Given that there has recently been a lot of discussion on this blog about this logic puzzle, I thought I would make a dedicated post for it (and move all the previous comments to this post). The text here is adapted from an earlier web page of mine from a few years back.

The puzzle has a number of formulations, but I will use this one:

There is an island upon which a tribe resides. The tribe consists of 1000 people, with various eye colours. Yet, their religion forbids them to know their own eye color, or even to discuss the topic; thus, each resident can (and does) see the eye colors of all other residents, but has no way of discovering his or her own (there are no reflective surfaces). If a tribesperson does discover his or her own eye color, then their religion compels them to commit ritual suicide at noon the following day in the village square for all to witness. All the tribespeople are highly logical and devout, and they all know that each other is also highly logical and devout (and they all know that they all know that each other is highly logical and devout, and so forth).

[Added, Feb 15: for the purposes of this logic puzzle, "highly logical" means that any conclusion that can logically deduced from the information and observations available to an islander, will automatically be known to that islander.]

Of the 1000 islanders, it turns out that 100 of them have blue eyes and 900 of them have brown eyes, although the islanders are not initially aware of these statistics (each of them can of course only see 999 of the 1000 tribespeople).

One day, a blue-eyed foreigner visits to the island and wins the complete trust of the tribe.

One evening, he addresses the entire tribe to thank them for their hospitality.

However, not knowing the customs, the foreigner makes the mistake of mentioning eye color in his address, remarking “how unusual it is to see another blue-eyed person like myself in this region of the world”.

What effect, if anything, does this faux pas have on the tribe?

The interesting thing about this puzzle is that there are two quite plausible arguments here, which give opposing conclusions:

[Note: if you have not seen the puzzle before, I recommend thinking about it first before clicking ahead.]


Argument 1. The foreigner has no effect, because his comments do not tell the tribe anything that they do not already know (everyone in the tribe can already see that there are several blue-eyed people in their tribe). \diamond

Argument 2. 100 days after the address, all the blue eyed people commit suicide. This is proven as a special case of

Proposition. Suppose that the tribe had n blue-eyed people for some positive integer n. Then n days after the traveller’s address, all n blue-eyed people commit suicide.

Proof: We induct on n. When n=1, the single blue-eyed person realizes that the traveler is referring to him or her, and thus commits suicide on the next day. Now suppose inductively that n is larger than 1. Each blue-eyed person will reason as follows: “If I am not blue-eyed, then there will only be n-1 blue-eyed people on this island, and so they will all commit suicide n-1 days after the traveler’s address”. But when n-1 days pass, none of the blue-eyed people do so (because at that stage they have no evidence that they themselves are blue-eyed). After nobody commits suicide on the (n-1)^{st} day, each of the blue eyed people then realizes that they themselves must have blue eyes, and will then commit suicide on the n^{th} day. \Box \diamond

Which argument is valid? I won’t spoil it in this main post, but readers are welcome to discuss the solution in the comments. (Again, for those of you who haven’t seen the puzzle before, I recommend thinking about it first before reading the comments below.)

Added, Feb 12: It is undoubtedly true that the assumptions of this logic puzzle are highly unrealistic, and defy common sense. This however does not invalidate the above question, which is to resolve the fact that there are two separate and seemingly valid arguments which start with the same hypotheses but yield contradictory conclusions. This fact requires resolution even if the hypotheses are extremely unlikely to be completely satisfied in any reasonable situation; it is only when the hypotheses are logically impossible to satisfy completely that there is no need to analyse the situation further.

[Update, Feb 10: wording of the puzzle clarified. (My original version, which did not contain the last parenthetical of the first paragraph, can be found on my web page; it had an unexpectedly interesting subtlety in its formulation, but was not the puzzle I had actually intended to write. See also this formulation of the puzzle by xkcd.)]