The Grand Gameshow

Chris Brunk, an all-too-loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I developed a thought experiment that I wanted to share with you.  I call it “The Grand Gameshow”.

In this thought experiment you are a contestant on a gameshow.  The host of the gameshow (let’s call him Alex) has a notecard that says whether or not god exists and to what extent he is involved in the affairs of mankind.   You start with $1,000,000 that you must allocate across five possible categories:

  • Category 1 – Scriptural literalism.  Bet into this category if you believe that one of the religious texts is precisely accurate.
  • Category 2 – God is omnipresent.  Bet into this category if you believe that god is everywhere and intimately involved in our lives.
  • Category 3 – God as a guide.  Bet into this category if you believe that god is only there for the major turning points in life and/or when we reach out in prayer.
  • Category 4 – God as a watchmaker.  Bet into this category if you believe that god set the universe in motion but is no longer around.
  • Category 5 – Atheism.  Bet into this category if you believe that god does not exist.

You can distribute the money however you like (e.g. all $1,000,000 in one category or $200,000 in each).  After you’ve allocated your $1,000,000 Alex flips over the notecard and reveals which of the five categories is correct.  You keep any money that you’ve allocated into the correct category.

Some footnotes.  For the purposes of playing this gameshow assume that your financial situation is that of a farmhand in Mexico.  You earn about $4,000 per year and have no substantial savings or degrees.  I classify simulism as being category 4.

I would be very interested to hear how you’d allocate your funds versus say, Russ Roberts or Robin Hanson.

How about this?: the true “solution” to the universe would be to our minds incredibly complex, although within the theoretical framework of a (non-existent) omniscient being it would be simple.  If we had more knowledge about the true theory, however, though without reaching omniscience, many of us would not agree as to whether it involved a God or not.  The knowledge-enhanced me would think it did not.  The books don’t enter into it, nor do the book trucks, sadly.

For Russ or Robin I would not pretend to speak.  Robin has papers and blog posts on simulism, so at the very least he is interested in that topic but I will leave it to him to describe his stance.


Since the utility function of money is highly non-linear for a Mexican farmhand, bet $200,000 on each outcome even if you strongly believe in one category.

yes, there are better ways to make this wager more meaningful. Perhaps the $1m is in a solid lump of gold and you can't allocate it. or you can only allocate it 3 ways. or the allocation must be 4,3,2,1,0

Came here to say what AC said. If you only make 4K per year, you'd be a moron to turn down an automatic 200K, regardless of the question being asked.

Fix that, and you'd have a good game. Either alter the money amount, or restrict the number of categories you can bet on to 2 or so.

Hell this is true even for us non-farmhands. Even a middle class American would be a total fool to pass up a guaranteed $200K or $250K (assuming we can reject complete scriptural literalism).

It always was one of CBBB's more bizarre tics that he seemed to have no comprehension of the value of money. He claimed that people making $60K a year were in poverty, for instance. To him, I think, the possibility of gaining $200K just doesn't seem like that great a deal; hence framing the hypothet in terms of a Mexican farmhand, for whom $200K would seem to be almost unimaginable riches.

I don't get this. Why not weight the distribution according to your confidence? Either way you would still have a fortune, but in one you would have a higher expected value.

Losing would not only leave you poorer but also shake your worldview to the core, perhaps even damaging your future earning potential. A double loss.

Bet it all on category 5. If heaven is real, who cares about money? Or maybe split it between 4 and 5, since 4 doesn't necessarily imply an afterlife.

I'm with Brandon. I immediately viewed it as a hedging exercise.

Kind of a subtler version of Pascal's wager.

If heaven is real

What makes you think you are getting in?

From the point of view of an agnostic, the first four are just minor variants of the same thing. The list might more accurately be presented as:

1.a: Scriptural literalism
1.b: God is omnipresent
1.c: God as a guide
1.d: God as a watchmaker
2: Atheism

which suggests that bets should be biased towards atheism.

I think 4 is quite different from 1-3. If you're open-minded about what could constitute a God then a lot of scenarios begin to count.

For example, if there's a meta-universe and some being in it decided to create our universe for fun, that being would clearly be a God to us, but atheists would be mostly right in their world-view. For example, there'd be no need to bother with religion since such a creator surely would not care if we are naughty or nice. I also don't find it insanely implausible: I find it much more plausible than, e.g., option 1. I haven't even broached the issue of what sort of meta-universal entity might count as a 'being' either! If there is an extra- or meta- universal origin for our universe it might not take much to tip the scales towards 4.

2 and 3, I'll agree, are only very subtly different if at all.

Exactly what I was thinking.

Agree with Alistair, except I'd probably skip category 1, as Catholicism does not claim that the bible is precisely accurate, but that it is divinely inspired.

How is the solution on the card determined?
1) If it is just a random integer between 1 and 5, then one should go for an even split.
2) If there is some analysis / mechanism for choosing the answer on the card, then pick whichever the analysis indicates to be the answer
3) if it's neither of the above, then the questions is only 'do you believe in God in any of the following forms?'

If the answer on the card is true via some kind of cosmic knowledge, then it would be worth $1 million just to find out the answer.

Let's make it a tad more interesting:

"I would be very interested to hear how Alex would allocate the funds versus say, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Russ Roberts, Paul Krugman, Robert Mugabe, the Dalai Lama, Tim Tebow, James Randi, Bill Gates, Mick Jagger, any American "Catholic" politician, Matt Welch, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Manmohan Singh, and Silvio Berlusconi."

Just for starters....

Any of the above who are already wealthy relative to $1M (most of them) will naturally have a utility function very close to linear, and can therefore afford to put all $1M on the outcome they consider most likely, or at least the only they publicly proclaim if their future income depends on selling a religious viewpoint.

If I'm living on $4,000 year, then both $200,000 and $1,000,000 are immense fortunes, so in that case, my main concern would be not losing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. #1 can be safely ruled out on empirical grounds, but some version of 2-5 could, conceivably, be shoehorned, in some fashion, to fit the properties of the world -- so as poor Mexican farmer, I guess I'd distribute my money equally across 2-5.

And I call nonsense on 'simulism'. That is, for a simulated world to be so detailed to 'fool' us into believing it is genuine (right on down to physics experiments at the subatomic level), then such a simulation would be real in every meaningful sense. A 'fake' human being, constructed of simulated subatomic particles would have the same moral standing as as 'real' human being constructed out of 'real' subatomic particles. Our rules for living would be unchanged. Same skepticism goes for zombies, BTW -- a convincingly real human being could not be an unthinking, unfeeling, non-conscious automaton (not even an aspyish, sci-fi loving economist). A convincing simulation of a person would have to be done at a very low level, and the result would be full personhood -- the raw materials would be of no consequence. That's probably enough rock kicking for now...

In your (er... Chris Brunk's) mind, what about this is interesting? Is it the premise that our proclaimed beliefs might be expressed differently if we had skin in the game? "Sure, he might say he believes in God, but put some money on the table and we'll see just how strong his faith really is!"

I don't think this "game" is even remotely interesting. What I do find interesting is the ability of our host to write a completely vapid paragraph pretending to answer the question while being very careful not to offend anybody. If anything deserves to be called modern art, it's this.




Although to be fair I think that paragraph was basically a (very) roundabout way for Tyler to say that he's a committed atheist.

The final length of the comment thread will tell us whether this game is interesting. Initially I thought, no brainer, $200K each, but I have been swayed by other commenters to consider other options. Interesting.

Interesting that you're getting such support for that comment, as my own views are word-for-word identical to Cowen's, and I don't give the slightest shit about offending anybody. I think the 5 "categories" are themselves silly and limited higher-ape-who-thinks-too-highly-of-himself games. We first got the slightest handle on gravity a few hundred years ago and still don't have it nailed down, not to mention the host of other things we don't begin to understand (take any of your favorite unproved mathematical conjectures, nevermind as-yet-unconjectured conjectures, consistency of peano arithmetic, ultimate grounding or lack thereof of any of these systems we cook up - whatever, however you want to build that list, it'd be long), and we're really so, so comfortable taking to me what seems like this laughably arrogant jump back to think we can cleanly partition the set of explanations into basically a bunch of "magic sky daddy" categories and also one that is "no magic sky daddy". My view is that the evidence is that we're really not as good at framing these things as we think we are, and that's not in any way an attempt to smuggle in some sort of backdoor mysticism. I do not believe in a magic sky daddy. I just don't think I understand the universe very well at all, and I don't take that as evidence that it is all very new-age mysterious, either. Just evidence that I'm not very smart. What's wrong with that?

Spare us the feigned intellectual humility.

"I'm not very smart, but I'm smarter than most of the human beings who ever lived and who foolishly believed in sky-daddy."

Many, many intellectual giants believed in a deity, throughout history, with access (or, lack thereof) to substantially the same information as you, modern man. They too were quite aware of the paucity of human knowledge, and of the limits of the human mind.

Many brilliant minds disbelieved in God as well, but to agree with them you needn't imply that the rest are utter fools. At least not while you sanctimoniously profess your intellectual honesty.

Here is a wise man, he knows that he knows nothing. I seem to remember some other wise man who took the same position....oh wait, he believed in God. Must have been some kind of moron after all.

Impossible to like this comment enough.


Tyler's scenario seems plausible to me, yet rarely mentioned in such discussions. I hadn't thought of it before, but it now feels like maybe the most under-rated possibility to me. And I don't think that it's vapid -- if physics continues to advance then this position makes more testable predictions than most hypothesis about God I've heard.

This scenario is framed a tad too much through the lens of a majority-believer society.

In my view, it would suffice to compare:
1) Omniscient God
2) Simulism (Atheism)
3) Atheism

Brunk's category 4 does not reduce to simulism since an ominscient being could model the entire path of the simulation and all it's possible branches as a mental exercise. This thought experiment would not materially differ from a remotely initiated simulation. Simulism, as it's argued, does not require an omniscient programmer. Believers in an omniscient initializer map closely to deists and fall under (1).

Simulism sounds much more like deism than atheism.

Deism is/was basically ye-olde-politically-correct atheism anyway.

Odd. There's an obviously missing Category 6 -- "We are God." As others have pointed out, there are 4 variations of "God is external" and 1 of "God is non-existent". But no "God'r'Us".


Ray, if someone asks you if you're a God, you say YES

Outstanding reference.


It's interesting that the assumption seems to be that 2 is more "orthodox" than 3. I think these choices should be reversed. #3 reflects Christian or Jewish belief more than 2 does. There could be an Omnipresent God who is intimately involved in our lives, but in ways we cannot understand. This omnipresent God would not necessarily respond to our prayers or "help" us in any way. He could even be malevolent, or perceived by us to be malevolent. You could also argue that #2 could equally well describe "The Force" in Star Wars or any other mystic universal force that is all around us.

For all intents and purposes how is #4 really different from Atheism? A God that is "no longer around" and does not engage with his/her/its creation is arguably no "God" at all.

I would argue there is a huge difference between a universe that spontaneously sprung into existence and one that was shaped by the whims of a grand designer. The latter is far more boring.

Substitute the word "astrology" for the word "god" in the gameshow and you can quickly see how silly this whole thing is. There is no reason to even consider proof of a negative as being necessary.

Bet it all on #5.

Bet all $1,000,000 on 5. If there is no God you've won it all back; if there is a God then you can sue him for damages and be a billionaire. God bless America and our court system.

I'd bet it all on 4 or 5. If there IS a God, you'd best start preparing to get yourself into Heaven, and you suddenly have to start considering the infinite horizon -- you'd probably just have to give the money away and live in poverty, anyway.

To those of you who suggest that you'd be an idiot to give up a guaranteed $200K, you're missing a key point: The proper allocation of funds STILL depends on your beliefs. If you believe that one of the choices above is correct with high probability, it may be best for you to allocate more money there even if you are a poor chicano farmer.

We're not betting on the Truth, we're wagering on the contents of "a notecard that says whether or not god exists and to what extent he is involved in the affairs of mankind." There's absolutely no prior as to what the notecard says. If anything, your allocation should depend on the beliefs of the host, or perhaps the entity that created the notecard, or the sponsors of the gameshow. $200K across the board. (Unless you want me to accept on faith that the notecard's declaration is indeed correct.)

I think Trevor was getting at exactly that above when he asked how the outcome on the card was being determined.

I was taking the thought experiment seriously. Obviously, there would be some major impediments to setting up such a game show in reality. If we are thinking about a realistic version of the game show in which the contents of the card reflect the host's belief and not necessarily reality, then we are outside of the realm of the thought experiment originally proposed. However, even in this case, $200,000 allocated equally may not be the best choice.

I still hold that if one could actually believe the card, then putting $500,000 on 4 and 5 is a better choice. If 1, 2, or 3 is chosen, then you have been given a greater gift: Knowledge that you have to start preparing yourself for the apocalypse, at which point even a billion dollars isn't going to be of much use.

Real divide between 3 & 4. Does god interact in history or just function as something that starts the motion? (Big bang functions as something that just starts the motion.) Although using "literalism" is prejudicial. Scriptural Revelation or Inspiration would be a better term. Something like: one of the religious texts contains the true revelation of God. As the "solution" to us would have to be incredibly complex (i.e.' my thoughts are higher than your thoughts (Isaiah)' or 'where were you? (Job)' ) applying literalism for what are metaphors and analogies that we can grasp is the wrong word. Bet it all on 1 or 5. You could split it, but human psychology doesn't seem to allow that in a longer game. Which of course is what Jesus said about bringing a sword instead of peace and all his parables of division.

Simulism does not resolve the question of God to any degree acceptable to a modern theologan. When we say "God," few of us mean simply an ageless chap who lives in the sky and throws lightning, and may be answerable to gods of his own; we mean the Ground of All Being. God with a capital G. If we're just running on a computer somewhere, then that computer--or the computer simulating that computer, and so on as far as you like to go--must ultimately be situated in the realm of true time and space, and it is about this fundamental realm that we must ultimately reason if we wish to talk about God. "We're on a computer" is just kicking the can down the road, and not very far.

Sorry, it's computers all the way up.

Programs running on the dust on a turtle's back, no doubt.

I guess that explains evil. The turtle moved.

All on 5 except $10 on one. I want to be able to buy that book.


Several people are asking what the point of the exercise is. Here are some thoughts and clarifications:

1. Degree of certainty is a frequently overlooked, but important distinction in religion. For example, both my mother and younger brother attend Catholic mass regularly. Both describe themselves as being religious. While my mother allocates 0, 1000, 0, 0, 0, my younger brother allocates 0, 400, 400, 200, 200. I allocate 0, 200, 200, 400, 400 and I’ve talked to some atheists who allocate 0, 0, 0, 0, 1000. Even though I’ve historically described myself as an Atheist, I would say I probably have more in common with my brother than the Cat-5 Atheist. Being 100% certain of something is a very different intellectual position in general. This is just as true for religion as it is for politics / economics. What if the game was five different healthcare systems -- would you bet $1 million on your favorite?

2. Conventional labels such as "Theist", "Atheist" or "Agnostic" don't do a good job capturing the range of possibilities within religion. I have always found it very peculiar that there is so much debate about whether god exists and so little about the distinctions between categories 2, 3 and 4.

3. Listening to people try to break the game is at least as interesting as conventional answers. As some have suggested if god doesn't exist, why not put it all in 5 to get rich? My counterargument would be that if god does exist that doesn't make being poor any more desirable. Also, living in poverty may not optimally position you to get to the afterlife. With a windfall you may be able to influence just causes.

4. Some people who are highly religious believe that participating in the experiment or diversifying their capital demonstrates a lack of faith. I think this is interesting it its own right.

5. Some have asked why you are poor in the experiment. If you are wealthy, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth entices you to put all your capital into the basket that is most likely. (This is not the point of the experiment)

#1 How stable are these preferences and allocations over time. I've seen such questions on surveys and I believe most people are notoriously unequipped to perform such quantitative allocations. I believe if you wait long enough for their memories of to fade ( of what they answered ) then you might get drastically different allocations from the same people.

This is not an all inclusive list. But I agree with others that would put an equal amount on each answer. Alex doesn't have the correct answer, he has what he thinks is the correct answer. It's a guessing game.

But if you view it that way, do you think that what Alex thinks is the right answer is randomly distributed? It becomes a game of what you know about Alex. If it's the mustachioed Canadian of game show fame, I'd significantly discount #1, perhaps to zero. Maybe allocate evenly across the other four as I don't know much about that man.

For what it's worth, I took the premise to actually be that what Alex's card says is the actual truth, not just what Alex believes.

Alex has the correct answer. This is a condition of the game.

I'm curious, was there a reason why you didn't think "agnostic" was a deserving preference to put on that quiz?

Agnosticism is available through a 50/50 allocation of money between categories 1 to 4 (theism/deism) and 5.

Because agnosticism is orthogonal to belief in god of the lack thereof. It's a statement of epistemology, not metaphysics. Ultimately, whether or not your believe it is possible to know whether or not a god or gods exist, they exist or don't regardless or our ability to learn that fact.

I guess my point was that because Alex does not communicate certain beliefs in God that he cannot have the correct answer. I guess the game would be different if Alex has your specific belief in God as one of the categories.

I'd have a heck of a time choosing between three and four. Imagine the conversation between God and Jesus, say, at lunch on some distant planet:
God: I don't know what I'm going to do about planet Earth. We all set them up to have terrific minds and to be able to use them, and what do they do? They refuse to help each other and keep calling out to us constantly to help them, as if they can't possibly help themselves.
Jesus: I know. But I sure hope I don't have to go back anytime soon; there is too much on our plate right now. Lots of people there like to talk about how much better it is to be a low maintenance individual, but they have sure set up a high maintenance world for us to deal with.

Normally I would put it all on 5 (since it is the most likely of the five options), but after updating on the facts that 1) this gameshow exists and 2) I have turned into a Mexican farmhand, options 2-4 start looking much more attractive.

Nobody is asking who created and funded the game show. If it were a church or religious group, it would certainly be more likely that 1 was the winning answer. As it is likely impossible for our Mexican farmhand to know who is pulling the strings, he should divvy up the money equally across all categories.

Why God and not Gods?

Oh, I see. This is game for present-day Americans.

Most of the arguments for or against God seem to target a monotheistic God; I was always curious to see how well or poorly a lot of this extends to polytheism.

The Argument from Evil in particular is only relevant to gods in a fairly particular set of traditions. It's not very effective when disputing the Greek pantheon, for instance.

Avoid confusing being a mexican farmhand with having the financial situation of such a person.

By the way, for the game as presented: I'd take the easy 200,000.

The more interesting question is: Given that the answer Alex has is absolutely correct and certain, how much would you pay to know it?

"How about this?: the true “solution” to the universe would be to our minds incredibly complex, although within the theoretical framework of a (non-existent) omniscient being it would be simple. If we had more knowledge about the true theory, however, though without reaching omniscience, many of us would not agree as to whether it involved a God or not. The knowledge-enhanced me would think it did not."

I believe that there is a name for this: physics.

Archetypal Tyler answer - reeks of obfuscation, but in fact rises above the original question, and obliges you to consider a new way of thinking!

Danke, Eric M!

After cutting through the obfuscation, I think it says, "I cannot even imagine the data that would shift my priors."

$1 mill on atheism. Easy game.

Hmm, I wonder if this is this some kind of exam quiz for your blog commenters to test their decision theory / expected utility calculation skills? I'm not sure what to signal, but I'm sure Tyler is enjoying all the comments here -- I bet this blog entry was more for the comments than for the content itself!

I guess if you'd like to be smart about this, you would want to put your money depending on the expected value, but then there're bias-issues (add some Bayesian meta-analysis), then there are overlapping answers (1-4), then there's risk-profile and risk aversion, then add some marginal utility and you get yourself a pretty nice equation. I'll gladly admit I don't know enough to make the most optimal decision.

I'd bet Robin Hanson would put a some money on atheism and simulation. And after-all, he's not the only physicist believing in simulations, and definitely not the only atheist. In fact I'd bet as he would (does the game host give an option to call to a smarter person?).

In any case, if there ever is a heaven, I'm sure this is the game God likes to host for the every new batch of upcoming souls. I would wonder where's the threshold. Would God accept confidence interval distributed answer or would you have to bet all your property (including human capital) on the right answer? What if there is belief inflation? Does God run a macro policy? Gotta keep that AS up! Also are the answers free will -weighted?

Seems to, in US, people are quite absorbed with the God question. Nothing wrong with that. But to me, it is like Austrian Methodenstreit. Prima facie seems to be very important, but ultimately not very interesting. Great pastime though. Also my detective skills guesstimate the person who made this test is possibly religious, maybe agnostic given the number of somewhat equivalent options, and is maybe looking for guidance to answer the question for himself.

p.s. Can we replace the God with unicorns?

I'd allocate my funds evenly across options and then use my residual to buy stock in the production company underwriting this gameshow, assuming there would be an (enforceable) individual mandate that everyone participate in the game and the gameshow kept all the participants' losses...

While getting $200k for sure seems really appealing, I would put $500k each on #4 and #5. I'm assuming that we take the broad view of "God" for #4, otherwise I'll just put $1 million on #5.

I am just very confident that #1-3 are wrong. Even if I participated in such a game and "Alex" revealed the answer as any of #1-3 I would have no reason to believe him, and it wouldn't change my beliefs at all.

"Even if I participated in such a game and “Alex” revealed the answer as any of #1-3 I would have no reason to believe him, and it wouldn’t change my beliefs at all."
So you wouldn't change your beliefs at all, even if there was any new evidence that contradict your beliefs. How wonderful.

$200,000 on all five categories. Money is far too important to be wasted on idle signaling of your 'true' belief.

ESPECIALLY when you make $4,000/year.

So I'm a Mexican farmhand, am I? Okay. That's when I say: "Screw this, I'm going north, across the border. I hear they wager on God up there."

I believe in something like #4 or #5 but the best bet for people who think it likely God exists is probably #3 because it involves the broadest spectrum. Basically any Godly involvement short of total direction, or greater than zero direction after the creation event, is covered by that one.

My anecdotal observation is that religious belief has much more to do with the strength of the connection between one's income and one's efforts than it does with affluence, per se.

Some of the most characteristically superstitious and religious vocations are those in which your prosperity depends to a profound degree on matters beyond your control, like actors and farmers. In contrast, vocations in which your prosperity mostly depend upon matters within your control tend to be more secular and less superstitious.

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