Monday, October 09, 2006

The dead legionnaire

I came across this story in Daniel Dennett's book "Freedom Evolves". Its about the far-from-straightforward concept of causation, and is a classic from the law schools.

Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred, and wants him dead.

During the night before Fred's trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom's intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the "water" will slowly run out.

Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst.

Who caused his death?

Tom did not, because even if he had not poisoned the water, Dick would have poured the contents of the canteen out. Dick did not, because even had he not replaced the water with sand, the water would still have been poisoned, and Harry would have poked holes in the canteen, and so on.

More here.

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