Sam Harris’s kind of thought experiment

Sam Harris’s kind of thought experiment
Sam Harris’s kind of thought experiment

I have recently shown that there are three kinds of thought experiments. Very briefly, there are kinds that have sound theoretical premises and the conclusions of which can be verified by experimentation; there are kinds that have sound theoretical premises, but the conclusions cannot be verified by experimentation; and there kinds that have neither sound theoretical premises, nor verifiable conclusions. It has proven difficult in particular to show where category 2 overlaps with category 3. So in this post, let us have one of the latter kind of thought experiments in order to clarify where I draw the line.

These are our set of premises:

Suppose that your cousin has a bazooka. You do not like your cousin, as when you were little, he always beat you and took your candy and now he is boasting about this to his friends every time you see them on the street (suppose he lives close by). Now suppose that one day your cousin is planning to kill you by blowing up your house, just for fun, or as a bonding experience with his gang members, or whatever. You are certain that he has a bazooka, but you have never really seen him with the bazooka, nor does he have a gun cabinet. The house he lives in is large, and there is a messy outside shed – so it is rather easy for him to hide that bazooka. He could kill you any moment, just for fun. He could kill you, your family, your children, and your dog; and there is nothing you can do about this.

Now let’s draw the conclusions:

If it is indeed so that your cousin has a bazooka as you suspect, and if he is indeed planning to kill you, and if it is indeed for the simple pleasure that you are completely unaware of; is it safe to conclude that you will not be able to know about your impending death? Is it then not a better decision, that under the conditions as just laid out above, the morally correct response would be to strike while you can – to kill your cousin before he kills you? Of course, this would still be a crime, but it is the only way to assure your own safety, that of your family, your children, etc.

Now comes the difficult question: are you morally justified to kill your cousin? If you are not a complete psychopath, you are probably thinking that the conclusion is too farfetched. There are simply too many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in the premises (technically, these are Boolean expressions). It should be clear that if and only if these conditions are correct, that the murder of your cousin could be morally justifiable. It is only when all the premises are verified that the conclusion can follow. To murder your cousin over a number of speculations (if he has a bazooka, if he is part of a gang, if he is planning to kill you, if the murder is just for fun and unexpected) is simply absurd. The point here is that no matter how much of an ass your cousin was when you were a kid, your suspicions (the initial premise of ‘suppose your cousin has a bazooka’) are most likely irrational.

I ended that previous post on the three kinds of thought experiments with this:

Are the premises within the scope of actual experimentation? If not, are the conclusions drawn reliant on the premises? If the latter is a ‘no’ as well, the thought experiment is in all likelihood nonsense intended to persuade you in favour of a particular position.

As is the case with our thought experiment, it is not possible to verify whether your cousin has a bazooka or whether he belongs to a gang; it is equally impossible to discern his intent in killing you just for fun. Furthermore, the conclusion that was reached does not rely on the false premises (naturally).

Sam Harris’s nuclear first strike

For those criticc of Sam Harris, our own thought experiment may have sounded somewhat familiar. In fact, it was an adaptation of Harris’s own thought experiment as discussed in his book The End of Faith. To be absolutely clear, I do not suggest that I understand why Harris decided to go down this road, or his rationale behind this thought experiment. However, the purpose with this kind of thought experiments in general is to persuade the reader with a particular view (alternatively, it is complete ignorance of what thought experiments are). In Harris’s case, it a clear case of manipulating the reader into the plausibility of the conclusion by the use of a set of unsustainable premises. Taking the premise for granted (that your cousin indeed owns a bazooka) leads to the ‘rational’ conclusion. Rather than questioning the premise, the reader is supposedly left with a moral dilemma – kill or be killed.

Let us go through Harris’s thought experiment and identify the flaws. Note that there are two kinds of emphases below: the ones in bold are made by Harris in response to the altercation with Chris Hedges; the ones in italic are mine, but they have the same function – namely, they stylistic disguise behind supposed rationality, they are expressions Harris employs in order to reach a particular conclusion:

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe . . . All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen . . . We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry.3

Compare this to our own thought experiment, where we had four Boolean expressions – 1) if he has a bazooka; 2) if he is part of a gang; 3) if he is planning to kill you; 4) if the murder is just for fun and unexpected. Harris’s thought experiment exhibits the same rationale: 1) if an ‘Islamist regime ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry’; 2) if they are part of a ‘hostile regime that is avowedly suicidal’; 3) if they are planning to use nuclear weapons on the basis of their belief; 4) if they ‘are every bit as zealous to die’.


Footnotes

  1. The complete citation on Harris’s website is worth a read to see the sheer amount of Boolean expressions prior to his conclusion – a total of 8 by my count, roughly one for every other sentence.
  2. To be clear, I am not advocating for Iran’s nuclear development. Additionally, it is quite difficult to estimate how far the current state of their ICBMs is, as different parties exaggerate the numbers for their own political agenda.
  3. The complete citation on Harris’s website is worth a read to see the sheer amount of Boolean expressions prior to his conclusion – a total of 8 by my count, roughly one for every other sentence.

9 Comments

  1. Tom

    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.

    1. 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

    >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.

    1. 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

    >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.

    1. 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

    >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?

    1. 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.

      1. Picana

        >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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