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Unexpected hanging paradox

The unexpected hanging paradox or hangman paradox is a paradox about a person's expectations about the timing of a future event which they are told will occur at an unexpected time. The paradox is variously applied to a prisoner's hanging, or a surprise school test. It is a particular case of Newcomb's paradox.[citation needed]

Despite significant academic interest, there is no consensus on its precise nature and consequently a final correct resolution has not yet been established.[1] Logical analysis suggests that the problem arises in a self-contradictory self-referencing statement at the heart of the judge's sentence. Epistemological studies of the paradox have suggested that it turns on our concept of knowledge.[2] Even though it is apparently simple, the paradox's underlying complexities have even led to its being called a "significant problem" for philosophy.[3]


Description of the paradoxEdit

The paradox has been described as follows:[4]

A judge tells a condemned prisoner that he will be hanged at noon on one weekday in the following week but that the execution will be a surprise to the prisoner. He will not know the day of the hanging until the executioner knocks on his cell door at noon that day.

Having reflected on his sentence, the prisoner draws the conclusion that he will escape from the hanging. His reasoning is in several parts. He begins by concluding that the "surprise hanging" can't be on Friday, as if he hasn't been hanged by Thursday, there is only one day left - and so it won't be a surprise if he's hanged on Friday. Since the judge's sentence stipulated that the hanging would be a surprise to him, he concludes it cannot occur on Friday.

He then reasons that the surprise hanging cannot be on Thursday either, because Friday has already been eliminated and if he hasn't been hanged by Wednesday noon, the hanging must occur on Thursday, making a Thursday hanging not a surprise either. By similar reasoning he concludes that the hanging can also not occur on Wednesday, Tuesday or Monday. Joyfully he retires to his cell confident that the hanging will not occur at all.

The next week, the executioner knocks on the prisoner's door at noon on Wednesday — which, despite all the above, was an utter surprise to him. Everything the judge said came true.

Other versions of the paradox replace the death sentence with a surprise fire drill, examination, pop quiz, or a lion behind a door.[1]

The informal nature of everyday language allows for multiple interpretations of the paradox. In the extreme case, a prisoner who is paranoid might feel certain in his knowledge that the executioner will arrive at noon on Monday, then certain that he will come on Tuesday and so forth, thus ensuring that every day he is not hanged really is a "surprise" to him, but that the day of his hanging he was indeed expecting to be hanged. But even without adding this element to the story, the vagueness of the account prohibits one from being objectively clear about which formalization truly captures its essence. There has been considerable debate between the logical school, which uses mathematical language, and the epistemological school, which employs concepts such as knowledge, belief and memory, over which formulation is correct.

Logical schoolEdit

Formulation of the judge's announcement into formal logic is made difficult by the vague meaning of the word "surprise".[5] An attempt at formulation might be:

  • The prisoner will be hanged next week and the date (of the hanging) will not be deducible the night before from the assumption that the hanging will occur during the week (A).[1]

Given this announcement the prisoner can deduce that the hanging will not occur on the last day of the week. However, in order to reproduce the next stage of the argument, which eliminates the penultimate day of the week, the prisoner must argue that his ability to deduce, from statement (A), that the hanging will not occur on the last day, implies that a second-to-last-day hanging would not be surprising.[1] But since the meaning of "surprising" has been restricted to not deducible from the assumption that the hanging will occur during the week instead of not deducible from statement (A), the argument is blocked.[1]

This suggests that a better formulation would in fact be:

  • The prisoner will be hanged next week and its date will not be deducible the night before using this statement as an axiom (B).[1]

Fitch has shown that this statement can still be expressed in formal logic.[6] Using an equivalent form of the paradox which reduces the length of the week to just two days, he proved that although self-reference is not illegitimate in all circumstances, it is in this case because the statement is self-contradictory.


The first objection often raised to the logical school's approach is that it fails to explain how the judge's announcement appears to be vindicated after the fact. If the judge's statement is self-contradictory, how does he manage to be right all along? This objection rests on an understanding of the conclusion to be that the judge's statement is self-contradictory and therefore the source of the paradox. However, the conclusion is more precisely that in order for the prisoner to carry out his argument that the judge's sentence cannot be fulfilled, he must interpret the judge's announcement as (B). A reasonable assumption would be that the judge did not intend (B) but that the prisoner misinterprets his words to reach his paradoxical conclusion. The judge's sentence appears to be vindicated afterwards but the statement which is actually shown to be true is that "the prisoner will be psychologically surprised by the hanging". This statement in formal logic would not allow the prisoner's argument to be carried out.[citation needed]

A related objection is that the paradox occurs only because the judge tells the prisoner his sentence (rather than keeping it secret) — which suggests that the act of declaring the sentence is important. Some[who?] have argued that since this action is missing from the logical school's approach, it must be an incomplete analysis. But the action is included implicitly. The public utterance of the sentence and its context changes the judge's meaning to something like "there will be a surprise hanging despite my having told you that there will be a surprise hanging". The logical school's approach does implicitly take this into account.[citation needed]

Epistemological schoolEdit

Various epistemological formulations have been proposed that show that the prisoner's tacit assumptions about what he will know in the future, together with several plausible assumptions about knowledge, are inconsistent.

Chow (1998) provides a detailed analysis of a version of the paradox in which a surprise examination is to take place on one of two days. Applying Chow's analysis to the case of the unexpected hanging (again with the week shortened to two days for simplicity), we start with the observation that the judge's announcement seems to affirm three things:

  • S1: The hanging will occur on Monday or Tuesday.
  • S2: If the hanging occurs on Monday, then the prisoner will not know on Sunday evening that it will occur on Monday.
  • S3: If the hanging occurs on Tuesday, then the prisoner will not know on Monday evening that it will occur on Tuesday.

As a first step, the prisoner reasons that a scenario in which the hanging occurs on Tuesday is impossible because it leads to a contradiction: on the one hand, by S3, the prisoner would not be able to predict the Tuesday hanging on Monday evening; but on the other hand, by S1 and process of elimination, the prisoner would be able to predict the Tuesday hanging on Monday evening.

Chow's analysis points to a subtle flaw in the prisoner's reasoning. What is impossible is not a Tuesday hanging. Rather, what is impossible is a situation in which the hanging occurs on Tuesday despite the prisoner knowing on Monday evening that the judge's assertions S1, S2, and S3 are all true.

The prisoner's reasoning, which gives rise to the paradox, is able to get off the ground because the prisoner tacitly assumes that on Monday evening, he will (if he is still alive) know S1, S2, and S3 to be true. This assumption seems unwarranted on several different grounds. It may be argued that the judge's pronouncement that something is true can never be sufficient grounds for the prisoner knowing that it is true. Further, even if the prisoner knows something to be true in the present moment, unknown psychological factors may erase this knowledge in the future. Finally, Chow suggests that because the statement which the prisoner is supposed to "know" to be true is a statement about his inability to "know" certain things, there is reason to believe that the unexpected hanging paradox is simply a more intricate version of Moore's paradox. A suitable analogy can be reached by reducing the length of the week to just one day. Then the judge's sentence becomes: You will be hanged tomorrow, but you do not know that.

In literatureEdit

The paradox appears in the novel Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey[7]:

Tissot showed a similar misunderstanding of my teaching when, exasperated by his continuing moroseness and his near-permanent occupancy of my writing desk, I said to him, 'Next week I am going to bring your wife here so that you can speak to her in person and sort out your difficulties. I know you don't want to see her, and so I shall not tell you which day she will arrive; but you can be sure that you'll meet her before the week is out.'

Tissot knew his wife would not be brought to confront him next Friday, because in that case he could be certain by Thursday evening that she must be coming, and he could make himself absent. But equally, I would also have to avoid Thursday, since otherwise he would be forewarned when Wednesday passed without a scene. Dismissing every other day in a similar manner, Tissot concluded that his wife could never show up unexpectedly to harangue him; but on Thursday he answered the door to be greeted not only by her, but also by her mother, both of whom boxed him soundly about the ears while I made myself scarce, quietly judging that so poor a logician deserved everything he got.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f Chow, T. Y. (1998). "The surprise examination or unexpected hanging paradox" (PDF). The American Mathematical Monthly. 105: 41–51. arXiv:math/9903160. doi:10.2307/2589525.
  2. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia discussion of hanging paradox together with other epistemic paradoxes
  3. ^ Sorensen, R. A. (1988). Blindspots. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198249810.
  4. ^ "Unexpected Hanging Paradox". Wolfram.
  5. ^ Chow, Timothy Y (1998). "The Surprise Examination or Unexpected Hanging Paradox" (PDF). American Mathematical Monthly. 105: 41–51. arXiv:math/9903160. doi:10.2307/2589525.
  6. ^ Fitch, F. (1964). "A Goedelized formulation of the prediction paradox". Am. Phil. Q. 1 (2): 161–164. JSTOR 20009132.
  7. ^ Crumey, Andrew (2014) Mr Mee. Sawtry: Dedalus. pp182-3 ISBN 1909232947.

Further readingEdit

  • O'Connor, D. J. (1948). "Pragmatic Paradoxes". Mind. 57: 358–359. doi:10.1093/mind/lvii.227.358. The first appearance of the paradox in print. The author claims that certain contingent future tense statements cannot come true.
  • Levy, Ken (2009). "The Solution to the Surprise Exam Paradox". Southern Journal of Philosophy. 47: 131–158. doi:10.1111/j.2041-6962.2009.tb00088.x. SSRN 1435806. Archived from the original on 2017-03-20. Retrieved 2018-01-02. The author argues that a surprise exam (or unexpected hanging) can indeed take place on the last day of the period and therefore that the very first premise that launches the paradox is, despite first appearances, simply false.
  • Scriven, M. (1951). "Paradoxical Announcements". Mind. 60: 403–407. doi:10.1093/mind/lx.239.403. The author critiques O'Connor and discovers the paradox as we know it today.
  • Shaw, R. (1958). "The Unexpected Examination". Mind. 67: 382–384. doi:10.1093/mind/lxvii.267.382. The author claims that the prisoner's premises are self-referring.
  • Wright, C. & Sudbury, A. (1977). "the Paradox of the Unexpected Examination". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 55: 41–58. doi:10.1080/00048407712341031. The first complete formalization of the paradox, and a proposed solution to it.
  • Margalit, A. & Bar-Hillel, M. (1983). "Expecting the Unexpected". Philosophia. 13: 337–344. A history and bibliography of writings on the paradox up to 1983.
  • Chihara, C. S. (1985). "Olin, Quine, and the Surprise Examination". Philosophical Studies. 47: 19–26. doi:10.1007/bf00354146. The author claims that the prisoner assumes, falsely, that if he knows some proposition, then he also knows that he knows it.
  • Kirkham, R. (1991). "On Paradoxes and a Surprise Exam". Philosophia. 21: 31–51. doi:10.1007/bf02381968. The author defends and extends Wright and Sudbury's solution. He also updates the history and bibliography of Margalit and Bar-Hillel up to 1991.
  • Chow, T. Y. (1998). "The surprise examination or unexpected hanging paradox" (PDF). The American Mathematical Monthly. 105: 41–51. arXiv:math/9903160. doi:10.2307/2589525.
  • Franceschi, P. (2005). "Une analyse dichotomique du paradoxe de l'examen surprise". Philosophiques (in French). 32 (2): 399–421. doi:10.7202/011875ar. English translation.
  • Gardner, M. (1969). "The Paradox of the Unexpected Hanging". The Unexpected Hanging and Other * Mathematical Diversions. Completely analyzes the paradox and introduces other situations with similar logic.
  • Quine, W. V. O. (1953). "On a So-called Paradox". Mind. 62: 65–66. doi:10.1093/mind/lxii.245.65.
  • Sorensen, R. A. (1982). "Recalcitrant versions of the prediction paradox". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 69: 355–362. doi:10.1080/00048408212340761.

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