The classical version of the surprise examination paradox goes as follows: a teacher tells his students that an examination will take place on the next week, but they will not know in advance the precise date on which the examination will occur. The examination will thus occur surprisingly. The students reason then as follows. The examination cannot take place on Saturday, they think, otherwise they would know in advance that the examination would take place on Saturday and therefore it could not occur surprisingly. Thus, Saturday is eliminated. In addition, the examination can not take place on Friday, otherwise the students would know in advance that the examination would take place on Friday and so it could not occur surprisingly. Thus, Friday is also ruled out. By a similar reasoning, the students eliminate successively Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday. Finally, every day of the week is eliminated. However, this does not preclude the examination of finally occurring by surprise, say on Wednesday. Thus, the reasoning of the students proved to be fallacious. However, such reasoning seems intuitively valid.
The paradox lies here in the fact the students’ reasoning is apparently valid, whereas it finally proves inconsistent with the facts, i.e. that the examination can truly occur by surprise, as initially announced by the professor.
Franceschi, P., Une analyse dichotomique du paradoxe de l’examen surprise, Philosophiques, vol. 32-2, 2005, pp. 399-421, A dichotomic analysis of the surprise examination paradox (English translation).
Franceschi, P., “Éléments d’un contextualisme dialectique” (in english), in Liber Amicorum Pascal Engel, J. Dutant, G. Fassio & A. Meylan (éd.), Université de Genève, 2014, pp. 581-608.
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