Risk and want
A gruesome logic puzzle goes thus:
A man has been condemned to death. His jailer knocks on his jail cell and says: you will be executed sometime this March, but whenever it happens, it’s going to come as a surprise.
The prisoner goes back to his bench while the other prisoners in his cell mutter their sympathies. Five minutes later, the condemned man is jumping up for joy. The other prisoners are aghast: why are you so happy you idiot? Don’t you know you’re going to be hanged next month?
The man retorts: don’t you get it? They guaranteed it will come as a surprise. Do you know what that means?
Other prisoners: no, we don’t.
P: If I am not executed by March 30th, then I will have to hanged on the 31st, so it won’t be a surprise. If I am not hanged by the 29th, then by the previous reasoning, I can’t be hanged on the 31st, so I will have to be hanged on the 30th, and therefore, there’s no surprise. The same for the 28th: if I am not hanged by then, I can rule out the 31st and the 30th so I am left with the 29th and there’s no surprise left.
You see where I am going? It will never be a surprise! I can never be hanged!
After which, the man falls asleep and stops worrying. Until the morning of the 14th, when the jailer comes to him and tells him to get ready.
P: but you told me it was going to be a surprise!
J: tell me, aren’t you surprised?
P: I am indeed.
J: well then…
Lesson: a risky event can be preceded by a retinue of events we don’t care about but somehow, they produce this event that we care about a lot. How is that possible?
While much of the technical literature is on how we get to the meaning of ‘cause,’ ‘probability,’ and ‘expectation,’ I want to pay attention to the ‘unwanted’ side of things.
What does it mean for an event to be unwanted?
The interesting thing about unwanted is that it needs a subject who wants. Causation, probability and expectation can be defined without a subject in the calculations, but you can’t have unwanted outcomes unless they are not wanted by someone. We assume without much thought that Scheherazade did not want her head chopped by her husband, which, therefore, was a risk. At lesser risk, but of more importance to those who live in the United States, Democratic pollsters who predicted Hillary’s win over Donald took a big risk. Republican pollsters did not, because - presumably - Trump’s win was not an unwanted event.
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But where do we draw the line between events registered in the book of wants and events that pass by without notice? Let’s call events that we have no opinion about (good or bad) agnostic. Unwanted and wanted events are a small drop in an ocean of agnostic events.
Let’s say you’re opposing captains of a cricket match waiting for the coin toss to decide who bats and who bowls. You’re both taking a risk because you want to bat first - the pitch is known to deteriorate as the match enters day three and by day five it might be unplayable. You want to win the toss. So clearly the outcome of the toss is a risky event. But there are any number of factors that influence the toss: the wind on the playground, the spin the umpire puts on the coin, the weight of the coin and so on. Are these enabling events risky or agnostic?
The latter isn’t it? I mean, I don’t have an opinion on the clouds in the sky before the coin toss (OK, I might care about the clouds because they shield me from the Nagpur sun, but I don’t have an opinion as far as the outcome of the toss is concerned) but like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, these environmental factors influence the outcome of the coin toss.
How do purely material events, events too small for our senses to register, suddenly burst into our consciousness as ‘risk’ or as ‘reward’?
Just as with the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ there seems to be a complete mystery as to how agnostic events - which can be modeled as purely physical phenomena such as the roll of the dice - become risky events.
Coming up: Risking Certainty
Certainty, or the attempt to obtain certainty, has played a central role in the history of philosophy. Some philosophers have taken the kind of certainty characteristic of mathematical knowledge to be the goal at which philosophy should aim.
What if we turned that goal on its head? What if we embrace risk, not just as a flaw to be minimized, but as a virtue to be embraced? And how might we do it?
Riskify: start with a canonical text on certainty and turn it into a monument of risk.
As the mountains of certainty go, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is a prominent peak. Let’s riskify it.