The Prejudice of the Hypothetical
I am reading god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I’m less than half way through this book, and already I owe Mr. Hitchens a debt of gratitude. He has identified for me a type of confusion I had not noticed. From page 18:
“A week before the events of September 11, 2001, I was on a panel with Dennis Prager, who is one of America’s better-known religious broadcasters. He challenged me in public to answer what he called a ‘straight yes/no question,’ and I happily agreed. Very well, he said, I was to imagine myself in a strange city as evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now --- would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting? As the reader will see, this is not a question to which a yes/no answer can be given. But I was able to answer as if it were not hypothetical.”
His answer is long and excellent, but that would be a spoiler. Aside from the rephrasing required for a yes/no answer, Mr. Hitchens recognizes this type of question and identifies it elsewhere in the book as a “trick question.”
The human brain tends to evaluate hypothetical questions like this one subjectively. It is statistically doubtful that one living in the US has ever encountered a group of militant religious fanatics exiting a prayer meeting. Further, it is doubtful that the description “militant religious fanatics” would be employed in the process of elimination one would use to identify a group of men exiting a religious edifice in the US. Additional visual queues would be required to plant that suspicion, like the presence of side arms, or KKK robes, Nazi arm bands, and the like. Elsewhere around the globe, the possibility is more immediate to the casual onlooker, and including that possibility in one’s list of possible identifications could make the difference between life and death.
Our life experiences color the internal picture we paint to interpret the hypothetical question. In addition, those fortunate enough to live in relatively peaceful countries are conditioned to give people and situations the “benefit of the doubt.” Those living in more dangerous times and places know this can get you killed. When a person asks a hypothetical question, and that person is depending on the generic nature of that question to color the audience’s perception of the answer to that question, a subtle trap has been laid. It’s obvious to me that Mr. Hitchen’s intellect, education, or both is superior to mine because he recognized this, and was able to avoid the direct, ambiguous answer with concrete examples supporting his position. Thanks to him, I will do the same should the situation arise.