The Sliding Scale of Pascal’s Wager

In Response To Measuring Someones Worth Using Their Post Apocalyptic Value

Continuing the spirited discussion (would it be better to call it “dramatic argument”? Would that drive more pageviews?) of the last few posts, I do think Mutt has several valid points. The PAV metric is a workable system for rating people, but I think using it as the sole metric is a bad idea for a simple reason: the world hasn’t ended yet.

This is not to say it never will, or that preparation for it is a bad thing. Quite the contrary, there’s a reason governments are always pushing for “disaster preparedness” kits, it shows how truly fragile our society is that a large storm can functionally bring the apocalypse to a local area for a time. Having skills useful in such situations is a good thing.

However, we are finite creatures. There is only so much we can learn or become in our lifetime. And for every thing you spend an hour, day, or year learning, that is one less hour, day, or year to learn a different thing. As humans we are constantly faced with choices on what to devote time to learning. We generally try to learn things that are immediately (or at least clearly) useful to us. The dilemma comes when what we should learn for apocalyptic survival and what we should learn for survival in our current world are in conflict.

Are you employed as an artist, programmer, writer, teacher, game designer, accountant, lawyer, secretary, lab technician, data-entrant, policy analyst or academic? Congratulations. Your job is useless in the apocalypse. However, you’ll notice that you are not currently dead, because those job skills are in demand, so you are paid money which allows you to purchase food and shelter. At some point you sacrificed mastering apocalyptic skills for what we can call “mysterious” skills (“Apokalyptein” is Greek for “revelation/to uncover”, “musterion”, aka mystery, means “secret knowledge or rites” and is sort of the opposite). Frankly, this is a good bet in most cases. The only reason having a high PAV matters at all is because it resembles Pascal’s Wager: if the unlikely event of the world ending actually happens, you’re pretty badly doomed unless well-prepared. While the world ending is highly unlikely at any single point in time, at some point entropy will wreck our collective day and only the prepared and lucky will survive.

This leads to a spectrum of tactics various people take in response. On one end are people that don’t wait for society to collapse, but leave early and behave as if society already has. Hermits in cabins, those that “go Galt”, and various survivalists will likely be unaffected by the destruction of society. They have focused wholly on apocalyptic skills. At the other end are those who intentionally or unintentionally live assuming society is going to be around for them. Celebrities, specialized technicians, and others dependent on society are similarly focused on the mysterious skills. Most people are somewhere in between these two poles, if I had to guess I’d say I’m pretty close to median, and Mutt is somewhere between me and the apocalyptic pole.

This issue gets further clouded by the range of apocalyptic skills. I am, to say the least, terrible with guns. My aim is crap and I wouldn’t know how to maintain one unless it came with an owner’s manual. That said, I can knap flint, not as effectively as an anthropology grad student can (Seriously, if all tech falls apart hang on to the anthropology grad students, they will live quite happily), but enough that I could more efficiently put holes in delicious animals. Depending on the scale and grade of societal destruction, that may be a useful or useless skill. Similarly, if a the disaster causes enough deaths then food-collection skills might be unimportant simply because the survivors will have enough canned goods to learn farming from trial and error. Alternately, a war may mean that those with a skillset as nerdy and mystery-based as theoretical physics will be welcomed in eagerly by another nation and never really experience a loss of civilization (hey, it worked for Einstein, right?). Maximizing your PAV could be done by just mastering enough skills (or bringing sufficient tractor-trailers of resources to approximate skills) out into the middle of nowhere and never interacting with human society again. While this makes you a person with a good PAV, I’m unsure it makes you a good person.


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