For the last couple of weeks, I have fallen asleep thinking about Sleeping Beauty. Not the heroine of the Charles Perrault fairy tale, or her Disney descendant, but the subject of a thought experiment first described in print by philosopher Adam Elga as follows:
Some researchers are going to put you to sleep. During the two days that your sleep will last, they will briefly wake you up either once or twice, depending on the toss of a fair coin (Heads: once; Tails: twice). After each waking, they will put you to back to sleep with a drug that makes you forget that waking. When you are first awakened, to what degree ought you believe that the outcome of the coin toss is Heads?
It has become traditional to add that Sleeping Beauty is initially put to sleep on Sunday and is either woken up on Monday (Heads) or Monday and Tuesday (Tails). Then on Wednesday she is woken for the final time and the experiment is over. She knows in advance exactly what is going to take place, believes the experimenters and trusts that the coin is fair.
Much like the Monty Hall problem, Sleeping Beauty has stirred enormous controversy. There are two primary schools of thought on this problem. The thirders and the halfers. Both sides have a broad range of arguments, but put simply they are as follows.
Halfers argue that the answer is 1/2. On Sunday Sleeping Beauty believed that the chance of Heads was 1/2, she has learned nothing new when waking and so the chances are still 1/2.
Thirders argue that the answer is 1/3. If the experiment is repeated over and over again, approximately 1/3 of the time she will wake up after Heads and 2/3 of the time she will wake up after tails.
I first came across this problem myself when a friend alerted me to a blog post by my former supervisor Bob Walters, who describes the thirder position as an “egregious error”. But as Bob notes, there are many in the thirder camp, including Adam Elga himself, physicist Sean Carroll and statistician Jeffrey Rosenthal.
As for my own view, I will leave you in suspense for now, mainly because I’m still thinking it through. Although superficially similar, I believe that it is a far more subtle problem than the Monty Hall problem and poses challenges to what it means to move the pure mathematical theory of probability to a real world setting. Philosophers distinguish between the mathematical concept of “probability” and real world “credence”, a Bayesian style application of probability to real world beliefs. I used to think that this was a bit fanciful on the part of philosophers. Now I am not sure sure: applying probability is harder than it looks.
Let me know what you think!
Image Credit: Serena-Kenobi