Tuesday, November 18, 2003

More on utility, discounts, Pascal, etc.

So apparently I feel like following up on some of the issues from comments on my last post. Cool. Joe says: I remember in Temkin's PHIL101, in discussing Pascal's Wager, the counter example of worshiping Satan, or Zeus, or Wotan. You can't serve God and mammon, much less God and one of those other jokers. But if theirs is the true path, Brother Christian is hosed. This is another potential problem with Pascal's wager, but not, I think, a conclusively devastating one. It just complicates the picture. If Joe's right, and I think he is, then it just becomes harder to pick what to believe -- but Pascal's wager considerations still demonstrate that it's not a good idea to be an atheist. Basically, if each promises the same reward and is mutually exclusive, choose the one you judge to have the highest probability of being true. If you can't tell, pick one at random. Dave says: I think that, in order to make sense of this problem, we may have to discount future utility or disutility according to some scheme that diminishes its value depending on its remoteness in time. He points out that it's perfectly possible to deal with a monetary annuity version of the problem, because future money has a discounted value. I don't think that will help here, because we're already talking about utility. When dealing with money, we say that $10 ten years from now has x current value, while $10 today has, maybe, .8x current value. It's this value that is being extended indefinitely. Imagine Dave's scenario, but where every day, your evil banker steals the amount of money such that its discounted t=0 value is $10. Then we match the devil case, and are left with our puzzling situation. Another way to think about it: why do we discount future money? I think there are two reasons: (1) because inflation gives a given amount of money less happiness-giving power in the future, and (2) because we're not guaranteed to receive future money (for example, if we die). Neither consideration is relevant for our eternally tortured hell-denizen. Hmm... all this talk of eternal damnation is making me hungry.

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