's no motherfucking demiurge to send me to eternal perdition.

Either way, you see, it doesn't matter if I have faith or not, because this "Higher Power" is not an emotional retard of a God who'll hold it against you if you doubt his incredibly unlikely existence. You didn't believe? it would say. No worries, mate; I'm a pretty implausible proposition, after all, and you did have all those pious arseholes preaching for Pascalus's God, giving the whole "Supreme Being / Higher Power" thing a bad name. Fuck, man, I respect your integrity in not being bought with all those bullshit promises of harps and houri. Did you do your best with the whole ethics and empathy malarkey? Well, cool. That's all anyone can ask for.

Think about it. As far as the wager goes, with your faith there's only one chance in four of winning eternal Heaven, while, with my doubt I have a 50/50 chance of a "Higher Power" making my afterlife fine and dandy in the end, which is clearly better odds. Yes, I have a one in four chance of the big booby prize of eternal Hell for doubting in that motherfucking demiurge, but there's a three in four chance of your eternal Heaven being not so eternal after all. I'm liking my odds better.

And given the stone-cold certainty of your faith rendering you the spiritual equivalent of Caligula (I mean, if you actually, truly believe in a God who would send someone to eternal torment for a lack of faith, and are looking forward to your own eternity in Heaven, with the harps of angels drowing out the screams, I think that' comparison is downright generous) well, is it really worth the 50/50 chance of being dead wrong or, worse still, the one in four chance of being right but rooting for the wrong guy? Is it worth your soul, eternal or otherwise?

Place your money.

No, you'd be well advised, I'd say, to bank on your God not existing, take the nice 50/50, where even if he does a Higher Power might well be there to kick his arse. And the nice thing is, with that Higher Power not giving a fuck whether you believe in it or not, you can actually put your money on them both not existing. See, it doesn't change the payout in eternity (or lack of one) but it does change the outlay in reality, the finite costs and benefits of faith versus doubt. Whereas my Higher Power doesn't demand, desire or reward faith, and makes no requirements in terms of service, you've got all these hoops you have to jump through to prove your faith. Is it really worth it? Are there any real finite benefits to your faith except for solace? And what about the cost of callouness, which is surely a heavy price to pay for a little solace?

Isn't your whole faith just founded on a promise of a prize place in the eternal Empire of a Divine Caesar, an Empire that will never end, but one which is, when you scrape away the glamour of your God's glory, just a black iron prison of the soul, as any Empire ruled by any such Caesar must be? You would sacrifice your soul, give yourself in servitude, for a few scraps of solace in this life and a tyrant's favour in the next.

We must render unto Caesar what is his, says Pious Pascalus. Souls and servitude? Black iron prisons? The way you talk of Empire anyone would think you weren't a Roman at all.

Actually, I'm from Greece originally, says Skepticus Duncanian. You know, birthplace of democracy?

The Real Wager

But let's leave those two centurions arguing on Golgotha. Because, of course, Pascalus's Supreme Being and Duncanian's Higher Power aren't the only two options. How about a Great Prankster who punishes those who waste the time they're granted on this earth revering him rather than enjoying it -- eating fine food, drinking fine wine and fucking like bunny rabbits? Or a Grand Poobah who doles out heaven and hell on purely arbitrary whims? Or a giant pantheon of gods who each apply different criteria of virtues, arguing for the salvation or damnation of this person or that on the basis of their intellect or benevolence or artistry or martial prowess? Pascalus assumes it's a one horse race. Duncanian presents it as a two horse race, arguing that on the very ground Pascalus chooses his own favourite is fit only for the knacker's yard. Truth is, there's as many horses in this race as there are gamblers to bet on them.

So let's abstract the problem to a general. Forget Pascalus's Supreme Being and Duncanian's Higher Power. Forget any blithe assumptions that heaven and hell are our automatic reward and punishment for faith and doubt respectively. Forget Duncanian's blank assertion that such a system could only reflect an ethical deficiency in the deity and result in an ethical deficiency for the faithful. Let's say that neither Pascalus nor Duncanian know shit; their certainties are bogus. Ultimately, for any individuals looking to place a bet it all comes down to a set of choices between this god, that god, neither or both. The real issue is not whether you believe in your own god but whether you believe in someone else's, the god of the person trying to persuade you that this is the real winner.


For any two deities, X and Y, there are four combinations of faith/doubt:

Faith in both X and Y -- Polytheism
Faith in X, doubt in Y -- Xist monotheism
Doubt in X, faith in Y -- Yist monotheism
Doubt in both X and Y -- Atheism

There are four combinations of existence/non-existence possibilities:

Both X and Y exist
X exists but Y does not
X does not exist but Y does
Neither X nor Y exist

The result is of course sixteen potential outcomes, four for each of the four basic positions, which don't really need to be spelled out.

This is the real wager.

Bear in mind that all four of these basic positions have been evidenced in history for various values of X and Y. The first position, polytheism, has a proud heritage. It's a position in which gods may be seen as local or universal, in which the gods of others may be respected as foreign nationals, adopted as immigrants or identifed with members of one's own pantheon. There's no contradiction, no sense that to believe in one requires a disbelief in the other.

Polytheism isn't a bad wager if we assume that gods as anthropomorphic entities share at least some human reactions. We just don't know which reactions they have, so we can't assume that heaven or hell is a given if we follow certain doctrines or fail to follow them. What polytheism does is create a host of variant archetypes with different behaviour patterns -- gods as kings and queens and craftsmen, soldiers and shepherds, hunters and whores, artists and athletes. It metaphorises animals -- lions and bears, gazelles and snakes -- builds relationships between them in their mythic interactions. Abstracted from animal totems, ancestral spirits, folk heroes, natural forces, gods of the hearth, these symbols construct a network of potential patrons, any of whom might favour the individual who respects them. Going on a journey? Pour a libation to Hermes. Looking for love? Make a burnt offering to Aphrodite. Having a party? Make sure you toast Dionysus. It might not work, but it can't do any harm.

This is, of course, a variant of Pascal's Wager, reduced to the most mundane level. The advantage it has is that being predicated on a diversity of divinities it does not require the abrogation of empathy and ethics. There's no suggestion that we regard those who follow a different god as damned to eternal perdition. There's no suggestion that only by following one particular set of dogma will we save ourselves from Hell. Instead we simply honour most the deities that our ethics and our culture's mores render the most important to us, the soldier swearing an oath by Ares, the poet singing a song to Apollo, both tipping their hats to Zeus. You call him Jupiter, do you? Ah well, each to their own. I hear the barbarians up north have Hermes as the highest god, call him Odin. Each to their own indeed.

Monotheism, on the other hand, offers us an immediate problem. Are we to be Xist monotheists or Yist monotheists? Jew or Christian? Catholic or Protestant? Church of Scotland or Evangelical? Anabaptist or Westboro Baptist? Decide now and remember, eternity rests on this coin flip. Heads, you win. Tails, you lose. Do you believe in god X and reject god Y or vice versa. It doesn't really matter. Because with each new Y you come across, having chosen X -- or each new X you come across, having chosen Y -- there comes another coin flip, another 50/50 chance of getting it dead wrong. And with every flip of that coin, if that god X or god Y is anything like Pascalus's Supreme Being, the kind of God who is jealous, who will allow no other gods before him, who offers paradise for the faithful and perdition for the fallen, then you are implicitly (and callously, I'd say) accepting the damnation of those who have so foolishly turned away from the riches on offer. Worse, you are implicitly (and idiotically, I'd say) accepting your own damnation should one wrong coin flip lead you from the One True Path in pursuit of a mirage. Pascal's Wager is a lottery ticket paid for with your heart and giving you an infinitessimal chance of winning... what? A playboy mansion in the afterlife?

A black iron prison of the soul.

Atheism isn't a bad wager if we're dealing not just with X and Y but with a million different Xs and Ys, none of whom we have any more valid reason to believe in than we have for any other. The more gods they throw at you to choose from, the smaller the chance that this or that one just happens to be, in actual fact, the One True God. Their very idea of this god as a being of wisdom, justice and mercy is at odds, in fact, with the idea of faith being a prerequisite for salvation, the likelihood of each being true in inverse proportion to the likelihood of the other. Which is to say that a bet on faith not being a prerequisite for salvation is a bet that any being of true wisdom, justice and mercy would not damn an individual on the basis of a game of chance -- not when expecting them to win would be foolish, punishing their loss would be unjust, and extending that punishment throughout eternity would be merciless.

To wager one's soul on atheism, on doubt, is to wager that the game of faith is a mug's game, a spiritual Russian Roulette that no deity with a shred of decency would require us to engage in, to wager that any god who requires faith in such circumstances with such consequences is not worth the risk of having faith in.

If we're looking at this on the basis of pure self-interest, Pascalus's money is on the least sensible option. When one could stay out of the game entirely with atheism, hedge one's bet with polytheism, or bet on the type of Higher Power that doesn't ream you if you lose, why on earth would one opt for the crazy wildcard when this is most likely to mean you crash and burn, especially if the guaranteed cost in terms of empathy and ethics is extortionate? Surely there must be more to this whole God thing than self-interest?

Of course, that's what most believers would argue, I suspect -- that Pascal's Wager is not at all how God wants us to approach the question. We should not have faith that the Deus Irae exists just because it's in our base self-interest. We should not have faith that the Deus Irae exists just because it's the canny thing to do to keep our asses out of the hellfire. We should have faith that the Deus Irae exists not because it's the pragmatic thing to do but because it's the right thing to do. Forget the heavenly rewards; it's about spiritual improvement, being a better person. One might well suggest that Pascal's Wager has it entirely the wrong way about, that true faith exists despite one's self-interest, as a product of revelation or reason, as a commitment to a Sacred Truth.

That's what the Empire would have you believe, of course. The Empire knows that not everyone can be bought so easily as a good soldier like Pascalus. Subtler lies are sometimes needed.

Next: Part Three -- Plato's Perfection


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just wondering if by any chance you had read His Dark Materials by Pullman. Many of his and your ideas are strikingly similar.

7:03 pm  
Blogger Jim Steel said...

Just to further stir things, #33 of 'Not One Of Us' has a short story by Tyree Campbell where the term 'Apathist' is used. Apparently it refers to someone who doesn't care if God exists. Neat. It's not my own position, but it's nice to see another ontological position named.

9:50 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Anon: Yeah, Pullman and I are sorta on the same page, though I read him *waaaaay* after my own duke-it-out-with-the-deus attitude was adopted.

Jim: I'm tempted to describe my own position as Disdainist now. I care only enough to hold the bastard in contempt.

Though, I'm thinking now that if you got Theist and Antitheist, you ought to have Syntheist, whatever that might be.

3:08 pm  
Anonymous Matthias Davies said...

Hal, I trust Part Three is just hours away.

(It's not like you have anything else in the world to do and it's not like I've checked number redacted times today to see if it was here.)

5:25 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

LOL! Oh, OK then. Ye might have to wait a wee bit for Part 4 though.

3:31 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

It's worth noting that you keep using the word "monotheism" to mean "religious which assert that unbelievers are eternally damned", which is a little sketchy.

E.g.: "we to be Xist monotheists or Yist monotheists? Jew or Christian? Catholic or Protestant? Church of Scotland or Evangelical? Anabaptist or Westboro Baptist? Decide now and remember, eternity rests on this coin flip. Heads, you win. Tails, you lose."

Note that if you choose Jewish, you get to believe that the goyim are getting into heaven easier than you are (613/7 times easier). :-)

Not to mention that even as a view of Christianity, this is pretty 17th century.

And the violence done to Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, by including them either under your "a toast to Ares!" model of polytheism or the South Park ("the winners are... the Mormons!") model of monotheism, is incalculable.

It's actually perfectly possible to have what I think you'd call a morphological system of understanding the universe -- a model, indeed with something at its center, which is not ethically bankrupt.

It could be, for instance, that there is something central, but that the way to win the game is not to obey it slavishly, but to understand it. I'm thinking of Buddhism, for instance. It doesn't really admit of the merry chaos of "everyone for themself, go figure it out"; rather, the claim being made is that there is a Right Way. But it isn't a question of the Meanie Buddha pointing the finger at you and saying "it's the Right Way because I say it is, and you better do what I say Or Else!" It's more a matter of a sort of proto-scientist Buddha saying, given my investigations, this seems to be the Right Way.

In raising children, there's a difference between punishment -- coercive imposition of authority from above -- and natural consequences. Leave my tools in the rain and get sent to bed without supper: punishment. Leave your toys in the rain and have soggy toys: natural consequence.

If the Buddha advances, as a logical proposition, that only through nonattachment can a soul attain release from suffering, and you say "oh yeah? well, fuck you, you can't make me!"... you're not really having the same conversation as he is, are you?

Because here the non-attainment of nirvana is not a punishment -- it's a natural consequence. Stay attached, keep suffering. Duh.

So my question is, does your critique of morphological systems, of a world drenched in meaning, of a primary system of categories that defines what-is, work if you don't pick the most asshole example of a morphological system you can come up with (viz., the Church of a Dante or a Falwell?)

Secondly there's another conflation: between individual moral autonomy, and individual moral independence.

Duncanian offers, as an antidote to Pascalius's vengeful tyrant, an existentialism in which each soul must find its own ethics, radically alone. But why radically alone?

Can't souls A and B collaborate on their ethical development, their ethical investigations? And if so, and if it seems to be working out, can they tell C and D what they've gleaned? And if they want to go further and tell E through ZZZ about them, and thus they package them up into a provisional morphology -- if they want to zip them up into a class library and let people download them -- why not? And if they want to declare protocols and standards, so as to say "well this is OurPath 3.4, and if you do something substantially different please have the courtesy to fork and relabel so we don't get confused in our investigations of what works..."

Why not?

And in fact if you look at the vast majority of religious people, tribal shamans, Unitarians and Anglicans, mellow Malaysian Muslim housewives, Taoists and neo-pagans and Buddhists and liberal Jews and partially lapsed Catholics, this in fact is what they are doing -- as are Existentialists and Marxists and Stoics and Epicureans and followers of the New Age philosophical life-changing seminar of the month.

They are muddling along, figuring out things as best they can, drawing on communally authored, collaborative traditions to do so, thinking for themselves when necessary or desired, relaxing into ritual when necessary or desired, and -- collectively -- wrapping their thinking in morphologies for easier communication and posting the latest build thereof to their corner of

Now, among the projects on, there are those who are dicky. They flame outsiders, try to suppress forks, they tell everyone that using other systems will crash your soulware and that unspeakable things will occur to you if you don't use the Only Authorized Version of their Super Special Download. They engage in monopolistic business practices.

But does the employment of such dicky practices, at various times, by a minority of the projects there ensconced, invalidate the entire enterprise in which is engaged?

Why does Duncanian, with and in his ethics, have to be so all alone?

Does he scorn only the projects that threaten him if he doesn't download their code?

Or does he scorn all code reuse at all -- all the busy projects on working at developing a Way?

Or does he scorn the idea of a Way at all?

I think he scorns all three; and, to be sure, he may be right to.

But I think you have to note that these are three different arguments.

The more gods they throw at you to choose from, the smaller the chance that this or that one just happens to be, in actual fact, the One True God.

But if you look at theisms X, Y, and Z not as competitors for the Only Perfectly True Thing Or Else You Go To Hell, but rather as alternate proposals for solving some real problem (like "what is the world, and how should we live?") then does their multiplicity make any of them more unlikely?

I guess it does make them more unlikely if you expect one of them to be the absolute and final truth, forever and we're done.

But it doesn't make them less useful as "the current best guess about the truth", or less likely to contain truth.

We know that Newtonian mechanics is wrong. But it's pretty damn right. We would not be better off, I'd argue, had everyone around Newton, rather than verifying and teaching and building on his theory, said "well that's YOUR point of view, but it has nothing to do with ME."

The expectation of a One True Theory -- about the moral, metaphysical, or physical universes -- is probably doomed to failure. But the attempt to formulate one -- if done in with a modicum of humility, and eschewing "believe my theory or die!" anti-patterns -- is not necessarily fruitless.

10:52 pm  

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