Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Stupid Physics Problem

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 22, 2009

(Yes, that’s right. A physics problem is categorized under “morality”. It’ll make sense when you’ve read the whole post.)

I recently heard an anecdote about the following problem, given by a supposedly intelligent college professor.

If you are driving at 25 mph and see a car approaching you 25 mph, is it better to have a head-on collision or to swerve and hit the brick wall on the side of the road?

Why exactly is this a physics problem? “Better” is not defined under the laws of physics. The laws of physics do not care what you crash into. For all that the laws of physics care, you could jump out of your car and do a little jig. So how can we possibly determine what is “better”?

First we have to establish the meaning of “better”. Are we talking about the result that is the least harmful for both people, or just for me? Let’s assume it is just for me. Now we have to determine the potential force felt on impact with a car going at 25 mph. When the cars hit each other, each person will feel a certain amount of force. But this force is reduced because the car has crumple zones, designed to take out the impact. A brick wall has no crumple zones. Your car will still crumple when you hit the brick wall, but you’ll be hitting it on the side: are side crumple zones really as effective as front crumple zones? We don’t know. So we have no way of answering this question.

But how do we even know what “better” means? Do I have to get inside the mind of the author of the question, or is there some objective definition of “better”? Maybe “better” means “causes the least harm to the brick wall”. Maybe “better” means “least harmful for the insurance companies”. How can we know?

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One Response to “Stupid Physics Problem”

  1. LRFLEW said

    I like your point.

    P.S. Click my name on this post to access my site

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