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Patrick Stevens

Former mathematics student at the University of Cambridge; now a software engineer.

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Sometimes some people argue that certain things are “priceless” - that is, worth an infinite amount of money to them. I posit that what this really means is that it would take work and uncomfortable imagination to evaluate the worth of that thing to them.

The example that triggered this framework was my evaluation of how much my sense of smell was worth to me. (It was late at night and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I just let my mind wander around for a bit.) I was unable to quantify the amount I would pay to keep my sense of smell, but it is certainly finite, as the following thought experiment demonstrates.

Suppose that you are the Master [hmm, no gender-neutral version of that word exists, as far as I know] of the Universe. For the purposes of this discussion, humans haven’t explored the rest of space, and so while you are the Master of everything, you don’t actually know what the “everything” is - but it doesn’t really matter to you, because there’s so much you can do on Earth. Perhaps you’ll branch out later. In the absence of your commands, the world ticks over much as it normally does, but if you want anything at all, you can issue a demand, and it will be met as soon as possible, by the people best-suited to dealing with it. You could, for instance, insist on being given a project to work on, which will lie within your range of abilities but will be nice and challenging, and will take you at least a week but less than a year. (This allows you to prevent yourself from becoming a mere wanting-thing, if you don’t want to be one of those.)

The penalty for abdication is pretty severe. You were elected Master of the Universe because you are the single person best suited to the role; no-one else can come close to your suitability, so to make sure you never abdicate, it is enshrined in immutable law (the only thing you can’t change, in fact) that were you to abdicate, you would have everything taken from you, and would be dumped penniless without a single possession (including clothes) in the centre of London (or substitute place where it’s really hard to get started in life). After all, reasoned the lawmakers, why on earth would you want to retire?

Now suppose that you are kidnapped, entirely by surprise, by a mad scientist. Ey says to you, “I want to be Master of the Universe. If you don’t elect me MotU, I will in my anger take away your sense of smell - but of course I don’t have the power to take the Mastery of the Universe from you, so you’ll still be MotU. But I am a merciful mad scientist, so I will give you this device that hooks straight into your brain and tells you what you would be smelling if you still had a sense of smell. That way you’ll know whether your toast is burning - you just won’t have the quale, and I am so cunning that it will be beyond the ken of mortals to replace the quale. I will be so depressed that I will retire to the Bahamas [capital Nassau] and never trouble you again.

If you hand the Mastery of the Universe to me, I will be ever so grateful - I will leave you with your sense of smell. But the penalty for abdication is pretty severe, as you know.

Make your choice.”

Of course, assume the least convenient possible universe when considering a thought experiment - for instance, assume that the smelling-device is no better and no worse than your nose at detecting chemicals, so that it is not an improvement to what is currently your sense of smell; assume that you never bothered to change the dictionary so that the penalty for abdication as outlined in law would no longer be what it says on the tin, etc.

In this thought experiment, it’s a one-off: you lose your sense of smell and keep Mastery of the Universe, or you become absolutely nothing and keep your sense of smell. (A variant might be that the mad scientist replaces your senses one by one until you give up the Mastery.)

I rather suspect I would forgo the qualia associated with smell, in order to keep my Mastery of the Universe. This imposes an upper limit on the value of the qualia associated with my sense of smell - and hence my sense of smell cannot be priceless to me.

This framework is very flexible - it adapts to thinking about essentially anything. You may, of course, feel that you would give up the Mastery in order to retain your sense of smell; in that case, the thought experiment has given a lower limit, and your sense of smell could still be priceless, but at least you’ve actually thought about it.