A Question and a Thought Experiment

23 April 2011


Today I thought of a question that doubles as a thought experiment. I’ve already posted this to Grand Strategy Annex, but I liked it so much I decided to post it here also.

Imagine that you approach a table with a book lying closed on it. Your name is on the cover. It is the book of your life. What do you do?

Do you sit down and read it through carefully, page by page?

Do you skip to the end to find out what happens?

Do do skim the book for the interesting bits?

Do you only read the dirty parts?

Do you leave the book closed and walk away?

Do you hesitate over it, but take it with you, in case you decide to read it later?

Do you destroy it or throw it away?

Responses are strongly encouraged. I would really like to know how different people would react to this counter-factual opportunity.

This thought experiment is not intended as a question about free will and determinism, but it can be taken that way if the reader is particularly struck by these implications. The existence of a book detailing your entire life implies determinism, but, if taken purely hypothetically, as a thought experiment, suppose that there is such a book, and that it lies closed before you. You have the freedom to pick it up and peruse it, or to leave it undisturbed, which seems to imply free will. If you read the book, it must include a description of our choosing to read the book; if you pass on the opportunity to read the book of your life, its contents are unknown and irrelevant. Presumably, if the book were a complete account of your life, it would include a description of your refusal to read the book, but if the book were not actually a description of your life, but was only so placed and introduced to you as a kind of intellectual provocation, its contents may have no relationship at all to your life.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “A Question and a Thought Experiment”

  1. HUnter4086 said

    When I read the scenario my first impulse was horror and I scanned the list of possibilities to make sure “destroy” was an option.
    I am always surprised at the extreme discomfort I feel when challenged by any fatalistic scenarios. The notion of such a book existing tampers with a preferred concept of an open-ended, navigable universe! (Presuming the book does have an ending and isn’t just some overwrought catchbasin of in-progress surveillance notes.)

    • geopolicraticus said

      You have revealed a Jamesian conscience in your visceral reaction to even an implied determinism. Your reference to an “open-ended, navigable universe” even seems to echo James’ protest against what he called the “block universe” of the idealists. Honestly, I didn’t even think about the deterministic aspect when I wrote this. And I didn’t intend my readers to be limited in their responses to my ad hoc list of alternatives.

      Best wishes,


  2. My first impulse is to sit down and read it from the first word up until this moment. I’d want to remind myself about things I’d forgotten, check to see if the record is accurate according to what I remember, and probably want to edit it to make it a more interesting read by taking out the boring and embarrassing bits. If I couldn’t actually change wording, ripping out pages would be an extremely effective solution. Then I’d leave it alone. I do not believe in spoiling endings of particularly good books, and I’m pretty interested to see how my life continues from this point.

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