Happy Hundredth   Leave a comment

“Inhale this, but do not touch.”

It’s entirely enjoyable, I promise.

To scaffold the scene, there are two actors:
The Man in Black: Mystery-shrouded warrior presiding over the “Where is the poison?” game, obliges his opponent to make a false choice.
Vizzini: Boisterous and balding villain, haughtily narrates his reasoning process but fails to divine the game’s unobvious solution.

Much analysis has been executed concerning this incredible scene from The Princess Bride, (easily one of my favorite films) to which I will now add. This movie’s delightful dialogue and motifs have had substantial influence on the linguistic style of this blog, so I find it fitting that my hundredth post addresses some of its select nuances.

The theme I’ve identified resulting in Vizzini’s undoing involves a fallacy I vigilantly try to avoid– what is known as false dichotomy. We are trained to think, and the Man in Black has framed the game making it easy to assume, that there are only two possible scenarios: the poison is in my goblet or it is in yours. There are hardly ever only three of anything in this world. When it comes to possibilities, it’s extremely foolish to believe that only two exist.

We are conditioned to think in polar terms. Not Santa Claus and polar bears, but polar meaning two opposite and jointly exhaustive options as in black or white, friend or foe, good or bad. We tend to think the two options in our polar world are mutually exclusive as well; often they are not. There’s a mental cost invested when considering whether or not the two options in a perceived polar scenario represent all possibilities, and it’s a convenient shortcut to assume polar scenarios– it delivers an acceptable outcome often enough.

Not so much when it’s “To the death!”

The number of fingers Vizzini uses to point indicates how many goblets he thinks contain poison: he is wrong.

For a guy smacking Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates as “morons,” you wouldn’t think Vizzini would fall victim to the false dichotomy fallacy with death on the line. His opponent- the game’s designer-  never explicitly said that the poison was in only one goblet, and Vizzini had no excuse to overlook this. He’s used to thinking in polar terms. As Mark Twain says, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”

Returning to the idea that there are hardly ever a mere three options in a so-called polar scenario, a severe hit is delivered to Vizzini’s intellect when he considers only two. Here are four possibilities of allocating poison to goblet(s) in the Man in Black’s game:

A) There is poison in goblet 1, but not in goblet 2
B) There is poison in goblet 2, but not in goblet 1
C) There is poison in both goblet 1 and goblet 2
D) There is no poison in goblet 1 or goblet 2

Vizzini only addresses possibilities A and B in his “dizzying” tirade, and covers them well. He rules out D, presumably because the Man in Black asks “Where is the poison?” while promising a death (though poison is not necessary for death). The correct answer, option C, is much more likely than option D given the language set forth by the Man in Black. It’s plausible that Vizzini could have considered option C, but ruled it out based on a faulty assumption.

Vizzini assumes that the Man in Black is not immune to the cataclysmically potent Australian poison known as iocaine powder in order to conclude that only A and B were possible options. For one of Vizzini’s brilliance to rule out option C, the logic in his head might have gone something like this:

1. The poison is in one or more goblets
2. Anyone who drinks a goblet with poison in it will die
3. One of us will not die
(There) 4. The poison is not in both goblets.

Assumption 2, it turns out, is false, therefore leading to a false conclusion. The Man in Black’s language allowed Vizzini to make a critically false assumption. When we fill in our own assumptions into logical reasoning, we risk invalidating our logic. The possibility that the Man in Black would not die if he drank a goblet with poison was, to Vizzini– wait for it…Inconceivable!

Or was it?

Vizzini is on point when he  guesses that “You’ve beaten my giant which means you’re exceptionally strong so you could have put the poison in your own goblet trusting on your strength to save you.” Vizzini figured it out! Assuming giant-besting brute strength as opposed to strength as chemical immunity is different, but leads to the same conclusion as to whether a goblet has poison. The problem is that knowing the Man in Black put poison in his own goblet is necessary to completely and accurately assess the game, but it is not sufficient. This point becomes somewhat moot when we realize that Vizzini chose to drink from the goblet originally placed in front of the Man in Black, having discarded his correct hypothesis.

It seems that Vizzini forsakes his correct necessary condition and decides that the Man in Black, since he must have studied, knew that man was mortal (reference to “Socrates” and logical inference!) and so put the poison as far away from himself as possible. Drinking from the goblet originally placed in front of the Man in Black is consistent with this reasoning, though not conclusive. It’s equally inconclusive that Vizzini psychologically projected his own fear of his mortality onto the Man in Black, but an interesting thought.

We tend to think in polar terms, in this case winners and losers. We found out “Who is right, and who is dead” and that seems to be all that matters for this particular scene. What gets me is how incredibly close Vizzini was to figuring out that the poison was in both goblets. He even guesses half the answer, that the poison is in the Man in Black’s goblet and his strength (i.e. immunity) will save him. If he expanded on that notion instead of babbling about Australia’s criminal demographic, he probably would have gotten it. He also could have figured it out by synthesizing two consecutive conclusions he makes:

Conclusion 1. “I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.”
Conclusion 2. “I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.”
3. (nonexplicit assumption) Any wine I clearly cannot choose has poison in it.
Therefore 4. (Final conclusion) Both the wine in front of me and in front of you contain poison.

Given the things Vizzini himself says, it’s inexplicable that he did not figure out that both goblets were poisoned. He just had to take his own conclusions one step further. Ultimately it was the power of the false dichotomy fallacy that did him in. He was unable consider more than two possible scenarios. Once you confine the possibilities you consider to two, it doesn’t matter how sharp or comprehensive your analysis of those two options are — if victory and life reside with a third option. Skillfully determining critical facts doesn’t matter at all if you’ve failed to consider the options to which they are relevant.

It’s delightfully ironic that Vizzini proclaims the Man in Black fell to one of the “classic blunders” which he states as:

1. (The most famous) Never get involved in a land war in Asia
2. (Only slightly less known) Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

I’d say that Vizzini himself fell for a third classic blunder:

3. Never think in terms of a false dichotomy when more possibilities exist.

And there’s hardly ever only three.


Posted August 26, 2010 by Wada in Linguistics

Tagged with , , ,

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