Philosophy: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, and Ninety-nine Other Thought Experiments

by Julian Baggini
Reviewed by JOHN CAREY

Thought experiments are little narratives that focus on a single aspect of a big problem, and clarify it. They have been around for centuries. Christ’s parables were thought experiments. So were Aesop’s fables. Philosophers find them useful because they locate something we think we know, and make us doubt it. In this brief, forceful book, Julian Baggini invents 100 new ones, designed to give a modern slant to some classic philosophical puzzles. He is not dogmatic. The explanations that follow each experiment unpick the implications, but do not tell us what to think, only how to.

His title experiment, included for the benefit of vegetarians, imagines that scientists develop a genetically engineered pig (called Priscilla) who can speak, and whose single burning ambition is to be eaten by a human being. Would vegetarians eat Priscilla? If not, it shows that their vegetarianism has nothing to do with consideration for animals, but is purely self-regarding.
At the other end of the seriousness scale, Baggini imagines an England in the 1940s defeated and occupied by the Nazis. Many British resistance fighters have decided to become suicide bombers, in the desperate hope that they will cause enough disruption and terror to persuade Hitler to withdraw his troops. Believable? Excusable?

An interest of Baggini’s that links several experiments is our sense of self. Suppose scientists found a way of making an exact copy of an individual’s brain and body, cell by cell. The result would be a replica of the individual, alike in every respect. But would it be the individual? If not, why not? We might say that the cells in the replica are not the same cells as those in the individual, so it is not the same person. However, as we go through life the cells in our body are continually dying and being replaced. Does this mean we are not the same person as we were a year or two back? If so, promises such as mortgage agreements or marriage vows cannot be binding, since they will be promises made not for ourselves but for someone else whom we cannot know.

Baggini also casts a sceptical eye over our automatic assumptions about the value of human life. Is there value, he asks, in creating more human life for its own sake? Would a world crammed with the maximum number of humans, living just above starvation level, be ideal? If not, what is the moral objection to destroying living foetuses? Invoking human freedom and dignity also strikes Baggini as a poor substitute for thought. Supposing a foolproof method of crime-aversion therapy could be perfected, which altered the chemistry of criminals’ brains so that they did not offend again. Would not everyone benefit, despite the predictable howls of the civil-liberties brigade? For that matter, it might become possible for science to predict, with absolute certainty, who is going to commit a crime, and exactly what crime they are going to commit. In that case, would it not make sense to lock them up before they did it? Pre-emptive justice would not only save the victims, but also spare the criminals the remorse they might feel for crimes they would have committed.

A moral problem Baggini keeps playing with is the lesser-of-two-evils dilemma. Suppose a soldier is ordered to rape and then kill an innocent woman prisoner whose only offence is to be from the wrong ethnic background. If he obeys he could, being a humane person, make the ordeal as bearable as possible for the victim. If not, he will be shot, and she will be raped and killed, probably more violently. Isn’t it better, in the circumstances, to commit rape and murder? Again, would you torture a prisoner who was withholding vital information if you knew it would avoid another 9/11? If not, aren’t you as guilty of indifference to the lives of the victims as he is?

Behind many of Baggini’s experiments lies the question of what the aim of politics should be. In democracies, the greatest happiness of the greatest number seems a suitable answer. But this is a hard thing to measure. A supercomputer, Baggini speculates, might be developed that could accurately assess the effects of all policies on the general happiness of the population. If so, would it not be better to make the super-computer prime minister, especially as it would have none of the character flaws or vested interests that mislead human politicians? But perhaps the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the wrong aim. Suppose (another experiment runs) that, early in the second world war, Hitler had offered Churchill a pact. He would cease all further hostile action provided he was allowed to complete the Final Solution. The lives saved would outnumber those sacrificed, but would that make it right?

Several experiments suggest that Baggini thinks God does not exist, or has a lot to answer for if he does. This cuts out appeals to supernatural authority. An old philosophical chestnut is “If a tree falls in a deserted forest, does it make a sound?” Baggini’s answer is no. It sends out airwaves of a certain frequency, but there are no ears to turn them into sound, and since God does not exist he does not hear it either. This seems a footling example, but it has important implications for matters such as the value of art. The belief that artworks have “intrinsic” value is like the belief that the tree makes a sound. If, Baggini suggests, a deadly virus wiped out life on earth, then the world would be full of artworks, but they would have no value because there would be nobody to value them — unless, of course, God existed and happened to enjoy art.

Those who hate the conclusions that Baggini’s clear thinking forces them into will be relieved that he offers them a way out. He is a philosopher, and philosophers believe in reason. But perhaps they are wrong to do so. Perhaps the human brain (which is, after all, just a haphazardly evolved lump of meat) is not an adequate instrument for reasoning its way to “reality”, whatever that is. If the brain is defective, then what it sees as reasonable or logical may not be right. So perhaps it is sometimes rational to be irrational. On the other hand, since only the brain can tell us what is rational or irrational, we come back to the insuperable obstacle that it may be intrinsically defective.

Occasionally, Baggini leaves you amazed at the kind of thing philosophers worry about. How could anyone think it interesting to try to prove they are awake and not dreaming? But, he points out, the difficulty of proving it intrigued Descartes, so maybe, if we find it trivial, we should think again. And thinking again is what this taut, incisive, bullet-hard book is dedicated to promoting.

Baggini quotes ancient Greek philosophers, such as Zeno, whose famous paradox “proved” that Achilles couldn’t overtake a tortoise having allowed it a head start. Every time Achilles gets to where the tortoise is, the tortoise will have moved on, however slightly, he said, making it logically impossible for Achilles to catch up
Reviewed by JOHN CAREY

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