A Hypothetical Case for an Economical Question: Would You Die for a Billion Dollars?

When I was studding for my bachelor degree, we had a professor who was teaching us principles of economics. He had this habit of asking these peculiar, but relevant to economic analysis questions that were (and still sometimes are) food for my thought. One of these questions was about the price of death, and not just anyone’s death: It was about our murder!

Imagine, that there is a very rich psychopathic murderer, by the name Mr. X, who takes pleasure in killing people. But like many psychopaths, he has a set of rules that have to be obeyed. The rule is, the killer gives a choice to the people whom he wants to kill: He can either not kill them and let them go, or he can give them one billion dollars, leave them to do whatever they want to do for a month, but then kill them definitely after that time has passed. Assuming the victims cannot escape this choice, and assuming they cannot do anything about their pending death in the future if they accept the deal, and they know this, will they accept his deal? Will YOU accept his deal?

It’s a bit like the movie “saw”, but I don’t think our professor had seen that one, because then he would have given “more” choices to the victims!

I don’t remember my exact answer to the question at the time, but the question itself remained in my mind. I came up with this answer some time ago:

Take into account two extreme situations: The first is the situation that one will “always” accept the offer, and the other is the situation that one will “never” accept it. Keep in mind that we choose an economical point of view, and we are after economical reasons for accepting (or not accepting) the offer, so we assume Ceteris paribus, which means other reasons involved in that particular choice are fixed in the economical analysis.

Now, what would be a situation in which someone will most definitely reject the offer? It seems most likely that this is the normal situation, because obviously most people will definitely reject the offer of the killer. But, if we are after a solid rejection without any hesitation, it may be the case of an 18 year old who already has 100 billion dollars. No person like this will ever accept the offer.

Now comes the interesting part: Who will most definitely accept the offer? A 75 year old with no money at all? Maybe, but not definitely. So, who would that situation be?

How about this: A person with no money at all, and with complete knowledge over the fact  that he or she will be dead in 3 weeks as a result of a heart attack? This seems to be the economical situation in which a person will surely say yes to the our Mr. X, the psychopathic killer.

And where is our answer? It seems that we can recognize two different variables here: One is the psychological satisfaction that a person gains from that billion (which is the same as Utility in economics), and the other is the victim’s expectation from the future of his/her life. It would be highly likely that if the victim expects a long life, he/she will not accept the deal.

We should have in mind that these two are also co-related, since if we “know” that there will be no [economical] joy in our lives, we will consider accepting the offer. And no matter how much money we have, if we “know” that we are going to die in 3 weeks, we will consider taking the deal.

_______________________________

So, what is the moral of the story? Life is as precious as our expectations out of it. But since most of the times we cannot see the future of our lives, we expect too much out of it. Could it be why we are so much afraid of death?

On Technology and Borders of Knowledge

The other day I was talking to a classmate of mine, who is studying for a master degree. We had a test and he asked me if I had brought a calculator. I said yes, but I also added that the math for this test is quite easy and we may not need a calculator, since it was just multiplying some numbers.

He looked at me and said: “Oh, but I have forgotten how to multiply numbers!” Come to think of it, though I have not forgotten how to multiply, I have forgotten how to find square root of different numbers, and there was once that I “knew” how to do that. It was before we were allowed to have calculators.

Then, some days later, I read about how Google has weakened (and stimulated) our memories.

But the important question is, is this a problem? It is interesting that a new technology can significantly change the way we think, and also the things that we think about, but does this weaken us, deteriorating our memory in a way that eventually takes away our brains’ ability to produce any creative thought?

Of course, the link above about Google should show that it is not so. Our “creativity” shifts, but it does not deteriorates.

But yet, the fact about calculators and our ability to “calculate” still seems disturbing. Is it not that math is one of our most important and fundamental abilities? To the extent that this fundamental ability comes first, even before any other natural science or knowledge?

My answer to this is, this may seem very disturbing on first glance, but when we look at it again, we see that we might have forgotten “How” to calculate square roots or to multiply (though the latter is quite disturbing under any circumstances!), but we have not forgotten “What” they mean. That is why we can save time by not calculating what is trivial, to spend on higher levels of thought and broadening the borders of our thought and knowledge. Without technology we would never have been where we are now.

______________________________

P.S: This could also show why relying on technology is dangerous, but yet necessary and inevitable: Imagine suddenly we lose our cell phones. 30 years ago, there was no such a thing, and 15 years ago it might not have been a big problem. But now, who can live without them?!

The Science of Loss, with a Little Bit of Luck

There is a new TV show called “Red or Black?” on ITV1. It is a guessing game in form of a TV competition, and Ant & Dec are its presenters. In each episode, they start by 1000 people, and in each level of the game, they ask them “Red or Black?”. Then there is an event based on luck to determine which choice is going to win, red or black, and the ones who chose it will rise to another level. This goes on until finally 1 person remains, and in the final level there is again a 50 – 50 percent chance that he or she wins £ 1000000.

Now, apart from “What on earth is this? Just flip a damn coin!”, there are two facts  in this program which are visible from the first episode. One is, the losers of higher level, have a lot more disappointment than the losers of lower levels. Secondly, if on the last level red has won, the participants are more willing to choose black.

One: Now, the first fact seems trivial. Of course people that are closer to a million Pounds are more disappointed for losing the bet. But let’s look at it from another angle: Didn’t those who enter the competition know that this was a 1 in a 1000 chance? If they knew this from the beginning, if they expected it, why are they “more” disappointed on higher levels?

To better illustrate this, let’s compare “Red or Black?” to another hypothetical game: Imagine a simple game, in which 1 person is randomly chosen from 1000 people, and is given the same chance of final choice between Red or Black by lottery. This game is fairly the same as the original “Red or Black?”, but only the process of reaching to the final stage is different.

Those who lose in our hypothetical game will be disappointed, but all equally, and just a little, compared to the people losing in a high level of “Red or Black?”

These two games produce the same results, they both choose 1 person randomly who may or may not win a million pounds. The only thing is, in the process “Red or Black?” creats much more disappointment and psychological stress.

But Why?

There may be a number of reasons, but all of them must be related to the structure of the game. The main reason is, as “Red or Black?” goes on, the contestants think they are closer to the 1000000 pounds, and indeed they are: it’s more probable to be the winner among 2 people, than it is among 64 or 128. So, each stage creates a new level of expectations for the remaining contestants, and by remaining in the game they win a higher chance of having the prize.

Yes, they don’t “actually” win anything by remaining in the game, they win one more chance. What a colorful sight! Too bad it is an illusion…

This also creates higher opportunity costs for time the participants are spending, and if that does not seem much, the cost of their stress is. My conclusion, compared to the hypothetical example is that, this game is economically inefficient for the participants. And therefore, it is safe to say that those who lose on higher levels of “Red or Black?” actually lose more!

Do I have a general point here? Yes: There may be many games (including different  economic systems) that produce similar or the same  results. But we should not forget that the way of doing things also affects the players, and creates different hidden costs. Take US and Scandinavian countries for example. They are all developed countries, but which one is more efficient in terms of welfare of their population?

________________________________

Second: Imagine you are playing with a coin. You have already flipped it once, and it was Heads. If you wanted to flip the coin again, which one do you think is more likely to come: Heads or Tails?

The answer is none of them, they both have an equal chance of showing up: The probability is always the same: 50 – 50. The fact that we think “It has been 2 times Black already, this time it should be Red!” Is just a trick that our minds play on us. In these kind of games, what has happened has got nothing to do with the probability of what is about to happen.

On the Fairness of the Lord: Barbaric Games

A child and an adult both of the true faith are in heaven, but the adult occupies a higher place. God explains that the man has done many good works, whereupon the child asks why God allowed him to die before he could do good. God answers that he knew the child would grow up to be a sinner, and so it was better that he dies young. A cry rises up from the depths of hell: “Why, O Lord, did you not let us die before we became sinners?!” (Russell, 1985, from a medieval Islamic story)

Seeing the state of affairs all around the world, I wanted to write something about fairness of God. Reading the passage above, could give us a very interesting point: If justice means equality of opportunities, then there is no equality from God’s side, none whatsoever. Just imagine how many people suffer because of genetic disorders, wars, poverty, crime, and simple accidents every day. How many children die? How many are sexually abused? How many sold as slaves?

And just because they were born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Oh, I’m sorry: At the right place and at the right time: God had wanted it so.

But that’s not all, that’s only the beginning. The whole idea of a “just” God who wants everyone to follow one true path goes out the window in this case. You see, in most religions everyone should believe in one God and one religion to even begin to hope for redemption, and that redemption can only be gained by paying a tuition to the organiser institution of that specific religion. But only “some” just happen to have the luxury of being born in a certain period of time and in a certain geographical place, to be able to know it and believe in it?!

This is not fairness at all, this is not justice. This is the most twisted, horrifying and barbaric game ever played.

Arguing With Theists (3)

This argument was far different from the others, and what made it different was that I had to argue with my housemates. I usually avoid that, and the reason is simple: If they turn out to be too unreasonable, I would lose my respect for them. It is something to lose intellectual respect for someone you don’t know, but to lose it for a housemate is going to be problematic, especially since I’m not good at hiding my feelings.

Three of them tried to gang up on me, A girl and her husband (the husband was silent the whole time), and another guy, and for an hour and a half I tried to explain the basics of logic, science and thinking to them. I will not write the whole thing here, because it is somehow even below elementary logic.

The fallacies that the girl made: Appealing to emotions: “God exists because deep down everyone can feel him.” And also begging the question: “God exists because this world has rules, and those rules are there because God has put them there.”

And to think she is studying for a PhD… How much intellectual respect should I lose for her?

The other guy was a disaster: You don’t expect someone to give a good argument, when that person does not know the difference between logic, science and technology! Actually, the things that he said were so bizarre that made me say “Oh my God!”.

His fallacies? Well, I don’t remember all of them, but he made the textbook case fallacy of appealing to ignorance numerous times “There are many things in the world that we don’t know, and that shows there is a God.”

Each time, I tried to tell them about the fallacies they made. And each time the girl said: “But God loves you!” and the other guy called me “Narrow minded.” How much intellectual respect do you think is left there?

__________________________

But since I was mostly arguing with myself, I had to answer some questions. The other guy asked me: “Why do you think God should be rationalized?” and that was he had asked me some questions about the world and “Is there anything that cannot be rationalized?” which my answer to it was “Yes, like music.”

He refuted himself at the exact next sentence “The nature creates this feeling…”. Well, then that’s nature, not God, right?

But, that question about rationalizing God made me think about something else. See, it is true that music, love, art, literature etc… are idealistic feelings. But doesn’t that make the whole idea of God idealistic too? Let’s take love for example here: Love is an idealistic feeling, but yet everyone talks about it, and everyone knows what it is. Why isn’t God in the same category?

It seems fairly simple: Because God is supposed to be a “being” not a “feeling”. And of course we know that all major religions say that “he” exists in reality, not just in dreams with a Nimbus around his head.

But, what would our answer be to someone, who actually reduces his or her God to just a feeling?

My answer would be “Good luck my friend, I have nothing else to say!” But, not before I give them a piece of my mind: “If you were born deaf, you’d never have stood a chance in understanding the feeling of listening to music. The same goes for being blind and Mona Lisa: You will never know that feeling of mystery, or any other kind of feeling that looking at that painting creates. But if you insist on love, then castrate yourself and let’s see if you can feel love again!”

The Koran is a Miracle: Your joking, right?!

As you may know, most of the Muslims believe that Mohammed did not have any miracles but one: The so called holy Koran. How is that book a miracle? Basically it is because it says so; and no, I’m not kidding! But seriously what does it say?

It goes like this:

“If you have doubt in what we have sent to our servants [the Koran], then gather all your witnesses except God and bring something like it, if you are truthful.” (Koran 2:23)*

Ok, this is a challenge that apparently their God (Allah) makes, and asks people to bring something “like” Koran. If they cannot, then it should be proven that the Koran is the word of God. Now, it turns out that nobody could have brought something like the Koran, and all attempts have been futile. Does that mean that this is the word of the real God?

No, not at all! And since I’m very truthful, let me give you a piece of my mind about that:

Remember, the only “people” that can judge whether something is like the Koran or not are the Muslims themselves. And they have faith that the Koran “is” the word of God! Besides, there is another thing that could be said about that specific challenge. It is what I believe is called “easy impossible”. It only seems easy, but logically it’s problematic.

You see, If someone brings something that is like the Koran itself, it would be dismissed simply as an imitation of the Koran. If someone brings something completely different, well, no matter what it is, it’s nothing like the Koran! And would be dismissed.

____________________________

* This chapter of the Koran is actually called “female cow”. I’m terribly sorry, but that stops me from being serious about the whole thing!

Elton John and Leon Russell: Hey Ahab

The first time that I heard the song, I thought that it was about the Biblical Ahab, the one that did not recognize the “real” prophet out of 400. Then I realized that this song has absolutely no resemblance to that story whatsoever.

I’m not sure why, but I never actually read Moby-Dick. The thing is, the idea of a vengeful captain chasing after a whale never seemed interesting to me. that is why only after searching it on internet and listening to the song closely again I realized that it was about Ahab of Herman Melville. But it’s not just Ahab, or Jonah (which gets mentioned) I think the lyrics carry a very important message: There are things in life that cannot be avoided, but we have to face them, and never fear them, because there is always hope.

The song is more than lyrics however, the rich voice of Elton John combined with the rock duel between pianos and the constant recognizable voice of Russel in the chorus has made an amazing piece of music.

Check them out on YouTube, playing for SNL, which is by far my favourite live version.