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It Was You Who Made My Blue Eyes Blue

[Content note: suicide]

Day Zero

It all started with an ignorant white guy.

His name was Alonzo de Pinzon, and he’d been shipwrecked. We heard him yelling for help on the rocks and dragged him in, even though the storm was starting to get really bad. He said that his galleon had gone down, he’d hung on to an oar and was the only survivor. Now he was sitting in our little hunting lodge, shivering and chattering his teeth and asking us questions in the Polynesian traders’ argot which was the only language we all shared.

“How big is this island? How many of you are there?”

Daho answered first. “11.8 miles from the easternmost point to the westernmost point, 3.6 miles from the northernmost to the southernmost. Total area is 14.6 square miles, total coastline is dependent on how deeply you want to go into the fractal nature of the perimeter but under some reasonable assumptions about 32 miles long. Last census said there were 906 people, but that was two years ago, so assuming the 5.1% rate of population growth continues, there should be closer to 1000 now. Everyone else is back at the village, though. The five of us were out hunting and got caught in the storm. We figured we’d stay at this old hunting lodge until it cleared up, since it’s 5.5 miles back to the village and given the terrain and factoring in a delay because of the storm it would probably take at least 9.5 hours to get back.”

Pinzon blinked.

“Problem?” asked Daho.

“But – ” he said. “That is the sort of answer I should expect from a natural philosopher. Not from a savage.”

“Savage?” Calkas hissed. “Really? We rescue you, and the first thing you do is call us savages?”

The sailor looked around, as if anxious. Finally, almost conspiratorially: “But I heard about your island! I heard you eat people!”

Calkas smiled. “Only as a deterrent. Most of the time when European explorers land somewhere, they kill all the men and enslave all the women and convert the children to Christianity. The only places that escape are the ones that get a reputation for eating said European explorers. So we arranged to give ourselves that reputation.”

“And then we had to go through with it a few times in order to make the deterrent credible,” added Bekka, my betrothed. “And you guys do taste really good with ketchup.”

“It’s a savage thing to do!” Pinzon said “And you even look like savages. You wear bones in your hair”

“Just Enuli,” I said. “She’s going through a Goth phase.”

“My name is Morticia now,” said Enuli, “and it’s not a phase!” She did have a bone in her hair. She also had white face paint and black eyeliner.

“More roast pig?” Bekka asked Pinzon. The sailor nodded, and she re-filled his plate.

“I just don’t get it,” he told us. “Everyone else in this part of the world lives in thatched huts and counts ‘one, two, many’. We tried to trade with the Tahitians, and they didn’t understand the concept of money! It was a mess!”

Bekka rolled her eyes at me, and I smiled. Calkas was a little more tolerant. “The sacred plant of our people is called sparkroot,” he said. “When we eat it, we get – more awake, I guess you could say. We try to have some every day, and it helps us keep track of things like the island size and the population, and much more.”

Alonzo de Pinzon looked interested. “How come you haven’t done more with your intellect? Invented galleons, like we Spaniards? Set off to colonize Tahiti or the other islands? If you are as smart as you seem, you could conquer them and take their riches.”

“Maybe,” said Calkas. “But that’s not why the Volcano God gave us the sparkroot. He gave us sparkroot to help us comply with his complicated ritual laws.”

“You need to be smart to deal with your ritual laws?”

“Oh yes. For example, the Tablets of Enku say that we must count the number of days since Enku The Lawgiver first spoke to the Volcano God, and on days whose number is a Mersenne prime we can’t eat any green vegetables.”

“What’s a Mersenne prime?” asked the sailor.

“Exactly my point,” said Calkas, smiling.

“That’s not even the worst of it!” Daho added. “The Tablets say we have to bathe in the waterfall any day x such that a^n + b^n = x^n where n is greater than two. We got all confused by that one for a while, until Kaluhani gorged himself on a whole week’s worth of sparkroot in one night and proved that it would never apply to any day at all.”

“The Volcano God’s yoke is light,” Calkas agreed.

“Although poor Kaluhani was vomiting for the next three days after that,” Bekka reminded us, and everybody laughed remembering.

“Oh!” said Daho. “And remember that time when Uhuako was trying to tattoo everyone who didn’t tattoo themselves, and he couldn’t figure out whether he had to tattoo himself or not, so he ended up eating a whole sparkroot plant at once and inventing advanced set theory? That was hilarious.”

Everyone except Alonzo de Pinzon giggled.

“Point is,” said Calkas, “that’s why the Volcano God gives us sparkroot. To follow the rituals right. Any other use is taboo. And I’m okay with that. You Europeans may have your big ships and your guns and your colonies across half the world. And you might think you’re smart. But you guys couldn’t follow the Volcano God’s rituals right for a day without your brains exploding.”

Pinzon scowled. “You know what?” he said. “I don’t think you’re Polynesians at all. I think you must be descended from Europeans. Maybe some galleon crashed on this island centuries ago, and you’re the descendants. That would explain why you’re so smart.”

“You know what else we’ve invented with our giant brains?” Bekka asked. “Not being racist.”

“It’s not racism!” said Pinzon. “Look, there’s one more obvious reason to think you’re descended from Europeans. You may have dark skin, but this is the first place I’ve been in all of Polynesia where I’ve seen even one native with blue eyes.”

Bekka gasped. Calkas’ eyes went wide. Daho’s hands started curling into fists. Enuli started to sob.

I looked at them. They looked at me. Then, as if synchronized, we grabbed Alonzo de Pinzon and crushed his throat and held him down until he stopped breathing.

He tasted delicious with ketchup.

Day One

The next morning dawned, still grey and cold and stormy.

“So,” I said when the other four had awoken. “I guess we’re all still here.”

I said it glumly. It wasn’t that I wanted any of my friends to commit suicide. But if one of them had, the horror would have stopped there. Of course, I knew it couldn’t really be over that easily. But I couldn’t have admitted I knew. I couldn’t even have suggested it. That would have made me as bad as the Spanish sailor.

“Wait,” said Enuli. “I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t we still be here?”

The other four stared at her like she was mad.

“Enuli,” Calkas suggested, “did you forget your sparkroot last night?”

“First of all, my name is Morticia. And – ”

“Shut it. Did you forget your sparkroot?”

Finally she nodded bashfully. “I was so upset about that awful man making fun of my hair-bone,” she said. “I guess it slipped my mind. I’ll have some now.” She took some raw sparkroot from our bag, started to crush it with the mortar and pestle. “In the meantime, tell me what’s going on.”

“Alonzo de Pinzon said at least one of us had blue eyes. We all know what the Tablets of Enku say. If anybody has blue eyes, and knows that they have blue eyes, they must kill themselves.”

“So what? I see people with blue eyes all the time. Of course at least one of us has blue eyes.”

Concerned looks from the others. I reflected for a second, the sparkroot smoothing the thoughts’ paths through my brain. No, she hadn’t revealed anything extra by saying that, although she would have if she had said it before the sailor had spoken, or last night before we woke up this morning. She hadn’t made the problem worse. Still, it had been a slip. This was the sort of thing that made forgetting your sparkroot so dangerous. Had it been a different time, even Enuli’s comment could have doomed us all.

“It’s like this,” I told Enuli. “Suppose there were only the two of us, and we both had blue eyes. Of course, you could see me and know that I had blue eyes. So you would know that at least one of us had blue eyes. But what you wouldn’t know is that I also knew it. Because as far as you know, you might have eyes of some other color, let’s say brown eyes. If you had brown eyes, and I of course don’t know my own eye color, then I would still think it possible that both of us have brown eyes. So if I in fact know for sure that at least one of us has blue eyes, that means you have blue eyes. So you know at least one of us has blue eyes, but you don’t know that I know it. But if Alonzo de Pinzon shows up and says that at least one of us has blue eyes, now you know that I know it.”

“So?” Enuli poured the ground-up root into a cup of boiling water.

“So the Tablets say that if anyone knows their own eye color, they must commit suicide at midnight of that night. Given that I know at least one of us has blue eyes, if I see you have brown eyes, then I know my own eye color – I must be the blue-eyed one. So the next morning, when you wake up at see me not dead, you know that you don’t have brown eyes. That means you must be the blue-eyed one. And that means you have to kill yourself on midnight of the following night. By similar logic, so do I.”

Enuli downed her sparkroot tea, and then her eyes lit up. “Oh, of course,” she said. Then “Wait! If we follow the situation to its logical conclusion, any group of n blue-eyed people who learn that at least one of them has blue eyes have to kill themselves on the nth night after learning that!”

We all nodded. Enuli’s face fell.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” said Daho, “but I’m not just going to sit around and wait to see if I die.” There were murmurs of agreement.

I looked out at my friends. Four pairs of blue eyes stared back at me. Everybody else either saw four pairs of blue eyes or three pairs of blue eyes, depending on what color my own eyes were. Of course, I couldn’t say so aloud; that would speed up the process and cost us precious time. But I knew. And they knew. And I knew they knew. And they knew I knew I knew. Although they didn’t know I knew they knew I knew. I think.

Then I looked at Bekka. Her big blue eyes stared back at me. There was still hope I was going to survive this. My betrothed, on the other hand, was absolutely doomed.

“This sucks,” I agreed. “We’ve got to come up with some kind of plan. Maybe – Enuli wasn’t thinking straight yesterday. So her not committing suicide doesn’t count. Can we work with that?”

“No,” said Calkas. “Suppose Enuli was the only one with blue eyes, and all the rest of us had brown eyes. Then she would realize that and commit suicide tonight. If she doesn’t commit suicide tonight, then we’re still screwed.”

“Um,” said Daho. “I hate to say this, but we get rid of Enuli. There’s a canoe a little ways down the beach hidden underneath the rocks. She can set off and row for Tahiti. We’ll never know if she killed herself tonight or not. Remember, right now for all we know Enuli might be the only one with blue eyes. So if there’s any question in our mind about whether she killed herself, we can’t be sure that the rest of us aren’t all brown-eyed.”

We all thought about that for a moment.

“I’m not going to row to Tahiti,” said Enuli. “In this storm, that would be suicide.”

The rest of us glared at her.

“If you don’t get off this island, then for all we know all five of us are going to have to die,” I said. “You included.”

“Well Ahuja, if you’re so big on making sacrifice why don’t you go to Tahiti?”

“First of all,” I said, “because I’m not leaving my betrothed. Second of all, because it doesn’t work for me. I knew what was going on last night. We already know that I’m not the only blue-eyed person here. And we know we know it, and know we know we know it, and so on. You’re the only one who can help us.”

“Yeah?” said Enuli. “Well, if two of you guys were to row to Tahiti, that would solve the problem too.”

“Yes,” said Daho patiently. “But then two of us would be stuck in exile. If you did it, only one of us would be stuck.”

Enuli gave a wicked grin. “You know what?” she said. “I’ll say it. I’m not the only blue-eyed person here. At least one of the rest of you has blue eyes.”

And there it was.

“Ha. Now I’m no worse off than any of the rest of you.”

“Kill her,” said Bekka. “She broke the taboo.” The rest of us nodded.

“So she did,” said Calkas. “And if we had a court here, led by the high priest, and an executioner’s blade made to exactly the right standard, kill her we would. But until those things happen, it is taboo for us to convict and kill her without trial.”

Calkas’ father was the high priest. He knew the law better than any of us. The five of us sat quietly and thought about it. Then he spoke again:

“But her soul may well burn in the caldera of the Volcano God forever.”

Enuli started to cry.

“And,” Calkas continued, “there is nevertheless a flaw in our plan. For all we know, three out of five of us have brown eyes. We cannot tell the people who have blue eyes that they have blue eyes without breaking the taboo. So we cannot force blue-eyed people in particular to sail to Tahiti. But if two of the brown-eyed people sail to Tahiti, then we do not lose any information; we know that they would not have committed suicide, because they could not have figured out their own eye color. So sailing to Tahiti won’t help.”

The rest of us nodded. Calkas was right.

“Let’s wait until dinner tonight,” I suggested. “We’ll all have some more sparkroot, and maybe we’ll be able to think about the problem a little more clearly.”

Day Two

The sun rose behind angry storm clouds. The five of us rose with it.

“Well, I guess we’re all still here,” I said, turning the morning headcount into a grim tradition.

“Look,” said Bekka. “The thing about sailing to Tahiti would work a lot better if we knew how many blue-eyed versus brown-eyed people were here. If we all had blue eyes, then we could be sure that the Tahiti plan would work, and some of us could be saved. If some of us had brown eyes, then we could choose a number of people to sail to Tahiti that had a good probability of catching enough of the blue-eyed ones.”

“We can wish all we want,” said Enuli, “but if we explicitly knew how many people had blue versus brown eyes, we’d all have to kill ourselves right now.”

“What about probabilistic knowledge?” I asked. “In theory, we could construct a system that would allow us to have > 99.99% probability what color our eyes were without being sure.”

“That’s stupid,” Enuli said, at precisely the same time Calkas said “That’s brilliant!” He went on: “Look, just between the five of us, everybody else back at the village has blue eyes, right?”

We nodded. It was nerve-wracking to hear it mentioned so casually, just like that, but as far as I could tell it didn’t break any taboos.

“So,” said Calkas, “We know that, of the island population, at least 995 of the 1000 of us have blue eyes. Oh, and since nobody committed suicide last night, we know that at least three of the five of us have blue eyes, so that’s 998 out of 1000. Just probabilistically, by Laplace’s Law of Succession and the like, we can estimate a >99% chance that we ourselves have blue eyes. Nothing I’m saying is taboo. It’s nothing that the priests don’t know themselves. But none of them have killed themselves yet. So without revealing any information about the eye color composition of the current group, I think it’s reasonable to make a first assumption that all of us have blue eyes.”

“I’m really creeped out at you talking like this,” said Daho. I saw goosebumps on his arms.

“I do not believe that the same Volcano God who has endowed us with reason and intellect could have intended us to forego their use,” said Calkas. “Let’s assume we all have blue eyes. In that case, the Tahiti plan is still on.”

“Waaiiiiit a second – ” Bekka objected. “If probabilistic knowledge of eye color doesn’t count, then no information can count. After all, there’s always a chance that the delicious sailor could have been lying. So when he said at least one of us had blue eyes, all we know is that there’s a high probability that at least one of us has blue eyes.”

“Yes!” said Daho. “I’ve been reading this book that washed ashore from a shipwrecked galleon. Off in Europe, there is this tribe called the Jews. Their holy book says that illegitimate children should be shunned by the congregation. Their leaders thought this was unfair, but they weren’t able to contradict the holy book. So instead they declared that sure, illegitimate children should be shunned, but only if they were sure they were really illegitimate. Then they declared that no amount of evidence would ever suffice to convince them of that. There was always a possibility that the woman had secretly had sex with her husband nine months before the birth and was simply lying about it. Or, if apparently unmarried, that she had secretly married someone. They decided that it was permissible to err on the side of caution, and from that perspective nobody was sufficiently certainly illegitimate to need shunning. We could do the same thing here.”

“Yes!” I said. “That is, even if we looked at our reflection and saw our eye color directly, it might be that a deceiving demon is altering all of our experience – ”

“No no NO,” said Calkas. “That’s not right. The Tablets of Enku say that because people must not know their own eye color, we are forbidden to talk about the matter. So the law strongly implies that hearing someone tell us our eye color would count as proof of that eye color. The exact probability has nothing to do with it. It’s the method by which we gain the information.”

“That’s stupid,” Bekka protested.

“That’s the law,” said Calkas.

“Let’s do the Tahiti plan, then,” I said. I gathered five stones from the floor of the lodge. Two white, three black. “White stones stay. Black stones go to Tahiti. Close your eyes and don’t look.”

Bekka, Calkas, Daho, and Enuli all took a stone from my hand. I looked at the one that was left. It was black. Then I looked around the lodge. Calkas and Enuli were smiling, white stones in their hands. Bekka and Daho, not so much. Daho whined, looked at me pleadingly.

“No,” I said. “It’s decided. The three of us will head off tonight.”

Calkas and Enuli tried to be respectful, to hide their glee and relief.

“You guys will tell our families what happened?

They nodded gravely.

We began packing our things.

* * *

The dark clouds frustrated any hope of moonlight as Bekka, Daho and I set off to the nearby cove where two canoes lay hidden beneath the overhanging rocks. The rain soaked our clothes the second we crossed the doorway. The wind lashed at our faces. We could barely hear ourselves talk. This was a bad storm.

“How are we going to make it to the canoes in this weather?!” Bekka shouted at me, grabbing my arm. I just squeezed her hand. Daho might have said something, might not have. I couldn’t tell.Between the mud and the rain and the darkness it took us two hours to travel less than a mile. The canoes were where we had left them a few days before. The rocks gave us brief shelter from the pelting rain.

“This is suicide!” Daho said, once we could hear each other again. “There’s no way we can make it to Tahiti in this! We won’t even be able to make it a full mile out!” Bekka nodded.

“Yes,” I said. I’d kind of known it, the whole way down to the cove, but now I was sure. “Yes. This is suicide. But we’ve got to do it If we don’t kill ourselves tonight, then we’ve just got to go back to the lodge. And then we’ll all end up killing ourselves anyway. And Calkas and Enuli will die too.”

“No!” said Daho. “We go back, we tell them that we can’t make it to Tahiti. Then we let them decide if we need to commit suicide or not. And if they say yes, we draw the stones again. Four black, one white. One chance to live.”

“We already drew the stones,” I said. “Fair is fair.”

“Fair is fair?” Bekka cried. “We drew stones to go to Tahiti. We didn’t draw stones to commit suicide. If the stone drawing obliged us to commit suicide, they should have said so, and then maybe we would have spent more time thinking about other options. Why do we have to die? Why can’t the other ones die? Why not Enuli, with that stupid bone in her hair? I hate her so much! Ahuja, you can’t just let me die like this!”

That hurt. I was willing to sacrifice my life, if that was what it took. But Bekka was right. To just toss ourselves out to sea and let her drown beneath those waves would break the whole point of our betrothal bond.

“Well, I – ”

“Ahuja,” said Bekka. “I think I’m pregnant.”


“I missed my last period. And I got sick this morning, even though I didn’t eat any extra sparkroot. I think I’m pregnant. I don’t want to die. We need to save me. To save the baby.”

I looked at the horrible waves, watched them pelt the shore. A few moments in that, and there was no doubt we would capsize and die.

“Okay,” I said. “New plan. The three of us go back. We tell them that we couldn’t get to Tahiti. They point out that another night has passed. Now four of us have to die. The three of us vote for everybody except Bekka dying. It’s 3-2, we win. The rest of us die, and Bekka goes back to the village and the baby lives.”

“Hold on,” said Daho. “I’m supposed to vote for me to die and Bekka to live? What do I get out of this deal?”

The Tablets of Enku say one man must not kill another. So I didn’t.

“You get an extra day!” I snapped. “One extra day of life for saving my betrothed and unborn child. Because we’re not going back unless you agree to this. It’s either die now, or die tomorrow night. And a lot of things can happen in a day.”

“Like what?”

“Like I don’t know. We might think of some clever way out. Enku the Lawgiver might return from the dead and change the rules. Whatever. It’s a better deal than you’ll get if you throw yourself into that water.”

Daho glared at me, then weighed his options. “Okay,” he snapped. “I’ll vote for Bekka. But you had better be thinking really hard about those clever ways out.”

Day Three

“So,” said Calkas the next morning. “I guess all of us are still here.” He didn’t really sound surprised.

I explained what had happened the night before.

“It’s simple,” Calkas declared. “The Volcano God is punishing us. He’s saying that it’s wrong of us to try to escape his judgment by going to Tahiti. That’s why he sent the storm. He wants us all to stay here until the bitter end and then, if we have to, we die together.”

“No!” I protested. “That’s not it at all! The taboo doesn’t say we all have to die. It just says we all have to die if we figure out what our eye color is! If some of us kill ourselves, we can prevent that from happening!”

“The Volcano God loathes the needless taking of life,” said Calkas. “And he loathes his people traveling to other lands, where the sparkroot never grows and the taboos are violated every day. That’s what he’s trying to tell us. He’s trying to close off our options, so that we stay pure and our souls don’t have to burn in his caldera. You know, like Enuli’s will.” He shot her a poison glance.

“My name is – ” she started.

“I don’t think that’s it at all,” I said. “I say the four of us sacrifice ourselves to save Bekka.”

“You would say that, as her betrothed,” said Enuli.

“Well yes,” I said. “Yes, I would. Forgive me for not wanting the love of my life to die for a stupid reason. Maybe I should just throw myself in the caldera right now. And she’s carrying an unborn child? Did you miss that part?”

“People, people,” said Calkas. “Peace! We’re all on the same side here.”

“No we’re not,” I said. “So let’s vote. Everyone in favor of saving Bekka, say aye.”

“And everyone in favor of not sacrificing anyone to the waves, and letting the Volcano God’s will be done, say nay.” Calkas added.

“Aye,” I said.

“Aye,” said Bekka.

“Nay,” said Calkas.

“Nay,” said Enuli.

“Nay,” said Daho.

“What?!” I protested.

“Nay,” Daho repeated.

“But you said – ” I told him.

“You promised me one extra day,” Daho said. “Think about it. Calkas is promising me two.”

“No!” I protested. “You can’t do this! Seriously, I’ll kill you guys if I have to!”

“Then your soul will burn in the caldera forever,” said Calkas. “And it still won’t help your betrothed or your child.”

“You can’t do this,” I repeated, softly, more of a mutter.

“We can, Ahuja” said Calkas.

I slumped back into my room, defeated.

Day Four

I gave them the traditional morning greeting. “So, I guess we’re all still here.”

We were. It was our last day. We now had enough information to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that all of us had blue eyes. At midnight, we would all have to commit suicide.

“You know what?” said Enuli. “I’ve always wanted to say this. ALL OF YOU GUYS HAVE BLUE EYES! DEAL WITH IT!”

We nodded. “You have blue eyes too, Enuli,” said Daho. It didn’t matter at this point.

“Wait,” said Bekka. “No! I’ve got it! Heterochromia!”

“Hetero-what?” I asked.

“Heterochromia iridum. It’s a very rare condition where someone has two eyes of two different colors. If one of us has heterochromia iridum, then we can’t prove anything at all! The sailor just said that he saw someone with blue eyes. He didn’t say how many blue eyes.”

“That’s stupid, Bekka,” Enuli protested. “He said blue eyes, plural. If somebody just had one blue eye, obviously he would have remarked on that first. Something like ‘this is the only island I’ve been to where people’s eyes have different colors.'”

“No,” said Bekka. “Because maybe all of us have blue eyes, except one person who has heterochromia iridum, and he noticed the other four people, but he didn’t look closely enough to notice the heterochromia iridum in the fifth.”

“Enuli just said,” said Calkas, “that we all have blue eyes.”

“But she didn’t say how many!”

“But,” said Calkas, “if one of us actually had heterochromia iridum, don’t you think somebody would have thought to mention it before the fifth day?”

“Doesn’t matter!” Bekka insisted. “It’s just probabilistic certainty.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Calkas. He put an arm on her shoulder. She angrily swatted it off. “Who even decides these things!” she asked. “Why is it wrong to know your own eye color?”

“The eye is the organ that sees,” said Calkas. “It’s how we know what things look like. If the eye knew what it itself looked like, it would be an infinite cycle, the eye seeing the eye seeing the eye seeing the eye and so on. Like dividing by zero. It’s an abomination. That’s why the Volcano God, in his infinite wisdom, said that it must not be.”

“Well, I know my eyes are blue,” said Bekka. “And I don’t feel like I’m stuck in an infinite loop, or like I’m an abomination.”

“That’s because,” Calkas said patiently, “the Volcano God, in his infinite mercy, has given us one day to settle our worldly affairs. But at midnight tonight, we all have to kill ourselves. That’s the rule.”

Bekka cried in my arms. I glared at Calkas. He shrugged. Daho and Enuli went off together – I guess they figured if it was their last day in the world, they might as well have some fun – and I took Bekka back to our room.

* * *

“Listen,” I said. “I’m not going to do it.”

“What?” she asked. She stopped crying immediately.

“I’m not going to do it. And you don’t have to do it either. You should have your baby, and he should have a mother and father. We can wait here. The others will kill themselves. Then we’ll go back to the village on our own and say that the rest of them died in the storm.”

“But – aren’t you worried about the Volcano God burning our souls in his caldera forever?”

“To be honest, I never really paid much attention in Volcano Church. I – I guess we’ll see what happens later on, when we die. The important thing is that we can have our child, and he can grow up with us.”

“I love you,” said Bekka.

“I know,” I said.

“I know you know,” she said. “But I didn’t know that you knew I knew you knew. And now I do.”

“I love you too,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

“I know you know,” I said. I kissed her. “I love you and your beautiful blue eyes.”

The storm darkened from gray to black as the hidden sun passed below the horizon.

Day Five

“So,” I said when the other four had woken up, “I guess all of us are atheists.”

“Yeah,” said Daho.

“The world is empty and void of light and meaning,” said Enuli. “It’s the most Goth thing of all.”

Calkas sighed. “I was hoping all of you would kill yourselves,” he said, “and then I could go home, and my father the high priest would never have to know what happened. I’m sorry for pushing the rest of you. It’s just that – if I looked lax, even for a second, he would have suspected, and then I would have been in so much trouble that an eternity in the Volcano God’s caldera would look pretty good compared to what would happen when I got back home.”

“I think,” said Bekka, “that I realized it the first time I ate the sparkroot. Before I’d even finished swallowing it, I was like, wait a second, volcanoes are probably just geologic phenomenon caused by an upwelling of the magma in the Earth’s mantle. And human life probably evolved from primitive replicators. It makes a lot more sense than some spirit creating all life and then retreating to a dormant volcano on some random island in the middle of the nowhere.”

“This is great,” said Bekka. “Now even if it’s a Mersenne prime day I can eat as many green vegetables as I want!”

“You know Mersenne prime days only come like once every couple of centuries, right?” I asked her.

“I know. It’s just the principle of the thing.”

“We can’t tell any of the others,” Daho insisted. “They’d throw us into the volcano.”

“You think?” I said. “Calkas was saying before that 99% of us had blue eyes, so probably we all had blue eyes. Well, think about it. The five of us are a pretty random sample of the island population, and all five of us are atheist. That means there’s probably a lot more. Maybe everybody’s atheist.”


“Well, I thought Calkas was like the most religious of anybody I knew. And here we are.”

“I told you, I was just trying to behave so that I didn’t get in trouble with my father.”

“What if everyone’s doing that? Nobody wants to get in trouble by admitting they don’t believe, because if anybody else found out, they’d get thrown into the volcano. So we all just put on a mask for everybody else.”

“I figured Ahuja was atheist,” said Bekka.

“You did?!” I asked her.

“Yeah. It was the little things. When we were hanging out. Sometimes you’d forget some rituals. And then you’d always shoot these guilty glances at me, like you were trying to see if I’d noticed. I thought it was cute.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You’d have freaked out. You’d have had to angrily deny it. Unless you knew I was atheist. But I couldn’t have told you that, because if I did then you might feel like you had to throw me in the volcano to keep up appearances.”

“Bekka!” I said. “You know I would never – ”

“I kind of suspected Calkas was atheist,” said Daho. “He got so worked up about some of those little points of law. It had to be overcompensating.”

“Hold on hold on hold on!” said Calkas. “So basically, we were all atheists. We all knew we were all atheists. We just didn’t know that we knew that we were all atheists. This is hurting my brain. I think I’m going to need more sparkroot.”

A sunbeam peeked through the wall of the lodge.

“Storm’s over!” Bekka shouted gleefully. “Time to go back home!” We gathered our things and went outside. The sudden sunlight felt crisp and warm upon my skin.

“So,” said Daho, “we don’t mention anything about the sailor to anyone else back at the village?”

“Are you kidding?” said Calkas. “I say we stand in the middle of town square, announce everybody’s eye colors, and then suggest that maybe they don’t believe in the Volcano God as much as they thought. See what happens.”

“YOU ALL HAVE BLUE EYES!” Enuli shouted at the jungle around us. “DEAL WITH IT!” We laughed.

“By the way,” I told Enuli. “While we’re airing out things that everybody knows in order to make them common knowledge, that bone in your hair looks ridiculous.”

“He’s right,” Daho told her.

“It really does,” Calkas agreed.

“You watch out,” said Enuli. “Now that we don’t have to reserve the sparkroot for interpreting taboos, I’m going to invent a death ray. Then you’ll be sorry.”

“Hey,” said Daho, “that sounds pretty cool. And I can invent a giant aerial dreadnaught to mount it on, and together we can take over Europe and maybe the next sailor who gets shipwrecked on our island will be a little less condescending.”

“Ha!” said Enuli. “That would be so Goth.”

Sun on our backs, we took the winding road into the village.

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366 Responses to It Was You Who Made My Blue Eyes Blue

  1. Buck says:

    Beautiful on several levels. Thanks so much, Scott.

  2. Anon says:

    I cannot help but read a slightly reactionary moral into the end of this story.

    • Susebron says:

      “Don’t try to colonize other people”? “Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to destroy the traditional rituals, because they’re pointless”? “It’s cool to be Goth as fvkk”? Okay, that last one might be empirically a belief of neoreactionaries, but the others not so much.

      • Anon says:

        No, more of “don’t violate stupid traditions everyone knows are stupid, because it’s possible that only the fact that it isn’t common knowledge [in the technical sense] is preventing everyone from building death rays”.

      • Vorkon says:

        Part of what I liked so much about the story is that the lack of a “what happens next” makes it open to numerous interpretations, all of which are interesting and thought provoking.

        Do you think building flying death rays to conquer Europe is a bad thing? Well then, the reactionary moral others have stated above applies. Don’t be so fast to abandon traditions, even if they seem useless, because they can help to keep unpleasant behavior in check.

        Do you think that being conquered by the smartest people alive isn’t such a bad thing, and that the world they create will be better than the one that went before? In that case, the moral is that you should definitely throw away useless taboos.

        As far as I can tell, the only absolute, incontrovertible moral this story has is that when your taboos require some absolutely ridiculous sacrifice, such as killing yourself at midnight, sooner or later someone is going to say “fuck that shit,” for better or for worse. So make sure your taboos make sense.

        (Well, that and the fact that the main thing that keeps people from breaking taboos is their belief that everyone around them respects the taboo, even if they really don’t. But that isn’t so much a “moral” as an observation.)

        • JBeshir says:

          “I’m confused. Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?”

          “It’s an ending, that’s enough.”

        • Scott Alexander says:

          >> Do you think building flying death rays to conquer Europe is a bad thing? Well then, the reactionary moral others have stated above applies. Don’t be so fast to abandon traditions, even if they seem useless, because they can help to keep unpleasant behavior in check.

          So, don’t break with tradition, or else you might end up building unstoppable juggernauts and conquering the world and becoming Planetary Emperor? A chilling warning!

          • LHN says:

            I’m reminded of the Silver Age Superman “Imaginary” (non-continuity) story in which he gained 100x his intelligence, split into two people (Superman-Red and Superman-Blue) and solved all problems.

            This included enlarging the bottle city of Kandor, releasing a city full of Kryptonians into the solar system, and settling them on a restored Krypton he’d built there.

            Since they were in our system, this of course meant that they were exposed to yellow sunlight and all gained powers.

            He confronted them with the implications:

            “You can only live normally under a red sun like the one Krypton had! In this solar system, you will always be a planet of super-beings. Is that what you want?”

            “*Gulp* You’re right, Superman-Red! That is a grave problem!”

            I can only infer that Kryptonians have a different idea of what constitutes a grave problem than I do.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            Considering the fact that a “Evil Superman” has the potential to be a extinction level event, bestowing Superman-level powers on an entire population seems like a very dangerous thing to do.

            I can see how that would constitute a grave problem.

          • Deiseach says:

            Who would want to rule the world? They’d only have to do the paperwork 🙂

            More seriously, is Enuli really up to the task of being Empress of Lithuania and having the patience to decide “Jos said Emre stole three of his sheep. Emre said Jos had dammed part of the stream and diverted the water to his mill wheel, thus depriving Emre of needed water. Jos said Emre was letting his farm run wild and didn’t need the water but he did because he was the village miller and if he didn’t have it, the entire village would have no flour. No flour, no pretzels. No pretzels, starvation. Emre said what about him, his sheep were all dying for lack of fodder because he had no water, so Jos owed him all his sheep”?

            She may be extremely smart but she’s still at the stage of sticking bones in her hair and calling herself Morticia. Having her as one of the Super-Intelligent Overlords of the Empire of the Sparkroot may end up…interesting 🙂

          • Philip says:

            Hlynka: If everybody is super, nobody is. Kryptonite is the only tool which can kill or incapacitate, and it’s as easily managed as nuclear material. (Black holes would also work, but are harder to use proactively). Once a state forms which can reliably de-power its criminals, the situation is as stable as any normal state.

            Deiseach: Rulers can delegate as much or as little as they want. There’s no need for her to cover that.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        At this point, I’m pretty sure if I posted a recipe for pumpkin pie people would use it to accuse me of being a crypto-neoreactionary.

        • JBeshir says:

          You’d clearly be posting it to make a point about how traditions create the best recipes, and by extension, the best everything else. The resulting comments thread would be about whether this was, in fact, true.

          On thought, given that this would inevitably involve a lot of reasoning by example, and examples in this context are recipes, that could be a good idea.

          • Alex Binz says:

            I’m with JBeshir. Inductive reasoning sounds delicious.

          • Daniel H says:

            Not only that, but if he posts it any time within the next six weeks, it will obviously be about the traditions of either Halloween or Thanksgiving, implicitly supporting those traditions.

        • Chris H says:

          Of course not! We all have 100% certainty that you’re a secret neo-reactionary, therefore any evidence either way at this point is useless!

        • InferentialDistance says:

          Pumpkin pie
          Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King

        • Deiseach says:

          Pie is reactionary (because it is associated with the “flag, Mom and apple pie” totemic evocation of American nationalism and patriotism, and nationalism and patriotism are reactionary)! Pumpkin pie is exclusionary and elitist (because we don’t have pumpkins over here so only Americans can have pumpkin pie) and colonialist (because we do have pumpkins over here now because of you Americans taking over Hallowe’en and re-exporting it with your own traditions back to Europe) and colonialism is very much reactionary!

          So a recipe for pumpkin pie involves traditional values associated with nationalism and patriotism accruing around an item reserved for the enjoyment of only a fraction of the total global population (thus elitism and exclusion) and which, to spread outside the natural borders of its origin, involves necessarily capitalism and acculturation, and moreover which is only consumed at a certain time of the year, thus making it part of a series of ritual behaviours, on top of a foundation of established gender/sexual orientation roles and complementarianism, not egalitarianism, imposed by the mores of the current patriarchal society (Mom in the kitchen baking the traditional pie, where Mom is assumed by default to be a cishet female), arising out of a sectarian denominational religious tradition (pumpkin is associated with Hallowe’en which is the Eve of All Saints’ Day which is Roman Catholicism).

          EDIT: I forgot to work in monarchism into the above. Okay, let’s see: ah, yes! “Pie” naturally evokes the association with nursery rhymes (indoctrination of the malleable minds of the young and vulnerable to persuasion) such as “Sing a song of sixpence” which ends with the pie being “set before the king”, thus the grounds for subconsciously linking pie and the monarchy are entrenched in the youthful mind before the defences of rational adulthood can act to prevent political contamination.

          Need I mention that Hallowe’en, and not native indigenous traditions such as El Día de los Muertos, is the preferred term for this festival, thus emphasising the White European origins and devaluing the traditions, practices, customs and beliefs of Persons of Colour?

          Also! Cultural Appropriation which is a very bad, no-good thing! Since Hallowe’en is not USA-derived in origin but from the Celtic nations, it has been deracinated and Christianised and Anglicised!

          Ergo your pumpkin pie recipe demonstrates racism, sexism, anti-alternative gender and orientation identities, anti-democratic and pro-monarchical/pro-hierarchical, elitist, colonialist, capitalist, patriarchal, theocratic and sectarian attitudes and is a dogwhistle for crypto-neoreactionary sympathies 🙂

          (I can churn this stuff out by the yard, it’s frighteningly easy to just turn off the brain and let the fingers type out the buzzwords and acceptable phrases of The Discourse).

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Deiseach

            How could you forget? But the monarchy reference is so obvious and so well hidden by being the unmentioned large structure of the story (as large writing on a map escapes notice), that maybe you should not have gone near Monarchy at all, which studiedly does not rhyme with Imperialism. But now that I have pointed at it, I might as well shout: “The Emperor has no clothes!”

          • Jaskologist says:

            On the contrary, pumpkin pie is deeply subversive of traditional values. Scott, after all, is American, and what is more traditionally American than apple pie? He’s looking to hollow out the central component of our pie, and the present us with something else which wears the skin of our beloved pie as if it’s the same thing.

            And who is pumpkin pie associated with? The Pilgrims, themselves only half a step removed from the Puritans from whom the Cathedral descends.

        • Posting a recipe for pumpkin pie is obviously a concealed endorsement of colonialism. Pumpkins come from the New World, and if Columbus hadn’t discovered it and the Spanish conquered large parts of it, no pumpkin pie.

        • ryan says:

          Pumpkin pie is the worst of all the pies and we only keep making them because it’s a Thanksgiving tradition. Don’t rock the boat, keep eating the bad deserts, and also something something apologizing for colonialism.

    • Deiseach says:

      The only moral I can derive from this is “Where ignorance is bliss/’Tis folly to be wise”, or, being a little bit stupid is a lot more useful than being very smart, because very smart people end up with logic puzzles requiring them to kill themselves, while a bit stupid people can say “This makes my brain hurt, I don’t want to think about it”, ignore the problem, and carry on with normal life 🙂

  3. Susebron says:

    This is great. You’re very good at coming up with interesting and clever premises for stories, and (just as importantly) delivering on the cleverness of the premises.

  4. John Schilling says:

    Very nicely done.

    But now I want to read the other side of the story, the one where this whole elaborate system of taboos came into being in the first place.

    • Chris H says:

      Step one: Prophet takes the sparkroot for the first time and greatly increases his brainpower.

      Step two: The prophet realizes that without placing the sparkroot within the pre-existing belief structure of his less than intelligent and highly superstitious peers, he will be seen as evil and get sacrificed.

      Step three: The prophet uses his now superior intellect to come up with a ritual justification for everyone needing to take spark root so that everyone’s intellect can be pooled to make a more comfortable and enjoyable life.

      Step four: Ensure that prior to taking the spark root, everyone agrees to enforce the volcano god’s decrees by throwing violators into the volcano AND that everyone knows everyone has agreed to do this. This step helps prevent backsliding into not taking the spark root while the habit gets formed. As a plus side, this also helps ensure your continued unquestioned rule with people who would otherwise be too smart after the enlightenment to fall for the “the talking volcano that only speaks to me wants me to rule” plan.

      Step five: So that your descendants can be freed up in the future to expend their intellectual energies on more grandiose matters like conquering the world (after your dead and you’re no longer worried about making sure everyone is too terrified to defy you), set up some rules that are a) arbitrary with no clear personal or societal gain to be had by following them, b) draconic in their punishments, preferably with death as the penalty though delayed timers between the breach of ritual and the punishment to give people a chance to think through their options, and c) that have effectively a delay timer before imploding the ritual system by making the likely trigger events that are not likely to happen in your life time (such as effectively needing a rare outsider to comment on in order to make everyone realize that everyone else is an atheist).

      Step seven: Profit.

  5. Lorxus says:

    [thumbs up] [thumbs up] [100]

  6. Max says:

    The story starts great. However clever logical puzzles and thinly veiled sociological arguments, especially well known ones, are not very good base for popular fiction

    • nope says:

      Which is why popular fiction is shit.

    • Max says:

      I think SSC regulars are interested in something rather different.

      Great story!

    • roystgnr says:

      Just because one genius blogger writes something popular enough to become a Matt Damon movie doesn’t mean that’s the *only* kind of story genius bloggers should write.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      OP Max, I disagree. Here’s hoping for more fiction based on logic puzzles and sociological arguments!

  7. Doug S. says:

    And then the volcano erupts, killing everyone on the island for their blasphemy.

    • NZ says:

      Hahaha, my thoughts exactly.

      • Deiseach says:

        Or they set off in their death-ray equipped dirigibles to conquer Europe, contract measles shortly after landing there, and manage to wipe out their entire island population 🙂

    • TeMPOraL says:

      A supervolcano that was prevented from erupting and starting the next ice age by complex machinery, maintenance of which was codified as complex rituals not mentioned in the story.

  8. DanielLC says:

    Once you take into account the possibility of someone being an atheist, the whole thin false apart. Suppose Alice and Bob are on the island, and then the guru says at least one of them has blue eyes. Alice sees that Bob has blue eyes. The next day, he’s still on the island. If Alice had brown eyes and Bob was an atheist, he’d have jumped. But that’s the only condition he’d have jumped. Alice can conclude that she has blue eyes or Bob is an atheist, but she doesn’t know which is true, so she doesn’t have to jump or kill Bob.

    • Vitor says:

      Suppose that the religion says that doubting the belief of others is a terrible sin, for which people must be killed.

      If Alice chooses not to kill herself but Bob does, the tribe will kill her, either for doubting Bob’s belief or for telling him that he had blue eyes, both of which are sins.

      If Bob doesn’t kill himself either, both will be killed by the tribe.

      • DanielLC says:

        But people were putting actual effort into pretending to not be atheist, which would be pretty pointless if accusing someone of being an atheist would get you killed.

        • Daniel H says:

          Being an atheist is also a sin.

          This is equivalent to how people aren’t allowed to say somebody has blue eyes, but you also aren’t allowed to know you have blue eyes. You aren’t allowed to say somebody’s an atheist, but you also aren’t allowed to be one.

  9. DensityDuck says:

    On the one hand, I’d think that such a demonstratedly-intelligent population would have long since figured out heredity and inheritance, and someone would have made the conclusion that if every single person they saw had blue eyes then they probably did as well.

    On the other hand, maybe there’s just always been a streak of unexplained suicides in the community. Maybe it’s like that old joke about shutting down a self-aware supercomputer by saying “this sentence is false”.

    On the other other hand, maybe the point of the end is that everyone on the island was an atheist waiting for the other people to, as it were, blink.

    On the gripping hand, Scott didn’t tell us the next part of the story where 90% of the population is dead and the rest exist as feral hunter-gatherers, because someone said “hey wait, if there’s no objective authority enforcing morality and we can ignore the Laws of Enku if we want, then game theory suggests that the optimal course of action is to kill everyone I can’t dominate” and society destroyed itself.

    • Nornagest says:

      What game theory would that be?

    • tcd says:

      That would have made for a great epilogue.

      A Portuguese sailor washes ashore and finds a small band of mangy blue-eyed savages. They eat him immediately.

    • Peffern says:

      This story is secretly about the Great Filter.

    • Geirr says:

      If slime molds can figure out how to make cooperation work I wouldn’t fear too much for the super intelligent. On a related point the winning strategy in most prisoner’s dilemma tournaments is some variation of tit for tat.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        If I had to bet on which was better at cooperating, a slime mold or a group of superintelligent humans, I know which way I’d bet. I *know* lots of superintelligent humans.

        • Deiseach says:

          Slime molds all the way! Superintelligent people are much too prone to “Since I am way smarter than everyone else, I can figure out a way round this limitation, and nothing can go wrong!”

          • Nornagest says:

            I reckon that comes mainly from a habit of assuming you’re the smartest person in the room. If you grew up in a society full of people as smart as you are, or with access to magic smart plants, that’s not something you’d get used to.

          • Deiseach says:

            Then chronological snobbery comes into play. Those were people Back Then and everybody knows Back Then was stupider than we are today (otherwise they wouldn’t have kept those stupid old taboos and rules).

            Since we are Modern Right Now, we’re automatically smarter, so we can figure out a way round those silly laws 🙂

          • Cet3 says:

            That’s really only true of “super-intelligence” of the cartoon villain sort. Which, admittedly, does seem pretty popular in some parts of the internet.

          • HlynkaCG says:


            Seems more like “super-intelligence of the human sort” to me. The cartoon super-villain is simply lampooning a real pattern of behavior, which is why it’s such a universal trope.

    • Toggle says:

      game theory suggests that the optimal course of action is to kill everyone I can’t dominate”

      I hereby award you the Least Invited To My Birthday Party Ever prize.

      Or, to be less snarky, it seems overwhelmingly likely that you do not, in day-to-day interaction, attempt to kill anyone that you cannot dominate. You might try to influence the people around you in some way favorable to you, but that will be part of a complex negotiation that involves neither domination nor murder- for example, getting somebody to give you coffee by paying them. So it seems kind of like you are presenting this mythical ‘game theory’ thing that isn’t actually predicting your choices or anybody else’s, except in edge cases. Whereas actual game theory should be fairly descriptive.

      Not that game theory isn’t completely evil sometimes, like in dollar auctions and things. But it doesn’t usually lead instantly to mass slaughter.

      • HlynkaCG says:

        I would point out most humans, especially ones raised in rich western democracies, rarely if ever “play for keeps”. One could argue that the whole point of developing things like laws, taboos, and traditions is to prevent people from feeling the need to go that far.

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t know: I’d ususally agree with your point, but consider the internal evidence of the story:

        (a) the villagers deliberately promulgate the story of being vicious cannibals to deter intruders

        (b) however, in order to fend off anyone who might think “Wait a minute, nobody I’ve ever heard of has been eaten by these islanders, so maybe they’re not really vicious cannibals”, they do at times kill and eat people

        (c) when they killed the sailor, they didn’t bury him or throw the body back into the sea, they ate him. Even though nobody outside would know he had been eaten by cannibals, not killed in the shipwreck, so it had no deterrent value. Because ketchup makes everything yummy, apparently, and also they apparently carry a stock of ketchup around with them all the time everywhere, so that makes me wonder a bit if they aren’t hoping for a chance to get some “long pig” (nice reference by the way, Scott) – after all, they’ve already got the ketchup 🙂

        (d) so they have no problems killing and eating people, even if they like to aspire to being above all that

        (e) the High Priest, let us imagine, is the most powerful person on the island. He is going to be the main obstacle to you obtaining ultimate power. Nobody on the island is too squeamish to do their own killing, (until it comes to suicide), as we’ve seen. Why wouldn’t a player of theoretic games decide, if the High Priest won’t knuckle under, to kill him and take over himself?

        • Philip says:

          You seem to be putting too much weight on their violation of taboos they don’t have. Cannibalism and the vicious murder of lawbreakers are normal for them, in some cases with participation enforced under pain of death, so it isn’t nearly as strong evidence of personal violent tendencies as it would be in the western world.

          Their endorsement of civilian violence to solve problems does mean they may be more likely to initially assume that position, but intelligent people that these islanders are, they should easily recognise the flaw in your plan – if you’re the high priest, you won’t live very long either – and opt for a form of mutual cooperation with punishment for defectors instead. (Assuming everyone has a mostly equal amount of de facto power initially).

    • NZ says:

      You have a point; the narrator seemed awfully prone to violence, and he was only kept in check by the taboo against killing.

    • Anonymous says:

      On the gripping hand, Scott didn’t tell us the next part of the story where 90% of the population is dead and the rest exist as feral hunter-gatherers, because someone said “hey wait, if there’s no objective authority enforcing morality and we can ignore the Laws of Enku if we want, then game theory suggests that the optimal course of action is to kill everyone I can’t dominate” and society destroyed itself.

      I read somewhere that explaining game theory to students prior to doing game theory experiments raises their defection rate. I lost the link. Anyone know where that came from?

      • HlynkaCG says:

        I strongly suspect that the whole concept of sentiment, along with things like law, taboo and tradition all evolved specifically to counter the fact that, in the short term at least. defection is usually the superior option.

        • Anonymous says:

          The individually superior option in the short-term, yes. Collectively and long-term, cooperation is the superior option.

          Otherwise, yes, that’s why those things are there. They’re not some arbitrary, loadstone-like burden. Those things are there for a reason, and without them, having a society – rather than a collection of highly paranoid individuals suffering from chronic backstabbing disorder – is probably impossible.

        • Cet3 says:

          In my experience, the concept of “sentiment” is mostly used in rhetoric about how scrupulously observing all the rules is for losers.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            That’s the point that myself, DensityDuck, and others are trying to make.

            Scrupulously observing all the rules IS for losers. If you want people to cooperate you need to get everyone to agree on terms and get them to punish defectors. This is why concepts like law, taboo, tradition, and sentiment exist in the first place.

          • DensityDuck says:

            I’m…not at all saying that scrupulously observing the rules is for losers.

            I’m saying that if you’re gonna burn down the shithouse then you better be ready to install plumbing.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            The rules in this metaphor are the shithouse.

      • anon says:

        If this is what you’re thinking of, it’s not really about game theory, just basic economics. The Ultimatum Game experimental results described here:
        edit: the Ultimatum Game was the only one I previously knew about! There’s a lot more there & some of it is about game theory experiments.

    • JBeshir says:

      They have an authority enforcing communal morality; the mentioned courts. If the system still functions well enough after any single defection to punish said defection, game theory tells you not to defect against the communal morality.

      If everyone knows no one else believes a thing should be a crime and knows everyone else knows that recursively, then this might stop working for that crime, which is what is suggested as happening to the religious laws in the story; effectively, everyone defects at once secure in the knowledge that no one else will want to punish them for it.

      But if there’s still a strong chance of other people having a preference that people are punished for murder, committing murder is still a bad idea because you’ve a strong chance of ending up punished for it, and working through the game theory will reflect that.

      Unlike the religious laws featured in the story, it still makes sense to have a preference that people are punished for murder without objective morality, because it is better for you to live in a society where everyone else is punished for murder and be punished for it yourself (and so everyone refrains from it) than for you to live in a society where no one is punished for murder and you can do it too (and so society collapses), and so continue to punish people who commit murder. And you can predict other people will have that preference too, and so refrain from it yourself.

      Where things go wrong is if there’s religious laws which are load-bearing in important ways which are too subtle for the typical human to notice, and so in the absence of objective morality are discarded because too few people retain a preference for them continuing to exist, leading to societal collapse. Murder is probably not an example of one, though.

      I think in the real world, things are somewhere between the extremes of “no one supports” and “everyone supports”, since there’s always some who would like the old system to remain, either because not everyone is an atheist or it supports their preferences in other ways. Thinking through the incentives, if the supporters of the old system are a majority and will not be persuaded otherwise, it always remains individually sensible to enforce the old system, presuming doing so is incentivised by it. If pro-change people think they have or can gain more support than the existing system has, they switch to a new set of rules which punishes people who try to enforce the old system, and if they are right, it becomes individually sensible to not enforce the old system.

      I think this fits how humans behave, especially if you consider it as including more than just outright conflict; attempts to change laws, which automatically includes enforcing against anyone who tries to enforce the old laws, fit this, as does debate/consensus building about what community norms should be, which is kind of a “count the soldiers, agree who would win, and go home” replacement for conflict. Outright conflict is only obviously predicted when you have a lack of ability to arrive at a shared belief about who would win a conflict or when those weird human deviations from game theory we use as a replacement for being able to make precommitments come into play, e.g. martyring oneself, revenge, “death before defeat”.

      • DensityDuck says:


        It sounded like they were using a roof beam this time, the palm trees having proven too flimsy. Ahuja wondered where they’d got it. Couldn’t be Tringa’s hut, they’d burned that down last week with her inside it. He wondered if it was his and Bekka’s.


        The rock he and Daho had shifted in front of the door didn’t even budge. It had taken some sparkroot to figure out how to properly braid palm fronds into rope and rig a comealong out of turtle bones, but the result was two tons of granite between the friends in the hut and whoever was left outside.

        The friends in the hut who’d destroyed civilization.

        “Seriously,” Bekka said, wiping soot away from her lovely forehead, “*why* did we tell everyone?”


        “Seemed like a good idea, yeah, you’ve said that,” Calkas sighed. “Kind of ironic that we, of all people, didn’t think it through.”


        Dust shaken by the pounding glinted in the air, lit by the afternoon sun slanting through cracks in the roof. Nobody outside the hut room retained enough cooperative ability to build a ladder; it was a wonder that they’d managed to trust each other long enough to build a battering ram.

        Doha and Enuli had gone to the back of the hut, where the shadows gave the illusion of privacy. Ahuja looked at Calkas, who grinned. “Okay,” he said, “so now what?”

        “Well, I figure we can just wait them out. Eventually they’ll lose it.”

        Bekka hugged herself, hands grasping opposite shoulders. “I hope it happens soon. I can’t stand this!”

        Ahuja put a hand over one of hers. “We should get back to work. There may not be much time, and this is important–”

        There was a muffled thump from outside the walls, followed by angry shouting. The shouting got louder, and suddenly there came a scream. Bekka slapped her hands over her ears, rocking her head back and forth as vicious cracking noises surrounded the hut, with more screams. Daho and Enuli huddled together in the back of the hut. Eventually the screams stopped.

        Calkas settled himself. “I guess that’s it, then. So. Back to business.”

        Ahuja whirled to him. “You REALLY want to do this?!”

        Calkas blinked back tears. “No! What I WANT is to dig a hole and hide in it! But if we don’t do this we’ll have nothing!”

        Bekka looked up. “I agree with Calkas. We need to work it out.”

        “I already have,” from behind them. Daho’s voice, but muffled. They turned, and saw the blood and sparkroot juice dripping from his lips. Enuli, on the floor behind him, didn’t move.

        His eyes rolled wildly. “There’s nothing else that fits! No other optimal solution! Individual action is too great an immediate benefit to ignore!” He leapt forward, arms waving; Bekka sprawled forward, but he caught Calkas’s hair. With a terrifying giggle, he bit through the other man’s hand.

        Ahuja leapt forward with a coconut shell and hammered at Daho’s head. Calkas flailed his bleeding hand, yelling, spraying gore about the tent. Daho fell to the ground like an empty bladder.

        Bekka, in a corner, clamped her arms around her head, trying to block out the scene. Calkas held his maimed hand against his side, trying to staunch the bleeding. Ahuja looked around and said, in a voice thick with emotion and adrenaline, “All right. So, The First Constitution Of Ilandesia, Article One, Section One, Paragraph One. It is hereby agreed to that, for all governed under this document, in situations of limited information cooperation shall be the agreed-upon strategy…”

      • Cet3 says:

        Where things go wrong is if there’s religious laws which are load-bearing in important ways which are too subtle for the typical human to notice, and so in the absence of objective morality are discarded because too few people retain a preference for them continuing to exist, leading to societal collapse. Murder is probably not an example of one, though.

        I would suggest that there aren’t any valid examples. This is most likely a rationalization of last resort, given the combination of empirical slipperiness and nigh-universal scope.

        • Does anyone use Chesterton’s fence when better arguments are available?

          • Chesterton’s Fence is a known argument and sufficiently persuasive in many cases, and is robust against edge cases; the more clever and specific argument might have a fatal loophole you don’t immediately see.

          • What does “sufficiently persuasive mean”. hardly anybody ever changes their mind about anything. For another, it is dark artsy to consider the persuasiveness of an argument separately from its validity. For yet another, I know of no one who changed their mind because of C’s F..

          • I was attempting to construct Chesterton’s Meta-fence Argument, and may have sacrificed some of my point for the joke.

            CF isn’t quite an argument per se; it’s more of a reminder that one’s priors may be very mistaken. Along the same lines is Cromwell’s famous phrase: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Persuasive? There are proposed social changes I think good ideas, yet I would be opposed to trying them except as small-scale experiments—I, at least, am persuaded.

            Regarding your second point, how would you attempt to apply CF where it was invalid? It’s not a fully general argument for the status quo, since it can always be put to rest by saying, “Here’s the reason the fence was erected in the first place, and the other reason (not CF) why it was left up for after the initial reason stopped applying, etc., etc.; and here’s the reason the fence is now a hindrance; and here are all the vain efforts I’ve made in discovering continued benefit therefrom.” (Yes, there’s lots of room to argue whether the proponent for dismantlement has actually got his facts right. Still not an invalid use of CF.)

  10. Daniel Speyer says:

    “We can take over Europe and maybe the next sailor who gets shipwrecked on our island will be a little less condescending.”

    “Ha!” said Enuli. “That would be so Goth.”

    Only if you start by sacking Rome.

  11. Banananon says:

    Minor typo, feel free to delete this comment.

    > “It doesn’t work that was,” said Calkas.

    Should be *way* rather than *was*.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      spelling: southermost → southernmost, descendents → descendants, probabilitistically → probabilistically; upswelling → upwelling

    • RCF says:

      Also, if it’s 11.8 mile from southernmost to northernmost, then the coastline must be at least 23.6 miles. 24.6 once you take into account the width. Even more when you take into account the area of the island. And coastlines aren’t really fractal in that it doesn’t make sense to analyze them at infinite resolution.

  12. Daniel Speyer says:

    What if on the fourth day they all promise eachother that they won’t kill themselves even if they discover their eye color? Then they don’t learn anything from the nonsuicides that night, and they don’t learn their eye colors, and they don’t have to follow through on their promises to violate holy low.

    • Nornagest says:

      Suppose that depends how the volcano god feels about precommitments to violate his commandments.

      I’m not up on my religious law. Is it a sin in Abrahamic systems to threaten suicide if someone else kills themselves, in hopes of talking them out of it?

      • Peffern says:

        Presumably God knows you won’t follow up on it so it’s okay.

        • Then that would be lying, which is a sin in some.

          • Deiseach says:

            It would depend; the doctrine of mental reservation might come in handy here, e.g. lying is a sin, but you are lying to preserve life which is a higher duty, so if you add in conditions – even if only known to yourself – which invalidate or make the threat of suicide impossible to carry out, then you’re neither swearing falsely – which would be a lie, which is a sin – or pre-committing yourself to suicide – which would be a sin.

            Casuistry. It’s what every sophisticated working religion needs, and if the islanders don’t have it, de Pinzon is right – they are savages 🙂

          • Murphy says:


            Is pre-comittment without actually carrying out the act considered a sin in Catholicism? I’ve found it to be pretty hard to google the catholic position on pre-comitting to a sin you don’t actually carry out.

          • Anonymous says:

            You should probably accost a priest and ask him.

            IANAP, but judging according to the heuristic of “looking at a woman lustfully” being sinful, it’s probably sinful to commit to sinful activity without carrying it out.

          • Deiseach says:

            Well, intention covers a lot. When you made the pre-commitment, did you really intend to carry it out (e.g. I agree with my gang to rob the Sixth Last Local Bank but when we get there it turns out to be the same day the police are all marching in the Support Your Local Sheriff parade, so we have to call it off) or was it only a stratagem or under duress (e.g. Crazy Mick will probably beat me to a pulp if I refuse to agree to help him murder Little Tommy, so I promise I’ll help him, then leg it out of there and call the cops anonymously)?

            As ever, quote from Dante follows!

            Inferno, Canto XXVII: A counsellor who retired to join a monastery was called on again by the pope of the time for advice on how to win in a political struggle, and when the pope promised to absolve him in advance, he did as requested. Upon his death, since he was a Franciscan tertiary, St Francis came for his soul but a demon carried it off instead, claiming he had died unabsolved of sin because you can’t commit a sin on the promise of future absolution:

            100 And then he spoke again: “Let not your heart mistrust:
            101 I absolve you here and now if you will teach me
            102 how I can bring Praeneste to the ground.

            103 “I have the power, as well you know, to lock
            104 and unlock Heaven, because the keys are two
            105 for which the pope before me had no care.”

            106 His threatening tactics brought me to the point
            107 at which the worse course seemed the one of silence.
            108 And so I said: “Father, since you cleanse me

            109 of the sin that I must even now commit:
            110 Promising much with scant observance
            111 will seal your triumph on the lofty throne.”

            112 The moment I was dead, Francis came for me.
            113 But one of the dark Cherubim cried out:
            114 “No, wrong me not by bearing that one off.

            115 He must come down to serve among my minions
            116 because he gave that fraudulent advice.
            117 From then till now I’ve dogged his footsteps.

            118 One may not be absolved without repentance,
            119 nor repent and wish to sin concurrently —
            120 a simple contradiction not allowed.”

            121 Oh, wretch that I am, how I shuddered
            122 when he seized me and said: “Perhaps
            123 you didn’t reckon I’d be versed in logic.”

      • J. C. Salomon says:

        Traditional Jewish understanding of the Third Commandment prohibits impossible oaths, both in the physical sense (the Talmudic example is an oath to stop sleeping) and in the moral sense: an oath to violate halacha isn’t only invalid, it’s prohibited.

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          Such a conditional oath is neither forbidden nor impossible to keep, provided I have arranged for the condition never to be satisfied.

      • Korobeiniki says:

        I suppose you could just willfully commit a sin, and then beg for forgiveness for having the audacity to both commit the sin and know that you would receive forgiveness, in a sort of recursive forgiveness loop.

      • It’s not teeeechnically a precommitment to violate the law. You know you won’t learn your own eye color under the scheme, and you can restrict the agreement to only apply if the scheme is scrupulously carried out. All you need to accomplish is “the outward appearance of a person who might be knowingly violating the law.” You’d have to really build a fence around the volcano to argue against that one.

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          I think Jewish tradition does prohibit actions which give the appearance of willingness to break the law. Hopefully the Volcano Rabbis are more lenient.

          • Deiseach says:

            These islanders are all so smart, their superior intelligence is used to work on ritual religion, they have a hierarchical priesthood, and yet they haven’t invented moral theology or the Jesuits?

            I’m disappointed 🙂

            Also, they’re so smart but they don’t have mirrors? That way they can’t tell what colour their eyes are? Granted, mirrors may be tabu for that very reason, but then what do they do with all reflective surfaces including water? It would make more sense for them to have invented sunglasses and made the wearing of same compulsory by religious edict; that way nobody knows their own eye colour or the eye colour of anyone else.

            Seriously, guys, you don’t have Jesuits, the Iberians get to look down their noses at you condescendingly for good reason. Pascal didn’t like the Jesuits because he felt they were too good at tricksy answers to get around the letter of the law. You need Ignatius Loyola and his Company, then there would be no blue-eyed suicides!

    • RCF says:

      By the fourth day, they already know that they have blue eyes.

  13. I did a YouTube video for my game theory students on the common knowledge hat game this story is based on:

    • cgag says:

      Major thanks for spelling out how this really does generalize to 3 people. The 2 case is pretty obvious, but this wasn’t at all to me.

  14. Anatoly says:

    Very nice story. Loved the atheism cop-out.

    (and I just have to mention that I totally called it!).

  15. DrBeat says:

    I read this entire thing expecting it to build up to some horrifying “BETTER NATE THAN LEVER!” level of pun at the end, even as I recognized it was about the Blue-Eyed Islanders problem.

    I am not sure if I am relieved or disappointed.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      “Hey,” said Daho, “that sounds pretty cool. And I can invent a giant aerial dreadnaught to mount it on, and together we can take over Europe and maybe the next sailor who gets shipwrecked on our island will be a little less condescending.”

      “Ha!” said Enuli. “That would be so Goth. But before we conquer Europe, let’s start with the high priest.”

      We stared at her uneasily for what seemed like aeons.

      “… you didn’t think we were serious about that whole Europe thing, did you?” said Daho.

      “Well, all five of us nearly died because of him and his religion,” shrugged Calkas.

      “Six if we include my unborn child,” shot Bekka. “We can’t allow this to go unpunished.”

      “Frankly, I’ve always wanted to walk up to the high priest and just blurt out ‘Hey buddy, your eyes are as blue as a clear day.'” said Daho. “Think of the irony!”

      I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You guys are crazy!” But we looked at each other. I could tell they had made up their minds. And they could tell I wanted vengeance as much as they did.

      Before we headed back to the village, the five of us sat at the coast’s edge and gazed into the ocean. It was the same color as our eyes.

      Eventually, Enuli spoke up. “You know, this reminds me of something Kaluhani told me the other day. ‘Beware the truth, lest you become blue. And when you gaze into the ocean, the ocean gazes back at you.'”

      — V for Volcano, the Holy Man’s Blue Eyes [0]

      [0] A reference to “I sbe Iraqrggn” and “Gur Rzcrebe’f Arj Pybgurf”

    • Winter Shaker says:

      I was assuming there was going to be a parable for modafinil in there somewhere.

  16. Toggle says:

    I’m not sure how much of my enjoyment is the fact that the story is really good, and how much is that warm in-group feeling that comes from ‘getting’ a story with icons and themes that appeal to a narrowly defined audience with significant barriers to entry. Both are in play, for sure. Well done on storytelling craftsmanship and/or reinforcing rationalist culture!

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      I agree, but I’d frame it a bit differently. Part of the enjoyment of art comes from having a shared set of expectations, ideas and values (tropes sort of). With specialized fiction that speaks to a narrow audience, the set ideas that are possible to express are greatly expanded. Scott’s fiction can appeal to me in ways that popular fiction can’t. There are areas of my experience that just wouldn’t make sense to a wide enough audience for them to usually be represented like this.

      The superpower pill story is my favorite example of this, and my favorite short story as a result.

  17. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    This reminds me of how one of the primary benefits of modern liberal democracy, at least when it works, is its stability of succession (compare the Roman Empire). Basic coup theory says that coups have been completed successfully when a majority of people believe the coup will succeed and begin to defer to the new rulers. Thus, although I’m not sure how many people in the US actually still believe in the legitimacy conferred by the divine right of democracy, the fact that almost everyone believes that the military, courts, police, and populace would never obey someone carrying out a coup (because everyone believes that the military, courts, police, and populace believe in democratic rule much too strongly to follow a military commander or a President who refused to step down) makes the US effectively immune to coups of that type. Conversely, if we ever get to the point where there’s widespread belief that parts of the government have stopped believing in democracy and might go along with a coup attempt if that attempt looked successful, a coup would become possible for the first time.

    The actual number of people who have theistic respect for democracy doesn’t matter. I suspect it’s a lot lower than it used to be 30 years ago. But so long as people go on believing that reporters believe this theistic belief to be widespread, they’ll go on expecting reporters to crucify anyone who speaks openly against democracy, and the public discourse will continue to be unified in apparently supporting that narrative which would if widely believed imply that a coup in the US is impossible, thus making everyone believe that everyone else believes it, thus making everyone believe that a coup is impossible, thus making a coup impossible.

    I have no fear that speaking openly on this subject will ruin any countries that would otherwise be democratic, because mainstream journalists would never believe that their editors would believe that the average person can understand this many levels of recursion.

    • Nornagest says:

      I have no fear that speaking openly on this subject will ruin the country, because the media would never believe that the average person can understand this many levels of recursion.

      Right, it’s not like we get a lot of our news through massive decentralized social networks that most of us log into every day or anything.

      …hell, we don’t even need the Internet. Coups have happened in pre-Internet states with state-controlled media, so word of mouth (and maybe some small-scale pamphleteering) must suffice to kick the process off. I still think we’re safe in the short term, but it’s not because the gatekeepers are going to keep dangerous information from propagating.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

        Social media doesn’t yet decide what people believe other people believe; to learn that they look to mainstream journalism, at least for now.

        • Nornagest says:

          I don’t know about you, but I have a Tumblr account.

          • Muga Sofer says:

            Eliezer has a Tumblr alright, I follow it.

            But I have to agree that the Tumblr hivemind will not conclude from his post that it’s safe to destroy democracy. (They’re right, too; tumblr is too poor a coordination method to escape a multipolar trap.)

      • PDV says:

        Word of mouth doesn’t produce common knowledge assumptions, but neither does state-controlled media. (For the most part. Unusually effective ones might.)

        • I’m interested in your model of common knowledge. Where does it come from?

          • PDV says:

            The standard philosophical/logical version? More precisely, I mean that word of mouth only tells you about your cluster in social space, not about any kind of general consensus.

            And state-controlled media (that’s known to be state-controlled) gives viewers an idea of what the state wants them to believe is true, but not a clear sense of what is true. Though there are weird examples where the media is state-run poorly; the Soviet habit of cutting from news broadcasts to Swan Lake literally every time something was going wrong for them comes to mind.

          • Phil says:

            @PDV – if everyone in the state knows that the media is state controlled, does that reduce the media ability to project memes, leaving a meme vacuum that make word of mouth memes easier to spread?

        • RCF says:

          Really? You’ve never seen something on the news, and taken it as likely that other people also know about it?

          • PDV says:

            There are highly-relevant differences between independent media and state-controlled media. When it’s commonly known that the media portrayal does not reflect the truth, just what the state wants people to believe, there is a much greater range of interpretation for what other people might learn from the broadcasts.

      • RCF says:

        First of all, popular uprisings are generally referred to as rebellions or revolutions, not coups. The term “coup” generally conveys that people with some power seized a larger amount of power, e.g. a general declares himself head of state. While there is “word of mouth” in the sense that the conspirators have to coordinate with each other, it’s much more circumspect that the phrase “word of mouth” connotes. Secondly, one of the top priorities of coup planners is usually to seize the radio and TV stations, precisely to establish the success of the coup as common knowledge. And while the majority of news may come through the internet, the internet is very poor at creating common knowledge.

        • Nornagest says:

          I was going more for where the conspirators would get their impressions of the political landscape. Launching a coup is a risky thing, and you’re not going to do it unless you perceive a gap in authority that you think you can fill. The mid-grade officers that the classic coup d’etat is associated with have some power, particularly the grows-out-of-the-barrel-of-a-gun kind, but they’re not moving in the highest circles, so they need to rely on secondhand information. State-controlled media tends to make it a priority to give an impression of immutability, so the banana-republic rumor mill must be enough to prove otherwise.

          (I’m getting most of this from what I remember of “Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook“. Things may have changed a bit since the Sixties, but I doubt it’s in the direction of less efficient information transfer.)

    • Toggle says:

      A quasi-theological motivation for supporting one’s democracy could be useful, but doesn’t seem essential. All other things being equal, the preference of the mob itself has force in maintaining a democratically elected government. You have to exert a certain amount of power over society to not be a democracy.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

        If that were true, democracies would have been far more common far earlier in history.

        • Toggle says:

          Electromagnetism:Gravity::Autocracy:Democracy, seems like a reasonable analogy. As technology advances, it preferentially enables communication (and therefore King Mob) over long distances rather than control; credible methods of central organization lag behind. So democracy ends up scaling better.

          • nydwracu says:

            That’s close to Benedict Anderson’s hypothesis: print-capitalism created an incentive for vernacular printing, which created shared literary context for the bourgeoisie, which formed national ‘imagined communities’, which led to the rise of nationalism, which monarchs aligned themself with, failing to realize that nationalism meant that monarchs could be accused of having betrayed the nation — which they eventually were.

        • Ilya Shpitser says:

          Electing leaders via election-eligible individuals was a fairly common and a fairly old idea. Chiefs/petty kings were generally elected by the nobility (many needed a mandate from the freemen as well), and lots of actual monarchies were elective. In Europe everything north of Italy and west of Poland was elective at one point in time.

          There was no general democracy because the concept of universal suffrage is very recent, but elections are very old. I think key modern innovation was the expansion of the concept of “citizen”.

          • Soumynona says:

            Why west of Poland? Poland was an elective monarchy for over two centuries. Unfortunately, it didn’t end well.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think he means some specific point in time when Poland happened NOT to be elective yet (or anymore, being dismantled).

            Unfortunately, it didn’t end well.

            It *predictably* didn’t end well.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            I meant inclusive (the Papacy also was and is an elective monarchy of sorts).

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Btw, is your claim that Poland’s issue were _due_ to the elective monarchy it had?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            One of the theories for why Poland declined was that the nobility preferred to elect weak monarchs who wouldn’t infringe on their own privileges rather than strong ones who could keep everything together.

            ETA: And similar things have been said about the Holy Roman Empire as well, IIRC.

        • geist says:

          It also requires that the people in power step down often enough that people don’t think preferences have changed completely.

        • Sylocat says:

          Rome was a Republic before it became an Empire.

        • Yosarian2 says:

          A modern constitutional democracy, to function properly, most likely requires a highly literate population capable of understanding written law, and with a communication system at least as rapid and advanced as, say, the 1700’s newspaper and pamphlet systems so people get the information needed to make democratic decisions.

          There are forms of democracies that can function in lower tech societies, but they don’t scale well beyond city-states, so they tended to be conquered by those with systems of government that could scale in low-tech societies (empires, kingdoms, ect).

    • J says:

      I only count 3 levels

    • Deiseach says:

      Conversely, if we ever get to the point where there’s widespread belief that parts of the government have stopped believing in democracy and might go along with a coup attempt if that attempt looked successful, a coup would become possible for the first time.

      Isn’t this the very reason your country indoctrinates its children by having them stand, salute the flag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning?

      I’m always amused when I see reports of an occasional atheist making a fuss about the “under God” part of the pledge, when in reality people should be questioning the entire concept.

      But as you say, it helps instil the idea that “A coup could never happen here! Because the Sacred Flag!”

      And as an aside, would your revolution be better considered more in the light of a coup? Washington, after all, was a soldier and an officer under British command in his early career, and many of the people involved seem to have been pillars of the community in various roles and even officials in several capacities.

      It wasn’t all yeomen farmers grabbing their hunting rifles and heading off to fight the damned Redcoats! 🙂

      • Randy M says:

        Can coups de’etat be partial? I thought they had to be complete, or else it is more of a seccession.

        • Cet3 says:

          Does it count as a partial coup if other parts of the state begin to break away after a successful seizure of power in the capital? And how much do you care about de facto/de jure disctinctions? There are a lot of things that might count, depending on what you mean.

        • Randy M says:

          Well, Washington et al didn’t go around proclaiming themselves the true British Empire or assert any right to rule Canada, India, or Ireland, let alone London, so that’s why I don’t feel Coup is accurate (although if there is a larger moral point being made I’m oblivious to it, I’m just being a language pedant).

          “Does it count as a partial coup if other parts of the state begin to break away after a successful seizure of power in the capital?”
          I’d say sure, but it isn’t the break-away province why commited a coup, but whoever took power in the capital. So I guess I didn’t mean “whole/part” as the distinction, so much as “core/fringe” perhaps.

          • Alex Binz says:

            I think the larger moral point would be, there is a category confusion in how people talk about ‘revolutions.’ For instance, I often see people conflate the American and French Revolutions, but only the latter was a ‘revolution’ (or coup) in the proper sense, in the sense of replacing the head of state. The former was a secession — a withdrawal of a portion of society from its government.

            Calling it a ‘partial coup’ glosses over the logically subsequent nature of establishing a new governing body. A true ‘partial coup’ would start as a coup attempt (a general seeking to overthrow his commander-in-chief, for instance) that only succeeded in part, leading to a civil war (war between two competing governments seeking control over the whole nation).

          • Anthony says:

            For instance, I often see people conflate the American and French Revolutions, but only the latter was a ‘revolution’ (or coup) in the proper sense, in the sense of replacing the head of state.

            A revolution is a fundamental remaking of (at least) the system of government. In that sense, the French Revolution was definitely a revolution. The American Revolution happened mostly *after* the War for American Independence, and was largely peaceful (Whiskey Rebellion aside).

          • nydwracu says:

            How about “First American War of Secession”?

          • Anthony says:

            The American colonies were not governed as an integral part of the United Kingdom, therefore “war for independence” is a better description than “war of secession”. If the Jacobites were only trying for Scottish independence, they would be secessionists (more or less, because Scotland was, and is, not entirely governed as an integral part of the United Kingdom).

      • Steven says:

        No, a coup attempts to replace an existing order with a new one. But the American “Revolution” began as a result of ten years (1764-1774) of the British trying to replace the established political order of the colonies with a new one more subservient to Britain, finally escalating to shipping over troops to impose the new order at gunpoint. It is accordingly entirely unsurprising that the leading lights of the existing American order resisted this assault in order to preserve their traditional powers, rights, privileges, and liberties.

        (The “revolutionary” idea that these pillars of society reached after the repeating pattern of Charles II, James II, and George III was finally that monarchy itself was an enemy of stable order, as monarchs proved to have the view that they had a perfect right to upset any applecarts they took a notion to knocking over. An idea that, after the French Revolution, was so alien to Europe that it didn’t really survive in intellectual political discourse. With the result that American and European politics became so fundamentally different that it’s utterly hilarious to see people try to understand one in terms of the other, like trying to place US and European political parties on the same political spectrum.)

    • John says:

      A reasonably proportional democracy has the benefit of publicly demonstrating that the majority of the population support the winner, which shows a coup is unlikely to be successful. So it’s pleasantly self reinforcing.

      Where you get coup like situations in democracies is where there is doubt about the fairness of the result.

    • Randy M says:

      This is why it’s helpful when people don’t know what the Constitution says. Oppoistion party can say the president is violating it, which, if true, has fairly big ramifications, at the least in terms of destroying illusions. But the president can simply deny that, it’s spun as a conflict of interpretation, and we’re fine with merely drifting on the substance without needing to either follow nor doubt the fielty to the forms.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I do think that this explains why collapses, both financial and political, seem to happen very slowly and then all at once. The slow part is everybody coming to the realization. Knowing that everybody else knows is what happens all at once. Sadly this also makes it impossible to reliably detect the decline as it is happening, in order to prevent it.

      I also don’t think we’ll see the end of Democracy in America in our lifetime, not because journalist gatekeepers will prevent it, but because there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. I do think the writing is on the wall, though.

      I have, of course, no solid basis for that beyond anecdote and gut feeling. But I know this: 10 years ago I would have willingly given my life for this country. Today I would not, and I will teach my children the same.

      • Hlynkacg says:

        You might want to look up the term “preference cascade” along withthe events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember reading a fascinating interview with the commanders of the checkpoints on either side.

        That moment of “I know that you know” is what finally caused the dam to break.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Is this to explain why no coup happened in France in 1958?

    • Luke Somers says:

      Theistic belief in a democracy is not necessary. Practically, we are waaaay better off than we would be if coups were acceptable, so I’m against them. Our democracy has huge gaping holes and flaws, but overthrowing it wouldn’t be playing with fire; it’d be playing with nukes. By setting them off (hopefully figuratively, still, but maybe not!)

      And I think easily enough people agree with that, and no meta fence is necessary (as things stand now). If they were to get much, much worse, then maybe that line of reasoning would be necessary.

    • Tracy W says:

      Thomas Babington, the Victorian legislator, historian and critic, said something similar:

      Unless a representative assembly is sure of being supported in the last resort by the physical strength of large masses who have spirit to defend the constitution and sense to defend it in concert, the mob of the town in which it meets may overawe it;—the howls of the listeners in its gallery may silence its deliberations;—an able and daring individual may dissolve it.

      Although he was writing more of European political history than American and there is more of a tradition of coups there (consider for example Cromwell throwing out all the Parliamentarians who disagreed with the Puritans.)
      Based mostly on Babington’s writings, I don’t think any such belief in democracy is theistic, it developed in England in the 17th century where the theology was pretty explicitly divine right of kings. And Babington talks about Denmark (in his time) as having formally an absolute monarchy but in practice general civil liberty.

    • stillnotking says:

      The main difference is that the incentive structure in an electoral government is more benign. Why take the risks of a coup or a revolt, when you can just wait a few years and run your guy for office?

      Divine-right monarchy was essentially an attempt to render unthinkable the idea of overthrowing the leader, and while it worked okay, it wasn’t nearly as stable as a modern democracy. (Pace NRx-ers.) The urge to power can be channeled, but never really dammed.

    • Bismarx says:

      So… democracy runs on a Keynesian beauty contest? Huh. Never looked at it that way before.

    • Yosarian2 says:

      If you boil your point down, it sounds like what you’re saying is basically just “political power in a society come from wherever everyone believes that power comes from”, which is a very old idea in political science. If people believe that the king has power because he’s the son of the old king, then he does; if people believe the president has power because he was elected, then he does. And, yeah, there is a certain recursive nature to that; people believe it, and people believe that people believe it, ect.

      I don’t think that’s the only thing that makes a modern constitutional democracy so stable, though.

  18. Chevalier Mal Fet says:

    Joke’ll be on them when their souls really do burn in the caldera forever for misusing the sparkroot. u_u

  19. J. C. Salomon says:

    Factual nit-pick: is currently more correct on the subject than Scott’s characters. In particular, although extreme efforts are taken to cast doubt on a person’s mamzer status (and the halachik rule is that a doubtful mamzer is permitted to marry), these efforts are not always successful, and there are a handful of people with that status.

    • roystgnr says:

      The casting of doubt actually seems like a nice idea that could backfire horribly. 23andMe is half-decent at telling who your Nth cousins are (for low values of N), and cheap full genome sequencing ought to change “half-decent” to “nearly perfect”. Wikipedia suggests to me that if it turns out that you’re Jewish and your Jewish 3rd cousins aren’t all who your genealogy says they ought to be, one of your families won’t be marrying any non-Mamzer families for another 7 generations at minimum. Restricting who your Mamzer grandparent could marry sounds heartless, but doing the same to his ~2^N descendants sounds exponentially worse.

      Does “extreme efforts” imply “Jewish people using 23andMe always opt out of the relatives-finding feature”?

      • Loquat says:

        If the anecdote recounted in the wikipedia article is accurate, Jewish authorities are allowed to be *extremely* aggressive about their doubt-casting.

        From the article: “The ketubah (Jewish marriage contract/certificate) was never found. The rabbi who performed the marriage was contacted, but Rabbi Yosef wrote that his testimony could not be accepted without the ketubah, and in any event required corroboration by a second witness.”

        If it’s acceptable to declare that testimony from the actual rabbi who performed the marriage isn’t good enough without both a corroborating witness and documentary proof, I’m confident they can find a reason to write off genetic testing by some random for-profit company.

  20. Maybe it’s my upbringing (OK, it’s definitely my upbringing), but off the top of my head:

    Make and wear colored sunglasses.

    Define a multitude of shades of not-quite-blue. Declare that the Volcano God only demands you kill yourself if you have blue eyes, not eau-de-nill or chartreuse or azure eyes.

    Study neurobiology-from-first-principles, declare the concept of persons, identities, and aliveness ill-formed, declare the rule null and void until the Volcano God sees fit to issue errata.

    And the Gordian solution, alluded to in the text, which is to put out one of your eyes, shout “Eyes plural! The commandment clearly refers to eyes plural!”, and be declared New High Priest on account of your proven commitment to rules-lawyering.

    The follow-up from that, of course, is to point out that since interference by outsiders can and does trigger taboo situations, what the Volcano God obviously wants you to do is to fulfill his rituals by eating sparkroot, bootstrapping a technologically superior military, conquering and subjugating the world, and putting a fence around any ritual behaviors made of slaves and, when necessary, slave corpses.

    • Richard says:

      Chartreuse is #99FF00, which is a lot further away than just ‘not quite’ blue.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Go down the Platonist route and say that you can only have knowledge of Forms rather than particulars, and hence nobody can stricly “know” what colour any particular individual’s eyes are.

    • …sonofabitch, how did I miss the most elegant solution?

      How the hell didn’t one of the sparkrooted villagers publicly commit to being colorblind, or even just play up the fact that they were old and hard of hearing?

      Because the causative chain depends on every blue-eyed villager knowing the eye color of every villager, and making assumptions about their actions based on perfect information of all other villagers. All it takes is one other villager who you don’t know knows whether or not villagers have blue eyes.

      And because the chain of reasoning isn’t about what you know, but what you know the other villagers know, and because the probability of some villager using sparkroot-enhanced cleverness to futz with the flow of information day by day approaches 1 as time goes on, you never know what other villagers really know who has blue eyes.

  21. Sniffnoy says:

    So what’s the conclusion here? That Enku just really wanted these math problems solved?

  22. This raises so many questions…

    Can’t they worship Moloch like normal people?
    Didn’t they realize that the sailor came from the island where they must lie once a day?
    Where did they get ketchup?

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      > Where did they get ketchup?

      Polynesians had contact with the Americas

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Ketchup is from Malaysia (or maybe China).

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          The name, yes. Tomatoes come from south or central America. Pre-contact kê-chiap was made from pickled fish, and probably didn’t resemble the modern condiment very much.

          I suppose either could be used for flavoring missionaries.

      • Tracy W says:

        I sometimes get the impression that pre-Colombian native Americans were contemplating setting up a Coast Guard to handle the hordes of Viking tourists, Irish priests, Bristol fishermen, African traders, Chinese mandarins, Polynesian yachties and etc who kept buzzing over for a quick visit.

  23. I want a world where death in general can be postponed by arguing hard enough.

  24. Vox Imperatoris says:

    Pretty good story, overall.

    The setup was just amazing: a very unexpected introduction of the blue-eyed islanders problem.

    However, the ending is a bit lackluster. For one, it is a cop-out from the logical problem forming the basis of the story. I was halfway expecting some kind of genius creative solution. And the politcal-cultural message doesn’t really ring true to me (speaking as an atheist myself). I don’t believe that the thing holding atheism back is that everyone knows he is himself an atheist but thinks that everyone else thinks that everyone else thinks that everyone else thinks…that everyone is a theist. Not that I’m saying I think you believe that, but it renders the “moral” sort of inapplicable.

    On an unrelated note, the story did make me think even more about something I’ve thought for a long time: that I’m not sure the “outside view” is really a coherent concept in epistemology. It leads in two steps to total Cartesian skepticism. If there is a 1% chance that any given person will go crazy (in a way that makes them unable to reason correctly) during his lifetime, you can’t believe anything with more than 99% probability, ever. Not even that the sun will rise tomorrow. (It’s a little more complicated than that: I suppose you’d have to decrease your confidence over time, since if someone can “snap” at any age, the probability that you have “snapped” without realizing it at some point in your life increases over time.)

    But it’s really much worse than that, because if you have gone crazy, you would not correctly estimate the odds of a given person going crazy. It could be anything. So the “outside view” would have to state that the probability of anything at all occurring is undefined.

    It seems to me that you have to start somewhere, with some kind of concrete axioms. And one of those must be that you are not crazy. Even though you know that many people do go crazy! In other words, you cannot have rational thought without assuming that you are capable of having rational thought. This must be a 100% certain prior, despite the fact that human beings in general do not have a 100% likelihood of being sane.

    And though you have at times mocked Objectivists for having a dogmatic attitude toward their beliefs (and many Objectivists have certainly done much to deserve it), this is all perfectly consistent with what Ayn Rand actually argues in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and supported in other works like Branden and Peikoff’s lectures. Namely, that all knowledge is (in her terminology) “contextual”, or (in your terminology) “inside view”; and that no one can have “absolute” knowledge if that is taken to mean the kind of acontextual “outside view”.

    As a fallible being, there can never be any kind of absolute metaphysical guarantee that you are not wrong, but this does not and should not prevent us from having the only possible kind of knowledge: “inside view” knowledge. This view does, however, lead to the rather strange idea (for the LessWrong crowd, anyway) that you can justifiably be 100% certain of something and still be wrong. Peikoff actually says this explicitly on one of his lectures on the history of philosophy (which, despite my disagreements with many of the things Peikoff has said and done since, are truly great—everyone should listen to them).

    On a side note, I feel like this has some tangential connection to the “internalism” vs. “externalism” debate in epistemology, and though I have read a little on it, I’m not quite sure I really “get” the main point of contention. Can someone elaborate?

    • suntzuanime says:

      The atheism the blue eyes are a metaphor for is itself a metaphor for other things. Which other things I dare not say, fearing for my immortal soul…

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      “Dude what the volcano. You know you have blue eyes. You were supposed to kill yourself last night to appease the volcano gods!”


      “He’s insane. Just let him be.”

      Neurological diversity and unprincipled exceptions may be features rather than bugs.


      Also, being productive is somewhat contingent on not being crazy. If I’m counter-productively crazy, the rest of the world will surely get along without my sanity regardless of whether I know I’m crazy or not. So it’s probably best if we all just assume our own selves are sane and go from there. I mean, isn’t this equivalent to Hume in saying that all our knowledge comes from sensory perception, which may or may not be faulty?


      It also occurs to me that schizophrenics tend to have weird axiomatic beliefs (like that the CIA is following them), but their logical inferences that follow from those axioms are completely valid if we were to assume those axioms were true.

      E.g. I was reading about Terry Davis the other day. IIRC he got a higher score than I did on the math portion of his SAT, then later in life built a working operating system from scratch (could you build a house from scratch?). The lesson here is that one can be batshit crazy but still make productive use of one’s knowledge and intellect. Therefore, a 1% insanity population-rate does not necessarily imply a 99% cap on the verisimilitude of any of your particluar beliefs.

      • Emily says:

        I’m not so sure about “schizophrenics tend to have weird axiomatic beliefs (like that the CIA is following them), but their logical inferences that follow from those axioms are completely valid if we were to assume those axioms were true.”

        If the CIA is following you, and you can’t make anyone believe you about this, you should probably figure out how to live your life, accepting that the CIA following you is going to be part of it. You should probably not blow up everything about your life in an effort to make the CIA stop.

        • JBeshir says:

          I think this suggests they have some other beliefs aside a single specific axiomatic one like that.

          If you think they might be following other people, too, or might do so in future, and you value a world where they aren’t following people (either because you just dislike the idea of being followed or because you think they have some terrible agenda that following you assists) it might make sense to take some damage to your life to try to convince people to stop them.

          If you think they’re likely to do more than just follow you in the future, and proceed to hurt you or similar, it also makes sense to take on board substantial costs to prevent this.

          So maybe there are other beliefs which tend to exist at the same time, but after which all the beliefs the reasoning process is largely coherent.

          • Emily says:

            If you, say, lose your job and your spouse [or experience other major negative consequences] and are no closer to convincing anyone, and yet persist in it, I think we’re in “the reasoning process is not largely coherent” territory. The CIA may indeed be following you, but you are already causing damage to your life without any help from the CIA, and it should be becoming clearer that you are entirely outmatched.

            Maybe the CIA’s agenda is to cause you to self-destruct. So you should resist that.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I’ve known plenty of non-schizophrenics who were perfectly capable of screwing up their lives while blaming it all on external circumstances.

          • JBeshir says:

            I think once you’ve lost most things of value, you no longer have much of a reason to give up, if you still believe what you’re trying to do is crucially important.

            That they lost them might indicate they’re suboptimal, but not necessarily more so than other people; it probably is quite common for people who believe they are doing crucially important things, which take large amounts of time and focus, surrounded by people who don’t share their belief, to lose jobs and spouses. Whether you’re sane or not, it’s probably a pretty rough existence.

            I’d be inclined to suspect myself that they have a higher error rate than usual in the rest of their thinking, just as a baseline assumption that errors probably correlate, but I doubt it’s nearly enough for their probability assignments to mundane, boring statements like “There is milk in the fridge” to be uncorrelated with truth, in the way the previous posts suppose.

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            I am using “logically valid inferences” in the sense that a paperclip maximizer makes “logically valid inferences”. That is, without reference to terminal values.

            I recently watched a film about a mother whose accompanying daughter was kidnapped while the two were sleeping on a commercial airliner. The plot was such that the mother seemed to have delusions about the existence of her daughter because her daughter had recently died during the suicide of the father/husband. The other passengers gave her weird looks and thought she was nuts for FREAKING OUT about a missing hallucinatory daughter.

            Spoiler alert. The daughter was real, and the mother had been framed as crazy as part of some elaborate terrorist plot. (I was disappointed with how adamantly unambiguous the ending was. But I guess pop culture will only admit a happy ending these days.)

            If you were mother, it sounds like you’d let you the flight marshal and passengers convince you that you were delusional, thus allowing your daughter to be blown to bits along with the rest of the plane. Because after all, she persisted in what was (for nearly the full duration of the film) a losing battle (both in convincing passengers and finding the daughter), which was clearly not coherent territory.

            (And before you cry “generalizing from fiction!”, how do you know you’re not actually the protagonist in a movie? Because you are and to believe otherwise is clearly not coherent territory.) (My point is I don’t think this is a valid objection in the scope of a discussion regarding reasoning from inside a mind of questionable sanity. I’m sure the space of realities inhabited by the insane is at least as large as the space of realities inhabited by literary characters.)

          • Emily says:

            At what point/cost should you give up on your daughter in the case in which everyone around you thinks you’re delusional and you are suffering as a result?

            I would argue that it’s somewhere in between the length of a flight/the cost of everyone on that flight thinking you’re crazy and a year/losing your job, having your spouse leave you, and losing access to your other kids because you are totally focused on the idea that you have a daughter that no one else thinks exist and you can find no evidence of.

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            At what point/cost should you give up on your daughter in the case in which everyone around you thinks you’re delusional and you are suffering as a result?

            … “should”? We cannot pass judgement regarding whether the mother should have persisted or desisted in searching for her daughter, on pain of Hume’s Guillotine. Instead, I’m simply pointing out that “insanity” does not necessarily equate to the intellectual capacity of a rock.

            To expand on Jaskologist, we’re all a little insane to some degree. Is this not the Rationalist Community’s raison d’être? “But if everyone is insane, how come the world isn’t falling apart!?” Because: sanity exists on a continuum; most people are sane enough to deal with reality competently; and society at large only labels particular people clinically insane when their insanity reaches a conspicuously pathological threshold.

            Therefore, the outside-view probability-ceiling of one’s schema (and by extension, one’s particular beliefs) does not depend on the prevalence of clinical insanity. Rather, the outside-view probability-ceiling of each particular belief depends on the average insanity of the population’s particular beliefs. If 1% of the population is clinically insane, the probability-ceiling can be higher (or also lower) than 99%. We don’t know because we don’t have the right inputs to make that calculation.

            (The last paragraph feels mathematically unrigorous and I’m not sure I’m explaining it properly. But the concept I’m trying to convey feels correct, because it appears to add up to normality.)

      • Magnap says:

        Terry Davis is still working on TempleOS. It has some really interesting features. is a short, very interesting tour.

    • JBeshir says:

      You can resolve this without needing special rules by saying that your assigned probabilities B through Z are conditional on A, the probability that you are reasoning correctly.

      The probability of A conditional on A being 1 doesn’t upend anything; working conditional to A you get a single probability 1 for A in there but not any additional ones which are not implied by A.

      I don’t think I’d suggest doing this, though. There’s valuable questions, like “should I be allowed access to nuclear weapons”, or “should I be made supreme ruler of Earth”, which assuming absolute correctness of one’s own reasoning can change the answer to, and possibly in substantive and bad ways.

      I think you’re probably better off working conditional to more limited assumptions, like “I can estimate my own rate of error in reasoning to a given level of accuracy and precision” which are both more likely to be correct and less likely to fail in the direction of massive overconfidence and/or nuclear winter.

    • David Kinard says:

      Isn’t this all covered by the “deceiving demon” thing from descartes? Sure, it COULD all be an illusion, but those lines of thinking are totally useless to you.

  25. Decius says:

    “The Tablets say we have to bathe in the waterfall any day x such that a^n + b^n = x^n where n is is an integer greater than two.”

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      Well, the variable is called “n,” which implicitly tells you that it’s an integer. No civilized person would name something “n” if it wasn’t an integer. And as the beginning of the story taught us, these are no savages.

      • Decius says:

        We can’t assume that any foreign culture will share our implicit understanding of when something must be limited to rational choices.

        • CatCube says:

          “…something must be limited to rational choice.”

          Limited to integer choices.

        • Anonymous says:

          Was the story not translated from their language into English? This connotation of n will have been explicitly considered as part of the translation, be its quality as good actually as apparently.

    • DES3264 says:

      So, just how onerous is this requirement? To be concrete, I assume that a, b and x are required to be positive integers, and the question is whether any such (a,b,x) exists.

      If there is such an n, it must be less than log(2)/log(x/(x-1)), since x^n = a^n+b^n < 2 (x-1)^n . This makes about 0.7 x values of n to check. For each of them, we need to compute a^n and x^n-a^n for 1 < a < x-1, and see whether any value appears in both lists. So about (0.7 x)^2 computations, which can be expedited by having large tables of perfect powers on hand.

      In short, this is a task that seems easy at first, but requires a continuously growing bureaucracy with carefully maintained tables of data. I think I can see why the priesthood Volcano God ordained this commandment.

      • tcd says:

        Fermat’s Last Theorem will of course save you a lot of time.

        (The important part of the statement is for strictly n>2. For n=1 and n=2 the solutions are trivial.)

      • Decius says:

        You can also assume that b>a, since addition is commutative. That cuts the calculations by about half.

        Or you can produce the general solution for n for any given {x,a,b} and notice that it has no rational values greater than 2.

  26. Kiya says:

    When they wake up on day 2 and nobody’s dead, they know that at least 2 of A, B, C, and D must have blue eyes. Otherwise the only blue-eyed one would have committed suicide at midnight on the basis of E’s statement that at least one of those four is blue-eyed. The Tahiti plan (even without the storm) only lets everyone survive if E is part of the group of 3. The way it falls out A, B, and D provably have at least one blue-eyed person, and thus 3 days to live.

    Assuming it’s axiomatic that everyone obeys the Tablets, that is. Merely casting doubt on that (no need to all come out as atheists directly) would have resolved all concern.

    That is, um, I liked this story a lot.

  27. R Flaum says:

    It seems like they’re missing one obvious (semi-)solution here: put out their own eyes. Then they would no longer have blue eyes, and so wouldn’t have to kill themselves. This is an isolated subgroup, so the main village could still have enough people who can hunt to support the newly-blind people, if they’re willing to do so.

  28. SvaldbardPapist says:

    So this is Jews before they entered the Secular Culture of the Western World! Despite being more intelligent and talented on average to Europeans, they spend all their time on obeying the law of their God to an excessive degree! The Europeans look down on them as little more than savages with curious customs, just like all the other non-Western Christian peoples.

    After secularizing they plan to invent weapons of mass destruction like the death ray and invent everything and run the Western worlds economies in order to make up for all the condescension they used to get(I kid, I kid)

    Do I get any points for this or is it way to obvious Scott? I’m a freshman in high school if that counts for anything.

  29. Kyre says:

    I thought they would stop taking the sparkroot so that they wouldn’t be smart enough to understand the epistemic logic that was killing them.

    • Rachael says:


    • anon says:

      Or one of them can be quick on his feet and claim he doesn’t understand the logic.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      That’s also a pretty good solution.

    • Luke Somers says:

      Or simply that he has more important things to think about than everyone’s eye color. Say it publicly, so everyone else can conclude that they won’t get enough information, ever.

    • Kolya says:

      In fact, what if, on the morning of Day One, when Morticia revealed she had forgotten to take her sparkroot last night and hadn’t worked through the logic without it, the others had stopped her from taking the sparkroot and prevented her from ever taking it ever again? Then they would’ve been safe. (I suppose they could have offered to follow her around for the rest of her life and make sure she didn’t break any taboos.)

  30. Ezra says:

    So, what do you think the title means?

    Edit: Like, if it’s referring to the volcano god that created the sparkroot, it leads to a moderately interesting line of thought about what the volcano god’s intention was, left as an exercise for the reader or whatever.

  31. Joshua Fox says:

    Hey, I thought the fetus and its eyes would save the day.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yeah. Prohibition against killing, plus the child wouldn’t know the colour of their eyes, and it wouldn’t even be 100% certain that it would have blue eyes (heterochromia!).

      (Not entirely certain if Scott explicitly avoided this by failing to consider the unborn child a person, or if it was just his projection upon the villagers.)

      • Scott Alexander says:

        We know the sailor wasn’t referring to the fetus because he couldn’t see the fetus’ eyes. There’s no reason to think the Tablets of Enku say that a pregnant person doesn’t have to respect the ritual law if doing so would kill their fetus. So I don’t see what difference it makes.

        • Anonymous says:

          What do the tablets say about an action that would simultaneously fulfill a commandment and violate a forbiddance?

    • Deiseach says:

      Fascinating fact: every baby has blue eyes when born (if they’re going to be brown, they change a bit later) so having the baby wouldn’t help any of them; they’d know the baby had (apparently) blue eyes and since it can’t kill itself – what do they do then?

      • Shaft says:

        Have you ever been present when a Black, Asian, Indian baby was born in your life. Have you ever met a person who wasn’t white. I assure you as a black man that not all babies are born with blue eyes. Not even close. In fact, I am 99% confident that the majority of babies in the world are born with brown eyes, as I’ve never seen a black baby with blue ones.

        • Deiseach says:

          Very well then, I accept the correction. Not all babies everywhere of every ethnicity are born with blue eyes.

          However, given that our mythical islanders are all blue-eyed, then their offspring will very probably have the blue eyes at birth, due to the development of melanin in the iris as (and I apologise for the cutesy tone of the following, but apparently websites for expectant parents don’t confine baby talk to babies) “Iris color, just like hair and skin color, depends on a protein called melanin. We have specialized cells in our bodies called melanocytes whose job it is to go around secreting melanin where it’s needed, including in the iris. When your baby is born his eyes will be gray or blue, as melanocytes respond to light, and he has spent his whole life in the dark.”

  32. Anonymous says:

    Does sparkroot cancel out the effects of kuru?

  33. Markus Ramikin says:

    As someone who actually has blue eyes, I find this story offensive towards my minority.

    Oh wait, I can’t do that, we’re not on the social justice warrior protected species list. 🙁

  34. Deiseach says:

    So why do all the villagers have blue eyes? Nobody has different coloured eyes at all out of the entire 1,000? Is it a side-effect of the sparkroot?

    • Anonymous says:

      Founder effect? If the original settlers all had doubly recessive blue eyes, then all their descendants, barring random mutants, would also.

    • Peter says:

      My mental images had sparkroot being like the Spice, making the whole eye go blue. Of course, this is implicitly contradicted by the text (the eyes had to look like white-people eyes and not something weird and otherworldly) but since when did my mental images care about what the text actually said?

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I was sort of thinking this too, but it didn’t seem worth putting in, and if it had been true than the islanders could have solved their problem by eating a dose of sparkroot such that they couldn’t be sure whether it would turn their eyes blue or not.

    • Jordan D. says:

      It is the whim of the Volcano God, whose divine interests include large-scale logic puzzles.

    • Quixote says:

      The spice expands consciousness. It also turns your eyes blue.

  35. LPSP says:

    But none of them felt guilt for the poor European sailor, whose crime was unawareness of a savage tradition at odds with both their openly-admitted external behaviour and their deep-seated wishes. Frankly the first thing they should do with their uber-dreadnought is sail to Spain and apologise.

    • Anonymous says:

      They ARE savages, after all. Don’t mistake a smart savage for a civilized man.

    • Deiseach says:

      Well, he did get more or less fair warning.

      People who admit they invented a tale of being savage murderous cannibals to discourage visitors…

      … and then admit that, in order to make the tale plausible, they do kill and eat random visitors…

      … and then make comments about “you guys” tasting yummy with ketchup…

      …they’re savages. Doesn’t matter how smart they are or how fancy their logic or what whizz-bang inventions they can invent once they stop practicing their religion, they’re savages. So you have to expect to run the risk of getting eaten.

      The Higher Unity

      G.K. Chesterton

      “The Rev. Isaiah Bunter has disappeared into the interior of the Solomon Islands, and it is feared that he may have been devoured by the natives, as there has been a considerable revival of religious customs among the Polynesians.”–A real paragraph from a real Paper; only the names altered.

      It was Isaiah Bunter
      Who sailed to the world’s end,
      And spread religion in a way
      That he did not intend.

      He gave, if not the gospel-feast,
      At least a ritual meal;
      And in a highly painful sense
      He was devoured with zeal.

      And who are we (as Henson says)
      That we should close the door?
      And should not Evangelicals
      All jump at shedding Gore?

      And many a man will melt in man,
      Becoming one, not two,
      When smacks across the startled earth
      The Kiss of Kikuyu.

      When Man is the Turk, and the Atheist,
      Essene, Erastian, Whig,
      And the Thug and the Druse and the Catholic
      And the crew of the Captain’s gig.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      I mean, really, once they TOLD him about their cannibalism, they really had no choice but to eat him.

      Imagine he gets back to civilization and says, “Hey, those islanders were thought were horrible cannibals? Well, ACTUALLY…”

      And then bam. Imperialism.

      No, the only solution once they told him they eat people just to maintain their reputation for cannibalism was to eat him, too, in order to maintain their reputation for cannibalism.

      • anon says:

        They can just kill and bury him, there aren’t witnesses. But that’s not as funny.

        • JBeshir says:

          Also wasteful, if you’ve removed your sense of abhorrence about eating other humans already. Think of all the additional animals being raised in poor conditions in the real world due to our unwillingness to eat the dead.

          (Fairly sure this is a terrible idea for health/disease reasons. Even if it wasn’t, I do not actually, seriously propose knocking down this Chesterton’s fence without spending more time thinking about it.)

        • Jon Gunnarsson says:

          And not as tasty.

      • Deiseach says:

        No, they could have plain murdered him, they didn’t have to eat him (otherwise every single murderer would use that method of corpse disposal).

        There are no other survivors to bring the tale of “Those horrible cannibals!” back to civilisation and thus spread the deterrent effect of “Keep away from this particular island”.

        Most people will assume de Pinzon died in the shipwreck.

        The only reason for eating him is that they want to eat him, so despite their denials, they really are savages, no matter how offended they get that he says such a thing. If you’re doing out of choice (not necessity) what you agree is something considered abhorrent and savage, then you’re savage.

        • Linch says:

          I’m a little bit confused about this comment. If they’ve already killed kim, isn’t it more barbaric to waste good nutrition?

          • Loquat says:

            There’s this funny thing called a taboo against cannibalism, most human cultures have it and consider breaking it to be one of the worse evils you can commit?

          • Linch says:

            Your point being?

            If we decide what “morality” is from the perspective of “most human cultures”, we’d probably still outlaw homosexuality. For that matter, inter-racial marriages and not supporting your parents financially.

            Very few people think of right and wrong as a consensus between “most human cultures.” This is even more true in the era this story was set in, where it’s not at all realistic to expect individuals to know a poll of “most human cultures.”

            It’s much more common to adapt the memes of their own culture, try to derive morality from first principles, or claim that morality is relative and/or each individual has to figure right and wrong for themselves. Or more likely, a combination of the above.

            I also have a disgust reaction about cannibalism, but I’m not going to use my disgust reaction as particularly useful information for calling people w/o that “barbaric.”

          • Zykrom says:

            If it doesn’t have to do with disgust of violating cultural norms, what is barbarism?

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Seems an awful waste
            Such a nice plump frame whathisname had, nor it can’t be traced
            Business needs a lift
            Think of it as thrift
            If you get my drift?
            Seems an awful waste
            With the price of meat what it is
            When you get it
            If you get it
            …good, you got it

          • Nornagest says:

            Now I have that stuck in my head. Thanks a lot.

          • Loquat says:

            I’m not normally a neoreactionary, but when most human cultures have maintained longstanding taboos against a certain thing, there’s probably some reason for it.

            So here’s the logic: if your tribe agrees that it’s perfectly okay to eat the flesh of dead humans, even when there’s plenty of other food – and other meat – available, there will inevitably come to be people who really enjoy it, and eagerly anticipate opportunities to consume it, which of course only occur when somebody dies. That then leads to the constant suspicion that anyone who really enjoys human flesh would value their neighbors more as steaks than as living people, which seems really bad for social cohesion, especially if one or more of the people who can influence whether others live or die – doctors, judges, lords, etc – is known to have a fondness for human flesh.

            And then if you move down the slippery slope a little ways, you get Sweeney Todd outright murdering people so they can be turned into meat pies, but that’s not where society breaks. Society breaks at the point where every single person knows that if they or their loved ones or the whole damn family were to die, a non-zero number of their neighbors would be eagerly setting up the buffet tables.

  36. Deiseach says:

    Okay, I’m stupid, but why is it breaking the taboo for Enuli to say “At least one of the rest of you has blue eyes” and not breaking the taboo for Calkas to say “Everyone back at the village has blue eyes”?

    And they slip pretty quickly from “IF Enuli was the blue-eyed person” to “Enuli is blue-eyed” when they start discussing who should go to Tahiti, so why isn’t that breaking the taboo of telling someone they have blue eyes?

    And the narrator says “I know I’m not the only blue-eyed person”, so why isn’t he bound to commit suicide that night, if he knows his own eye colour?

    So far as I can make out: the divine law is “if someone has blue eyes, and knows he has blue eyes, he must kill himself at midnight of that night”. There is nothing about “if you know someone has blue eyes and they didn’t kill themselves, you must kill them”. And the taboo is not explicitly(?) in the divine commandment, it has grown up as a tradition about it: you don’t tell anyone they have blue eyes (because they would have to kill themselves) and if you do, you get killed instead?

    I wonder if, when they get back to the village and make their great announcement, Calkas’ father won’t sigh, pull them aside, and say “Kids, do you really think you’re the first ones in all the generations to work this out? Why do you think we have a taboo about telling people ‘you’ve got blue eyes’, if there was a chance the rest of us have brown eyes? Of course we’ve all got blue eyes, and we know it, but if we officially recognised that, we’d all have to kill ourselves and that would be stupid. So we’ll all pretend you guys said nothing, or else you can all row off to Tahiti if you prefer, okay?”

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      And the narrator says “I know I’m not the only blue-eyed person”, so why isn’t he bound to commit suicide that night, if he knows his own eye colour?

      You read that as “I know I’m (not the only blue-eyed person),” but it’s supposed to be read as “I know I’m not (the only blue-eyed person).” I.e. he knows that the eyes of the others are blue, so either his are the only non-blue eyes or everyone’s eyes are blue, but he knows for a fact that he can’t be the only blue-eyed person.

    • Aegeus says:

      >Okay, I’m stupid, but why is it breaking the taboo for Enuli to say “At least one of the rest of you has blue eyes” and not breaking the taboo for Calkas to say “Everyone back at the village has blue eyes”?

      Enuli revealed new information: “One person other than me has blue eyes.” Even if she left, the four survivors would be able to make deductions about their eye colors. Enuli is basically doing what the sailor did to the five of them.

      Calkas didn’t reveal anything about the protagonists. He effectively said “All the other villagers, who are out of earshot and not able to make deductions from this information, have blue eyes.”

      As for the narrator, I think that’s an error. From the context, he should be saying, “If I have blue eyes, I’m not the only one.”

      >Of course we’ve all got blue eyes, and we know it, but if we officially recognised that, we’d all have to kill ourselves and that would be stupid.

      The premise of the story is that they’ve been scrupulous about following the taboos, so they don’t all know that.

      If the villagers have all agreed that yes, the divine law that makes them kill themselves is stupid, and they don’t fear the threat of burning for eternity in the Great Caldera, why would they still be following the taboos about Mersenne primes and not building death rays and everything else?

      • Deiseach says:

        Because not-building-a-death-ray means nobody gets killed. Blue-eyed-suicide means a lot of people (e.g. everyone else but me, if I am the observer of the other 999 people in the village) have to die.

        When it comes to “I have to die”, people are very creative about ways around the letter of divine or secular commandments.

        Besides, if the sparkroot-enhanced geniuses can’t work out the likely heredity of eye colour and hypothesise they too have blue eyes, that’s unlikely. What’s more likely is the kind of carefully-cultivated ignorance the taboo about telling anyone their eye colour exhibits (and enforcing that by killing anyone who breaks the taboo): if nobody says anything about eye colour, then I don’t have to hypothesise I might have blue eyes, so I need not be aware of my true eye colour and therefore have to kill myself.

        Besides, it’s not new information; everyone can see that the other four people have blue eyes. All it does is break the taboo and make them acknowledge that fact. I can see the force of the original problem, where there are only two people, neither of whom knows their own eye colour, so Alice can’t be sure Bob knows he has blue eyes and Bob can’t be sure Alice knows she has blue eyes.

        But when there are more than two, and everyone can see that everyone else has blue eyes, you need to be stupider than these people are to think you are the single brown-eyed person alive. Bob may guess that Joe thinks he has brown eyes if Joe hasn’t killed himself yet, but he also has to wonder about the chances of only one person in 1,000 having non-blue eyes, and that person being himself (after all, he can see that Joe and Bill and Sally and Jane and Mike and Tom and Susie and Laura and Tim and Jack and Mandy and Pearl etc. are all mistaken in their assumption that they are the sole brown-eyed person in the village, so he surely has to question if his assumption that he is the only brown-eyed person is any more correct). If they’re that smart, they surely could work out the probability that they are the sole exception to the 999/1000 population having blue eyes, and whether that is greater or lesser than the probability that the truth is 1000/1000 having blue eyes.

        Some smart maths person work out the probabilities there, please! 🙂

        • Ezra says:

          No, actually. Alonzo DID give them new information. It’s explained why here:

          I’ll copy and paste the core of the explanation here:
          Blue-eyed people can’t see their own faces, so blue-eyed people can see one less blue-eyed face than non-blue-eyed people can. Even though I can see that there are at least 99 blue-eyed people, I don’t know that they can see that, so I need to imagine people who see only 98, who would base their actions in part by imagining people who can see only 97 who would base their actions in part by imagining people who can see only 96, and so on… All the levels are relevant.

          That’s why in every formulation of the problem, there is a stranger coming to the island and presenting them with the information that at least one of them has blue eyes.

          • Deiseach says:

            Yeah, but I still don’t see why this makes it new information. So Alonzo says “At least one person has blue eyes”.

            None of them can seriously think everyone else is ignorant of this; even if A is firmly convinced his eyes are brown, or at least might not be blue, he can see B, C, D, and E have blue eyes. He can phrase it as “B doesn’t know her eyes are blue, so she thinks she has brown eyes, so she only sees C, D and E as having blue eyes and so she thinks me and her (ack! bad grammar!) she and I are the brown eyed ones.”

            But it doesn’t work for “C thinks he, B and I are the brown-eyed ones so he thinks D and E have blue eyes”, because C can see B has blue eyes, not brown, and A knows C can see this because none of them are blind. Instead, A has to think “B thinks she and I are the only brown-eyed ones; C thinks he and I are the only brown-eyed ones; D thinks he and I are the only brown-eyed ones; E thinks she and I are the only brown-eyed ones”. That is, every one of A, B, C, D and E thinks of themselves as having brown eyes in reality and of the other four, that one thinks their eyes are brown and that the remaining three are the blue-eyed ones.

            Otherwise, if you follow the terms of the argument, you are being strictly logical by the rules of the puzzle, but damn stupid anyways (“I know C can see how many people in reality have blue eyes, but I have to pretend he thinks like the third link in the chain of the problem”). Like Terry Pratchett’s bogeymen, who think if you put a blanket over their head, they no longer exist (or at least, are so caught in the existential conundrum that they can’t do anything else to hurt you).

            The only way that works is if nobody can see any colours other than black and white and rely on the outsider to say “At least one of you has blue eyes” (and presumably then confirms or denies if the person who kills themself was the only blue-eyed person), because otherwise it’s “We can all see everyone has blue eyes oh shit we’re screwed”.

            Honestly, if they get so caught up in following Da Roolz of logic puzzles so rigidly, I have no fear for them conquering anywhere; even if they do manage to equip dirigibles with death-rays and fly to Europe, they’ll stand around debating some chicken-and-egg problem and the less logical but more practical armies of the stupid Europeans will blow them to bits with cannon 🙂

          • Kram says:

            Is it providing new information about the situation? Isn’t it just lighting the fuse on an inductive logic bomb?

          • Yeah, ‘strictly logical by the terms of the puzzle’ is the kicker here. You’re assuming perfect information sharing in the case of the “At least one person has blue eyes.” and perfect follow-up on keeping watch on the population thereafter, when you can severely mess things up just by losing track of someone for a suicide period, and you need to have a string of suicides from people who learned their eye color through looking at reflective things or accidentally discovering genetics.

            It doesn’t take much to reintroduce ambiguity into the problem again; all you need to do is speculate that one of the blue-eyed people you observe is also an atheist. If you don’t know that the blue-eyed person you see not killing themself is doing so from real or fake ambiguity in how many blue-eyed people they know exist, you don’t know if your eyes are blue. And since these are real fictional people and not actors in a logic puzzle (and actual atheists, to boot), if they were capable of following the sparkroot down the N-levels deep induction with timeless reasoning, they should also have been able to do so with regards to sidestepping the problem entirely.

          • Loquat says:

            There’s also the issue that, among real-world humans, especially in the scenarios with more than a handful of people, a significant percentage would hear “at least one of you has blue eyes” and promptly decide that since they know perfectly well that plenty of others have blue eyes, they’re going to assume it refers to someone else and get on with their lives. A population of real-world humans would probably also include at least one person neurotic enough to crack early on and either take the penalty or have a public freakout in which they admit to having blue eyes, and then they can be the designated sacrifice so everyone else can avoid the logic bomb.

      • Careless says:

        Enuli revealed new information: “One person other than me has blue eyes.”

        But that’s not new information for a group of more than three.

  37. Rob Miles says:

    Why do they kill Alonzo? If they’d left him alive and explained the situation, (and maybe given him some sparkroot) he could have thought about it for a while and then said “I was talking specifically about Enuli” (or whoever he likes least). Enuli must then kill herself, but nobody else needs to, as it doesn’t kickstart a common knowledge cascade.

    Alonzo can then exist on the island as the only person who knows everyone’s eye colour, and with enough sparkroot he could likely figure out a way to defuse the situation.

    (sorry if something like this has already been said)

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      But Alonzo was delicious with ketchup.

    • anon says:

      I think that was purely for comedic effect, but it doesn’t mean we have to ignore it if we don’t want to.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Leaving Alonzo alive contributes nothing to this solution. They can kill Alonzo, then ask Enuli to kill herself. It’ll still work. In fact, they tried exactly this, and were thwarted only by Enuli’s reluctance.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh, I’m not commenting about the killing, I understand why they did that.

        It’s the eating. That was unnecessary. You have a convenient rocky shoreline at hand from which you just rescued the guy from certain death (before you killed him for breaking tabu), what could be easier than to dispose of the body there?

        The only reason for eating him (especially since they’ve already had their roast pig supper, so it’s not hunger) is that they like manflesh 🙂 (I’ll go out on a limb and say that the fact that the teenagers/young adults here have eaten the “trial samples” themselves, supposedly done to make the story more credible, points to that; if it was a dreadful necessity, you don’t feed it to your kids, you have a few stalwart volunteers – or drawn by lottery, or criminals undergoing a punishment – do it. If the entire village from elders to tots engaged in a feast or two of lip-smackin’ good with ketchup enjoyment of roast human, that’s not ‘we’re only doing this to make the rumours stand up on their own feet’).

        Which brings me to the idea – not of steelmanning the Laws of Enku, I’m nowhere smart enough to do that – but of proposing that they may not have been completely unreasonable.

        (1) Alonzo de Pinzon may or may not be racist, but he’s right: the islanders are cannibal savages. Back in the day, it wasn’t a deterrent story cooked up to ward off contact with Europeans, they really did eat anyone they could get their hands on. And as a result of that, kuru.

        Sparkroot doesn’t just make you smarter, it protects you against kuru. For whatever reason Enku ate it first, it made him smart enough to figure this out. He used his position as representative of the Volcano God to get the other villagers to eat it, too.

        But how do you make sure people keep eating sparkroot (or drinking sparkroot tea) after you’re dead? And how do you keep them from setting out to conquer all the neighbouring islands to get more people to eat? (Because humans are yummy with ketchup, and even as representative of the Volcano God, he can’t prevent backsliding – cf. the story of the Golden Calf, especially once he’s dead and not around to stop them anymore).

        So he established a priesthood to train others to carry on after him, and probably made himself Chief as well – the island sounds like a theocracy. (Invoke all the ideas about cunning priestcraft and trickery and psychological manipulation about how people make organised religion established and maintain power over the credulous from your favourite 18th/19th/20th century free thinker here). By keeping people busy using their sparkroot enhanced intellects fulfilling all the tenets of the Law, they (a) need to keep taking sparkroot (b) can’t divert time and energy to plotting how to conquer and eat other people

        (2) There’s a secondary, indirect limitation that sparkroot consumption puts on the islanders as well. Since sparkroot is apparently like silphium and can’t be successfully grown elsewhere, the islanders are confined to their island. That puts a limitation on the maximum population. If there’s a 5% natural population increase, and if Beka isn’t lying about being pregnant in order to save herself, then they may not have contraception, abortion, and anyway accidents happen.

        Cue the “if you know you have blue eyes, kill yourself” rule. It’s a crude but effective way of limiting population on the island (and doubtless, the villagers get to feast on the suicide’s corpse – this is one burial custom in reality, allegedly, so letting them indulge in occasional yummy roast human more or less guilt-free).

        (3) Otherwise, you have the population growing too great eventually for the island to support, so they have to leave. And that’s where the conquering (and eating) other islands come on, and where you eventually run into the supply problem of enough sparkroot for a booming population (both on the island and the other conquered islands). Just as the demand for silphium outstripped supply (and drove it to extinction), eventually you won’t have enough sparkroot for everyone and then either they slip back into ordinary intelligence and lose their advantage over the conquered, succumb to the effects of kuru, or both.

        (4) That’s also the fly in the ointment I see when the band of five gets back to the villagers. Yay atheism, now we can rule the world with our superbrains, and eventually population boom, the necessity of emigration, supply chain problems, possible extinction of sparkroot, loss of advantage of superbrains (either with or without kuru, because if you’re no longer observing the Laws, why be fussy about the tabu on eating yummy delicious with ketchup humans, especially the less-intelligent, inferior variety?) and downfall/elimination by uprising of former, enraged, colonised peoples of your Sparkroot Island Empire? Because all empires fall in the long run!

  38. Gbdub says:

    If everyone on the island has blue eyes, how do they know that multiple eye colors are even a possibility in the first place, let alone develop a strong taboo against knowing you have blue eyes?

    If anything a taboo about brown eyes, to maintain blue eyed racial purity or something, seems much more likely.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It sounds like they go to Tahiti to trade. Maybe they saw brown-eyed Tahitians.

      • Gbdub says:

        Fair enough, that’s what I was thinking as well. Do we agree though that the taboo could not exist until a concept of multiple eye colors existed? But if they encountered brown-eyed Tahitians prior to the taboo existing, how does the taboo form?

        Granted, all of the taboos seem pretty arbitrary, but I’m imagining that the first thing a sparkroot consuming person would say upon seeing a brown eyed person for the first time would be “gee, this person’s eyes look different from every other person I’ve ever met! Isn’t that interesting?” Unless this person was solo and whispered this knowledge to the volcano god, who then instantly disseminated the taboo, it seems like knowledge that everyone on the island has blue eyes would spread twice round the village before the taboo could put its boots on.

        And we’ve apparently established that the volcano god isn’t even real (or is extremely unlikely to be real) so even that doesn’t work. Maybe the first person to see a brown-eyed Tahitian was the high priest himself, and made up the taboo on the spot? Then made sure the taboo was well in place before anyone else met a Tahitian and started asking questions?

    • Deiseach says:

      If the original population was brown-eyed, and sparkroot makes your eyes blue, the gradual change in eye coloration over the generations would account for the persistence of the rule.

      And also the tabu which grew up around it of “Never tell anyone their eye colour, and if anyone breaks this rule, we kill them”. If only a few individuals to start with had blue eyes, it was no problem to have them kill themselves. When it shifted to the majority, and then all, the population being blue-eyed, nobody wanted to risk having to commit suicide so everyone politely ignored the fact that everyone else they saw had blue eyes.

      (And I really don’t believe they don’t have mirrors or some kind of reflective surfaces, so everyone must have a good idea that their own eyes are blue).

  39. Gbdub says:

    5 days later, while the village argues over their newfound atheism, the entire island is conquered by the inhabitants of the nearby island of Redpilia, where the broroot plant confers BRUTE STRENGTH and the volcano god demands blood sacrifice of BETA CUCKOLD ORBITERS.

    • Deiseach says:

      Or the rumours about being cannibal savages work a little too well, and before they can build their death-ray dirigibles, an expeditionary force of galleons lands to wipe out this threat (supported by other islands which also believe their weird blue-eyed neighbours who kill and then eat anyone who innocently mentions their unusual eye colour are indeed cannibals likely to eat them).

  40. SanguineVizier says:

    It seems to me that one obvious way to rules-lawyer around the commandment is to propose that ones eyes may appear blue, but are, in fact, a lovely shade of bleen.

  41. David says:

    Great story, I really enjoyed it!

    Logical nitpick: I think the Tahiti plan is overly complicated. Any of them (A) could save themselves at any time by simply pointing to another one (B) and saying “you have blue eyes.” Then B dies that night, but no one else dies.

    (If this confuses you, consider if there are only two people. The sailor says “one of you has blue eyes,” then Alice quickly tells Bob “it’s you.” Bob necessarily dies that night, and Alice can’t learn anything from that fact.)

    So it seems like rather than actually sending the three black-stone people out to Tahiti, they could just tell them their eye colors. (And it has the same outcome in terms of lives; any of the black-stone people with blue eyes die, and any without don’t, so they aren’t doing anyone any harm by doing so.)

    Perhaps they didn’t do this because of a subconscious (or even conscious-but-not-public-knowledge) realization that they were all atheists after all, and no one was actually going to die.

    • DES3264 says:

      Not at any time. This works if done immediately. After k days, everyone knows that there are at least k blue eyed people, and knows that everyone knows this, and knows that everyone knows that everyone knows this, ad infinitum. Killing fewer than k people at that point doesn’t stop the massacre.

    • Deiseach says:

      The trouble is they seem to have a taboo about telling anyone their eye colour:

      Enuli gave a wicked grin. “You know what?” she said. “I’ll say it. I’m not the only blue-eyed person here. At least one of the rest of you has blue eyes.”

      And there it was.

      “Ha. Now I’m no worse off than any of the rest of you.”

      “Kill her,” said Bekka. “She broke the taboo.” The rest of us nodded.

      Also they killed and ate de Pinzon merely because he said at least one of the natives had blue eyes.

      So saying “You have blue eyes” gets you killed whatever else happens. In your Alice-and-Bob example, if Bob can see that Alice has blue eyes, he may think she is lying about his eye colour, or he could say “So do you!” and then they would both have to kill themselves.

      Or Bob could just say “Yeah, and so?” and refuse to commit suicide. I see why Scott made it a binding religious commandment, because how else are you going to get people to kill themselves when they find out they’re the blue eyed ones? In the logic problem as it is phrased, the only reason n people will kill themselves is because they are perfect slaves to logic and can choose no other course of action: blue-eyed people must kill themselves, I am blue-eyed, so I must kill myself.

      In anything else approaching reality, people will either go “I don’t believe you, you’re lying to save your own skin” or “Yeah, so? I’m not going to kill myself, are you daft?”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is what they were going to try with Enuli, but they couldn’t do it directly because it is taboo to tell another islander their own eye color. Plus, each day requires one more sacrifice before this works; your version only works on the first day.

      • Gbdub says:

        What if Ahuja just volunteers to tell Enuli her eyes are blue, on the condition that the others not bring it up with the priest? Apparently this dooms Ahuja’s soul to the fiery caldera, but he’s an atheist anyway so he can put on a show of sacrificing his soul for the good of the others while secretly not caring at all. Of course he would have needed to do this before Enuli announced that she was not the only blue eyed one.

  42. multiheaded says:

    This is super delightful and part of why I’m so happy to have Jewish friends.

    • Scott Alexander says:


  43. Vorkon says:

    While have made for a much less satisfying story, I was wondering why Ahuja and Bekka didn’t just hide out somewhere until the storm had passed, then sail to Tahiti afterwards. I mean, there’s no specific taboo that states they MUST sail to Tahiti, that was just a solution they came up with to prevent themselves from discovering whether or not any of the others killed themselves. Hiding out and not returning to the village would have prevented them from learning whether anyone else killed themselves, and they’d be safe and sound.

  44. Error says:

    This is one of those stories I want to show to everyone I know except that I know nobody else will get it. 🙁

  45. Ciarán says:

    Awesome story, I really enjoyed it!

    Just a guess: Did this story stem from the self-shocking society that you used as an example in Meditations on Moloch? It seems in a lot of ways like the same basic issue of overcoming a weird societal communication problem.

  46. onyomi says:

    This made me think of North Korea and loving the dear leader.

  47. I thought there would be more complications at the end. What if there are multiple villages, how does their plan work then? I feel like there is some interesting story where they can cause everyone else to come out as atheists that is more complicated due to some other constraints.

    Applying this to society it seems the closest thing to claiming everyone has blue eyes might be if the NSA leaked that everyone has committed enough crimes to be thrown in jail for forever and released this to everyone at the same time.

    Surely there has to be a way to weaponize common knowledge.

  48. Dan T. says:

    Somebody needs to make a version of this song relating to this story:

  49. whatnoloan says:

    This is awesome. About halfway through I realized there were five villagers and thought you were going to somehow incorporate the pirate puzzle as well! Slightly saddened that it wasn’t there after all, but this is still a great story.

    • Scott Alexander says:


      Ahuja: Okay, so we’ve got these five hundred gold coins to divide. I say we give me 498, Bekka nothing. Calkas 1, Daho nothing, and Enuli 1.

      Bekka: Really? You’d leave your own betrothed without any gold coins? Well, tell you what? YOU HAVE BLUE EYES! DEAL WITH IT!

      (everyone gasps)

      Calkas: Don’t believe her, Ahuja! She’s among the one-third of us islanders who always lie.

      Daho: I am also among the one-third of islanders who always lie. But Bekka always tells the truth. Also, I like coconuts, Calkas likes bananas, and the islander who likes pineapples always tells the truth.

      Enuli: I am not the islander who likes bananas. They’re so bright and colorful. Not Goth at all! Also, somebody help me drink this sparkroot tea. I need exactly 5 ml, but all I have is a 6 ml container, a 4 ml container, and a 3 ml container. How can I get the right amount?

      • JBeshir says:

        New headcanon: This is what they end up using the sparkroot for after they no longer need it for taboos, after the initial sense of motivation to do stuff wears off.

  50. TomA says:

    Presumably the Moral-To-The-Story is that rote adherence to a faith based doctrine can be problematic, e.g. can induce reflexive murder or suicide. Not sure that’s a novel concept, but the story line is engaging and thought provoking.

    Religion is a trait of cultural evolution, and it exists because it “works” in the sense that it significantly contributes to the survival and persistence of adopting cultures. When homo sapiens evolved complex language, it became feasible to pass wisdom onto succeeding generations via verbal instruction. This process is improved via indoctrination techniques such as repetition, ritual practices (prayers), and use of faith as an antidote for the unknown. This adaption has been with us for at least a few thousand years and may be encoded to some degree in our DNA. In other words, our basic nature is unlikely to change quickly.

    • DavidS says:

      Well, it might work in the sense of helping the cultures that apt it survive, or it might just be good at self replicating, chain letter style.

  51. Davide says:

    Did anyone else think the story was ALL going to be about religious ‘moderates’ and their tendency to come up with complex ways to rationalize away the worst parts of their holy texts rather than just flat-out say they’re wrong or become atheists?

    And no, I don’t most people who do this are actually endorsing religion as a noble lie: I suspect at some level they REALLY believe their religion could do no wrong, ‘properly practiced’.

    When the Mamtzer thing was mentioned, my belief that was going to be the whole point got even stronger…but then it turned to just be ONE of the points, rather than all of it.

    Great story, BTW.

  52. Josiah says:

    Day Six

    “So, it turns out we were the only atheists.”

    “I know. What are the odds of that?”

    “When Enuli told everyone that they all had blue eyes and they threw her in the volcano, I thought maybe they were just going through the motions so people wouldn’t suspect them.”

    “Yeah, to be honest, I was afraid something like that might happen. That’s why I suggested Enuli be the one to give the speech.”

    “But this morning we woke up and everyone else was dead. It’s all so illogical.”

    So what do we do now?”

    “Head for the mainland, I guess. And never speak of this again.”

  53. TomA says:

    In this fictional story, there is a taboo against certain types of speech (informing others of their eye color) and the crime is punishable by death. At first, this seems like an absurd exaggeration, but . . .

    In the real world, Islam has a similar proscription regarding defamation of Mohammed. And in England today, there is serious consideration of outlawing speech espousing climate change denial (slippery slope).

    Perhaps New Zealand would make a better safe haven than Tahiti (more land area).

    • JBeshir says:

      Just a note that the “climate change” bit here is incorrect, and originated from a grossly exaggerated headline, that has proven memetically successful because increasing fear of anti-climate change campaigns and associating them with suppression of speech is useful to certain parties, and because convincing people that suppression of speech is everywhere is useful to other parties.

      The original story it originates from is which points to as its source, which discusses the matter here:

      If you read the rest of the article, not just the headline, you’ll find the headline is incorrect; they are talking not about outlawing anything (which is not generally within the power of judges), but about making a “finding of fact” that climate change is presumed to exist, such that future cases can rely on it as given when calculating e.g. damages for violation of emission standards, or settling lawsuits, or other things which accepting something as fact can influence.

      This- like similar findings of fact like “DNA testing works to its given level of reliability”- make it more difficult to argue in court that doubt on the matter means you can’t be punished for the harm it predicts- but it has no impact outside of a courtroom at all, and I’d be very surprised if it was actually insurmountable within one rather than just shifting the burden of proof.

      The article’s goes on to speculate that this will then be “used” in some way to outlaw speech which disagrees with the finding of fact, but without any basis for such speculation; a “finding of fact” doesn’t do anything concrete that enables the outlawing of speech, there’s no statements by anyone that laws outlawing speech that contradict the finding of fact are desirable, and there’s no other laws against claiming things considered scientifically incorrect by courts that would serve as precedent to lead you to expect it to happen.

      It is not just left-affiliated stuff you need to watch for opportunistic misrepresentation of statistics or events.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        > The article’s goes on to speculate that this will then be “used” in some way to outlaw speech which disagrees with the finding of fact, but without any basis for such speculation; a “finding of fact” doesn’t do anything concrete that enables the outlawing of speech, there’s no statements by anyone that laws outlawing speech that contradict the finding of fact are desirable, and there’s no other laws against claiming things considered scientifically incorrect by courts that would serve as precedent to lead you to expect it to happen.

        Reasonable, but look at Popehat on Cosby’s self-defense argument.

        Is it possible that somebody could say “Global warming is a lie!”, then a climate scientist could sue that person for defamation for calling her a liar and win? It doesn’t sound any more convoluted than the logic that won that Cosby case.

        • JBeshir says:

          Hmm. I would think “Global warming is a lie” wouldn’t make you subject to defamation lawsuits from climate scientists any more than “DNA testing is a lie” would make you subject to defamation lawsuits from forensic experts, or “Vaccinations are a lie” would make you subject to defamation lawsuits from whoever manufactures vaccines, provided they could get a finding of fact that vaccinations worked, which I’m sure they could.

          IANAL, but looking around for statements from people who are, under the section “Class libel” suggests that you probably can’t sue for something like that in the UK; insulting broad classes of people doesn’t open you to defamation lawsuits from individual members, although it does make you a bit of a jerk.

          When it comes to more specific statements like “Those specific DNA testers are lying”, “Those specific climate scientists are lying.”, it seems like such a statement would already be asserting something that you couldn’t prove was true, that the climate scientists were deliberately saying things they knew to be false, so you wouldn’t have defence of truth anyway, you’d be relying on some other defence.

          Maybe in jurisdictions where the other party has to prove you’re a liar a finding of fact that climate change existed would make things easier for them, but I’m doubtful- the question of whether an individual climate scientist is a liar isn’t settled by the question of whether climate change as a whole exists.

          I do think there might be indirect effects, internationally, where people are a little more inclined to treat people who say climate change doesn’t exist the way they treat homoeopaths or crystal healing practitioners- generally socially looked down upon, expected to keep such views out of official corporate/organisational responses to events that they contribute to, and so incentivised to keep quiet.

          This might be concerning, and it might extend any social-pressure-based freedom of speech issues presently faced by homoeopaths and anti-vaccine people to climate change doubters, and it’s understandable why climate change doubters would want to go all out to try to stop it happening, but it’d be a far cry from a government outlawing speech about climate denial.

  54. Jesse says:

    If this is framed as a factual piece of historical fiction set in our own world, since these people did not rise to intellectual dominance, it is a sad assumption that not all of the society was as atheist as they assumed and they were thrown in the volcano and then the society was faced with the stark realization that 1000ish days hence, they would all have to kill themselves.

  55. James Pfeiffer says:

    Now do one for the pirate game.

    • Kees says:

      > His name was Alonzo de Pinzon, and he’d been shipwrecked. We heard him yelling for help on the rocks and dragged him in, even though the storm was starting to get really bad. He said that his galleon had gone down, he’d hung on to an oar and was the only survivor.

      Alonzo was lying. He was the first pirate. Note that his name starts with an A. He didn’t get the distribution of coins right, and the other pirates were about to make him walk the plank. He grabbed on to an oar for buoyancy before they could get to it, and jumped overboard. That is when he was stranded on the island.

  56. Comment Reader But Not Usually a Poster says:

    Maybe you guys can help me out on this, because I am stuck on this one.
    To save some typing I will whittle it down to three people. This how far I get:
    Each person will not commit suicide if one of two conditions is met
    1) They see a brown eyed person and a blue eyed person.
    2) They see two blue eyed people.
    So everyone says to themselves of course the other two are not committing suicide because they recognize the possibility that I maybe fulfilling condition one, and if I don’t tell them they will never know any different.I also have to recognize the possibility that one of the other two is meeting condition one.

    • Protagoras says:

      OK, call our people A, B, and C. On day 1, A sees that B and C have blue eyes, but A can’t yet tell if her eyes are brown or blue. But on day 2, person A can reason thusly: If B can see that A has brown eyes, then B knows that if B had brown eyes, C would have committed suicide (because then C would have seen that both A and B have brown eyes, and so C would know that C must be the lone blue eyed person). So, if A has brown eyes and C hasn’t committed suicide, then on day 2 B can tell that B must have blue eyes. So B commits suicide at the end of day 2 (as does C, for parallel reasons). So on day 3, if nobody has committed suicide, A knows A must have blue eyes.

      • Comment Reader But Not Usually a Poster says:


        Thanks that got me past the block. I’m going to thank you on behalf of my boss too, because now I can get some work done.

    • It works most intuitively for me in the three-person case. A three-person case with everyone having blue eyes looks stable, at first glance; everybody can look around, see at least one person with blue eyes, and not appear to get any more information.

      But the counterfactual situation is that one person doing the looking has nonblue eyes. Then, the two blue-eyed people they see can only look at each other, and know that there is one person with blue eyes.

      And each of those people can imagine that in the case where they have nonblue eyes, the only blue-eyed person there is the other person they’re looking at. In that case, there’s one blue-eyed person looking at two brown-eyed persons, and that person knows that there is one blue-eyed person, and it is them, because they’ve ruled out the possibility that it’s anyone else.

      You know they know this, so the suicideless night after, those two blue-eyed people will look at each other, and infer that the case that the other blue-eyed person is the only blue-eyed person has to be false, because if it were true, the lone blue-eyed person would have not seen any other blue-eyed persons, made the necessary inference, and killed themselves.

      Since they haven’t killed themselves, they’re not the only blue-eyed person. And since they can see the original you from the counterfactual and know that you have brown eyes, they know that each other person has blue eyes, and that each other person knows that at least one other person has blue eyes, which has to be them.

      And if they haven’t killed themselves by the second night, then you have to have blue eyes as well, and so on.

    • John Schilling says:

      The problem with the usual solution is that, in using mathematical induction to prove that everyone must commit suicide on day n, it implicitly assumes that everyone else is using mathematical induction and only induction, from the same starting point to derive their own “knowledge” re blue-eyedness and common understanding of same. But, being flawless logicians (ha!) the islanders will of course also seek potentially game-breaking knowledge through other forms of logic, e.g. deduction in its various flavors.

      Meaning the problem can only be truly solved by people who are and know themselves to be flawless logicians (ha!), and anyone merely human need not ever commit suicide to appease the Volcano Gods.

      Being a flawed logician, I suspect but am not certain that this one falls to deduction by symmetry. For n=2, everyone provably knows that there is one blue-eyed person other than themselves. For n=3, everyone provably knows that everyone else knows that there is one blue-eyed person other than themselves. For n=4, we can now all prove that every third party also knows this, and if each observer agrees that “X knows that Y knows that there is a blue-eyed person other than themselves” for all X and Y, then by symmetry “there is at least one blue-eyed person other than myself” becomes absolutely common knowledge at the outset. Thus no information is added when the stranger says “at least one of you has blue eyes”, or when the first night passes with no suicides, and the inductive chain is broken for n>4.

      Or possibly not. I’ve seen other logic puzzles with this, if not flaw, at least potentially deceptive feature of assuming that all other participants can be reliably modeled by reasoning from the same point in the same manner. Rigorously proving which ones are true and which are not is generally a very hard problem, and usually not worth the bother.

      • Comment Reader But Not Usually a Poster says:

        These reasons made the “children with muddy faces” example of this problem almost unreadable to me. I realize this is a logic game and I have to play by the spirit of the rules, but you want me to presuppose a group of children that all sit and think about exactly what the teacher tells them too. Too removed from the reality I live in to take seriously. 🙂

        Your point would also seem to imply that you could just deny sparkroot to one of the group and then you can’t assume they figured out anything so no need to commit sucide. Or just add another layer of questioning: why should I assume that the others care enough about this to sit and figure this out, they could just be signalling they care and not actually have done the work.

        I’ll just add , in case anyone reads a post added well after the thread is dead, that I realize I am lawyering the game here and sidestepping the point of it.

  57. dobedobedooo says:

    The “noble savage” has become the genius savage. Liberals everywhere ejaculate in a fit of ecstasy.

  58. Kram says:

    If there are at least four blue eyed people, then surely sending two people to Tahiti doesn’t save the remaining people. There was never any question of anyone killing themselves on the first two nights – the only question is whether everyone else kills themselves on the fourth day. The only way to prevent the information about your eye color being transmitted is to kill all the people you see with blue eyes.

    • Kram says:

      Actually, thinking about it, you would have to get rid of *all but one* of the blue eyed people (as long as the group of blue eyes and you is greater than two). If the remaining blue eyed person didn’t kill themselves on the key day, you wouldn’t be able to tell if that was because he had got rid of all the other blue eyed people (you have brown eyes) or because you have blue eyes and you should both kill yourself the next day.

      • Kram says:

        Thinking more…
        You could keep two blue eyed people alive. I am there with two blue eyed people, but on the fourth night, when they don’t kill themselves, maybe it is because they can only see one blue eyed person and (as above) if you can only see one blue eyed person you are safe.

        And then, you keep three blue eyed people (as well as yourself) because perhaps person 4 thinks that person 3 thinks he (3) is left alone with one blue eyed person.

        If you’ve got four blue eyed people there is no way that person 4 can think that 3 thinks that he (3) is left alone with one blue eyed person, but perhaps person 4 thinks that person 3 thinks that person 2 thinks that he (2) is with one blue eyed person.

        So you don’t have to kill anyone!

        The way to solve the problem is to start your chain of reasoning from somewhere else.

  59. BeefSnakStikR says:

    Does anyone have any thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s “Another Pioneer”? The gist is: an individual child gains sort of the opposite superintelligence: practical knowledge is held by one person

    “the entire village’s culture, technology, and standard of living undergo a metastatic evolution that would normally have taken thousands of years”

    As opposed to the rational knowledge held by all in Scott’s story. DFW is basically starting with “death ray technology” whereas Scott ends with it.

    So: the shaman who rules a dominating village begins to worry that the child’s small village will eventually use the child to figure out how to overthrow the dominant village. The shaman whispers something to the child, and defuses the threat–whatever the shaman says allows the child to retain logic and reason, but the child’s answers to questions are now digressive and meandering.

    Basically the child is defused: its answers are so complex as to have no possible practical, let alone dangerous or violent, consequences. What does the shaman whisper?

    The answer is not revealed in DFW’s text as far as I can tell. Plus, is there a whisper that can both defuse DFW’s external threat and Scott’s internal threat?

  60. Sam Rosen says:

    One or more of islanders should have publicly declared that they were precommiting to not thinking about the logical entailments of this issue. As long as the other islanders don’t know whether or not they are keeping to their commitment to not think about it, the knowledge cascades fail.

    • Kram says:

      If one person had blue eyes but couldn’t think, it wouldn’t save you.
      There are five of us, we all have blue eyes, one person is an idiot. We can all see that four people have blue eyes, but we are waiting to see if other people can see three. If we know that the idiot won’t do anything, it doesn’t change the fact that we are waiting for the fourth night. The three other people will still have to kill themselves (though the idiot will save themselves) on the fourth night.

      • DES3264 says:

        Correct if the original dangerous statement was “a non-idiot has blue eyes”. Otherwise, the smart people would consider it possible that others consider it possible that others consider it possible that only the idiot has blue eyes.

        • Kram says:

          I know for a fact that everyone else knows that there are at least three people with blue eyes.
          They know that there are at least three people with blue eyes.

          I also know that each other person knows that the other people know that everyone else can see two people with blue eyes.

          So if everyone knows that everyone knows that there are at least two people with blue eyes, how does getting rid of one person with blue eyes help?

      • Loquat says:

        But why can’t the rest of the group just decide that the idiot, who they can all see has blue eyes, is the “at least one blue-eyed person” being referred to?

        1. Outsider says “I see at least one person with blue eyes”.
        2. Everyone knows one of the group members is severely retarded and can’t even understand that statement, much less the concept of suicide.
        3. Everyone else agrees among themselves that, since they can all see that guy has blue eyes, and he’s not capable of following the suicide rule, he’s the blue-eyed person the outsider was looking at and therefore nobody else needs to think about the problem any further and they can all go home.

        • Kram says:

          If I know that you know that everyone knows that there are at least two people with blue eyes, how is it possible that information to you has been destroyed by getting rid of one blue eyed person?

          If I know that four people have blue eyes, I can’t just pretend that only one person has blue eyes. And if I know that everyone else knows that more than one person has blue eyes, I can’t pretend that they would pretend that there is only one person with blue eyes.
          And if I know that everyone else knows that everyone knows that there is more than one person with blue eyes I can’t pretend that the others are pretending that everyone else is pretending that there is only one person with blue eyes.

          • Kram says:

            OK… I wrote it on a piece of paper and now I get it…
            Everyone has to know that everyone knows knows knows (to the nth degree) that everyone else knows the number of blue eyed people before they can all be certain they should kill themselves, and the only way to know this is to go through the step-by-step process.
            I guess:
            Idiot – lives
            Stupid (me) – dies
            Clever people (everyone else) – lives

  61. Nowhere on the island is there a pool of water still enough to act as a mirror?

  62. DensityDuck says:

    The whole thing reminds me of that bit from Hitchhiker about “man then goes on to prove that red is green and gets himself killed at the next pedestrian crossing”.

  63. ad says:

    Strange that no one suggested that Alonzo de Pinzon might have been lying, delusional, or referring to another group of islanders.

    They could, for example, have told him that it is a capital crime on their island to discuss the eye colour of anyone you can see, so if he was talking about the people in that hut, they would have to kill him “but if you say you saw someone else with blue eyes, that is fine”.

    Pity the superintelligences killed him rather than do that.

    • Walter Rutherford says:

      I’m surprised nobody suggested that there could be more than brown and blue eyes. Until some idiot said, “You all have blue eyes” they still could’ve salvaged the situation.

      … or they could’ve just quit eating sparkroot centuries ago and been as illogical and clueless as the rest of the world. Then a logic puzzle like this would’ve just made their heads hurt instead of making them suicidal.

  64. Roberto Musa says:

    An incredibly well thought out story. I’ll only add that sparkroot must be able to also grant precognition, as Alonso de Pinzón died in 1493, and Mersenne was born in 1588…

  65. David says:

    Why did they all take the sparkroot on day 1? The entire deduction depends on assuming that everyone else is perfectly rational and knows how to solve the problem. If they’d all just stopped taking the root for five days, or not told each other whether they’d taken it or not, they could never know if their all surviving the night was due to an n+1th person also having blue eyes, or due to one of the others getting the reasoning wrong.

  66. Walter Rutherford says:

    Really? I read all the way through that thinking it was a math or logic puzzle when it was just a long and overly convoluted political/religious opinion piece.

    But it wasn’t a complete waste of my time. It did give me an idea for a sci-fi story.

  67. hnau says:

    I am unspeakably disappointed that none of the comments has brought up The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.