Nautilus

The Rise of the Uncertain

Let me tell you a short, fictitious story about a very real Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Orellana.


In 1546 he was captured and imprisoned in a small, dank cell. Before long he was summoned, and a judge sentenced him to death. To add insult to injury, the judge decided a bit of mental torture was in order. The sentence was passed on a Sunday, and the judge ordered that Orellana be hanged by the end of the week—but also that he be told of the event only on the morning of his execution. Each night, Orellana would fall asleep not knowing whether it would be his last.

But hang on a minute, thought Orellana (presumably maintaining his rationality in the face of death). The execution could not take place on Friday because, if Orellana hadn’t been informed by Thursday morning that he would be killed that very day, then he would need to be executed the following day, giving him a full day’s foresight. The tortuous surprise would be missing. Therefore he would be killed on Thursday at the latest.

But Thursday, too, was impossible, since if he hadn’t been told by Wednesday morning that he would die that day, he would have the same full day’s notice. Following this line of thought, Orellana concluded that Wednesday, Tuesday, and all the other days leading back to the Sunday when his sentence was passed were equally unworkable appointments with the executioner.

Orellana concluded that he had deflected his torture by sheer dint of thought. The execution could never come as a surprise

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