“If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?” ~George Carlin
Thought experiments have a way of forcing our minds out of the typical, cliché box. They shatter mental paradigms, push envelopes, and have the potential to stretch our comfort zones and open our minds a little wider.
Here are five juicy little morsels that will leave you questioning “life, the universe, and everything” a little deeper…
1.) The Cow that Wants to be Eaten:
Imagine a cow, Cathy, who wants to be eaten. How do you know she wants to be eaten? Well, she is sentient. And she can speak. She is able to tell you, in her own words, that she wants to be turned into a hamburger when she dies. She’s even looking forward to it.
“You see,” she says politely, “I look at it like you might look at being an organ donor. Where you might donate your organs to science after you die, I will donate my flesh to your sustenance when I die. I’d be proud to be turned into a hamburger for your dining pleasure. Easy-peazy!”
The twist is: she has just recently died, and after living a healthy, comfortable, free-range lifestyle, she has been sent to the slaughterhouse.
The quandary is: you became a vegetarian only a year ago. Should you continue to be a vegetarian with this new understanding? Having heard Cathy’s story, isn’t it almost disrespectful not to honor her wishes and eat her? Your mouth waters at the thought. But why do you feel guilty?
(Inspired by Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe by Douglas Adams, and The Pig that Wanted to Be Eaten by Julian Baggini)
2.) The Big Mistake:
Bob had made a mistake. A huge mistake. He’d gotten seriously drunk at a work party the night before, stumbled into the research center to play a prank on someone, and passed out instead. He woke up with a huge problem on his hands. All his vital organs were now attached to another person!
You see, Bob worked at the famous Quantum Life Labs where they do cutting edge life-expansion trials on humans. The life expansion procedures were complicated but they basically consisted of replacing organs with gestating donor organs. The catch was that they only worked after being attached to a volunteer for nine months. The patient, the volunteer, and the organs were all separate, but symbiotically connected. He’d been mistaken for a volunteer!
Bob quickly called a nurse over to explain the mistake and to plead his case, who in turn brought over a nervous-looking doctor. The doctor explained it would take nine months and he would never be the same. It would drastically change his hormone levels, give him strange stretch marks, and cause him to be iron deficient, among other things. Bob was livid.
“I understand your anger,” explained the doctor. “But you did behave irresponsibly by being drunk and careless, and now you are in this situation. The brutal truth is that if we disconnect you, this man who now depends on you will die. You would in fact be murdering him. But the choice is yours to make. Nobody else can make it.”
“This is preposterous!” protested Bob. “You don’t have the right to demand this of me. I made a mistake. Even if he dies without me, how can you expect me to give up nine months of my life and my health to save him?”
“I think the question you should be asking,” said the doctor firmly, “is how you could choose to end this man’s life.”
(Inspired by A Defense of Abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomas, and Life Dependency by Julian Baggini.)
3.) The Deadpool Paradox:
This is not what T-Ray had bargained for. As an international master of assassins, he prided himself and his team of trained assassins on getting the job done. His men had finally caught the infamous, world-renown Deadpool. Finally, after all these years, they had captured the Merc with a Mouth, the Regenerating Degenerate, Wade (Deadpool) Wilson.
The problem? There were two of him! Two precisely similar Deadpools, alike in every way, unconscious and hanging upside down from the rafters. T-Ray angrily turned to his head assassin, who had headed the team.
“If you want to live, you better tell me which one is the real Deadpool!” He demanded.
“Well, sir. That depends.” Came the nervous reply. “You see, when we found them they were fighting each other in this woman’s backyard. But, we also captured the woman. A psychiatrist. She was in the house. She doesn’t make much sense, but she may have some answers for you… Bring in the woman!”
They brought her in wearing handcuffs. She quickly explained. “As an experiment, I have been collecting numerous parts of Deadpool’s body over the years and kept them hidden in my freezer. We were lovers, you see. At night I would cut off a piece of him while he was asleep. One day Deadpool found them, and he threw them in a dumpster in disgust. The parts eventually thawed and, since all the pieces have Deadpool’s healing factor, they fused together into a single person. So, you see, they are both Deadpool. From the cellular level all the way up. It’s fascinating really.”
“But which one is the genuine Deadpool? I’ve got to know,” T-Ray demanded.
“I’ve told you all I know!” she screamed, as T-Ray tightened his grip on her arm. Frustrated, he scratched his head and thought about how he could get away with passing them both off as Deadpool.
(Inspired by Deadpool the comic book, and Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes)
4.) The Grandfather Paradox:
Bailiff: All rise! The Court of the First Judicial Time Travel Circuit, Criminal Division, is now in session, the Honorable Judge Zaphod Prefect presiding.
Judge: Everyone but the jury may be seated. Members of the jury, your duty today will be to determine whether the defendant, Stephen Hawking, is guilty of killing his grandfather. Mr. Hawking, how do you plead?
Hawking (in computerized voice): I was bored one day so I decided I would try out one of my new theories on time travel. The simplest resolution is that I possibly went back in time to an alternate history and killed a version of my grandfather, but that just avoids the paradox as it merely creates an alternate timeline. I wanted to resolve the paradox directly, so I wrote a thousand invitations to a party that I held and mailed them out the night after I held the party. Nobody showed up. All the invitations read: I’m throwing a big party after I go back in time to kill my grandfather to prove that I cannot kill my grandfather, you are invited.
Judge: Ummm, okay. How to you plead?
Hawking: My most precise answer must be: both guilty and not guilty.
Hawking: Yes. I am potentially both guilty and not guilty. Allow me to explain. Let’s just follow the paradoxical timeline beyond its paradoxical conclusion. I go back in time to kill my grandfather, thus I’m not born, thus I can’t kill my grandfather, thus I am born, and thus I go back in time to kill my grandfather, and so on and so forth. It’s two entangled histories happening in parallel. So, my grandfather is in a superposition of two states: both alive and dead. And so, at least from a logical perspective, this looping timeline is entirely consistent and there is no paradox. (This video makes it clearer.)
Judge: All I want to know is how do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
Hawking: Both… Not only does God play dice, but he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen. I’ll leave it at that.
(Inspired by Solution to the Grandfather Paradox and Time Travel Simulation Resolves Grandfather Paradox)
5.) Health, Wealth, and Power:
The annual Great Hunt had been a great success. Blue Elk’s hunting skills had paid off considerably. He had killed a record ten buffalo all by himself. When he met back up with the other nine hunters, he found that Runs With Spears had killed three buffalo and Black Dog had killed two. The other seven hunters all had pretty good excuses for why they couldn’t get a kill. Except for Fool’s Feet. He was just plain lazy.
But there was a problem. Blue Elk was faced with a moral dilemma. The fate of the entire tribe depended upon his decision. The people would surely starve if he kept it all to himself. So, he couldn’t do that. But the others hadn’t earned it like he had. So why should he have to share? He knew it was the “right” thing to do, but his pride kept gnawing at him. Especially when it came to Fool’s Feet. He was such a lazy moocher. But the man’s family shouldn’t suffer because of it. Everyone should at least have food and shelter. Even if they are lazy moochers. He didn’t want anyone to die.
He had a lot of power now. And he realized that he had to be responsible with that power. He had to do the right thing despite his emotions and personal irritations. And he didn’t want to be seen as greedy. So he decided upon an ideal plan: He would take the choicest cuts from each kill to reward himself for his great skill and hard work, and then he would divide the majority of the cuts among the people. Fool’s Feet’s family would get the lesser cuts because of his laziness; which Blue Elk hoped would incentivize the man not to be lazy in the future.
It worked! At first, fool’s Feet’s family was shamed, but it caused the entire family to work harder. Especially Fool’s Feet. When the next hunt arrived, Blue Elk still had the most kills with seven, but Fool’s Feet had an amazing five kills. They soon became close friends.
Now Blue Elk laughs when he thinks back. Happy he had made the right decision. Power was a fickle beast.
(Now reflect on this in our own society. Just replace meat with money.)