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 [amazon asin=0393327655&text=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.1
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’.
The conclusion from these premises is precisely what is at stake – the moment the reader buys into the idea of nuclear threat, then nuclear first strike seems a plausible conclusion. But unlike the cousin in our thought experiment, there is absolutely no possibility of long-range nuclear weapons by hostile Islamic regimes. Note that part of Harris’s argumentation relies on a very false premise (“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”). The ‘fun’ bit here is precisely that ‘if history is any guide’, we will know precisely where the offending warheads are and what their state of readiness is. We are not talking about some dirty bomb that could be carried in a suitcase from border to border, Harris’s thought experiment deals with a ‘long-range’ nuclear weapon (an InterContinental Ballistic Missile). The dubiousness of this is so extremely idiotic that accepting the premise itself may very well qualify for the worst thought experiment. If anything, history has shown us the exact opposite of what Harris proposes – namely, that any test of long-range weapons by any country (even the most developed ones) is always noticed by the international community.
Consider that Iran comes in the news 3-4 times a year for its tests with ICBMs – these simply cannot be developed or fired in secret. And even if that were the case, if a whole nation of Iran with all of its riches from oil exports to support extensive testing and advances in technology can barely make an ICBM that reaches Jerusalem, how would a group of Islamic terrorists do such a thing? How would they test any of their warheads and missiles (unless, of course, they are willing to fire them without any tests, and have them explode precisely where they were fired from).2
It is this imaginary threat that is Harris’s premise through which a nuclear first strike is justified. It is far more likely that your cousin is in a gang and owns a bazooka and is planning to kill you and he would do it just for fun.
- 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.
- 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.