On Reichenbach's Wager, Prior, and Pascal's Wager, and Al-Ghazali

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The way toward an understanding of the step from experience to prediction lies in the logical sphere; to find it we have to free ourselves from one deep-rooted prejudice: from the presupposition that the system of knowledge is to be a system of true propositions. If we cross out this assumption within the theory of knowledge, the difficulties dissolve, and with them dissolves the mystical mist lying above the research methods of science. We shall then interpret knowledge as a system of posits, or wagers; with this the question of justification assumes as its form the question whether scientific knowledge is our best wager. Logical analysis shows that this demonstration can be given, that the inductive procedure of science is distinguished from other methods of prediction as leading to the most favorable posits. Thus we wager on the predictions of science and wager on the predictions of practical wisdom: we wager on the sun's rising tomorrow, we wager that food will nourish us tomorrow, we wager that our feet will carry us tomorrow. Our stake is not low; all our personal existence, our life itself, is at stake. To confess ignorance in the face of the future is the tragic duty of all scientific philosophy; but, if we are excluded from knowing true predictions we shall be glad that at least we know the road toward our best wagers. Hans Reichenbach (1938) Experience and prediction;: an analysis of the foundations and the structure of knowledge. p 404

In a footnote to a profound and witty dialogue(called a "play") from 1942, "Can religion be discussed?" (The Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy), Arthur N. Prior seems to refer to the quoted passage when he describes "an astonishing resemblance" between Reichenbach's wager "argument for induction to Pascal's "wager" argument for religion." (See p. 148, note 8.) In the preamble to the dialogue, Prior writes that "my characters are Barthian Protestant,* Modernist Protestant, Catholic, Logician and Psychoanalyst. The footnotes are by myself." So, I think Prior wants us to reflect on the similarity between Pascal's wager for God's existence and Reichenbach's claim that fallible inductive science provides us the road toward best wagers.

As an aside, I find two features of Reichenbach's position notable: first, these days epistemologists accept that knowledge is compatible with fallibilism. It is notable that Reichenbach still felt the need to argue the (Humean) case. Second, Reichenbach treats decisions within science as formally alike to wagers of practical wisdom. That is to say, lurking here is a (Kantian) effacement of any significant difference in kind between theoretical and practical knowledge. For, the very system of theoretical knowledge (science) rests on a practical, even existential decision -- this is very akin to Carnap's voluntarism --, namely on the wager that induction and a system of inductions is the best route to practical prudence. I call this Reichenbach's wager

Anyway, since Pascal is mentioned by Reichenbach as one of the original investigators of the "mathematical concept of probability" (298-299), the resemblance may well be deliberate and Pascal the original inspiration for Reichenbach's (presentation of his) version of the idea. I don't think the similarity between Pascal's wager and Reichenbach's wager is entirely a contingent matter depending on historical circumstances. Because  in Al-Ghazali we find versions of both Pascal's Wager (recall here) and Reichenbach's wager (recall here). Strikingly, in Al-Ghazali the inductive leap required for scientific discovery is itself likened to prophecy. (I don't think there is evidence that Reichenbach or Pascal were familiar with Al-Ghazali's writings.) 

For, Al-Ghazali the development of successful scientific theory requires guided intuition of structure (or special properties), and this guided intuition is of the same kind in prophecy. One way to think about Reichenbach's wager in light of Al-Ghazali, then, is that wagers based on past science (and new information, etc.) play a role in the role of guiding of the scientist's intuition when discovering or developing new science.

Prior's footnote is attached to a passage by the "logician" character in the dialogue in "Can religion be discussed?": "The validity of inductive inference, on which Psychoanalyst's "explanation " of religion ultimately depends, can only be affirmed as a leap in the dark." The claim by the logician about inductive inference is more Kierkegaardian than, I think, the Al-Ghazali inspired interpretation of Reichenbach's wager I just offered. On the latter, there is no less an existential leap, but it's less in the dark than the Kierkegaardian leap of the logician (who anticipates the kind of thing Thomas Kuhn seemed to be groping toward sometimes). 

It would have been natural to assume that the "logician" speaks for Prior. And that my distinction between the Kierkegaardian and Al-Ghazalian interpretations is mere artifice. But Prior had already alerted the reader that only in his footnotes is Prior (ahh) himself. So, we can, even must, read Prior's footnote as a correction to the logician.

I could stop here. But I want to add a kind of appendix.

Prior's engagement with religion was non-trivial. Even so, his comments about Islam reported in the Stanford Encyclopedia  are rather derogatory. In the body of "Can religion be discussed?," the psychoanalyst is quoted as treating Islam as a "sort of sideshow;" ("The kind of clear and sharp and anti-idolatrous belief that we have been considering is hardly to be found outside ancient and modern Israel and the Christian Church (with Mohammedanism as a sort of sideshow)." So I was a bit surprised that in footnote 9 (the one after not 8 containing the comment about Reichenbach), Prior, speaking for himself, writes: 

In a work of early Scottish Protestantism, with which Barth has strong affinities, occurs this sentence: "The poets say, (Oedipus knew that he had a father, but knew not that Laius was his father  so the heathen know that there is a god, but know not the true God." It is from this point of view that Mohammedanism is a "sideshow"; for while it may be a purer form of abstract " monotheism "' than Judaism or Christianity, it is not so definite and unambiguous (and so '"monotheistic") in its identification of God's Person by His concrete presence and action in history.

I cannot here do justice to Prior's relationship to, and reflection on Barth. So, I just want to focus on the second sentence of this footnote. Prior is clear that Islam is (relative to Judaism and Christianity) the purest form of monotheism. But he thinks Islam is problematic, rather, in how according to Islam God's presence is manifested in history. I suspect, but would love for a theologian to help me out, that what Prior objects to is that for Islam Jesus is just one of many prophets, and that the Church is just one of many religious institutions.** 

This note 9 turns out, thus, to be a partial correction to the psychoanalyst who misunderstands the manner in which Islam is a sideshow. But it is also a partial elaboration of an earlier footnote (5) in which Prior writes as himself:  "Freud's "Moses and Monotheism"' is, as far as I know, the only anti-religious work which treats the uniqueness of the Hebrew-Christian tradition as a serious problem for unbelief to solve, and does not evade it with chatter about all religions being the same, or evolving along a single line." That is to say, for Prior a certain tradition of monotheism generates a special challenge to the anti-religious or really atheist ("unbelief") argument. (On Prior's atheism recall here.) But Islam is not part of that tradition. And the reason it is not part of that tradition, for this purpose, is how Islam handles the identification of God's Person by His concrete presence and action in history. (That is to say, for Prior the status of Islam merits a central role in the commentary in his own voice on the argument of "the play.")

If I am right about why Prior admires Barth* then for Prior the real problem with Islam is that it does not really allow Church autonomy in the face of worldly ambition or evil (because, on this view, Islam does not really accept the church/state distinction). One may still wonder why this removes Islam from the tradition that is a genuine obstacle for the atheist's argument. I think the answer is that for Prior monotheism generates for the atheist not an epistemic but a moral-political obstacle.

 

 

*Prior writes: "Karl Barth is a Swiss theologian with a considerable following in Europe, most notably in the German Confessional Church, which, under the leadership of Martin Niemoller, has offered persistent resistance to Nazi interference in ecclesiastical affairs." That is to say, part of Prior's admiration for Barth is consequentialist: his words have helped fortify a form of church autonomy in the face of genuine evil.