Max Weber’s Newcomb problem

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2012

I was reading a postgraduate dissertation on decision theory today (a field where I’m very far from expert) and it suddenly occurred to me that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic has exactly the structure of a Newcomb problem.

Consider: in the classic Newcomb problem a being, which always guesses right, offers you a choice involving either taking a box (A) containing $1,000,000 or nothing OR taking that box plus another one (B) which certainly contains $1000. The being guesses what you will do and, if you are disposed to take both boxes (A+B) always puts nothing in A, but if you are disposed to leave B alone and just open A, puts the million dollars in A. But by the time you make the choice, the money is there or it is not.

One apparently compelling argument says you should open both boxes (since A+B > A), another persuasive argument says that you want to be in a state of the world such that the being has put the million in box A. A sign that you are in that state of the world is that you are disposed to open just the one box, so this is what you should in fact do. You thereby maximize the expected payoff.
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My first post got some good comments and some angry responses that seem to me somewhat to miss the point, but that is probably the fault of my questionable Club Med analogy, and also the fact that I wasn’t upfront enough about how I am thinking very much in second best terms, on the assumption that first best isn’t in the table. Let me try to clarify. [click to continue…]