Sunday, October 24, 2004

An October Surprise? (Some Philosophical Reflections)

Throughout this electoral season, there have been whispers of an "October surprise" that would cause a seismic shift in the polls and transform a close race into a blowout. Teresa Heinz Kerry, in a September speech in Phoenix, said she "wouldn't be surprised if he [Osama bin Laden] appeared in the next month [October]."

Perhaps we can charitably take Teresa Heinz Kerry at her word. For most of us, however, an appearance of Osama bin Laden in captivity would certainly count as a surprise. Despite rumors that bin Laden still is hiding on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, there has been no confirmed new video of him since December 26, 2001. Many argue on this basis that the man, who heretofore craved publicity in life, must now be dead. See James S. Robbins, John Kelly (via Roger L. Simon), Mark Steyn, and Froggy Ruminations (link courtesy of Power Line).

In recent days, speculation has shifted to events in Iraq as a potential October surprise. Perhaps there will be a final push in Fallujah, culminating in the capture or killing of al-Zarqawi. Perhaps the resistance in Iraq will attempt a major penetration of the Green Zone in Baghdad, something akin to the 1968 Tet offensive by North Vietnamese forces.

As the days of October dwindle down to the final few before the election of November 2, the only surprise of October may be the absence of surprise, and the paradoxical possibility of a no-surprise surprise looks more and more likely. Yet, anticipations of a surprising absence of surprise would only set us up psychologically for a real and robust surprise.

The idea that we can anticipate an October surprise with certainty is subject to paradox. Suppose we could know in advance that there will be an October surprise, a recognizably surprising event that has the potential to swing the election. One would think that this knowledge is incompatible with the event's occurring on the last day of October. Should there be no surprise before the last day of October, the certain knowledge that there will be an October surprise would imply that the surprising event would have to occur on the very last day; ergo, no surprise. Since the outcome of an unsurprising surprise is a contradiction, it follows that the October surprise must occur before the last day of the month. Yet, this result shows that the event cannot occur on October 30 either. For, if we have already ruled out October 31, then, on the night of October 29, there is only one available day for a surprise. Again, no surprise, if the surprise occurs on October 30, the only remaining day available. We can push the argument back to show that, for each day of October, the October surprise cannot occur on that day. So, there can be no October surprise! (The paradox is known as the "surprise examination paradox," since it is often formulated in terms of a teacher announcing to a class that there will be a surprise examination in the coming week.)

To my mind, the most promising solution to the "surprise quiz" paradox is proposed by Timothy Williamson, who argues that the argument for the impossibility of an announced surprise quiz being given in the coming week rests upon a dubious principle that whatever one knows, one knows that one knows. On the positive project of explaining how we can be surprised, Williamson suggests that our knowledge of future surprises can be an inexact knowledge, a knowledge that allows for a margin of error.

In any event, there still remains a little time for us to be genuinely surprised by some event in this electoral cycle, particularly since we do not know with certainty that we will be surprised.

UPDATE: Anticipation of a foreign affairs story harmful to Kerry appearing in tomorrow's Washington Times has generated a flurry of blog activity this weekend. See: Powerline, Redstate, INDC Journal and Secure Liberty. For some humorous speculation on the surprise, see: Protein Wisdom.

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