Sam Harris’s kind of thought experiment

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9 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    The purpose of Harris’s thought experiment here is to convince readers of the importance of beliefs in people’s formulation of their rational responses to the world. If people with crazy beliefs could get the bombs in the future, we ought to now begin the project of convincing them to not believe such crazy things.

    • ippolit says:

      Well, that is precisely my point and the reason why we should reject such a thought experiment. It relies on a false premise in order to persuade of a conclusion – the false premise here being that a possible future possession of long-range nuclear missiles morally justify nuclear first strike. They do not.

      Let me reverse this, just so we are clear why this is an appallingly bad conclusion: are extremists morally justified to use traditional warfare tactics on Western soil? Of course not.

  2. Picana says:

    >Well, that is precisely my point and the reason why we should reject such a thought experiment. It relies on a false premise in order to persuade of a conclusion – the false premise here being that a possible future possession of long-range nuclear missiles morally justify nuclear first strike. They do not.

    Harris didn’t say it was morally justified. In fact, from your quote of his work, he says it would be an unthinkable crime.

    >Let me reverse this, just so we are clear why this is an appallingly bad conclusion: are extremists morally justified to use traditional warfare tactics on Western soil? Of course not.

    You do realize that there’s a difference in goals between ISiS and Denmark. What do extremists hope to achieve with their attacks? What do Western governments hope to achieve?

    The sort of criticism you’re making of the thought experiment is the sort of criticism people make of the Trolley problem. They focus their energies on wondering how the fat man would be able to stop the trolley.

    • ippolit says:

      To your first point, straight from Sam Harris’s website: “In The End of Faith, I argue that competing religious doctrines have divided our world into separate moral communities and that these divisions have become a continual source of human violence.” (link) I take his concern to be moral justification, I could be wrong, but that seems to be his interest. That it is an unthinkable crime, I think we all agree. But would it be any less of a crime if the extremists were to use other means? – airplanes? guerrilla warfare? traditional declaration of war and ground invasion? I think the crime is equally unthinkable.

      To your second point, this is the most redundant and frankly silly point. There aren’t many people who are that relativist (except some teenagers perhaps) to claim that there is no difference between ISIS and Denmark. I have not made that claim in this article, nor anywhere else. Of course there is a difference between ISIS and Denmark (and frankly, even North Korea is different from ISIS). I think you are misunderstanding something here. My point is precisely the condemnation of ISIS – they would not be justified on any sort attack on Western soil. We do not need a thought experiment of Sam Harris’s type to come to that conclusion. In fact, I think you are entirely wrong on the premise of this piece, I am interested on the purpose of thought experiments – this particular article is a continuation of the previous one on the three types of thought experiments – and this one in particular is an example of bad thought experiments. That I happen to think Sam Harris is an appalling theorist should be clear; what my political positions are is something you infer (i.e. they are not present in this article).

      Your last point has no value, or I fail to see why we are interested in trolley problems suddenly. I will say though that the critique I am making has a practical side: namely, if we were to focus on thought experiments of current historical situations, we would have more effective policy, which does not give rise to populism (on both right and left), but instead focuses on the current problems (and just to be clear: ISIS is a current problem, while our focus is hardly ISIS, but headscarves and ‘burkinis’).

  3. Picana says:

    >I take his concern to be moral justification, I could be wrong, but that seems to be his interest.

    Yes the interest is in the sorts of justifications people give for some of their actions and he has repeatedly pointed out the danger with religiously guided justifications.

    >That it is an unthinkable crime, I think we all agree.

    Yes we all agree a nuclear attack would be an unthinkable crime and you say Sam also thinks it would be morally justified. My point here is that Sam never says it is morally justified. He may think it is justified on the basis of people in the West preferring to live rather than getting annihilated in a nuclear explosion but that isn’t the same as saying he thinks it is morally justified.

    >There aren’t many people who are that relativist (except some teenagers perhaps) to claim that there is no difference between ISIS and Denmark.

    If that is the case, then why did you bother reversing the case? Reversing it puts you in the position of making the sort of thought experiment that you’re trying to criticise in this piece.

    >My point is precisely the condemnation of ISIS – they would not be justified on any sort attack on Western soil.

    Does this then mean that the Western society won’t be justified in an attack on territories occupied by ISIS (to reverse the case)?

    >Your last point has no value, or I fail to see why we are interested in trolley problems suddenly.

    Again my point there isn’t on trolley problems, but on those who try to attack that thought experiment by focusing on something irrelevant or what they judge as being impossible. And on that basis, discarding the thought experiment as being bad or useless.

    >I will say though that the critique I am making has a practical side: namely, if we were to focus on thought experiments of current historical situations, we would have more effective policy, which does not give rise to populism (on both right and left), but instead focuses on the current problems (and just to be clear: ISIS is a current problem, while our focus is hardly ISIS, but headscarves and ‘burkinis’).

    The critique you’re making is needlessly trying to draw out strands in a thought experiment by one person. In fact, looking critically at your attempt, you still fail at this. Isn’t Sam’s focus on ISIS? The talk on headscarves and burkinis while also important in policy isn’t the focus of a lot of people concerned about terrorism.

    • ippolit says:

      Two simple questions, so we are clear about what we are talking about here:

      1. Is Harris concerned with moral justifications or not? You seems to say that he is, but that the thought experiment itself is not, which is confusing. If he is concerned with moral justifications, than why use a thought experiment that does not take that into account?

      2. Would an Islamic entity ever be justified in attacking Western states? Say, under the conditions that Harris has set out, that we are suddenly completely irrational (Christianity being the zeal instead of Islam) and small groups are able to get their hands on ICBMs (say, Warren Buffet suddenly loses it and decides to buy nuclear warheads and clearly shows the intent of using them against civilians). You get the gist, would an Islamic group be morally justified to act preemptively under these conditions?

  4. Picana says:

    >1. Is Harris concerned with moral justifications or not? You seems to say that he is, but that the thought experiment itself is not, which is confusing. If he is concerned with moral justifications, than why use a thought experiment that does not take that into account?

    I’m not Harris and I’m not a mind reader but going by what he’s said and written so far and what he’s caught flak on, my impression is that he is more concerned about consequences of bad ideas than purely theoretical or completely divorced moral justifications. The thought experiment lays out consequences of some bad ideas and a practical calculus that could lead to a very terrible outcome for the world due to inattention to those bad ideas.

    >2. Would an Islamic entity ever be justified in attacking Western states? Say, under the conditions that Harris has set out, that we are suddenly completely irrational (Christianity being the zeal instead of Islam) and small groups are able to get their hands on ICBMs (say, Warren Buffet suddenly loses it and decides to buy nuclear warheads and clearly shows the intent of using them against civilians). You get the gist, would an Islamic group be morally justified to act preemptively under these conditions?

    Once again, you’re reversing the positions and presenting the type of thought experiment that you accused Harris of promoting. This was why I talked about the difference in goals between ISIS and say Denmark. Swapping around the labels ‘Denmark’ and ‘ISIS’ won’t lead me to a different conclusion.

    Since you prefer historical examples and characters, why not use a scenario like Bin Laden and his group being in control of Pakistan’s weapons? Why use Warren Buffet? Does he harbor thoughts of paradise that we don’t know about?

    Secondly, you’re still talking about moral justifications when it isn’t clear that those are the only important things to care about.

    Finally, we know what Harris thinks of such a scenario. What do you think Western countries should do in such a scenario? Wait for the nukes to hit their major population centres?

    • ippolit says:

      My last comment to this, because it seems we are getting nowhere. My interest is theory – but I do not think that theory is detached from practice, and in fact that theory reinforces practice (as it draws from it as well, etc.).

      Why do I resort to Warren Buffet? I don’t think he has any of these intentions, obviously. But I think we ought to create a similar thought experiment in order to show how ludicrous this one is. I did that with the bazooka owning cousin, and I did that once again with Warren Buffet. So of course I am using the same kind of thought experiment as Harris is using, that is my intention in order to undermine the kind of thought experiment that is Harris’s. My ‘thought experiments’ sound ridiculous precisely because they are ridiculous. But if mine are ridiculous, why not Harris’s thought experiment too?

      To me it is absolutely clear that Harris is interested in moral justifications. I may be wrong here and I admit that I could be wrong here. But following his words (I have linked to them before) I think we can say that moral justifications is his interest. I don’t think it useful to dwell on this any further.

      As to what we should do, I advocate the same thing we did with IRA – first and foremost: to accept that terrorists have a political agenda beyond terror; second, to accept that they have legitimate grievances. This is certainly not going to end terrorism once and for all (after all, there is the ‘Real IRA’, etc.), but I think it is safe to say that there will be less terrorism as a result.

      • Picana says:

        >My last comment to this, because it seems we are getting nowhere. My interest is theory – but I do not think that theory is detached from practice, and in fact that theory reinforces practice (as it draws from it as well, etc.).

        You say we seem to be getting nowhere when things are just starting to get interesting. Well then I would really like to see your practical solution to the scenario.

        >Why do I resort to Warren Buffet? I don’t think he has any of these intentions, obviously. But I think we ought to create a similar thought experiment in order to show how ludicrous this one is. I did that with the bazooka owning cousin, and I did that once again with Warren Buffet. So of course I am using the same kind of thought experiment as Harris is using, that is my intention in order to undermine the kind of thought experiment that is Harris’s. My ‘thought experiments’ sound ridiculous precisely because they are ridiculous. But if mine are ridiculous, why not Harris’s thought experiment too?

        The bazooka cousin example I understood as you trying to show that Harris’ thought experiment was ridiculous but why use the Warren Buffet example to make a serious point? You think such approaches are bad yet you wish to use it to make a serious point? You’ve stated a preference for real world examples and characters so why did you do this?

        >To me it is absolutely clear that Harris is interested in moral justifications. I may be wrong here and I admit that I could be wrong here. But following his words (I have linked to them before) I think we can say that moral justifications is his interest. I don’t think it useful to dwell on this any further.

        I think it is useful because you’re attributing something to Harris but the quote you used in your article focused on consequences and his words specifically spoke about an unthinkable crime. If anything, it suggests that he wasn’t giving a moral justification but a consequential or practical one.

        >As to what we should do, I advocate the same thing we did with IRA – first and foremost: to accept that terrorists have a political agenda beyond terror; second, to accept that they have legitimate grievances. This is certainly not going to end terrorism once and for all (after all, there is the ‘Real IRA’, etc.), but I think it is safe to say that there will be less terrorism as a result.

        Do you not see a difference between the IRA and ISIS? You think ISIS has a legitimate grievance? You do realise that ISIS’ political agenda is also a religious one. To paraphrase Bush, saying they hate us for our freedoms is actually true and I used to think that was a ridiculous claim until ISIS pretty much said so themselves. Do you think the IRA wanted global dominion?

        And by less terrorism, you mean attacks in which Westerners die. The Muslims would still be suffering and oppressed as they currently are in some areas not controlled by ISIS based on those same ideas that Harris has been criticising.

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