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You are presented with a strange challenge: Someone dares you to count backwards from 300 to 0. If you succeed at this simple request, you will be given $25,000 in cash. However, if you misspeak, get any digit incorrect, or make any mistake whatsoever, you will immediately be doused with gasoline and burned alive.

Do you attempt this challenge?

Let’s count!

Do I think that I would be able to get the countdown right? Yes.

Would I accept this challenge? NO!

$25,000 is a lot of money. But, to put it into perspective, that’s basically what an entry-level sedan is worth. Am I ready to risk my life for an entry-level sedan? No, not really. Now, the risk of failing to count down from 300 is probably lower than the risk of being caught stealing a Camry. Still, to put it another way, this question is not so different from, “hey dude, want to go carjacking tonight?” (moral qualms about stealing aside).

The thing in play here is the balance of life versus money. I’m going to go ahead and say that life is infinitely valuable, at least to its possessor, whereas $25K is 25K. Infinity is greater than that last time I checked. Mathematically, you might be tempted to think of the decision as involving the phrase ($25,000)x(100-(percent change you get the countdown wrong)). That would be the worth of the decision. But you would have to couch that in an if statement, and then compare it against something–but what?

One objection is that money is not an end in itself and so shouldn’t be used as the unit in the final analysis. One might argue that the $25K represents, perhaps, opportunity to add to life, to live more, if that will be our final unit of analysis. That’s a useful objection, and probably (and unfortunately) relevant to my carjacking example.

So far our theme is the value of a life.

An interesting wrinkle of the question would be to replace one’s own death with that of a friend or a stranger. If one has a certain egoistic bent, this may make one more likely to accept the countdown challenge. “Why shouldn’t I go for it,” you’d say–“it’s not my life at risk.” This is why private equity investment people have to have some of their own money at stake to ensure full effort. On the other hand, one with a more altruistic bent might recoil at this rephrasing of the challenge. “Risk someone else’s life?” they would ask. “What right do I have to do such a thing?” Then the curious thing would be whether one’s social distance from that person–whether they are a friend or a stranger–increases or decreases one’s “right” to risk their life.

Other obvious ways to modify the question include increasing or decreasing the reward and the countdown number.

Let us assume you met a rudimentary magician. Let us also assume that he can do five simple tricks: He can pull a rabbit out of his hate, he can make a coin disappear, he can turn the Ace of Spades into the Joker card, and he can do two others in a similar vein. These are his only tricks and he can’t learn any more; he can only do these five. However, it turns out that he’s doing these five tricks with real magic. It’s not an illusion, he can actually conjure the bunny out of the ether and he can move the coin through space. He’s legitimately magical, but extremely limited in scope and influence. 

Would this person be more impressive than Albert Einstein?

Not quite Harry Potter, our rudimentary magician, is he? Still — real magic. What would ‘real’ magic be? If it were real — and explainable in ‘real’ terms — would it really be magic, or would it be science? I think that it may matter how the magician came to possess his powers. If he had been able to deduce from, say, the laws of physics, some new branch of knowledge (magic) that humanity had heretofore been ignorant of, I would have to say that his intellectual powers must still rival Einstein’s. Perhaps in this sense we would be giving credit for the magician “showing his work.” However, what if the magician’s powers were inborn, and he did not know anything of their workings?

It has to be said that his powers would still be more unique than Einstein’s. There have been many great physicists, Einstein one of the greatest. But there has never been anyone who could make the laws of physics Einstein worked hard to discover entirely irrelevant, as must be said of a world where rabbits can appear and coins can disappear.

It all comes down to your definition of “impressive.” If you take it to include some notion of merit, then Einstein’s work — which has had practical implications, definitely resulted from hard work, and is enormously difficult to understand — might come out on top. However, if you take “impressive” as meaning “leaving an impression” you would have to answer that the magician is the more impressive: would it be possible to do something more unforgettable than this?

One monring you awake and immediately feel strange. You get out of bed and realize that you are inside a posh hotel room you’ve never seen before. There is an attractive red-headed stranger sleeping in the bed alongside you. You frantically get up and rush into the bathroom. Much to your amazement, the image looking back at you is Bruce Springteen. You start talking to yourself, and you have Bruce Springsteen’s voice. You notice an acoustic guitar, and pick it up, but you have the same level of musical ability as you did before inhabiting Bruce’s body. In other words, you have Bruce Springsteen’s physical body and vocal cords, but you have your own mind and skills, with all of your memories and experiences unchanged. Your knowledge of Springsteen’s lyrics and the details of his personal life are the same as they always were. You are Inside Springsteen, but you are yourself. You see a copy of the LA Times on the ground: the cover story of the entertainment section shows that you/Bruce is scheduled to perform with the E Street Band that night at the Staples Center. What do you do?

Sounds like fun, right?

We get a pretty good amount of detail with this one, so I’ll tackle the hypothetical head-on. I somehow fake a concussion, probably by “slipping in the shower” so that Patti (Scialfa, the redhead) will believe it. In the same “fall” I seriously injure my left wrist, rendering me unable to play guitar. I tell her to tell the band I might be a little out of sorts, and ask her to have a manager prepare a setlist consisting of songs that I generally know the words to, including:

  • Badlands
  • Racing In The Street
  • The Ghost of Tom Joad
  • Reason to Believe
  • Chimes of Freedom
  • Independence Day
  • I’m On Fire
  • Tougher Than The Rest
  • My Hometown
  • Rosalita
  • Bobby Jean
  • 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
  • Born To Run (Encore)
  • The River (Encore)
  • This Land Is Your Land (Second Encore)
  • We Shall Overcome (Second Encore)

I call a limo to take me to the nearest hospital, where I bribe the doctor to put a cast on my arm. Next I cruise over to UCLA or USC or whatever the nearest top-flight university happens to be. I walk into the academic dean’s office and ask to see his two best neuroscientists, two best psychologists, and two best philosophers, all at once. If necessary, I suggest that I would be willing to endow some amount of money in exchange for their expertise with a pressing personal problem.

Upon the arrival of the academicians, I tell them they must prepare themselves for something that is not to be believed–for it is unbelievable–but ask that they will be willing for it to be proved. I explain everything that has happened in the last several hours. I expect that I will be able to prove I am not Bruce Springsteen by being subjected to questioning about specific instances in my past which I (Hayden) will not know–for example, I won’t know off the top of my head what key a given song is in, or even where Bruce was born, his parents’ names, etc. I will also show that I know a lot about the person known as Hayden Higgins (things that the real Bruce Springsteen would not know). I might suggest contacting “me” (Hayden Higgins) — it is possible Bruce’s mind will be inhabiting my body. However, I would not do this myself, as it seems possible this could go catastrophically wrong. Hopefully these evidences would convince the professors.

I would leave the matter in their hands–but only after playing that night’s show.

What would you do?

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