Why an omniscient foe will always lose a game of chicken

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Find out how omniscience can let one opponent make a chump of another in one paradoxical game but get completely trounced in another. Game theory at its weirdest, folks.

So you're down on planet Mrrfrrglebrox wearing your lovely red shirt, seeking out new life and new civilizations. You come across a being called Zentarr. Zentarr is omniscient, and like most omniscient beings, he's bored. He wants to play a game, your choice. But what game should you select?

The problem with playing an omniscient opponent is they already know what you're going to do. It really doesn't matter what kind of elaborate chess strategy you set out. They're going to counter it, because they know any move you're going to make, and they know everything about chess. Instead, your best bet is to go for paradoxical games. One famous paradox allows you to make a profit.


Newcomb's Paradox is well-known. It's simple; there are two boxes. You can choose both boxes, or only the second box. In the first box, Zentarr has always placed a thousand dollars. The other box is more interesting. If Zentarr knows that you'll choose the box, he will put a million dollars in there. If Zentarr knows you will choose both boxes, he will put nothing in there. Obviously, you should choose the second box, and leave the first. But the money's already in there. Now that you've thought of choosing the second box and leaving the first, well, there should be money in both boxes. Grab them both. Then again, now that you've thought of taking both, maybe there's only a thousand dollars in the first box and the second is empty. But if that second box is now empty, and you only take that box, you'll be cheating yourself out of a thousand dollars. But by taking that second box only, you should be getting a million dollars. Oh, it's all so confusing.

Newcomb's Paradox has been debated for decades. Is it practically possible? Is it logically possible? And which strategy should you choose? Clearly, Zentarr is screwing with you.


Thinking quickly, you up the stakes. You challenge Zentarr to a game of chicken. You call in a couple of shuttles down to the planet. The first one to pull out of the game loses. The winner gets two million dollars (why not up the stakes on your terms?) and the planet will join the Federation. You get in your shuttle and floor it. Zentarr may be omniscient, but there's nothing about being all-knowing that makes him immortal. In fact, in this case, omniscience is a liability. He'll know that you're not swerving, so he'll have to, and you'll go home rich and a Federation hero.

Or you'll have earned that red shirt. Whatever.

Image: KoolTv. Via JSTOR and One Hundred Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know.