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February 03, 2005


Abiola Lapite

Your update was definitely needed: Judaism never had any notion of the afterlife until that idea was imported from Zoroastrianism during the exile period, and while the Christians took the idea and ran with it, "heaven" and "hell" haven't ever taken root in orthodox Judaism (the popular Judaism of the illiterate masses was something else). They're not really seen as theologically respectable notions by most Rabbis even today, and most Jews who buy into them owe their ideas more to the pervasiveness of Christian culture than to anything they learnt in the synagogue.


Hello. Good to have you back, and on top form!
just explain the bit about cheating on your wife and how if we really believed what we say we believe this would be psycholgically impossible - I don't see how that necessarily follows.

Frank McGahon

OK, If you believe that cheating on your spouse is a mortal sin, this means that you believe that you expect to go to hell for this. Now, ordinarily we "discount the future", which means that a fiver today is worth more to us than a fiver next week. So if the punishment for a transgression is a finite amount - say you get walloped over the head by a kipper three times a day for a fortnight - it is reasonable to expect that people could risk such a punishment to commit a sin the amount of pleasure for which should equal the amount of pain for the punishment less the discount rate (to account for the fact that the sin is now and the punishment is later). But, if you expect to receive infinite pain for the transgression, discounting the future doesn't apply. Thus to risk infinite pain you would want to be getting infinite pleasure. A quick knee-trembler with Mrs Jones (after your meeting in "the cafe, and no-one knows you're there") doesn't seem like it would offer such infinite bliss.

By contrast the eternity promised to the pious does offer infinite bliss, thus, if you truly believed that you had a shot at this, it would stand to reason that no earthly pleasure could justify risking this prospect. The "rational" choice would be to seek death as quickly as you could (without committing suicide) - after all, once you're in heaven it's a "job for life", (as with the civil service!) and you can't get booted out no matter what you do. Being here on earth, on the other hand, exposes you to countless heaven-jeopardising temptations every single day. It doesn't seem to make any sense to take the risk if you truly believe in an afterlife along the lines profferred by Christianity.

Note that what Will is doing here is adopting an economist's stance which is to start with the premise that everyone is (or at least most people are) acting rationally and from that assumption see if any pattern emerges. The thing is that the conclusion that "people act irrationally" is not really a conclusion so much as an admission of defeat and should only be entertained when all other reasonable avenues of inquiry exhaust themselves. It may well be the case that for puzzling phenomenon X, "people act irrationally" but you might miss the opportunity to discover something relevant and interesting about X if you reach for this conclusion first of all.

Abiola Lapite

"By contrast the eternity promised to the pious does offer infinite bliss"

Does it, though? An infinite duration of bliss, sure, but one would think the infinitude or otherwise of its' net present value would very much depend on the discount rate (which needn't be constant throughout eternity).

Frank McGahon

Well, put it this way, the bliss promised by heaven ought to be approximately equivalent to the torment guaranteed by hell and as I understand the theory, the "amount" is infinite. Perhaps this is meant to signify duration rather than quality, but even if it is, the duration multiplied by quality is still infinite so I can't see how discounting the future could negate that, after all 90% of infinity is still infinity? And the discounting necessary to explain the allegedly inconsistent behaviour takes place during a finite lifespan.

Look at it another way, let's say you are 50 or so, heading down the road to the "same cafe" to meet Mrs J, you've got about 25 or so years left of your "earth" life. So, if it was the case that an infinite amount could get discounted to nothing over 25 years or so, it would stand to reason that a person at age 25 would rather take $0.01 now over a locked-in, guaranteed payment of an infinite amount of money at age 50. Common sense suggests that something other than discounting the future is going, or rather it is a different type of discounting - discounting the possibility of an afterlife.

Abiola Lapite

"Perhaps this is meant to signify duration rather than quality, but even if it is, the duration multiplied by quality is still infinite so I can't see how discounting the future could negate that, after all 90% of infinity is still infinity?"

But an infinite number of terms needn't imply an infinite total; for example, the series 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + ... is an infinite series which sums up to a finite amount. The same is true of continuous integrals - given a declining curve, the total area under a curve can be finite even if the curve never actually reaches zero.

Frank McGahon

Trust me to debate infinity with a mathematician!

I do see your point and I can imagine a way in which such "infinite" pleasure would decline - what seems like unimaginable bliss on day 1 might seem rather humdrum after day 1,453,856. Likewise, one might imagine that given sufficient exposure and familiarity, the gut-wrenching torment of the first few days becomes rather tolerable after a while.

That said, you can be sure that in heaven, no matter how it might decline, it will never reach below zero, that is, you will always be on the "bliss" side of the equation, the opposite pertains for hell. Even with a generous discount rate, the rational choice for a "true" afterlife believer would be not to risk hell at all. If you believe that your life on earth is a vanishingly small portion of your overall life, yet it is the portion during which the entire risk of damnation occurs, it stands to reason that you'd want to get it out of the way as quickly as you could and "bank" entry to paradise.


ok, Hi. I finally got around to reading your reply to my comment re: cheating on your wife.
What you say makes sense and I agree that if you believe that cheating on your wife is a 'mortal sin' as articulated through catholicism, then to do so implies that you don't truly believe in a certain type of afterlife (again, as articulate through catholicism) since if you did then it is unlikely that you would ever knowingly choose to behave in such a way that lead to eternal hell fire and damnation.

I just didn't see how 'belief' itself meant that you wouldn't act in certain ways. I think it's possible to believe in some kind of divine being and some kind of afterlife and still behave in ways that others may deem immoral. I know this is the 'have your cake and eat it' way of thinking....i can sleep around, indulge in a life of physical pleasures and still exist without punishment for all eternity (just for the record, i don't!)

I don't believe in moral absolutes and I don't believe in divine retribution, but I do believe in a God and an afterlife. It doesn't make sense to me to fear or be excited about the next life because if it exists it is not something that can be understood in our present state, and the things we fear/look forward to are a projection of our present condition.

Frank McGahon

This suggests that your view of the possibility of an afterlife, or at least that of the have-the-cake-and-eat-it types, is more of a hope than a belief, which is really the point.

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