Terrorists and pyschopaths as broken machines

Horrific crimes can sometimes bring out the best in humanity. We band together over our shared shock and sadness, forgetting for a minute the banality of our daily concerns. When it comes to dealing with the alleged perpetrators of these crimes, our reaction isn’t always so laudable. After news broke that the FBI had captured suspected Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, some people on Twitter and in Boston expressed variations of the sentiment “I’m glad we got him, but I wish we’d killed him,” and many who were okay with him being captured alive are talking about his potential execution with apparent glee.

Vengeance is a strong desire. But it’s an ugly, primitive, base desire. And it’s a desire we should overcome as a species, as it no longer serves a worthwhile purpose. It might take a shift of perspective to accept that.

People are machines. Nuanced, fascinating, incredibly complex machines. This is not how we normally think about humans, primarily because we are more advanced than any manmade machine and are able to do things that seem very un-machine-like, such as emoting, thinking, and desiring. None of these things render us supernatural. We are subject to the same laws of physics as any other system. Our blood lust regarding evildoers is very much centered around the misconception that we each have an ability to make decisions that lies outside of the determinism of natural laws. A misconception that we are in some way outside of consequence. It’s a convincing illusion. We frequently sense that there is a little person living inside our brain. When we feel an emotion, we can feel the little person — our “self” — reacting to it, as if it is distinct instead of part of the same unit. Thus we imagine murderers and terrorists having a little person in their brain that goes “muh ha ha, I’m going to do something evil today”. But that’s not how it works. Imagine a calculator that is programmed to know that 2 + 2 = 5. The calculator doesn’t know that it’s wrong and merely disregard that fact. It actually thinks that two and two make five. Terrorists and psychopaths are just broken or just have maladaptive programming. They have no more ultimate guilt than a broken clock, or a computer with a virus.

Free will is a hard idea to shut down. People hear of a crime and think “well I would never do something like that”. They might not. But put in the perpetrator’s body, of course they would do it! If no part of them was different, there would be no part able to act differently. It is only because they were born who they were, and had the experiences that they did, that they are them, instead of someone else.

When a machine is broken, and you don’t know why, you don’t discard it. You don’t hate it. You inspect it. You question the circumstances that led to it being made this way. You try to see if there is some way to avoid machines being made this way in the future.

I hope we find some answers with Tsarnaev. Answers are more useful than vengeance.

Comments

  1. David says

    In a world where we are merely machines, why is 2+2=5 something that needs to be fixed?

    In the world in which I currently live, the people whom I try to arrange killed have a point of view that opposes mine. To me, they follow the logic that 2+2=5. From their point of view, however, I am an invader. The Jihad that they wage is for their highest ideal – Allah. To them, my logic of supporting the Afghan Government is 2+2=5.

    I will be unable to fix their “broken logic,” because it isn’t broken, from their point of view. Likewise, they cannot fix mine.

    You used the example of a math problem, which deals in simple, logical inevitability. Except to the relativist, 2+2 MUST equal 4.

    The Boston killings were in no sense a logical inconsistency, regardless of the motivations. I am also afraid that some machines cannot be fixed. Like our old Freddy computer, they are destined for the garbage bin. We can study the machine, but that doesn’t mean that we can fix it. Maybe we can learn to improve the next machine? That simply is not how people are. The real world is not the Matrix!

    Vengeance does cloud judgement. Some machines need to be destroyed, though, especially if they show a continued propensity to harm others!

    • says

      I will be unable to fix their “broken logic,” because it isn’t broken, from their point of view.

      I didn’t say you’d be able to fix their way of thinking. Some people are beyond help. Though I would say that this kid is probably not beyond help, as he showed no signs of being radicalized, and was likely swayed by his brother’s influence. (Aren’t you glad I’m not a terrorist?!)

      The Boston killings were in no sense a logical inconsistency, regardless of the motivations.

      I could make the argument that at the very bottom, the killings in fact were a logical inconsistency, but it’s easier and more relatable to argue that they were a moral failing. These guys somehow were convinced that killing innocent people was the best use of their time and efforts. If we can make any objective moral judgements (as you know, I reject relativism), we must be able to say that the wanton murder of innocent people is an immoral act.

      Maybe we can learn to improve the next machine? That simply is not how people are. The real world is not the Matrix!

      I’m not sure what you mean. People are a combination of their genetic inputs and their environment. Nature and nurture. Some combination of the two led to you and to me, and some combination of the two led to the brothers Tsarnaev. Had this pattern of indoctrination been detected, some sort of corrective action could have prevented them from getting to a point where they thought that murder was their only play.

      Vengeance does cloud judgement. Some machines need to be destroyed, though, especially if they show a continued propensity to harm others!

      You’re thinking about it in the right way: propensity to harm others. It has to be about future actions. I would make the argument that from a practical standpoint, in the case of someone who is incarcerated, there is no advantage to execution. It’s more expensive, legally. If we got the wrong person, there is no way to even partially make reparations to them. And it is, in effect, tied up in the stench of vengeance. Often times the family of a murderer’s victim will be present for the execution of the murderer. That’s a step too close to letting them pull the lever, for my comfort.

  2. John Paul Jaquith says

    A machine can only be considered broken, if the end of that machine is identified. We say that something is disordered only when we understand to what that thing is ordered. For instance, the end of the heart scil. is pumping blood to sustain our lives. It is this identified end by which we recognize when a heart is broken and needs to be fixed. So, to what exactly do you hold that we are ordered, by which you say that we ought not avenge?

    • says

      We’re not designed machines. We are naturally evolved machines. The “question of life” (“why are we here?”) erroneously presupposes that there is a deeper (or at least more purpose-implying) answer than “we’re just here.” There is nothing to suggest that a more satisfying answer is forthcoming. We are here. And we know that we’re here. That much is certain. So let’s build on that. Two more things are clear: we have a sense of “self”, and there is a range of experience available to us, the most important dimension of which is suffering-to-joy. It’s also clear that joy is better than suffering (as much as Catholics fetishize suffering, they do eventually want to go to heaven, a place of joy, and not suffer the alternative). So when I say “broken”, I mean being moved to actions that are opposing the search for and pursuit of joyful lives in other conscious beings.

      Vengeance doesn’t bring joy. It doesn’t make our lives better. The only purpose it serves is scratching the itch of our imperfect conception of fairness. “I didn’t murder anyone, and someone else did, so their existence should be made painful or be ended altogether.” Or: “They chose to be a bad person, so they should be harmed as societal payback for their poor choices.”

      • John Paul Jaquith says

        Sorry, I should have clarified that I’m not in favor of vengeance per se, especially not as appeasement for our negative emotions. It was a rhetorical question aimed at identifying a basis for morality. So, it seems that you propose that we should pursue what we consider to be our happiness, but at the same time to take in account others’ pursuits. I’m curious to know what your views are on euthanasia and suicide.

        • says

          It was a rhetorical question aimed at identifying a basis for morality

          I see the basis of morality as being about, to quote Sam Harris, “the wellbeing of conscious creatures.” But that’s a topic unto itself. Read The Moral Landscape for a deeper look.

          I’m curious to know what your views are on euthanasia and suicide.

          I think it’s tragic when it is the result of temporary or treatable emotional states. Like, say, clinical depression or bipolar disorder. But when talking about someone with a terminal or debilitating illness or condition that cannot be treated, I can respect that someone might want to go on their own schedule. If all they realistically have to look forward to for the remainder of their life is unbearable suffering, what reason could we have to deny them that option?

  3. says

    I’ve been listening to CD book by Steven Pinker, “Better angels of our Nature” in which he describes these complicated issues very lucidly. He is scientific, interesting, & philosophical as well.
    I appreciate your comments, although I prefer to think humans are better equipped than machines. You express your ideas well, & I look forward to further learning. BTW, is John Paul a brother, or alter ego? Great Socratic discussion…
    In regards to euthanasia, I think people should be allowed to make that choice. If not, why not? Suicide, however, usually is the result of severe depression & despair. As a counselor, I would like to help people find joy, if possible.
    Thanks for sharing such a great site, as well as your ideas. I was reading Gates notes yesterday. Lots of wonderful people – wish there weren’t so many dull & hateful people-machines.

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