Take Silly Examples Seriously

The previous post discussed Gun to the Head problems. But whenever silly hypotheticals come up, there are always (always…) people who try to question the nature of the example.

A psychopath walks up to you with a cattle gun, friendo, and asks you to call the flip of a coin. Get it wrong and you die. So what do you do? You might reason that if a person is crazy enough to make your life dependent on such a thing, then why should you trust that you will survive if you get the answer right? If this guy is crazy in one way, he might be crazy in other related ways. Maybe it’d be smarter to try to jump him and get the cattle gun away, or to distract him by saying the Goodyear blimp is floating behind, or to keep question his philosophical motivations rather than answer his challenge, or even to question whether you’re dreaming because that’s more likely than the strange scenario out of a movie that’s been described.

These kinds of objections always (always…) come up.

All of these tangents are excuses to avoid thinking about the underlying structure of the situation. The silly hypothetical? It’s just a skin, a superficial outer surface. To focus on the skin is a focus on the superficiality, while avoiding that deeper structure. I don’t know what’s important to you. But presumably you find something essential to get right.

The point of silly examples is not specifically to discuss weird shit for its own sake. The point is to develop the rules of plausibility, with emphasis on the fact that we’re learning these rules because we actually give a damn about something real. I don’t know what that is, from your perspective, and even if I did, it wouldn’t necessarily match what’s important to the other non-you people who might read this. So it’s going to be general policy here that I’m not going to answer the nitpicky objections that always (always…) come up in these sorts of discussions. I use hypotheticals that try to be interesting in an evocative way, but you can decide for yourself an analogue that’s relevant to you if you don’t like them. I want to illuminate the rules of plausibility, so that we develop and apply those rules to future questions that are genuinely important. The actual skin of the example isn’t relevant.

Take the silly hypothetical seriously. Which means: take the structure of the question that’s being asked seriously.

If you don’t like the particular form my ridiculous examples take, then build your own inside your own head, and then translate the example to something that has more relevance for you. But at very least, engage the structure of the problem as if the result were important. That underlying structure should “feel” real and important, so we can recognize not what the rules of plausibility are, but why they are the way they are, and why they are so important.

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