Martin Smith, University of Edinburgh
Title: “Why Throwing 92 Heads in a Row is Not Surprising” (PDF)
Congratulations to Martin Smith, the 2016 winner of the inaugural Sanders Prize in Public Philosophy for his paper “Why Throwing 92 Heads in a Row is Not Surprising”. The selection committee was chaired by Susan Wolf (UNC Chapel Hill), with Patricia O’Toole (Columbia University), Thomas Hofweber (UNC Chapel Hill), and Barry Maguire, (UNC Chapel Hill). There were 64 essays submitted for the prize competition.
Martin is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, specializing in epistemology, logic, and philosophy of law. His paper will be published in Philosophers’ Imprint.
Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” opens with a puzzling scene in which the title characters are betting on coin throws and observe a seemingly astonishing run of 92 heads in a row. Guildenstern grows uneasy and proposes a number of unsettling explanations for what is occurring. Then, in a sudden change of heart, he appears to suggest that there is nothing surprising about what they are witnessing, and nothing that needs any explanation. He says ‘…each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each time it does.’ In this article I argue that Guildenstern is right – there is nothing surprising about throwing 92 heads in a row. I go on to consider the relationship between surprise, probability and belief.
An honorable mention goes to Regina Rini (NYU), the runner-up for the prize. Her paper, titled ‘“How Should A Robot Be?”, will be published in Aeon.
Both Smith and Rini’s essays will be cross-posted in Salon and The Point.