The Universe from an Intentional Stance

A Better Framing of Newcomb’s Problem

While I disagree with James M. Joyce on the correct solution to Newcomb’s problem, I agree with him that the standard framing of Newcomb’s problem (from Nozick 1969) can be improved upon. Indeed, I very much prefer the framing he gives in chapter 5.1 of The Foundations of Causal Decision Theory, which (according to Joyce) is originally due to JH Sobel:

Suppose there is a brilliant (and very rich) psychologist who knows you so well that he can predict your choices with a high degree of accuracy. One Monday as you are on the way to the bank he stops you, holds out a thousand dollar bill, and says: “You may take this if you like, but I must warn you that there is a catch. This past Friday I made a prediction about what your decision would be. I deposited $1,000,000 into your bank account on that day if I thought you would refuse my offer, but I deposited nothing if I thought you would accept. The money is already either in the bank or not, and nothing you now do can change the fact. Do you want the extra $1,000?” You have seen the psychologist carry out this experiment on two hundred people, one hundred of whom took the cash and one hundred of whom did not, and he correctly forecast all but one choice. There is no magic in this. He does not, for instance, have a crystal ball that allows him to “foresee” what you choose. All his predictions were made solely on the basis of knowledge of facts about the history of the world up to Friday. He may know that you have a gene that predetermines your choice, or he may base his conclusions on a detailed study of your childhood, your responses to Rorschach tests, or whatever. The main point is that you now have no causal influence over what he did on Friday; his prediction is a fixed part of the fabric of the past. Do you want the money?

I prefer this over the standard framing because people can remember the offer and the balance of their bank account better than box 1 and box 2. For some reason, I also find it easier to explain this thought experiments without referring to the thought experiment itself in the middle of the explanation. So, now whenever I describe Newcomb’s problem, I start with Sobel’s rather than Nozick’s version.

Of course, someone who wants to explore decision theory more deeply also needs to learn about the standard version, if only because people sometimes use “one-boxing” and “two-boxing” (the options in Newcomb’s original problem) to denote the analogous choices in other thought experiments. (Even if there are no boxes in these other thought experiments!) But luckily it does not take more than a few sentences to describe the original Newcomb problem based on Sobel’s version. You only need to explain that Newcomb’s problem replaces your bank account with an opaque box whose content you always keep; and puts the offer into a second, transparent box. And then the question is whether you stick with one box or go home with both.