Thought experiment wednesday: Kavka’s toxin

Suzie, after flawlessly predicting our every action in our last competition, decides she wants to play another game.

As we have already established that Suzie is an unrelenting psychopath, it does not surprise you that she holds in her hand an extremely debilitating (but nonlethal!) toxin.  You briefly ponder how Suzie could possibly derive enjoyment out of these exchanges when she can already perfectly predict the outcome, but you set aside these existential worries about the deterministic nature of the universe, not because these worries don’t fundamentally bother you, but because Suzie is talking really loud in your ear.

She explains that this game will take place over the course of a day or so.  If, at 10 PM tonight, you intend to drink the toxin currently in her sinful hands tomorrow at noon, then she will give you a delicious cake tomorrow morning.  In other words, so long as you genuinely intend to drink the toxin tomorrow at noon (and you possess that intent at 10 PM tonight), then you will receive the cake tomorrow morning.  But tomorrow, you don’t actually have to drink the toxin.  In fact, you’ll already have received the cake before the time comes to actually drink the toxin (so long as you intended to drink the toxin the previous night).  Oh, and of course, the toxin is extremely painful, and will incapacitate you in horrible agony for a day or so (but have no lasting effects otherwise!).

But you’ve been reading.  You immediately recognize this problem as Kavka’s Toxin, a close cousin to Newcomb’s Paradox, and you interject,

“This game is silly!  It critically relies on precisely how we define ‘intent’!”

But Suzie is already running away, shouting behind her, “If it didn’t crucially rely on definitions, then it wouldn’t be a philosophical thought experimeeenntttt…” and she disappears into the horizon.

Kavka’s original argument, you remember, is that it’s impossible to intend to do something, and then not do that thing.  But because you’re a human, and humans fairly universally suffer from akrasia, his argument doesn’t seem terribly convincing.  On the other hand, you’re fairly certain you won’t be able to trick Suzie.  Furthermore, you’re pretty sure that the deliciousness of the cake isn’t worth a day of agony.

For a real life game of Newcomb’s paradox that seemed to have slipped under my radar, see here.  For some more nice online discussion of Kavka’s toxin, see here.  If you just want to waste a bunch of time reading about thought experiments, see here or here.  What will you do?

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