Robert Nozick and "Newcomb's Problem."

Philosophical ruminations.
Feb. 1 2002 11:16 AM

Thinking Inside the Boxes

"Newcomb's Problem" still flummoxes the great philosophers.

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The quantity and ingenuity of the resolutions proposed for Newcomb's Problem over the years have been staggering. (It has been linked to Schrödinger's Cat in quantum mechanics and Maxwell's Demon in thermodynamics; more obviously, it is analogous to the Prisoner's Dilemma, where the other prisoner is your identical twin who will almost certainly make the same choice you do to cooperate or defect.) Yet none of them has been completely convincing, so the debate goes on. Could Newcomb's Problem turn out to have the longevity of Zeno's paradoxes? Will philosophers still be vexing over it 2,500 years from now, long after Anarchy, State, and Utopia is forgotten? If so, it is sad that the late Robert Nozick, the man who put Newcomb's Problem on the intellectual map, should not be the one to enjoy eponymous immortality. "It is a beautiful problem," he wrote, in a melancholy vein. "I wish it were mine."

Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker—where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects—and the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City.