Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thought Experiment: The Stochastic Terrorist

I've created another thought experiment. I call it The Stochastic Terrorist.

Imagine that there is a political movement who's leaders have strongly expressed the opinion that someone ought to do something drastic to disrupt a given event.  A group of self-proclaimed members of the movement have chosen to carry out a terrorist deed to stop the event from occurring. They have been scouting out the location where the event is to be held for some time and, in the process, the one who is to build the bomb has gotten to know a charming young woman who works there. He is in fact so charmed that love is in the air. Yet our would-be-terrorist remains deeply committed to his political cause.

The young man is faced with a deep dilemma. Going through with the terror plot would mean the near certain death of the woman. Yet bailing would be a betrayal to his cause. To really stop the plot he would probably have to denounce his friends. He anonymously consults with the leaders of the movement to see if it's really that important that the event be disrupted. Yes, it's absolutely vital, is the answer.  Not disrupting the event could derail their entire movement! They are in a battle of apocalyptic proportions. They must struggle with every fiber in their body against the injustice of their opponents.

So, to carry out the plot and yet absolve himself of the guilt he knows he will otherwise be tormented by, our young would-be-terrorist comes up with a brilliant plan. He has just enough of a science background to pull it off. He constructs a detonator triggered by a device consisting of a radioactive material and a Geiger counter once the bomb is activated. The radioactive material has a half life such that the likelihood that the bomb will go off on the given day is 50/50. The device also has a regular chronometer that will prevent the bomb from detonating if it has failed to go off after the event.


Our young would-be-terrorist figures that it's now entirely in the hands of the power(s) that be – Deo volente. Apprehensive but at peace he delivers the bomb to the others in the group. On the day of the event, they plant the bomb and they all escape the region on trains. As the bomb maker's train pulls out of the station, he gets a text message from a very dear friend that has nothing to do with the plot. The message tells the bomb maker that his friend plans to visit the location where the event is to be held that day. Our young terrorist is paralyzed by indecision. Should he warn his friend and risk jeopardizing the plot? He assuages himself that whatever happens now is in hands of the power(s) that be...  

So, firstly, to what extent has our young bomb maker absolved himself from responsibility for the young woman's death should the bomb detonate? Secondly, does he carry less responsibility for the potential death of his friend? Thirdly, how responsible are the leaders of the political movement for any deaths that might occur? Fourthly,  if the bomb doesn't detonate, to what extent should our young man be credited for saving the young woman, or anyone else for that matter?

Lastly, and I think almost more importantly, can the stochastic process operating inside the bomb in any way be said to have caused what happens at the end of the day?