Field of Science

Skeptical: Philosophical Umpire

Making good decisions is complicated. Game theory applies logic and mathematics to determine the optimal course of action for individuals when acting in the presence of other participants. Now, individual actions must take into account logic, morals, and personal preference, but there are general rules or situations in which the optimal course of action is clear. This comic (or infographic?) by SMBC illustrates the application of game theory to a classic problem, the prisoners dilemma, and by extension morality.

prisoners dilemma
The prisoners dilemma is a great way to find your moral compass. We can apply a similar decision matrix as used above to many different kinds of situations, like Pascal's wager, where one attempts to bet on the existence of God. The logic of pascal's wager concludes that one should believe, or at least act as if one believes in God (this result is unsatisfactory to many, but wait I have a response). I was recently considering applying a decision matrix to answer the question, 'Should you believe in science?' There are other ways to phrase the question, like 'Should you be a skeptic?' or 'Should you follow logic?' Decision theory gets tricky here. In order to answer the question I recalled an analogy a professor used in a philosophy class I took long ago. My professor wanted us to consider a philosophical umpire calling a game. The umpire could either state that she was very vigilant such that she, 'calls em as I see em' (admitting fallibility), or the umpire could say that, 'I call them as they are' (denial of fallibility).  In the situation before replays I could almost see the umpire taking either stance with reason because they are the final arbiter on the field. In this modern age it is completely untenable for an umpire to state that she calls everything'as they are because replays are available. In life any experience that can be repeated is like a game with replays; an experiment is a game with replays. We all must be like the philosophical umpire and we can reason out how to behave using these ideas.

Below I have made a logic table. On the left vertical axis is the true outcome of an event with respect to how you perceived it and on the top horizontal axis is how you see yourself judging the event. The conclusion of the table is that application of the scientific method is really powerful. Admitting that you make errors in judgement means that you always allow potential for improvements in the future outcomes, but insistence on being right leads you to a false world view. I think that scientists, skeptics, and atheist have essentially the same goal and are all standing in the top right corner there jumping up and down trying to get people to choose to be skeptical.
'calls em as I see em' (skeptic)   'calls em as they are'   
positive result, skeptic world view, positive future resultspositive result, superficially correct world view, positive future results
negative result, skeptic world view, potential for improved future resultsnegative result, false world view, negative future results

It almost seem to be a tautology that logic says you should use logic to understand the world. This decision matrix casts doubt on the result of all other decision matrices like Pascal's wager such that we can escape being certain that belief in God is best, but simultaneously this result casts doubt on itself. Paradoxically what this really seems to say is that you should be skeptical about being skeptical.


  1. Well I am skeptical of being skeptical. :) Very interesting post and I really enjoyed it a lot.

  2. That's funny, I was just reading about the Prisoner's Dilemma the other day and it had nothing to do with SMBC. I think the biggest flaw in those rational matrices is that while they are logically consistent, they don't represent the real world. Rarely do we have binary choices (or in the case of the Prisoner's Dilemma specifically, the constraint of being unable to communicate with the other party). In the real world we can take advantage of a multi-dimensional spectrum of possible choices. But your point of admitting fallibility is well taken.

    I've always disliked Pascal's Wager for two really big reasons. Firstly, you don't really have a binary choice. There are several different Gods or religions you could believe in, many of which have conflicting ideologies and/or a prohibition on believing any other religion or worshiping another God. So now not only do you have to choose whether or not you believe in God, but what God you need to believe in! Secondly, any omniscient God, if She does exist, is going to know if you're just pretending to be religious or pious on the off chance God is real. I'd imagine such subterfuge is useless anyway.


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