Philosophy Weekend: Occam's Razor in Iraq

Big Thinking Classics Existential History Politics Religion

What do we really know about ISIL, the rising insurgent group in Iraq whose violent methods have generated so much fear and anger around the world in the last few months? After violently establishing control of Sunni territories between Syria and northwest Iraq, they've provoked international outrage by beheading an American journalist named James Foley, and by releasing statements threatening vast new acts of terror around the world.

We must think we know something about ISIL here in the USA, because we've been saying a lot about them. Some American journalists, politicians and commentators are now urging a new war to fight the threat (though others like me are concerned that we don't have a better grasp on the real situation in Iraq than we had when we last invaded in 2003). At times like this, we can discover a lot by applying Occam's Razor to the case.

Occam's Razor, the famous philosophical principle we discussed last week, states that the simplest answer to a difficult question is probably the best one. We may think that we naturally gravitate to simple answers, but often we don't, which is why Occam's Razor can produce amazing results when applied systematically. If we examine ISIL with a strict focus on verifiable facts and obvious conclusions, we may discover that the opposite of everything we thought we believed is true..

So, what do we think we know about ISIL? Based on the media coverage and public conversations I've observed in recent weeks, two of the most popular answers would be:

1) They are fanatic religious fundamentalists, intent on jihad and sharia on behalf of Sunni Islam.

2) They are a powerful military force that will carry out evil acts of murder, abuse and terrorism until they are stopped by a stronger force.

Neither statement, it turns out, survives its first bout with Occam's Razor.

First, are the leaders or supporters of ISIL really motivated by religion? I continue to be amazed at the gullibility of otherwise smart people who fail to see the opportunistic phoniness of military leaders who claim to be religious. When new world leaders make themselves well known through acts of violence or terror, why are we always so eager to give them the gift of complete credulity? Why do we accept their statements of religious belief or ideological purity on face value?

ISIL appears to be led by an Iraqi named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The only thing we know for sure about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is that he is a successful military leader in a region of the world where religion is a strong indicator of ethnic identity and economic status. Because religion has so much cultural and social significance in Iraq, it is obvious that a person who wishes to be a successful military leader in Iraq will claim to be a religious Muslim.

It's nearly impossible to imagine an insurgent military leader in Iraq who does not claim to be a religious Muslim. Similarly, it would be impossible to imagine a successful male conservative Republican politician in the United States (say, a Senator or a Congressman) who does not claim to be heterosexual and happily married to a woman. So does this prove that every successful male conservative Republican politician in the USA is heterosexual and happily married to a woman?

Of course it does not. If an optional personal characteristic is a necessary requirement for acceptance in any field, and if the personal characteristic can be easily faked, then a successful application of Occam's Razor will always shave the belief in the sincerity of this personal characteristic away. The characteristic might exist, but in these circumstances there is no reason to believe that it exists.

We know that an insurgent military force must profess to be religious to gather support in Iraq, and we know that ISIL is an insurgent military force that has gathered support in Iraq. We cannot conclude from this that the militants who lead ISIL have any sincere interest in religion at all. It seems more likely that they are primarily interested in carrying out successful military operations.

I've brought up this important (and often widely neglected) point before, when I suggested in 2011 that Osama bin Laden could very well be a closet atheist. There is no good reason to ever grant credulity to a successful politician or military leader who professes to have personal, spiritual or ideological beliefs that are implicitly required for the roles they choose to play. Occam's Razor says: it's probably part of the act.

The only characteristic that most successful politicians or military leaders share is a strong appetite for power. Once we realize this, we can start to notice the ways in which appetite for power explains their actions. So, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually a religious Muslim? We have no way to know, but we do know that he would have to claim to be a religious Muslim in order to succeed in his chosen role. Do we know if ISIL's ranks are filled with devout Muslims, or even that its wider circle of followers includes many devout Muslims? Again, we really don't know. In an area where religion denotes cultural identity and economic status, it's much easier to believe that large populations are motivated by cultural identity and economic status than by devout interest in religion itself.

So, the first thing we thought we knew about ISIL -- that the group and its followers are motivated by religious fundamentalism, doesn't survive the razor. The second statement above -- that ISIL is a powerful military force that will not stop committing acts of evil until it is stopped by a stronger force -- also performs poorly under close examination.

It's clear from its activities that ISIL is media-savvy, that its leaders are highly aware of the power of publicity. It has been provoking outrage in Iraq and around the world, and it has been gaining strength through its publicity efforts. This is not how a group that wants to be left alone behaves. It's how a group that wants to be attacked by a stronger force behaves.

There is, it turns out, very little reason to think that ISIL will suffer if it is attacked by a stronger force. It's a guerrilla group, after all. A strong and overt military response would give the greatest possible benefit to ISIL's violent and hateful mission, and would ensure its continuing growth. ISIL's Shiite victims in Iraq would be the first to suffer greatly if the current insurgency were escalated to a direct global conflict against the USA. There's no telling how far the damage would go.

ISIL's strategy is to distinguish itself by shocking and frightening its enemies. That's why they put a lot of effort into making and distributing a beheading video. Does anybody think the James Foley video was released by mistake? ISIL made the video to outrage their enemies, to provoke a response. Their greatest dream is that the USA would invade Iraq again.

If we are ever foolish enough to oblige, it would greatly strengthen ISIL's fame, its fundraising, its strategic opportunities and even its perceived moral position within Iraq and all over the world.

This is why I'm really appalled to learn that even some of my smarter friends think a strong show of American-led military strength in Iraq would harm ISIL. This is, of course, the very same amateur's mistake that President George W. Bush made in response to Osama bin Laden's provocation in 2001. At least we currently have a President and commander-in-chief who has probably heard of Occam's Razor. There's at least reasonable grounds for hope that Obama is smart enough to use it at times like this, when so much is at stake.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Buddhist Fable of Bob and Maureen McDonnell. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Occam's Razor.
15 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Occam's Razor in Iraq"

by Nelson on

Though President Obama most likely is familiar with Occam's Razor, being a Lame Duck President, very aware of the upcoming midterm elections in November and not wanting to harm the Democrat's chances to hold the majority of the Senate, he is in a quandary. Of course with the state of affairs of America's lack of intellectual prowess, the common man will disagree with anything he does. The Grand Obstructionist Party has made President Obama's tenure in office a living hell.

I myself would take the most simple approach available which would infuriate many, but is long overdue. I would retract publicly all support of any country, group, army, or religious order including Israel effective immediately. Let the chips fall where they may.

by nojamnomusic on

It can be argued that antagonising the West and its numerous allies in the region further would only lead to a violent backlash from the likes of Iran and other authoritarian ME countries that are unable to claim any superior moral authority on the international stage and are, in fact, deeply religious themselves. These state actors cannot be delegitimised using the 'interference' argument as they are, in many cases, already a significant part of the action. The West simply cannot afford yet another large-scale military operation due to obvious political constraints.

If I were al-Baghdadi I would do my best to consolidate the IS position in the regional centres it has already overtaken without any further provocations that might cause a serious military intervention by another regional power.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks, Nelson.

Nojam, I have to say in response that Iran is already the bitter enemy of ISIS. The entire conflict seems to be a battle for control of Iraq, and the sides are split along a Sunni-Shiite axis. ISIS is the latest incarnation of the old Saddam Sunni coalition, now dressed in religious garb, and they are fighting against the Iran/Shiite dominated government. The battle lines are the same as they have been for years.

by ortermagic on

Would your solution apply globally?

by Levi Asher on

Hi ortermagic ... Well, interestingly, I didn't even mention what my solution might be in this article! But I think you know from other things I've written that my solutions always adhere to the classic philosophy of pacifism as exemplified by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In that sense - yes, I do think the solution can, should and will apply globally. What about you - do you think so?

by Nojamnomusic on

Levi, thanks for your comment. Iran's role in Iraq (especially under Maliki) is, indeed, hard to underestimate. However, Iran is not yet involved in the conflict to the fullest extent (the same can be said about any other ME power except Syria). However, if ISIS continues down its current path of conquest it would inevitably embolden everyone in the region to take much stronger measures against it as all would begin to view ISIS as an existential threat. It is hard to survive once you are surrounded by actively hostile militaries.

by Levi Asher on

Makes sense, Nojamnomusic. I am not knowledgeable enough about this to have a sense of how this would play out. I do see your point.

I do think we should also mention the factor of oil wealth as it relates to this question. When Sunni and Shiite governments fight over Iraq, they are fighting over control of Iraq's oil. That's a big ticket item ... so I do believe the web of interests spreads even beyond Iran and Iraq here, and beyond the Middle East.

by ortermagic on

Levi ... I was responding to Nelsons post, should have made that clear I suppose. As for my view, personally I think we should give communism, with a small 'c' another, fairer, shot, and I do hope that pacifists get to call the shots, but I fear that much blood will be shed beforehand.
Everyone tells me there needs to be a new rennaisance.

by Levi Asher on

Ahh, thanks for clarifying that!

Communism with a small 'c', eh? I have some smart friends who are communists. I'm more about pacifism (with a small 'p') myself, but this world is big enough for a few optimistic ideologies to coexist.

by Subject Sigma on

Levi, I am impressed by this analysis! Sadly solution does not look so easy to find. Keep up with this great work!

by Mark on

Hey Levi

Attacking ISIL is not only about attacking ISIL, its rather a protective initiative, to keep ISIL militants from slaughtering civilians - kurds, shias, christian minorities, yazidis - and to prevent them from conquering more of Iraq and the kurdish areas.

Had the US not deployed the airstrikes near the water dam and the mountain, thousands of civilians would have been killed; many in fact died on that mountain from starvation, thirst, heat, and there were even reports about parents throwing their kids of the mountain, because they were afraid that ISIS would reach them before the airstrikes came.

US did the right thing by bombing ISIS back, which gave the people on the mountain and adjacent areas some much needed breathing room.

However, I consider the US military assistance in this situation, only as a way to deal with the symptoms in the middle east. If you want to get rid of the causes for ISIS and other extremist groups, military power isn't the way to go.

Instead US should seek to nurture healthy relationships with governments that can provide their citizens with basic needs; governments that give people opportunities like access to jobs, education, and protection from persecution and political bias. Its important that the US encourage each country in the middle east to strive for such values.

Most muslims in the middle east practice their faith in peace, and don't constitute a threat, so its emperical that we establish a dialogue with this enormous group, without dialogue these moderates could easily misunderstand US, and we could lose them to the hands of the extremist.

I compare the fight against extremist to the struggle of depression.

Sometimes, because your depressive symptoms are so severe, and you find it unthinkable to treat your depression by talk therapy alone, you take some psychotropic supplements to deal with the symptoms; these pill don't cure your depression but it can give you some needed breathing room from which you can start to address the underlying cause.

Regarding ISIS, it has become so severe that we needed the fighter jet strikes, but these strikes don't deal with the underlying issue, it just pushes ISIS a little back, and gives the targeted minorities a break.

However dialogue, collaboration with motivated middle eastern countries to emphasize equal rights, access to jobs, education, is equivalent to treating the underlying cause.

But sometimes when things get too intense, as they are now, air strikes are legitimate, as means to protect the minorities and push ISIS back from territories.

by Claudia on

Levi, why would it matter to us that much if the leaders and members of ISIS have genuine religious convictions or not, or if they want publicity? We're reacting to their brutal actions and hateful rhetoric, whatever their "genuine" motivations and beliefs may be: which, by the way, you've encapsulated quite well when you said they're after power.

by Levi Asher on

Great question, Claudia. It matters because we have been trying to analyze the root causes of war and genocide and mass atrocity, and often religion is mistakenly identified as a primary cause. Once religion is identified as a root cause, the chances for future world peace begin to look slim (since the world will never agree about religion) and our cultural differences begin to seem unbridgeable.

I'm trying to strip away the cultural cruft that always accumulates around the discussions we have about war and genocide and mass atrocity, preventing us from seeing the simple and universal patterns that lead to mass violence. Not only religion but all cultural and societal characteristics seem to play a much smaller role in the logic of war and violence than many people think. We're in search of the real answers to these questions -- and the real answers do not seem to involve religion at all. Popular conventional wisdom, however, still focuses on religion when analyzing these questions. As long as we buy into this distraction, we'll never get to the answers we seek.

by Claudia on

Levi, I agree with you about trying to find real causes, not convenient pretexts or covers (and religion is often used as a cover by these hate groups). But even if we describe them and their motivations more accurately, I don't think there's any chance of finding a peaceful agreement with a hateful, power-hungry organization like ISIS. It's kind of like trying to better understand and discuss things with the Nazis (except of course ISIS hasn't yet attained that level of global influence and hopefully never will). In some cases better answers and knowledge--which are desirable in themselves, as you state--unfortunately don't lead to better political solutions. I really liked this essay by the way. One of your fortes is applying abstract philosophical paradigms to practical political situations.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks, Claudia. Yes, I never meant to suggest that peace talks with the ISIL organization could possibly work. This organization was born in war and is completely dedicated to the art of war. However, we can't defeat them militarily. That's the kind of battle they want to fight. We have to beat them by reducing their support base. (Luckily, I think this is a concept that you and others including President Obama seem to understand.)

Add new comment