How to expect a surprising exam

Synthese 194 (8):3101-3133 (2017)
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Abstract

In this paper, we provide a Bayesian analysis of the well-known surprise exam paradox. Central to our analysis is a probabilistic account of what it means for the student to accept the teacher's announcement that he will receive a surprise exam. According to this account, the student can be said to have accepted the teacher's announcement provided he adopts a subjective probability distribution relative to which he expects to receive the exam on a day on which he expects not to receive it. We show that as long as expectation is not equated with subjective certainty there will be contexts in which it is possible for the student to accept the teacher's announcement, in this sense. In addition, we show how a Bayesian modeling of the scenario can yield plausible explanations of the following three intuitive claims: (1) the teacher's announcement becomes easier to accept the more days there are in class; (2) a strict interpretation of the teacher's announcement does not provide the student with any categorical information as to the date of the exam; and (3) the teacher's announcement contains less information about the date of the exam the more days there are in class. To conclude, we show how the surprise exam paradox can be seen as one among the larger class of paradoxes of doxastic fallibilism, foremost among which is the paradox of the preface.

Author Profiles

Anubav Vasudevan
Columbia University
Brian Kim
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

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