An eccentric billionaire places before you a vial of poison that, if you drink it, will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or have any lasting effects. The billionaire will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the poison tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes that you need not drink the poison 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. All you have to do is… intend at midnight tonight to drink the poison tomorrow afternoon. You are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and to not drink the poison. So, can you intend to drink the poison if you know you do not have to? ‘Tis the question, readers.
Gregory S. Kavka is a moral and political philosopher. Most world famous paradoxes like this one are centuries old. This one hails from the ancient time known as… 1983. It’s mind-bendingly tedious. What’s the paradox? What is going on? It’s about intention. Can you intend to do something that you have no intention of doing, and if so, how do we know anybody’s intentions are real? All you have to do to get one million dollars is to intend to drink the vial. It’s all an act.
One cannot intend to do what one will not do, an example of retrocausality. An intention, by definition, is a notification of an action. How can you make an intention not to do something? The pay-off for drinking the poison is a world of hellish pain, how can you believe in a decision to drink something that will cause you harm? Surely that means you have a death wish. If you intend to drink the vial then you see it as a part of your life, a brief blip, which means you cannot not drink it. So even if you intend to drink it, the likelihood is that you will drink it even though it’s a completely irrational thing to do. You can believe that drinking the vial will give you a reward, this way you can intend to drink it but equally, if you don’t intend to drink the vial, then you wouldn’t because the self-harm is irrational because there’s actually no reward. You can intend to drink it, but if you do, you’re irrational, therefore you can’t drink it. How can you intend to do what you will not do?
Is there a solution?
Well, what would I do? I’ll look upon this paradox as a real-world scenario. Screw the thought experiment. It makes my head hurt. I’d agree. I’d agree to drink the vial. I’d get the money and I’d be happy. The following afternoon, I’d enter the mansion of the billionaire, take the vial of poison from his hand and raise it to my lips. I’d then tip the poison into a plastic bag and throw the empty glass in the billionaire’s face. As for my intentions? Well, remember that plastic bag filled with poison? I pocketed it and took it to a lab. They worked on a cure. When it was ready, I took the vial of poison and drank it all, and then I took the cure. I intended to drink it and I did. And I am cured. And I am now a millionaire.
Oh, and somebody should really call that billionaire a doctor…
How would you solve this paradox, readers?
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