The New Christians

The New Christians

The Toxin Puzzle (Keith)

You are feeling extremely lucky. You have just been approached by an eccentric
billionaire who has offered you the following deal. He places before you a vial of toxin that, if
you drink it, will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or
have any lasting effects. (Your spouse,
a crack biochemist, confirms the properties of the toxin.) The billionaire will pay you one million
dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the
toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes
that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will
already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives,
if you succeed. (This is confirmed by
your daughter, a lawyer, after she examines the legal and financial documents
that the billionaire has signed.) All
you have to do is sign the agreement and then intend at midnight tonight to
drink the stuff tomorrow afternoon. You
are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink
the toxin. (The presence or absence of
the intention is to be determined by the latest ‘mind-reading’ brain scanner
and computing device designed by the great Doctor X. As a cognitive scientist, materialist, and
faithful former student of Doctor X, you have no doubt that the machine will
correctly detect the presence or absence of the relevant intention.)


Thus begins Gregory Kavka’s short classic, “The Toxin Puzzle” (Analysis 43 (1983): 33-36).

Suppose you could really use one million dollars. Well, come to think of it, we should perhaps start
raising that amount in retellings of Kavka’s puzzle to account for inflation –
to avoid a Dr. Evil-style embarrassment
down the line–though I could still really use a paltry million dollars! So, let’s say this is an eccentric multi-billionaire
whose offer is for $10 million. That
should let the example keep its punch for quite a number of years into the
future. So, you can really use $10
million, and if the offer was simply to get that money if you drink the toxin,
you would happily do it. Now, you might
think the offer being made to you is even better than a simple payment for
drinking the toxin, because, the way it’s set up, you can have your cake and,
well, avoid puking it up, too: You can intend to drink the toxin at midnight
tonight, pocket the money, and then change your mind and never drink the toxin. But as they think it over, most people start
to realize things might not be that simple. If you’ll know full well at midnight that you will have no reason at all
to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon – by then, you’ll either have the money
or you won’t, and, either way, drinking the toxin will simply make you sick
while providing no financial benefit – well, then, maybe pocketing the money
might not be so easy. (Oh, that fiendish
billionaire!) The question to ponder is:
Given that set-up…


Can you form the intention?

Kavka realizes that there are some gimmicky ways of coming to have
the intention, and rules these ways out:

At this point, your son, a strategist for the Pentagon,
makes a useful suggestion.  Why not bind
yourself to drink the stuff tomorrow, by today making irreversible arrangements
that will give you sufficient independent incentive to drink it?  You might promise someone who would not later
release you from the promise that you will drink the toxin tomorrow
afternoon.  Or you could sign a legal
agreement obligating you to donate all your financial assets (including the
million if you win it) to your least favourite political party, if you do not
drink it.  You might even hire a hitman
to kill you if you do not swallow the toxin. 
This would assure you of a day of misery, but also of becoming
rich.  Unfortunately, your daughter the
lawyer, who has read the contract carefully, points out that arrangement of
such external incentives is ruled out, as are such alternative gimmicks as hiring a
hypnotist to implant the intention, forgetting the main relevant facts of the
situation, and so forth.


Oh, that fiendish billionaire!  If I’m understanding that “and so forth”
correctly, the question we’re left with is: If you really want that $10
million, can you, just by an act of the will, summon up the intention to drink
the toxin, while fully realizing that when the time comes to drink it, you will have
absolutely no reason to do so, and a fairly strong reason not to?  For now, I just leave that as a question for
you to ponder…

Comments read comments(10)
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Peter Boumgarden

posted January 1, 2009 at 11:15 am

hm….I don’t think I could do in. If this really is a top of the line cognitive reader (better than any fMRI or anything like that), I would imagine that it could read intent longitudinally, which includes my intent to fool the billionaire and not drink the toxin.

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posted January 1, 2009 at 11:55 am

so I’m out of the game.
Maybe someone who is naturally indecisive could pull it off because their intentions are of both actions.
This would make a fun board game.

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Charles Cosimano

posted January 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Nothing simpler. You just have someone, for a consideration, hack the mind reading machine so that it will register a firm intent to drink the potion while you actually have no intention whatsoever of doing it in reality.

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posted January 1, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Charles — your answer sounds like Kirk’s “solution” to the Kobayashi Maru.
Did I just give myself away as a complete nerd?

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Albert the Abstainer

posted January 1, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I will only be sick and it will pass. I will drink the toxin no matter what, and with that intention firmly planted proceed towards the appointed time. I will put the idea of midnight firmly out of my consideration, and I will enjoy my evening. I will also put aside the consideration of contingencies. (e.g. What if I may be required to be well to handle some event the next day.) If that happens my intent may change, but as it stands now I will fulfill my agreement. I will not occupy a mindset of attempting to hide an intention to not drink the toxin. For this to work my intention must be real, my will to do so untainted. If the money is worth it to me, I must be committed to the action. I will act completely as though the provision of changing my mind were not on the table, and to insure that I will drink the toxin even though I am not required to. It is the only way of insuring that my intent is to do so.
Now I await the philosophical and theological exposition of this bit of game’s theory.

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Albert the Abstainer

posted January 1, 2009 at 3:35 pm

The question is: Does being aware of the non-necessity of compliance with an action necessarily undermine intention to perform that action?
The only way to know is to perform the test. It is, however, a bit of a philosophical Schrodinger’s Cat. Until midnight has past, it cannot be known whether the intent was genuine. Come to think of it, like Quantum Mechanics, the act of measuring/observing the intent may affect its value. Even consuming the toxin the next day, does not show how genuine was the intention at midnight. It only shows that at the moment of decision my intention was to drink the toxin which was verified by the action. Between the time of being offered the contract, midnight, and the time appointed to consume the toxin, intent will vary.
Now there is one other question: Is intent an on/off state or a gradient? If it is a gradient, at what level of commitment is the state considered to be true, (i.e. that my intent is to consume the toxin.)

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posted January 2, 2009 at 1:53 am

Because the billionaires’ motives have not been stated it is hard to say whether or not I could summon the intention to drink the toxin. The motive, or actually, what I choose to believe is the motive, is kicking my money-hungry butt. I will try to get into why in a second but first I wanted to address one of the other ponderers (make it a word).
AtA, the first post you wrote in this thread made me smile because it sounded very similar to the answer my wife gave just moments before in which she said “I would just intend to drink it if I wanted the money.” I begged for more of her reasons and she responded: “Why can’t you except that answer?”
So now I turn to you to help with understanding.
I have a hard time grasping how one would be capable of being “committed to the action” (of drinking our theoretical toxin) based upon what you have given me thus far. How does one *act* completely as though the provision of changing their mind is not on the table when, in fact, it is? And more importantly: how does acting as if the option (to not drink the toxin but still get the money) does not exist insure that you will have intent? The only way I can imagine this (the willed intent) as possible is through conscious compartmentalization of thought so titanic that you would either be a superhero genius or a serial killer.
Alright back to why I think my belief about motive is important. Let me give a few what-ifs I am thinking through that maybe you can help me with:
What if you believe the motive of the billionaire is purely philosophical and s/he intended to just help you work through some heady stuff.
What if you believe the motive of the billionaire is voyeuristic and masochistic (like: “hey, look at them squirm – suckers).
What if you believe that the motive of the billionaire is charitable or honorable or [ ] (like: “hey, if you can get someone to work through this we will donate 100,000 million dollars, cure aids, and then cure cancer).
What if you believed that there is absolutely no motive whatsoever for the billionaire (like he is a billionaire in a vacuum).

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posted January 2, 2009 at 2:42 am

Basically, I think that, with this puzzle, it would be easier to will intention if I believed the billionaire were noble or virtuous in motive, even if it were just my speculation based on his/her personality (like this guy seems really admirable, he seems honest or good. etc). I think it would be easier for me to view the taking of the toxic as a nobel act or a willful discipline rewarding in its own way.

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posted January 2, 2009 at 9:18 am

Based on your described assumptions I could not form the intention. Regardless of how much I wanted the money, I don’t believe I would assuredly intend to consume the toxin.

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Michael J Pruitt

posted January 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm

This is posted under “Theology.” What, if any, connection do you see to theology?
My musings: Christ tells us that we can have life if and only if we live as though we do not. If we live as though we have life, we do not have it. Similarly to the above puzzle, if we had absolute certainty that we would have our life if we “laid it down,” could we ever in truth said to have given up our life?
It seems that it is only armed with this uncertainty, whether in the toxic puzzle or in the pursuit of God, can we ever have “certainty” of attaining the goal.
(NET) Romans 8:24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.

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