Thursday, 3 January 2008

101 Philosophy Problems Part 1

Problem One is Cohen's version of a classic. It is already available online here, so I don't feel at all bad about doing this one. Cohen has "Judge Dredd" doing the execution, but I'll pick a version I encountered many years ago:

I heard the story of a sailor stranded on a lost island.
Unfortunately (for the sailor), that island was inhabited by some very bad guys.

The bad guys said to the sailor:

"You are to be executed. As we're slightly insane bad guys, we will allow you to say one phrase.
If you speak a false sentence, you will be boiled in oil;
If you speak a true sentence, you will be hanged by the neck your until you die."
Cohen's answer to this problem is (essentially) you should say "I will be boiled in oil". Clearly, they now can't boil you in oil or hang you by the neck until you die (they could, of course, just feed you to the native fauna without breaking the rules of their game - Cohen's scenario attempts to get round this, but doesn't quite succeed).

Well - that's just boring. Firstly, there's an infinite list of statements which have the same self-negating truth properties as "I will be boiled in oil". Starting from the obvious "the statement is not true", and ranging to some more intriguing ones:
  • "Quand precedé par sa traduction en francais entre guillemets n'est pas vrai" when preceeded by its translation into French in quotation marks is not true.
  • This sentence claims to be an epimenides paradox but it is lying.
  • If the meanings of "true" and "false" were switched then this sentence wouldn't be false.
To be fair, Cohen does have some more about Epimenides later on, so we'll let that part slide for a while, but there's still more to this problem. What about trying something where they just *couldn't know* if the statement was true or false? If I were ever captured by this insane band of epistemological hardliners I'd probalby say something like "the number I'm currently thinking of is larger than 78". Or what about "every even number can be written as the sum of two primes". As I've remarked before, if they did then execute you, at least you'd have the benefit of knowing something that no man in history has ever known before.

There is much more to Judge Dredd's tale than Cohen gives it credit for. The same, in my opinion, will be true of several of the other stories when we come to them.

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