A paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true. Most logical paradoxes are known to be invalid arguments but are still valuable in promotingcritical thinking.
Some paradoxes have revealed errors in definitions assumed to be rigorous, and have caused axioms of mathematics and logic to be re-examined. One example is Russell’s paradox, which questions whether a “list of all lists that do not contain themselves” would include itself, and showed that naive set theory was flawed. Others, such as Curry’s paradox, are not yet resolved.
Examples outside logic include the Ship of Theseus from philosophy (questioning whether a ship repaired over time by replacing each its wooden parts would remain the same ship). Paradoxes can also take the form of images or other media. For example, M.C. Escher featured perspective-based paradoxes in many of his drawings, with walls that are regarded as floors from other points of view, and staircases that appear to climb endlessly.
- An example is “This statement is false”, a form of the liar paradox. The statement is referring to itself. Another example of self-reference is the question of whether the barber shaves himself in the barber paradox. One more example would be “Is the answer to this question ‘No’?”
- “This statement is false”; the statement cannot be false and true at the same time.
- Vicious circularity, or infinite regress
- “This statement is false”; if the statement is true, then the statement is false, thereby making the statement true. Another example of vicious circularity is the following group of statements:
- “The following sentence is true.”
- “The previous sentence is false.”
- “What happens when Pinocchio says, ‘My nose will grow now’?”
For example, consider a situation in which a father and his son are driving down the road. The car crashes into a tree and the father is killed. The boy is rushed to the nearest hospital where he is prepared for emergency surgery. On entering the surgery suite, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.”
The apparent paradox is caused by a hasty generalization, for if the surgeon is the boy’s father, the statement cannot be true. The paradox is resolved if it is revealed that the surgeon is a woman — the boy’s mother.
Paradoxes which are not based on a hidden error generally occur at the fringes of context or language, and require extending the context or language in order to lose their paradoxical quality. Paradoxes that arise from apparently intelligible uses of language are often of interest to logicians and philosophers. “This sentence is false” is an example of the well-known liar paradox: it is a sentence which cannot be consistently interpreted as either true or false, because if it is known to be false, then it is known that it must be true, and if it is known to be true, then it is known that it must be false. Therefore, it can be concluded that it is unknowable. Russell’s paradox, which shows that the notion of the set of all those sets that do not contain themselves leads to a contradiction, was instrumental in the development of modern logic and set theory.
Thought experiments can also yield interesting paradoxes. The grandfather paradox, for example, would arise if a time traveller were to kill his own grandfather before his mother or father had been conceived, thereby preventing his own birth. This is a specific example of the more general observation of the butterfly effect, or that a time-traveller’s interaction with the past — however slight — would entail making changes that would, in turn, change the future in which the time-travel was yet to occur, and would thus change the circumstances of the time-travel itself.
Quine’s classification of paradoxes
W. V. Quine (1962) distinguished between three classes of paradoxes:
- A veridical paradox produces a result that appears absurd but is demonstrated to be true nevertheless. Thus, the paradox of Frederic’s birthday in The Pirates of Penzanceestablishes the surprising fact that a twenty-one-year-old would have had only five birthdays, if he had been born on a leap day. Likewise, Arrow’s impossibility theoremdemonstrates difficulties in mapping voting results to the will of the people. The Monty Hall paradox demonstrates that a decision which has an intuitive 50-50 chance in fact is heavily biased towards making a decision which, given the intuitive conclusion, the player would be unlikely to make. In 20th century science, Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hoteland Schrödinger’s cat are famously vivid examples of a theory being taken to a logical but paradoxical end.
- A falsidical paradox establishes a result that not only appears false but actually is false, due to a fallacy in the demonstration. The various invalid mathematical proofs (e.g., that 1 = 2) are classic examples, generally relying on a hidden division by zero. Another example is the inductive form of the horse paradox, which falsely generalizes from true specific statements.
- A paradox that is in neither class may be an antinomy, which reaches a self-contradictory result by properly applying accepted ways of reasoning. For example, the Grelling–Nelson paradox points out genuine problems in our understanding of the ideas of truth and description.
A fourth kind has sometimes been described since Quine’s work.
- A paradox that is both true and false at the same time and in the same sense is called a dialetheism. In Western logics it is often assumed, following Aristotle, that no dialetheia exist, but they are sometimes accepted in Eastern traditions[which?] and in paraconsistent logics. An example might be to affirm or deny the statement “John is in the room” when John is standing precisely halfway through the doorway. It is reasonable (by human thinking) to both affirm and deny it (“Well, he is, but he isn’t”), and it is also reasonable to say that he is neither (“He’s halfway into the room, which is neither in nor out”), despite the requirement that the statement is to be exclusively proven or disproven.
Paradox in philosophy
A taste for paradox is central to the philosophies of Laozi, Heraclitus, Meister Eckhart, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and G.K. Chesterton, among many others. Søren Kierkegaard, for example, writes, in the Philosophical Fragments, that
But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.