I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” This could be a description of the way philosophers debate problems without feeling compelled to come up with answers.
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) joked that “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to not seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”
1. Baby Hitler
Suppose a scientist invents a time machine and it enables you to go back to May 1889 and a town in Austria called Braunau am Inn. A month earlier, a child has been born and given the name Adolf by his parents Alois and Klara Hitler. You are alone in the baby’s nursery and have full knowledge about the monster he will become and the millions of innocent people he will kill. Do you murder the infant Adolf Hitler?
In October 2015, The New York Times Magazine asked its readers how they would answer the question. Forty-two percent said yes, they would kill the baby Adolf Hitler; 30 percent said no, and 28 percent were not sure.
However, those who choose to kill the baby Hitler create a major problem. If he is dead before he can create the mayhem of World War II and the Holocaust then there is no reason to go back in time to murder him. This is called a temporal paradox.
Your Choice on Baby Hitler
2. The Overcrowded Lifeboat
The American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin put forward the notion of lifeboat ethics in 1974.
He compared the Earth to a lifeboat carrying 50 people, with 100 people in the water needing rescue. The lifeboat has room for just 10 more. The people in the boat represent the rich, developed nations, while the swimmers in the sea are the poor, underdeveloped countries. It’s a metaphor for the distribution of resources in an overpopulated world and it raises many questions:
- Who decides which ten get on board?
- If there is someone in the lifeboat who is obviously dying do we throw him or her overboard to make room for a swimmer?
- What criteria should be used to decide who gets into the lifeboat and who doesn’t?
- Some might feel guilty about abandoning 90 people to drown so should they give up their seat to one of the people in the water?
Finally, Prof. Hardin suggests the 50 in the lifeboat should not let anybody else in. This will give the boat an extra margin of safety should another catastrophe arrive.
A variation of Professor Hardin’s puzzle was created by the Northwest Association of Biomedical Research in Seattle, Washington. In this scenario a ship is sinking and there is room for six people in the lifeboat. But there are ten passengers. They are:
- A woman who thinks she is six weeks pregnant;
- A lifeguard;
- Two young adults who recently married;
- A senior citizen who has 15 grandchildren;
- An elementary school teacher;
- Thirteen-year-old twins;
- A veteran nurse; and,
- The Captain of the ship.
Which four are left to die?
Your Sinking Ship Decision
3. Newcomb’s Problem
William Newcomb was a theoretical physicist at the University of California, when he set this puzzle.
There are two closed boxes. Box A contains $1,000. Box B contains either nothing or $1 million. You don’t know which. You have two options:
1. Take both boxes.
2. Take box B only.
The test has been arranged by a super-intelligent being that has a 90 percent accuracy record in predicting which option people choose. If she predicted you will take both boxes she will put nothing in Box B. If she predicted you will take only Box B, she will put a cheque for $1 million inside it.
Well, that seems simple; take both boxes. The least you’ll get is $1,000 and the most is $1,001,000. Ah, but if the super-intelligent being predicted you’d take both boxes she’ll leave nothing in Box B.
Okay, go for just Box B. It contains either $1 million or nothing, while Box A certainly holds $1,000. But, did the super-intelligent being predict you would take just Box B?
The predictions have already been made and the money placed or not placed in the boxes. Your decision cannot possibly change what’s in the boxes.
The Newcomb Problem has generated great debate among philosophers. The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. put the puzzle to the test in November 2016. It published the problem and asked readers to choose either option 1 or option 2. “We tallied 31,854 votes before we closed submissions. And the results are:
- “I choose box B: 53.5%
- “I choose both boxes: 46.5%.”
4. The Lottery Paradox
Suppose you buy a lottery ticket. You know the odds against it being a winner are ten million to one against. So, it’s perfectly rational to believe your ticket will lose; in reality, it would be silly to think it’s a winner.
It would be logical to have the same belief about your sister Allison’s ticket, and Uncle Bob’s, and the guy ahead of you at the convenience store. In fact, for each of the ten million tickets sold it’s quite logical to think no individual one will win.
However, one ticket will win, so that means that you are quite justified in believing something you know to be untrue – that is that no ticket will win.
So, it is rational to believe a contradiction.
5. The Liar’s Paradox
The Ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides of about 2,600 years ago often gets the credit, or blame, for this puzzle. (There are many myths surrounding Epimenides, one of them is that he may himself have been a mythological being). He lived on the island of Crete and is believed to have said “All Cretans are liars.”
Being a Cretan himself then his statement must have been a lie.
The 4th century priest St. Jerome gave a sermon based on this liar’s paradox. He took his text from Psalm 116, which is believed to have been written by King David. The text was: “I said in my alarm, every man is a liar.”
St. Jerome asked “Is David telling the truth or is he lying? If it is true that every man is a liar, and David’s statement, ‘Every man is a liar’ is true, then David also is lying; he, too, is a man. But if he, too, is lying, his statement: ‘Every man is a liar,’ consequently is not true. Whatever way you turn the proposition, the conclusion is a contradiction. Since David himself is a man, it follows that he also is lying …”
When philosophers sit down to discuss the liar’s paradox they usually start with the statement “This sentence is false.”
Philosopher Steve Patterson picks up the annoyingly circular argument that follows: “If ‘This sentence is false’ is true, then the sentence must be false, because the sentence is claiming it’s false.
“If ‘This sentence is false’ is false, then it must be true, because the proposition is claiming ‘this sentence is false’ is false. But, then again, if it’s actually true, then it must be false … which would mean it’s actually true.
“You get the point.”
- Plato once described humans as “featherless bipeds.” Fellow deep thinker, Diogenes, thought this was a huge put-down and to prove his point bought a chicken, plucked it, and delivered it to Plato’s philosophy school – “That is a featherless biped.” Plato count-punched by adding “with broad flat nails” to his description.
- In 1964, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he refused to accept it. Publicly, he said he could not accept any honours because that might shackle him and prevent him from speaking freely about politics. Privately, he may have been in a snit because his rival in letters, Albert Camus, had been awarded the Nobel ahead of him.
- “Amazonian Tribe Doesn’t Have Words for Numbers.” Jane Bosveld, Discover, December 15, 2008
- “Do Numbers Exist?” Alec Julien, Welovephilosophy.com, December 17, 2012.
- “The Ethics of Killing Baby Hitler.” Matt Ford, The Atlantic, October 24, 2015.
- “Newcomb’s Problem Divides Philosophers. Which Side Are you on?” Alex Bellos, The Guardian, November 28, 2016.
- “Resolving the Liar’s Paradox.” Steve Patterson, undated.
- “Brain Games: 8 Philosophical Puzzles and Paradoxes.” Brian Duignan, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Ravi Kkapkaa from India on September 16, 2018:
Mind-blowing. So much to learn from you.
John Welford from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 09, 2017:
We used to have debates at school that were similar to the "Lifeboat problem" that were known as "balloon debates" - the balloon will crash and kill everyone on board unless one person is sacrificed to lighten the load. The assumption is that all the six people on board are the same weight, but each performs a particular role in society. Which is the least valuable? They must all state their case and the audience must decide.
The loser usually turned out to be the least popular kid among the six debaters, which didn't really prove anything!