Puddleglum's Wager

| | Comments (7)

We've been listening to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles on CD. I read them when I was about ten years old, and I never got around to re-reading them, so some of it is almost as if I'm experiencing them for the first time. When I got to the following scene from the Silver Chair, it struck me as a strange argument, sort of like Pascal's Wager, but something rubbed me the wrong way about it. The main characters were in the Green Witch's underground domain and had fallen under her influence, which was causing them to lose their belief in the above-ground world. Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle then gives the following speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.

What rubbed me the wrong way was that it sounded as if he didn't care whether the world was real. He was going to believe in it anyway, because it's more pleasant to believe in it. How can the upper world be so much better than the underground world that its mere finite value of being better would be worth believing in a lie if it's not true?

When I raised this issue with a friend, he said, "But it's Pascal's Wager!" I said, "No, it's not!" He insisted that the upper world is Aslan's world, which I'd been thinking of as the place at the end of the world that they went to in the previous book, and the upper world was just Narnia, which is the analogue of Earth. But we were interrupted and never managed to finish the conversation.

I realized later, when teaching Pascal's Wager, what Lewis must have been up to, and it's actually a neat trick. If he was seeing Narnia as a placeholder for the eternal reward of Pascal's Wager and the underworld as a placeholder for this life, then you have an interesting argument that isn't quite Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager concedes for the sake of argument that life in this world is more pleasant if you don't believe in God but then argues that the chance of eternal reward in heaven compensates for that in terms of rational decision theory. You shouldn't even need 50% likelihood of God's existence for the wager to be worth it given that the reward is infinite and the cost merely finite if you bet wrong. But Lewis' Wager is different in exactly one way: it doesn't make the concession. It takes the finite value of life in this world to be better if you believe in God than if you don't. So life is finitely better if you believe in God, and the afterlife is infinitely better if it turns out there is one. Therefore, it's a no-brainer. You might as well believe in God. If it turns out you lose the bet (i.e. God doesn't exist), you still end up finitely better off, and if you win (i.e. God does exist) then you get an infinitely better result.

One interesting result of Puddleglum's Wager is that it easily avoids the problem Mike Almeida raises against Pascal's Wager. Mike's problem (which I'm not taking a stand on at this point) relies on its being better in this life not to believe.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]


If Lewis is indeed making that argument, I'm not entirely sure that I would agree with him. If my understanding of 1 Cor 15 is correct, Paul would say the exact opposite. If, as Christians, we're wrong. We are to be pitied above all others.

That was my initial reason for resisting it. The first problem here is that there's an ambiguity in the counterfactual. Here is the key claim:

1. If God doesn't exist, living the Christian life is still better for you than living another life.

According to one view of the meaning of counterfactual claims, that comes out as:

1a. If God doesn't exist (but everything else is held constant), living the Christian life is still better for you than living another life.

According to another view of the meaning of counterfactual claims, it comes out as:

1b. If God doesn't exist (and you trace out all the implications of God's non-existence except for those that would nullify our experience), living the Christian life is still better for you than living another life.

With 1a, you don't have to worry about the fact that we wouldn't have any morality with no God. Therefore, 1 (on this view) implies that the same morality as what's actually true would be operating, and the actual morality implies that your life is worse off if you're immoral. So God's non-existence under that method of interpreting the counterfactual leads to a better life if you live the Christian life. The sentence then comes out true, and Puddleglum's version is the right wager.

With 1b, there's no morality. You don't worry about the implication that we wouldn't exist with no God, or else the sentence would be meaningless, but you don't accept the other implications of God's existence like the existence of morality. The sentence then turns out false, and Pascal's version is the wager we'd be stuck with.

I think Paul was clearly working with model 1b (or at least something closer to it than to 1a). But he was also looking at a different counterfactual. It was about whether we should believe in God even if there's no God. It was about whether we should follow all the details of Christianity if Christ wasn't raised. That's not Pascal's Wager that he's denying, then. So I think you could have a 1a attitude toward the Pascal/Puddleglum question without denying what Paul says, as long as the doubt you're seeking to overcome isn't accompanied by a similar doubt about morality or about the existence of enough meaning of life. Even if morality and meaning of life are metaphysically dependent on God's existence, they're epistemologically prior, and you might retain them while wondering if God exists. It's that kind of person that I think would be able to take Puddleglum's line.

I think I have a different interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. It seems to me that it only makes sense in light of the difficulties and denials of the Christian earthly life in the first century. If Paul had addressed a middle-class 19th-century Englishman, I'm not sure he would have said that "you are of all men most miserable" if the resurrection didn't happen. Because for the latter man, belief in Christ actually made life quite comfortable. (Whether it was *supposed* to do that is another question, I hasten to add. But even for an ascetic, the life of a Christian in 19th-century England wasn't exactly torture.)

"And as for us," Paul writes, "why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day -- I mean that, brothers -- just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" (15:30-2)

As far as I can see, Paul is not actually denying, in 1 Corinthians 15, that it's useful to believe in a god in this life. (He elsewhere seemed to see some value, for example, in the religiosity of the Athenians.) But the Christians of the Roman empire could have believed in many gods without risking torture and death, or incurring social opprobrium, or, for that matter, forgoing much of anything in the way of earthly pleasure. So why should they have believed in Christ specifically? Well, because Christ promises resurrection through his own resurrection. That's the thing that makes such extreme sacrifices worth it. If you don't believe that, according to Paul, then Christianity offers no more utility than any other religion, yet requires outrageous sacrifices.

In other words, Paul, it seems to me, is not comparing the hope of Christianity with the hope of atheism; he's comparing it with the hope of other Mediterranean religions. Considering the burdens Christianity placed on its believers relative to those systems, the resurrection had better be part of the package.

To make an imperfect analogy: Suppose Puddleglum had convinced people to follow him from Underland to Narnia, and then discovered that they didn't believe that Aslan was a good king. He could have given them a Paulesque lecture. "If Aslan is a bad king," he would say, "then what's the point? We could have stayed at home, where -- bad as it is -- we'd have regular meals and no shin splints. You're wandering around in the dark looking for a kingdom with no good king? Why?" That wouldn't interfere with his earlier claim that searching for Narnia-with-good-Aslan was better than staying in Underland.

It seems to me that Lewis is also drawing on a certain tradition of responses to radical skepticism. Examples of this can be found in, for instance, Leibniz's "On the Method of Distinguishing Real From Imaginary Phenomena" (translated in Loemker) and more recently in David Chalmer's "The Matrix as Metaphysics". According to this tradition, the question of radical skepticism is much less important to practical rationality than is typically supposed. If the world turned out to be a dream, we would be wrong about metaphysics, but we wouldn't be wrong about anything of practical importance. The world we experience, precisely because it is the one we experience, is the one that matters.

The reason this seems relevant to me is that Puddleglum seems to be suggesting that regardless of how the metaphysics turns out, the world that should matter to us is the upper world.

That argument can also be found in Locke (Essay IV.ix.8). I'm curious whether Leibniz's piece is earlier than Locke (or at least of his reading of Locke). I've found at least one place where he anticipates Locke (he has something like the Prince and Cobbler case in a work that was written before Locke's work was published).

I think there's a difference between that argument and Lewis' argument, though. The argument from Locke, Leibniz, and Chalmers are giving an argument in favor of how things seem to be, while Lewis via Puddleglum is giving an argument in favor of how things don't seem to be.

The Leibniz piece is undated and was not published in his lifetime. Loemker believes based on internal evidence that it was written not long after the Discourse (1686). If he's right about this, then it is probably earlier than Locke's Essay (1690), and almost certainly earlier than the French translation (1700), but it could not have influenced Locke.

I agree that these are not the same argument. What I am claiming is that in both cases certain broadly pragmatic reasons are taken to introduce a possible cleavage between the metaphysically 'real' world and the world we should/do care about.

So this seems to be a second example of Leibniz anticipating Locke on something but Locke coming up with it independently. At least in this case it isn't something Locke gets all the credit for, as he does with the Prince and the Cobbler.

Jonathan Edwards does the same thing with Hume on personal identity (with something approaching some key elements of four-dimensionalism), and Hume usually gets the credit for that.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04