“What is truth?” asked a jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
— Sir Francis Bacon
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
— Lewis Carroll
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
— Zen Koan
There once was a town with only one barber. No man in the town shaved himself.
Question: Who shaved the barber?
One time Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he had turned into a butterfly. He flapped his wings and flew through the air, reveling in the sunlight. When he awoke it occurred to him: Was he Zhuangzi who had dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly who was dreaming about being Zhuangzi?
— Taoist parable
Sitting down to write on one of my favorite subjects, paradox, I was struck with an unusual occurrence: I don’t quite know what to say. For me, an inability to talk on any given subject is generally cause to call a doctor.
Failing that, I tried to figure out what the problem was. My first emergency tool always being the dictionary, I called it up. (Being hopelessly seduced by technology, I now have two computer dictionaries, the Random House Unabridged and the Oxford English Dictionary.)
And there was the problem. It was not that there was not enough to say, but too much. Paradox is a word we burden with a whole complex of import. The Random House gave four different meanings for ‘paradox.’ The Oxford gave more than that, with copious examples, but boiled down to the same thing.
It seems that the Greek para can mean beyond, above or against, while doxy, the ending for orthodoxy, heterodoxy, etc., means opinion. So we have a word that can mean:
1. Any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature. (Okay, raise your hands. No, No. Not all at once.)
2. An opinion or statement contrary to commonly accepted opinion. (Same as above.).
3. A self-contradictory and false proposition.
4. A statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.
As to the first, I will leave it to my mother and my ex-wife to discuss my “apparently contradictory nature.” I will merely point out, in self-defense, that there is a difference between contradictory and contrary and leave it at that.
As to the second, I have developed my own heuristic rule: Conventional Wisdom is wrong.
It may be wrong in whole or in part, but I believe it is always wrong. It has gotten to the point that whenever I hear someone expressing something that “everybody knows,” I immediately begin to ask myself what is wrong with it. (Anyone who finds that odd can join my mother and my ex in the above discussion of my many character flaws. Oh, I know it was only supposed to be about my contradictory nature, but by now it will have spread out to the rest of my sins. I guarantee it.)
Moving along to the third type, I suppose that the most obvious example is:
This statement is false.
Then, too, myriad examples of word play would also fall into this one. The quote from Lewis Carroll at the top fits within this category, as does the “Who Shaved the Barber” paradox.
The barber can be used to illustrate two different varieties of the genera. It could be one of those trick items so beloved of adolescents where the answer is that no one shaves the barber because the barber is a woman.
Alternatively, assuming the barber is stated to be a man, it could be one of those examples that demonstrates, as Lewis Carroll did in another vein, how easily English can be used to create an absurdity. (Parenthetically, I might note that Russell’s Paradox in set theory is based on exactly the same contradiction. “Consider an entity that it not the member of any set. It is axiomatic that any entity is a member of its own set. But that violates the first condition.”)
Setting aside the word play and adolescent brain busters, we come to the fertile fourth category of paradoxes. As an example, consider one of my favorite paradoxical symbols:
In English, this symbol is commonly called simply the YinYang, the female/male sign. But its meaning is actually much wider than that. In China, it is called the TaiJiTu, the Map of the Ultimate. It expresses the idea that while the nature of the universe appears to us as a series of dualities, True/False, Female/Male, Light/Dark, Life/Death, that duality is both True and False. When any pole of this apparent duality it at its most complete, it marks (and overlaps) the beginning of the other. Thus Life does not contradict Death, but flows into it. Truth and Falsehood are not polar opposites, but complementary halves of our whole.
And notice the small dot in the center of each maximum. It represents the idea that even at its most perfect and extreme moment, each side of our duality contains the seed of the other. Most importantly, it says that any idea or belief so driven to perfect purity as to exclude its opposite is false to reality and ultimately futile.
In this system (herein lies the paradox), neither A nor B is the truth. Truth lies solely and precisely in the dynamic tension between A and B. It is to be found exclusively in the land between the two opposites. Each without the other is not merely incomplete: Each alone is false to fact.
Finally, there are those wonderful paradoxes used by eastern philosophies to force us to expand our horizons and reach beyond that which we see to a more fundamental reality. The charming parable of Zhuangzi is one example. Those mind-busting Zen koans are another.
In the Zen belief, enlightenment cannot come until conventional ideas have been broken up and discarded. The duty of a Zen master is not merely to guide his pupil, his duty is to destroy all the habits of mind that stand between the pupil and enlightenment.
The koan is the tool of enlightenment through destruction. It clears the way.
Disciples may spend many weary days contemplating “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The master and student may meet each day with the master asking the same impossible question and the student getting beaten for his attempts at answering.
Then, one day, if he is very lucky, it will all become clear to him. When the master asks the absurd question, the student will give, with confidence, what appears to any listener an equally absurd answer. Then they will both laugh. They now share the same secret of the universe that lies below our reality.
The power of Paradox.
An emperor asked a Zen master to come to his palace and explain a sutra; the master arrived, mounted a platform, rapped on a table, descended and left.
A Zen disciple asked the emperor “Sir, did you understand?”
The emperor said “No.”
“What a pity! The master was never so eloquent.”