Unexpected hanging paradox

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The unexpected hanging paradox, hangman paradox, unexpected exam paradox, surprise test paradox or prediction paradox is a paradox about a person's expectations about the timing of a future event (e.g. a prisoner's hanging, or a school test) which he is told will occur at an unexpected time.

Despite significant academic interest, no consensus on its correct resolution has yet been established.[1] One approach, offered by the logical school of thought, suggests that the problem arises in a self-contradictory self-referencing statement at the heart of the judge's sentence. Another approach, offered by the epistemological school of thought, suggests the unexpected hanging paradox is an example of an epistemic paradox because it turns on our concept of knowledge.[2] Even though it is apparently simple, the paradox's underlying complexities have even led to it being called a "significant problem" for philosophy.[3]

Contents

Description of the paradox

The paradox has been described as follows:[4]

Having reflected on his sentence, the prisoner draws the conclusion that he will escape from the hanging. His reasoning is in several parts. He begins by concluding that the "surprise hanging" can't be on a Friday, as if he hasn't been hanged by Thursday, there is only one day left - and so it won't be a surprise if he's hanged on a Friday. Since the judge's sentence stipulated that the hanging would be a surprise to him, he concludes it cannot occur on Friday.

He then reasons that the surprise hanging cannot be on Thursday either, because Friday has already been eliminated and if he hasn't been hanged by Wednesday night, the hanging must occur on Thursday, making a Thursday hanging not a surprise either. By similar reasoning he concludes that the hanging can also not occur on Wednesday, Tuesday or Monday. Joyfully he retires to his cell confident that the hanging will not occur at all.

The next week, the executioner knocks on the prisoner's door at noon on Wednesday — which, despite all the above, will still be an utter surprise to him. Everything the judge said has come true.

Other versions of the paradox replace the death sentence with a surprise fire drill, examination, or lion behind a door or when the bin will be emptied.[1]

The informal nature of everyday language allows for multiple interpretations of the paradox. In the extreme case, a prisoner who is paranoid might feel certain in his knowledge that the executioner will arrive at noon on Monday, then certain that he will come on Tuesday and so forth, thus ensuring that every day really is a "surprise" to him. But even without adding this element to the story, the vagueness of the account prohibits one from being objectively clear about which formalization truly captures its essence. There has been considerable debate between the logical school, which uses mathematical language, and the epistemological school, which employs concepts such as knowledge, belief and memory, over which formulation is correct.

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