Thought experiments

It has come to my attention as of late that a surprising number of people have little grasp on how thought experiments work. They’ve all been theists, but I’m rather unwilling to extrapolate my anecdotal experience to that entire group. I suspect there are a number of underlying personal factors at work here, so I will forego the speculation as to the motive/reason behind the poor grasping and instead focusing on simply explaining a few key points about thought experiments. (I will focus on the areas where these people have had trouble.)

A thought experiment is not meant to be inherently realistic. It very well may reflect a real scenario, but often it’s a contrived situation that could never happen. Take for example Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist. She created a scenario where we might be tempted to agree that abortion is permissible.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Using libertarian principles, she argues that we have no responsibility to that violinist and are therefore justified in disconnecting ourselves from his circulatory system. Her argument isn’t without its problems, but it is powerful. And why? Because a lot of people are going to agree that we lack responsibility in this situation and people are going to see the situation as analogous to the abortion debate.

Rather than focus on the merits of Thompson’s argument, I want to focus on the form of her argument. That situation is unlikely to ever happen; it presumes there are no alternatives when there probably are, it assumes the violinist wouldn’t simply detach himself or die beforehand anyway, absolving us of the responsibility of carrying on with the full nine months, etc, etc. But that isn’t the point. Thought experiments are often very restricted. When we enter in variables we offer people too much wiggle room. The whole point is to find a principle and see if we hold it consistently. To do that, it is necessary to limit the conditions.

The other point on which I’ve found people have confusion is – and this one is, frankly, bizarre – when someone uses a point in which that person does not actually believe. In the above explanation, I used a different example than the one that caused someone confusion. For this explanation, I will be using the experiment that is being confused.

First, let us go over another way thought experiments are used. Rather than being a contrived analogy created with purposeful restrictions, thought experiments can take the form of an if/then scenario. Generally this isn’t referred to as a thought experiment, but the relation is close enough where I feel comfortable including it in this post. Take for example an example provided by Peter Singer. (I’m at a loss for the book where this is included, so I will be paraphrasing.) In making an argument for the rights of animals, he begins by pointing out that we’ve long held assumptions that are easily abused when used in arguments. Specifically, he references an argument made in the 1800’s where a politically strong man argues that giving women the vote would be like giving gorillas the vote. He assumes that everyone else has the assumption that giving gorillas any sort of human rights is ridiculous; he doesn’t offer an argument as to why it would be ridiculous to give them the vote (or any other right). With this assumption he is able to allow his reader to follow the consequences: if it’s ridiculous to give gorillas the right to vote, then it is ridiculous to give women the right to vote for the same (unmentioned) reason(s).

Now on to my specific example. The Problem of Evil is something theists have been unable to resolve without violating certain principles. To refresh everyone’s memory, here is the Problem:

1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
Evil exists.
5. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
6. Therefore, God does not exist [as we know him]

The primary answer given to this is that evil is necessary for the existence of free will, but this fails because creating free will (a) creates evil and (b) is not necessary to God’s existence. The “if” portions of the argument which detail God’s properties (1-4), clearly show that God desires the elimination of evil. Everyone agrees that without that property he is a very different God (and therefore not the God in which so many people believe). No one, however, agrees that he needs to create free will in order to exist. The Problem remains.

Now here is the bizarre part I mentioned. I have heard it argued that it is dishonest (on some level – there was squirming around this issue) for an atheist to use the Problem of Evil as an argument against God. The reason is that an atheist does not believe in objective evil as derived from God. (An atheist may argue for an objective evil, but the one in question – not myself – did and does not believe in that argument – nor, incidentally, do I.) This, of course, is bunk. It is entirely unnecessary for anyone presenting the Problem of Evil to believe in any part of it. It is enough that the person to whom the Problem is being presented accepts the “if” portions. (Or that person can draw an issue with one of the premises and resolve the Problem that way, i.e., the person could say God doesn’t desire the elimination of evil. That would take care of any internal contradictions for that person, but the point that the God in which most people believe does not exist remains.)

I want to use my own thought experiment to help draw out and do away with the confusion. And remember – it need not be realistic.

Let’s say we have an individual named Sam. He believes in both the Christian god and the Muslim god. He says he fully accepts them both as entirely real and they both hold all of the characteristics listed in the above quote (omnipotence, moral perfection, etc). Immediately, Tom, a Christian theist, says to Sam, “But these two Gods say things which are in conflict with each other. If the Christian god says one thing, but the Muslim god says another, then how do you resolve the issue?” Rather than answer the question, Sam looks at Tom and says, “Ah, but Tom, you only believe in the Christian god. Since you reject the existence of the Muslim god, it is dishonest of you to use him as a part of your argument.”

I hope we all see how ridiculous Sam is in this scenario. Of course Tom can ask Sam how he resolves the obvious conflict. It isn’t necessary that Tom believes in both gods (or either). The conflict is independent of Tom and his beliefs. Anyone can ask Sam about the obvious problems that arise from holding contradictory beliefs.

Now I want to break it down. In the first scenario we have two important beliefs: (a) God exists and (b) evil exists. If someone believes (a), then a belief in (b) poses a Problem. That’s the Problem of Evil at its most basic level. But take a look at the discussion between Sam and Tom; there are two important beliefs there, too: (a) the Christian god exists and (b) the Muslim god exists. If Sam believes in (a), then a belief in (b) poses a problem.

This isn’t that hard.

I find it difficult to imagine someone calling a Christian or Jew or Muslim or atheist or Buddhist or agnostic or Scientologist dishonest for pointing out to Sam that he has a contradiction in his beliefs. I really hope it’s obvious to everyone that it is unnecessary for anyone to accept any premise of Sam’s beliefs in order to tell him that there is a conflict in believing that, say, it is necessary to accept Jesus Christ while at the same time it is unnecessary to accept Jesus Christ. We can all see that contradiction and we can all point it out. And we can do it with complete and utter integrity and honesty.

Finally, here are a few links which explain thought experiments in more detail than I have.