Kavka’s Toxin

Gregory Kavka discusses a thought experiment:

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 former student of Doctor X, you have no doubt that the machine will correctly detect the presence or absence of the relevant intention.)

Confronted with this offer, you gleefully sign the contract, thinking ‘what an easy way to become a millionaire’. Not long afterwards, however, you begin to worry. You had been thinking that you could avoid drinking the toxin and just pocket the million. But you realize that if you are thinking in those terms when midnight rolls around, you will not be intending to drink the toxin tomorrow. So maybe you will actually have to drink the stuff to collect the money. It will not be pleasant, but it is sure worth a day of suffering to become a millionaire.

However, as occurs to you immediately, it cannot really be necessary to drink the toxin to pocket the money. That money will either be or not be in your bank account by 10 a.m. tomorrow, you will know then whether it is there or not, and your drinking or not drinking the toxin hours later cannot affect the completed financial transaction. So instead of planning to drink the toxin, you decide to intend today to drink it and then change your mind after midnight. But if that is your plan, then it is obvious that you do not intend to drink the toxin. (At most you intend to intend to drink it.) For having such an intention is incompatible with planning to change your mind tomorrow morning.

The discussion goes on from here for some time, but the resolution of the puzzle is easier than Kavka realizes. There is only a problem because it is implicitly assumed that the belief that you will or will not drink the toxin is something different from the intention to drink it. But in the case of voluntary actions, these are one and the same. The reason you cannot intend to drink the toxin without thinking that you will end up drinking it is simply that the intention to drink the toxin is the belief that you will end up drinking it. If the brain scanner works correctly, it registers that you intend to drink the toxin if you in fact think you will end up drinking it, and it registers that you do not intend this if you in fact think you will not drink it.

Is there a problem on the practical level? That is, is it possible for someone to get the million, or is it impossible because everyone in such a situation would expect that they would reconsider tomorrow morning, and therefore they will not believe that they will end up drinking it?

Possibly, and for some people. It is entirely possible in some situations that beliefs about what you will in fact do, apparently simply based on facts, entirely prevent certain decisions and intentions. Thus if someone has tried dozens of times in the past to give up smoking, and consistently failed, it will become more and more difficult to intend to give up smoking, and may very well become impossible.

However, Kavka gives a theoretical argument that this should be impossible in the case of his thought experiment:

Thus, we can explain your difficulty in earning a fortune: you cannot intend to act as you have no reason to act, at least when you have substantial reason not to act. And you have (or will have when the time comes) no reason to drink the toxin, and a very good reason not to, for it will make you quite sick for a day.

Again, it may well be that this reasoning would cause an individual to fail to obtain the million. But it is not necessary for this to happen. For the person does have a reason to intend to drink the toxin in the first place: namely, in order to obtain the million. And tomorrow morning their decision, i.e. their belief that they will drink the toxin, will be an efficient cause of them actually drinking the toxin, unless they reconsider. Thus if a person expects to reconsider, they may well fail to obtain the million. But someone wanting to obtain the million will also therefore plan not to reconsider. And tomorrow morning their belief that they will not reconsider will be an efficient cause of them not reconsidering, unless they reconsider their plan not to reconsider. And so on.

Thus, someone can only obtain the million if they plan to drink the toxin, they plan not to reconsider this plan, and so on. And someone with this plan can obtain the million. And maybe they will end up drinking the toxin and maybe they won’t; but the evening before, they believe that they factually will drink it. If they don’t, they fail to obtain the million. And they may well in fact drink it, simply by carrying out the original plan: going about their day without thinking about it, and simply drinking that afternoon, without any additional consideration of reasons to drink or not drink.

There is also a way to obtain the million and avoid drinking, but it cannot happen on purpose. This can happen only in one way: namely, by being lucky. You plan on every level not to reconsider, and expect this to happen, but luckily you end up being mistaken, and you do reconsider, despite expecting not to. In this case you both obtain the million, and avoid the drink.

 

2 thoughts on “Kavka’s Toxin

  1. Hmm I don’t know. It seems to me (without having thought about this long or deeply) like any rational person in this scenario is kind of screwed. They know the rational thing to do, after receiving the million dollars, will be to not drink the toxin, and they know that they tend to do whatever is rational. Therefore, by your argument that intending to do something is the same as expecting to do it (which I agree with), it is nearly impossible for this rational agent to intend to drink the toxin after receiving the money.

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  2. The question is what you mean by “rational” in that case. If it requires having expectations that make you worse off (namely that you would not drink it if you received the money, and therefore you will not receive the money), I would question how rational that is.

    This is actually analogous to Newcomb’s problem, or the Smoking Lesion (which despite objections is also the same thing.) See https://entirelyuseless.com/2017/03/03/alien-implant-newcombs-smoking-lesion/

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