On why things that we don’t want to happen…happen

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893 (Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone wants to be happy, yet often people find themselves in situations that cause unhappiness. Our current national predicament is one that causes extreme unhappiness for all of us.

Often the mass unhappiness is caused by the authoritarian governments, but our peculiar predicament shows that even governments that are not authoritarian can still bring the nation to the verge of total psychological collapse.

There is an insightful logical puzzle that explains why sometimes societies find it hard to break out of their predicaments. The puzzle is as follows. 

There is an island with 100 inhabitants who have either blue eyes or brown eyes. None of the islanders know the color of their own eyes, but they can see the eye color of other islanders. In the unfortunate event that someone discovers the color of his or her own eyes, he or she has to leave the island the next day at noon. They live happily on this peculiar island until one day a visitor comes. Upon leaving the island, the visitor tells the islanders that there is at least one islander who has blue eyes. Half a year later, he comes back to the island and finds it completely deserted.

The problem is to figure out why everyone left. Imagine there was only one blue-eyed male (person B). This means that B knows that all other 99 residents of the island have brown eyes and, upon hearing that at least one person has blue eyes, B discovers that it must be him who has blue eyes. He then leaves the island the next day at noon. It is a fun exercise to figure out why the rest of the islanders leave, but it has little to do with the main point of the puzzle.

It is interesting to analyze the case when there are exactly two people with blue eyes, and this is when the problem becomes puzzling. Suppose B and C are the ones who have blue eyes, and again let’s assume they are males. Upon hearing the information that there is at least one islander with blue eyes, B expects that C will leave the island the next day, that is unless C could see another person with blue eyes, in which case C would be unable to conclude that he has blue eyes. Because C can see that B has blue eyes, C cannot determine the color of his eyes and therefore, doesn’t leave the island the next day. Because C doesn’t leave the island the next day, B concludes that C can see another person with blue eyes, and as he knows that the other 98 have brown eyes, he concludes that it must be him who has the blue eyes. And so B leaves the island the next day, exactly two days after the visitor. A similar reasoning shows that C leaves the island with B.

The problem is puzzling because, assuming that there are at least two people on the island who have blue eyes, the information that the visitor gives to the islanders, namely that there is at least one islander with blue eyes, is nothing they didn’t already know. After all, they all can see at least one person with blue eyes. Yet, it leads to the desertion of the island. 

The visitor, in fact, tells more to the islanders. The visitor makes it common knowledge that there is at least one person with blue eyes. Upon hearing this new information, in addition to knowing that there is at least one islander with blue eyes, the islanders know that everyone on the island knows that one of the islanders has blue eyes. In our case above, B now knows that C also knows that there is an islander with blue eyes. This is in fact something that B didn’t know prior to hearing the statement made by the visitor.

Common knowledge—the knowledge that we all possess and that we all know that we all possess and that we all know that we all know that we all possess and etc.—is a concept introduced by philosopher David Lewis in Convention. The absence of common knowledge can be used to explain why people tolerate authoritarian regimes. Each one of us knows our own dislike of the regime yet, as open communication is absent, we do not know that others also dislike the regime, making us do nothing.

In our case, common knowledge seems to work in mysterious ways. It is common knowledge that all our politicians are bad, yet it is not common knowledge that in this case we need to seek new politicians. Certainly we do have these new politicians, but they don’t seem to possess the knowledge that some of us will follow them if only they speak up. It is therefore necessary to make it common knowledge that there is at least one Armenian who wants to hear from a new politician.

Another way that common knowledge is working improperly in Armenia is through fictional common knowledge. Because of our own naive and natural tendencies to seek an understanding of what has happened to us, how this tragedy came upon us and who is responsible for it, we are empowering our politicians to create fictions that are appealing to us. A large portion of our population, upon subscribing to one such fiction, seems to think that their goal should then be spreading and defending their fictional beliefs so as to make their viewpoints the common and most dominant narrative to explain our tragedy.

This is a dangerous situation, because if we continue this way, we will steadily move towards a society whose immediate goal will be widespread acceptance of one such fiction. So our next leader will simply be the one who is able to mastermind the most popular fiction rather than come up with the best solution to our current predicament.

Certainly not all of us are seeking such fictions. Certainly not all of us want to isolate a traitor, put that person into prison and then go back to whatever we were doing before this tragedy took over our lives. But it seems the fact that such people exist is not common knowledge. It is therefore important to make it public that there is at least one Armenian who wants to hear solutions to the problems rather than constant analysis of what has happened or what will come.

Moreover, it is common knowledge that we need to be united. Everyone seems to say that. However, the meaning of this unity is not common knowledge. Are we supposed to be united in calling someone a traitor? Are we supposed to create some sort of unified national identity? If yes, around what notions or concepts should that identity evolve? Here too there is at least one Armenian who would like to hear what type of unity we need.

Finally, it is common knowledge that we have a giant void in our hearts and minds, yet those who can fill it don’t seem to know that we need them to help us now. These are our musicians, artists, filmmakers, writers and other creative minds who can step in and experiment with Armenian themes. Now is the time to have Armenian music nights, Armenian poetry nights, cultural study sessions, virtual lectures about our great minds such as Komitas, Daniel Varoujan, Hovhanes Tumanyan, Martiros Saryan, public discussions on the heartbreaking state of our many churches in Turkey and Iran and talks about our old cities such as Ani, Erzrum, Igdir and others. We need to introduce our various branches of the diaspora to each other and simply synchronize our minds. There is at least one Armenian who is interested in those things.


Grigor Sargsyan

Grigor Sargsyan is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University. He holds a PhD in Mathematics from UC Berkeley.

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