A Toxin Puzzle about Belief (Keith)

A Toxin Puzzle about Belief (Keith) January 1, 2009

My title is a mash-up of the titles of two well-known philosophy papers: Gregory Kavka’s “The Toxin Puzzle,” which I discussed earlier today here, and Saul Kripke’s “A Puzzle about Belief.” But my topic is all Kavka: extending Kavka’s Toxin Puzzle, which is about intentions, in a way that some remarks of Kavka’s at the end of his paper suggest: to cover beliefs. 

So, suppose that, in accordance with an agreement you made earlier with
him, our eccentric billionaire will pay you $10 million if you are able
to form a belief of the billionaire’s choosing. Oh, and we should work
some toxin into the example, so, if you fail to have the relevant
belief, you will have to drink the vial of toxin that will make you ill
for a day. It will work like this: You will meet at the billionaire’s
lair, he will tell you what belief you are to have, give you one minute
to get your thoughts together, and then you will step into his
belief-o-meter, which, as you fully realize, will harmlessly and
accurately (never mind how) determine whether you really believe the
item in question. If you do, the $10 million is yours; if not, you
drink the toxin and have a miserable day.

Let’s suppose you clearly recall eating several things yesterday. For
instance, you not only remember eating lunch, but you remember whom you
had lunch with, what you ordered, and how good you thought it was when you ate it. And
suppose that when you get to the billionaire’s lair, he tells you that
what you must believe to get the money and avoid the toxin is that you
didn’t eat a single thing all day yesterday. Can you do it?

It seems pretty clear to me that I could not.  This seems even clearer than that I couldn’t form the relevant intention in the original Toxin Puzzle.  But what do you think?

And let’s consider a couple of quick variants of this puzzle, which will be relevant to points I hope to consider later.

First, let’s try a different belief.  Suppose Mary works at the same place you do, and parks in the same parking lot that you do.  There are 5 rows of parking places in this lot, and in your experience, Mary has no favorite row, and seems to park in each of the different rows about equally as often: some days her car is in row 1, some days in row 2, etc., etc., etc.  You didn’t go to work yesterday, so you didn’t see where Mary parked.  You think she probably went to work and parked in one of those five rows — she almost always does on work days — but you have no idea which row she parked in.  Now, suppose what the billionaire tells you that you must believe to get the money and avoid the toxin is that Mary parked in row 4 yesterday.  Can you do it?  Is this any easier than believing that you didn’t eat anything yesterday?  After all, in this case, the billionaire is asking you to believe something that, given your evidence, may well be true (though it probably isn’t).

Next, unpleasant as it is, I have reason to consider this variation.  In fact, this case is most important to my purposes.  Go back to the case where you are trying to believe that you didn’t eat anything yesterday, but let’s now change the stakes.  Now suppose you are dealing with a very evil billionaire, who is torturing and killing your loved ones right in front of you.  He will stop — and you somehow know this to be so — and let you and all your loved ones who haven’t yet been killed go free with no further harm if and only if you really believe that you didn’t eat anything yesterday when you enter his belief-o-meter in one minute.  You are of course deeply traumatized by what’s happening in front of you.  Can you form the belief?

Finally, combine our two variations: Suppose all you have to believe to stop the torturing and killings is that Mary parked in row 4 yesterday.  Can you?

For now, these are just questions to consider.  I hope to later relate them to belief in hell.

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  • Great thought game. I am happy to see that you ended it with a tantalizing gesture towards thinking about hell. As I was reading through this that is exactly where I was heading (not literally!)
    I have been blogging as of late about God’s universal love for all creation. It is amazing how uptight people get when you suggest just how scandalous the cross might really be.
    grace and peace,

  • Albert the Abstainer

    The question comes down to the following: “Can a belief be formed on the basis of the will of the potential believer, (without some form of determining influences outside of the will)?”
    If you will pardon the expression, I don’t believe so.
    No matter how hard I try to convince myself that I did not eat today, it will not sink in. I have yet to see an example where this is true. It seems to me, therefore, that belief is not a matter of the will, but of some process that results in a moment in which the belief forms or changes. I expect, that beliefs have different weights or strengths associated with them. Some can change quite easily and others are not easily shaken. For example, my belief in gravity is such that I will not step off a cliff, (without a paraglider, hanglider or some other device that will prevent me from plunging to my death.) Such beliefs are notoriously difficult to change, (and for good reason.) The thing that is interesting about religious belief is that core religious beliefs become closely associated and intertwined with existential fear. A Christian who fears that he may lose or change some of his or her beliefs is likely to be in an intensely agitated state, because the holding of the beliefs have been tightly bound to eternal life or excruciating suffering for the (un)believer.
    The core philosophical question which we must grapple with is: “If I cannot will belief and the consequences of belief are judgment about being in heaven or hell; how can God’s judgment be seen as just?” This is the central question of free will and morality. To be a moral agent requires a real ability to choose between competing options. The experiment demonstrates that we do not possess the ability to will a belief into being or to will it into non-existence, at least where our memory of the evidence is clear and undeniable. Where things become interesting is where the memory is fuzzy. When this is the case, a belief can be coaxed and the consequences of holding or not holding the belief, are to at least some extent influential, as are social encouragement and discouragement.
    This does not bode well for traditional free will. The will is not overtly free, but is contingent upon doubtful memory. The more doubt there is with respect to contradicting memories, and the more weight is attached to accepting or rejecting the belief, the greater is the likelihood that the believe will be accepted. This is hardly a case of a free moral agent choosing. At best it is a shift around a tipping point between belief and non-belief with reward and punishment acting to bias the results. If the rubric is crossed and the belief is acquired, fear and reward, and peer pressure solidifies belief and shapes uncertain memory to support the new belief. It makes the approach to the tipping point from the other side very difficult. Why would I want to surrender a belief that is encouraged by my religious community and which provides a promise of eternal life as well as the goad of eternal torment if I lose my belief? There are also the social consequences, such as the possible pariah status within family and community. It is generally easy to convert and very difficult to de-convert.

  • AtA, I just posted a few questions for you on Keith’s last post. I didn’t see this one until just now and have not the time nor mental will to go on tonight. I will say this, these puzzles are very different from the first one. I don’t think Character or Virtue ethics will help me on these.

  • Albert the Abstainer

    Further thoughts:
    Is it possible to impose a belief for a person who has excellent memory and their memory is strongly at odds with the belief?
    If memory is uncertain or the belief is based on probability, it appears that belief is able to be formed, albeit with significant coaxing based on the reward or punishment of holding the belief and on the social pressure to accept or refute the belief.
    If for example I live in a community where everyone accepted the billionaire’s offer about Mary’s parking spot and won, and we modify the billionaire’s proposal such that the 10 million dollars will be taken away if the belief in Mary’s car being in row four changes: What is the reaction as evidence emerges that shows Mary’s car was actually parked in another row? How does the individual react? How does the community react? What happens if a person in the community has their belief change and the 10 million dollars is taken away?
    Do we something similar amongst religious people and communities when evidence emerges which increases doubt about a core tenet?