The importance of thought experiments

Thought experiments are crucial to the field of philosophy. They seek to reveal the principle(s) underlying the reasoning for a position so that such a principle(s) can either be applied ubiquitously in one’s life or thrown out all together. Or, if the thought experiment is really good and/or really precise, so that such principle(s) can be augmented for a given context. This process is so important I have a hard time imagining too many philosophers disagreeing with the usefulness of thought experiments (though many will reject the validity of various ones on varying grounds).

The reason I bring this up is because of Michael Hartwell’s post about utilitarianism from a couple of months ago. I have already responded to the bulk of what he had to say, so that can stand for itself where it is. However, I only briefly touched on one aspect of what he said and I want to address that now. Here is the relevant portion:

Of course, it’s never that simple in real life. These fables (thought experiments) assume godlike knowledge of the situation. What if the cave was only going to flood knee-deep levels and there were small holes to breath from? What if the five people on the train tracks weren’t oblivious to the train or were planting a bomb?

They also assume a dichotomy of actions. Do nothing, or kill. There’s no option to swim out of the cave, wait for rescuers or warn the people on the tracks.

There are two major issues with this. First, Michael is attempting to apply the idea of thought experiments specifically to utilitarianism. I have little doubt that he knows that there are plenty of other thought experiments which are used for other ethical theories, but none-the-less, he is applying certain ones solely to utilitarianism. That is, in his post he references the Trolley Problem as if it is a utilitarianism center-piece, a bit of logical exploration which is unique or primary to that ethical framework. He is wholly wrong to do this.

The Trolley Example is used by a number of ethical theories in order to arrive at particular moral answers. Libertarian Judith Jarvis Thomson famously extended the problem and concluded, as she often does, that there is a right to not be unjustly harmed. That had little to nothing to do with utilitarianism. There are dozens of other uber-famous thought experiments people of all ethical persuasions use. People may design their scenarios with a particular framework in mind, but nothing stops any other philosopher from applying entirely different ideas to them.

Second, the whole point of a thought experiment is to present a scenario with controlled parameters. The goal is to unveil a principle behind the reasoning for a position. (This is especially important when a given position is intuitive but has no good underlying principle from the viewpoint of the thinker.) It may be of interest to ask something like, Is it moral to take a risk when the negative consequence is significant? Does the positive consequence need to be equal? Bigger? But that is still searching for underlying principles – and it is still doing so with controlled parameters. That is, even if there is a factor of randomness thrown into a scenario in an effort to better mimic real life – “There is a 5% chance everything will be fine if you do X instead of Y” – it is still controlled.

A good thought experiment gives enough information to illicit a certain type of response. In the traditional trolley example, it’s you, a lever, and a few people scattered across a couple of tracks whilst unable to communicate with you and certain to die or live given your choices. That gets at particular principles of right and wrong. If we were to change the experiment to say that there was a small chance that the people on one track turn around in time and survive whereas there was no chance the person on the other track would turn around in time, we would shift the focus from principles to risk/reward analysis, getting into a much more subjective area of human psychology. That could help us in real life, but only insofar as we find ourselves in similar enough situations – which is unlikely. That’s fine if that’s the type of response one wants, but it doesn’t do much to illustrate principles – at least not in the way the original Trolley Problem does.

I’ve written a few times about thought experiments in philosophy. I’ve never been that extensive on their importance because I just sort of assumed people recognized how useful they are. But I guess I know what happens when I assume:

2010: FTSOS in review, July to September

This is the third installment of the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the first two here and here.

Some of the smaller posts I’ve made that I think deserve a little more attention are the ones where I emphasize that biology is all about shape. The article I wrote about the fight against HIV is one of those posts. Research earlier this year found at least one location on HIV molecules that remains a consistent shape between individual viruses. This is important because HIV’s ability to be differently shaped in different parts of a single body makes it difficult to combat.

I also wrote about the difference between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. One of the public relation problems for atheism is that it is viewed as a dirty word. People assume it means absolute certainty, and that is seen as arrogant. It’s ironic because belief in God usually comes with certainty and that isn’t seen as being so arrogant, but I digress. Atheism is not certainty. Furthermore, where it is involved in new atheism and anti-theism, atheism acts as a descriptive base; new atheism and anti-theism are normative positions.

One of my all-time favorite posts is the one about photolyase and cancer. Photolyase is a protein that captures light and uses two of its constituents (a single proton and single electron) to force contorted nucleotides back into place. It is not present in humans, but is common in plants and other animals, helping to keep their genes functioning properly. This may be one reason we’re more susceptible to cancer than many of our fellow organisms.

This was a skimpy month for FTSOS. I was away on a couple vacations for the bulk of the month, so the majority of the posts were either from my “Thought of the day” series or they were pictures/YouTube videos. But for what was there, I couldn’t resist pointing out and expanding on a fantastic quote from the judge who said Prop 8 in California is unconstitutional. In his quote he said a ban on gays getting married fails to advance any rational cause. I compared that sentiment to the idea that the majority cannot be allowed to discriminate simply because it is the majority.

I also made a post about a website devoted to philosophical thought experiments. The thought experiment I chose to highlight was Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Trolley Problem. My big motivator was a recent discussion with another blogger who laughably claimed that the trolley experiment was merely a logistical exercise, not an exercise about morality. To date he is still the only person in the world to believe that.

I also went through a few theistic arguments that are obviously failures. The most notable in my mind is the argument that says everything has a cause, therefore the Universe had a cause. There are two major problems with this. First, then why not just say a sort of ‘exo-nature’ caused the Universe? There is no need for consciousness – in fact, that only makes the theistic argument less probable. Second, the whole basis for this argument rests in the idea that forces result in reactions. For instance, if I push a chair, that chair moves; I applied a force. This is basic physics. But the whole shebang of forces and equal and opposite reactions? We’re talking about the science of what we know that happens within the Universe. And all we know necessarily breaks down prior to the Big Bang. The First Cause argument cannot be used because it rests about an unwarranted extension of science. Religion abusing science? Crazy, I know.

The beginning of September was just as skimpy as the end of August because I was still on vacation. But while I never gave a huge post on the subject, the defining moment of the month (and year and decade and…) for me was my hike of Kilimanjaro. I have started writing about it at this point – just not for FTSOS. But in lieu of that you can read the account of the journey from my fellow group member and current Facebook buddy Jim Hodgson.

I also gave a very lengthy post on why prostitution ought to be legal. No one seemed to care, but I put a lot of effort into, so I thought I would mention it here. Basically, we make the practice illegal because of our own discomfort with sex as a society. We also draw false correlations between it and other illegal activities: of course one illegal thing will bring with it other illegal things if it’s something people want. Finally, for the safety and health of all involved, it would be better to legalize and regulate prostitution than keep the old system we have now.

One of the most popular posts on FTSOS that people found via search engines was the one where I lamented low science and math scores in the United States. A lack of funding relative to other areas, hostility towards science, and a general anti-intellectual trend in the U.S. all contribute to the decline of America on the world stage in education.

Another lament was my post about the anti-vax crowd causing deaths. The fact is, people who advocate against vaccines or for made-up alternatives to vaccines are making the world a more dangerous place, making people sick and even causing deaths. Get vaccinated – and, if you have them, especially get your children vaccinated.

Once again I really want to highlight a fourth post here. In this case, it is the one I made about the Problem of Evil. This has forever been an issue that no Christian (or other relevant believer) has been able to resolve. If God is good and evil exists, then we need to answer why. Appealing to free will fails because while God is necessarily good, free will does not need to necessarily exist. In other words, God is required to be good; he is not required to create free will.

Expect October to December tomorrow.

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.



Philosophy experiments

Go take a look at Specifically, take a look at this thought experiment.

This activity is a treatment of some of the issues thrown up by a thought experiment called ‘The Trolley Problem’, which was first outlined by the philosopher Philippa Foot, and then developed by Judith Jarvis Thomson and others. But before we start properly, we need to ask you four preliminary questions so we get a sense of the way that you think about morality. There are no right or wrong answers. Just select the option that most corresponds to your view.

And it goes on from there.

The thought experiment is one of the most powerful tools in philosophy, so it’s worth following through.

There is also one about belief in God, but I found the wording on some questions to be pretty crappy.