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Predestination and the Wagers of Sin

Robert Howell suggests a surprising reason for piety.

“We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he determined within himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others” (Calvin, Institutes 3.21.5).

Calvinists and their ilk believed that there are a group of people, the Elect, who are predestined by God to partake of the fruits of Heaven while the rest are headed for a less salubrious fate. One cannot tell who the Elect are, except by gleaning a hint from the fact that they lead perfectly Christian lives. Nevertheless, Calvinists typically adhered to an extremely strict and inconvenient religious regimen. Why? It is not as if they were earning their salvation, since whether or not they were saved or damned was already determined, and could not be affected by any of their actions or thoughts. Consequently, the obedience of the Calvinists is often rationalized by appealing to their fear either of self-loathing or of ostracism. According to this story, Calvinists act pious so as to preserve the appearance that they are among the Elect. However, this is not a particularly charitable interpretation of Calvinist motives, as it seems to mislocate their reasons for being pious. If this were all that motivated them, then it would be entirely possible to satisfy that goal through self-deception or deception of others while being impious. While there were surely no hypnotists then available to aid in self-deception, or Rings of Gyges to aid in deceiving others, it does seem dubious that these lacks were the only reasons Calvinists remained truly pious. It behooves us to find an explanation for their actually being pious, and not merely seeming so, that doesn’t ascribe to them a blatant irrationality.

An important puzzle in decision theory can help in sorting out intuitions behind these matters, I think. In Newcomb’s problem, we’re asked to imagine the following scenario. An immensely intelligent fellow, christened by reputation The Predictor, is able with astounding accuracy, approaching perfection, to predict the actions of others. The Predictor sets you the following game. There are in front of you two boxes; one opaque and the other translucent. The game allows you two options: you can either take both boxes and keep the contents of both, or you can take only the opaque box, keeping only its contents. In the translucent box, there is $50,000. In the opaque box, the Predictor (who has amassed quite a fortune by his forecasting excellence) will have placed either $1 million or nothing at all. He places the money within the box an hour before you make your choice. His decision about what to place in the box is determined by the following rule: if he predicts that you will take only the opaque box, he will place $1million within it; if he predicts you will take both, he will place nothing inside the opaque box. Should you take only the opaque box, or both boxes?

People have conflicting intuitions on this matter: there are many one-boxers, and many two-boxers. Both sides adduce persuasive reasons in their favor. In general, though, most people – at least those unschooled in the problem – side with the one boxers. Why? The Predictor is extremely good at predicting whether people take one or two boxes, and you know this. We can imagine that you’ve seen him play this game with hundreds of people, and every time people take one box they receive a million dollars, and every time they take two they receive only the $50,000. When it’s your turn to choose, why think that you can buck the odds? You should act in such a way as to maximizes expected utility, and the probabilities are extremely high that if you take one box you will walk off with a cool million, while if you take two you’ll have to gripe about only receiving fifty grand.

As I said, it seems to me that most people are one-boxers. The interesting thing for us is that the rationale for being a one-boxer is exactly the same as the rationale for being extremely well-behaved if you’re a Calvinist. God is the Predictor; Heaven might or might not be in the opaque box, and sinful pleasures on earth are in the translucent box. Heaven is in the opaque box only for the Elect; but God chooses the Elect based upon his infallible prediction as to whether or not they partake of earthly sins. Thus by the same utility-maximization strategy, it seems quite rational to be very well behaved indeed. Calvinists were just one-boxers ahead of their time!

I think it is a sufficient vindication of the Calvinists that there is this plausible defense of their behavior. If they were making a mistake, it’s an easy one to make, and it certainly leaves them with a rational justification for their pious obedience. They’re not out of the woods, however, for the old complaint against the Calvinists still resonates. Consider yourself confronted with the two boxes once again. The money is either already in the opaque box or it is not. Nothing you will do can change that. How can you go wrong by taking both boxes? The Predictor either put the money in the opaque box or he didn’t. Suppose he did. Then, if you take both boxes you wind up with $1,050,000 – fifty grand more than if you had just taken the opaque box. Or suppose he didn’t. Well, then you go home with $50,000 – which is again fifty grand more than if you had only taken the opaque box. It would seem that whatever the Predictor actually did, you would be better taking two boxes – how could this be anything but the rational thing to do? One can furthermore imagine that the Predictor, who is also a truth-teller, tells your buddy whether or not the million is in the box. What would your buddy, who has all the information about the potential payoffs, recommend that you do? If he had your financial interests at heart, he would always, no matter what the Predictor did, also recommend you take two boxes. It would seem completely irrational to go against the advice of your well-informed friend.

These considerations support the doubts about the motivations which drove pious Calvinists. God already knows if someone is a member of the Elect – he has already decided the matter, and it’s irrevocable. Now suppose Satan, a two-boxer to the bitter end, knows of Jacob whether or not he is a member of the Elect. It seems that no matter whether Jacob was a member of the Elect or not, Satan would recommend that he partake of whatever carnal sin tickled his fancy. Despite Satan’s wily ways, it seems that in this case he would have Jacob’s best interests at heart, and that any angel who wasn’t completely under the thumb of the Old Man would also recommend the same. It furthermore seems that pious Jacob, once in Heaven, would be right to kick himself and say “I was one of the Elect all along! I should’ve gone for Goody Whitfield when I had the chance!” So, anyway, suggests the Protestant two-boxer.

Whether or not the Calvinists were right, or whether one should be a one-boxer or not, is a troubled question, and if it is ever solved conclusively, it will not be here. In any case, it seems without a doubt that the Calvinists have a more rational justification than is usually ascribed to them. After all, in response to the two-boxer, they can always say, “Thanks for the lesson in decision theory, but I’ve noticed that whenever someone acts on your argument they wind up in Hell. Excuse me, but I think in light of that, it is quite rational to remain pious.” At this point, one suspects that the Calvinist and his critic must simply part paths, perhaps in more ways than one.

© Dr Robert J. Howell 2009

Robert Howell is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

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