The Paradox Paradox
In which we explore the paradox that, although paradoxes are potentially insightful and helpful, almost no one likes to think them through.
I was working on a now-abandoned essay about Machiavelli and the paradox that politicians are expected to do ‘the right thing’ in a system that rewards doing the wrong thing. It’s paradoxical to pretend that self-serving politics is something from political history, when in truth Machiavellianism is on the rise today.
Then an even greater paradox struck me, which is that we don’t like to admit to paradoxes of any type at all–and yet we must begin to embrace them if we wish to survive for many more decades.
As insightful as they are, paradoxes often make people deeply uncomfortable. That may be why we sweep Machiavelli under the rug of history, even though it seems likely that modern-day politicians are reading The Prince rather than The Holy Bible.
But aren’t paradoxes insightful? Let’s see what a brief survey might reveal.
I’m going to start with a literary example from 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest opened at the Saint James theater in London. Oscar Wilde gave his farce a wonderful subtitle that is all but forgotten today: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. And that, of course, is a near-perfect example of a paradox. If it’s trivial, how can it be of interest to serious people?
For that matter, how can Scarface (as played by Al Pacino in the 1983 film) say that, “I always tell the truth, even when I lie.” And yet there’s something so deadly-honest about his character that there is a deeper truth to these seemingly contradictory words. (For a more contemporary example, we might posit that Donald Trump always lies, even when he tells the truth.)
And let’s not forget commonplace expressions like ‘less is more’ and ‘the louder you are, the less they hear’— aphorisms we essayists would do well to keep in mind.
To return to Late-Victorian London, Wilde wrote a sparkling comedy about characters who were leading double lives, which caused no end of humorous problems for them. Pure comedic fun!
And yet Wilde led the double life of someone who didn’t conform to the strict laws about who may be in love with whom, and so he was imprisoned for having a relationship with another man. Leading a double life was something he must have known to be deadly serious.
Another fine example of paradox from The Importance of Being Earnest is, “To be natural is such a difficult pose to keep up.” Funny, but also with a deeper meaning given what we know about the author’s life and untimely death.
Fast forward to today, and here’s an example from an Op-Ed from the Washington Post:
“There is no grandstanding and no preening. There are no petty partisan squabbles. There is not even the disjointedness that normally occurs when a bunch of politicians are each given five minutes to question each witness. There is only the relentless march of evidence, all of it deeply incriminating to a certain former president who keeps insisting that he was robbed of his rightful election victory.”
The editorial is by columnist Max Boot, and it reminds me of an old Sherlock Holmes mystery in which he tells a Scotland Yard inspector to pay attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night. When the inspector points out that the dog did nothing in the night, Holmes says that was the curious incident. Nothing was the something of that story–another fine paradox.
Holmes had thought to ask, why didn’t the dog bark? Nor did the dogs bark on the Hill during the January 6th hearings. It’s paradoxical to think that what is most important in these hearings may be what isn’t heard. Committee members are largely silent, which allows the evidence to speak. How rare is that? In Washington DC, extraordinary.
Scientists love puzzles such as the arrow paradox, which states that in a single instant in time a speeding arrow is not moving.
Then there are the paradoxes of our own lives. For example, we introverts may feel that we can’t stand people, but neither can we live without them.
A new paper by Germain Tobar of the University of Queensland in the oh-so-readable scientific journal Classical and Quantum Gravity (don’t you keep a copy on your nightstand?) rethinks the Grandfather Paradox—that it would be impossible to go back in time and accidentally kill your grandfather because then you’d never have been born. But Tobar concludes that events would reform around such a paradox and eliminate it.
Kind of a disease model, then, in which a paradox is seen as an infection of the timeline that history, like a gigantic immune system, rushes to kill.
But are paradoxes so very bad?
The very definition of paradox celebrates it as something not bad but useful: a seemingly contradictory or impossible statement that reveals a hidden insight or truth. And don’t we all want to uncover hidden truths? (That might depend on whose hearings you watch...)
Se non e vero, e ben trovato is a Renaissance Italian saying that translates as, even if not true, it’s well-conceived—a paradox on its face, but also a response to Occam’s Razor. That’s the statement that, to put it most simply (;-), the simplest explanation is the correct one. But ever since Occam, many so-called anti-razors have been postulated—theories that contradict his. And so were born a new set of paradoxes about how an explanation can seem to have the simplicity and elegance of pure truth, yet be false beneath its pristine surface.
The Big Lie, Republicans’ theory that the last Presidential election was stolen, is an example of this simplicity trap. While it certainly is simple and clear, the theory is patently false. But if you’re looking for a catchy theory to spin a la Machiavelli, The Big Lie beats all.
And so we arrive at the paradoxical observation that any truth—including Occam’s razor—can be used to sell a lie. In fact, that’s the art of the con. How do you get people to believe something that’s too good—or too simple or self-servingly naive—to be true? Turns out it’s not that hard, because many people don’t want to delve into the messy details of paradoxes.
The paradox of our politics is that many voters are willfully determined to be blind to the paradoxes, even though they’ll be hurt as a result. How can a selfish, crooked, money-grubbing multi-millionaire care about the interests of ordinary working people? And yet the Trump base swallows that paradox whole.
Paradoxical thinking opens minds, and if there’s anything we need most desperately right now, it’s open minds. So let’s embrace paradoxes, if only for this brief moment in history when the fate of our species and its planet seems to hang in the balance.
We live and breathe in a sea of paradoxes. Nothing is as simple nor as complex as it initially appears. And yet ours is a profoundly anti-intellectual time and place in history. As a nation, we shy away from the tough questions paradoxes reveal.
One thing I know for sure: If we travel ahead in time and find we have killed the planet, then no paradox of time travel or anything else will save our grandchildren. It’s up to us to learn to think straight by embracing the kinks in our reasoning–which, paradoxically, might just be a good fit for the imperfect creatures of mis-reason that we are.