God is both everywhere in the universe and beyond it. I am both the same and different from how I was two minutes ago. The set containing all sets that are not members of themselves is a member of itself. All of these are paradoxes – apparent contradictions that may possibly allow of solutions when considered more closely, or possibly just point to a higher mystery. So they say.
I, however, am a paradox sceptic. I think that paradoxes are the result of unnecessary dualistic thinking – by which I mean not the way we represent the world in terms of subjects and objects, but the belief that this kind of representation is capable of being true or false. Paradoxical statements reveal incoherence in the way our language represents the world: but this is only a problem if you expect that it is capable of representing the world in the first place. So, if you “solve” a paradox all you are doing is smoothing out a ruffle in your representation of the world – making it coherent again. If, on the other hand, you worship a paradox as a source of higher mystery, the paradox itself, if you are not rather careful, can easily take the place of the mystery. Paradoxes may show us a general point about the inadequacy of our understanding of things, but no specific paradox is any more significant than that. Just because a form of words is odd and contradictory doesn’t necessarily make it more profound than any other form of words.
My objection to paradox, then, is due to the special status that paradox is given, whether in maths or theology or elsewhere. If we think that this particular paradox is special, either in the sense of a problem or a profundity, we miss the point that it is no more special, no more contradictory, and no more mysterious than any other set of words. “Fred walked down the street” is just as contradictory and mysterious as “God is a person who is infinite and eternal.” For the boundaries of Fred in space and time are just as indistinct as God’s, the action of walking as echoingly archetypal and potentially infinite in meaning as God’s existence, and the street potentially an endless journey as infinite as God. How can Fred, an immortal soul and male archetype, do anything as transient as walking down a street? How can a street, that could be endlessly divided (see Zeno’s paradox), ever come to and end, and how could Fred, who traverses this infinitely divisible space, ever come to the end of it? All we need to do is play with it a little to turn any statement into a paradox – so paradoxes are not as smart and special as they think they are.
There are not certain things that we can talk about (and by implication represent fully, and be certain of), and other ‘ineffable’ things that we can’t talk about without contradicting ourselves. All things are ineffable in the sense that we will never know whether our representations are adequate or not, but not in the sense that we can be sure that they are not. It is not just talking about God that is contradictory, it is talking about anything. It is not just sets of sets that are not members of themselves that are problematic: all sets are problematic, because they have to be applied in the context of an indeterminate experience. They are sets of “things” in the complex context of our experience of what “things” mean to us, both cognitively and emotionally. Paradox as a special problem arises only from the false isolation of merely cognitive meaning.
We need to stop being irrationally selective in our scepticism, and face the scepticism of representation as the most basic form of scepticism: we can be no more certain what a word means, in the complexity of the real experience in which meaning resounds, than we can of anything else (see my earlier post on What is a sceptic?). However this scepticism need not be feared as a signal for nihilistic despair, for it is not a denial of anything and shows nothing to be false: rather it is a signal for provisionality, not just of belief but even of meaning.
One way to avoid paradoxes that at first seem to be built into our way of thinking is to incrementalise. That is, take the apparently contradictory absolutes and turn them into incremental qualities. This procedure works, for example, in the paradoxes that surround the idea of a mind. A mind seems to be a brain, which is situated in time and space and has all the attributes of other physical objects; but from the inside, it has no spatial location and only an internal view of time. It apparently has no measurements, no mass or energy, or other physical attributes. We will run into this paradox as long as we think of the mind (or the brain) as an absolute quantity. But if we enquire more carefully into what we actually experience in mind or brain, it is incremental qualities: a degree of awareness, a degree of rationality, a degree of integration, a degree of experienced temporality, spatiality, mass etc. An increment cannot contradict: it can only be compared with other increments. Incrementalisation seems like the ideal tool to defuse paradoxes where necessary. (For more on this see A Theory of Moral Objectivity 6b).
The history of Buddhism more than anything seems to trace the unfortunate effects of getting too hooked on paradoxes. Recognising that reality is mysterious because it is beyond our representation, a man called Siddhartha is believed to have discovered a profound paradoxical truth. This paradoxical truth is worshipped as the essence of enlightenment. As Buddhism evolves, new schools (such as the Mahayana, and then particularly Zen) realise the limitations of this perspective, and recognise that the paradoxes are all around us in everyday experience. The ko’ans illustrate this: “What is Zen? A dead cat.” But now it is the paradoxes of everyday experience that are reified into special contradictory truth, seen by the masters and missed by the ignorant. Zen becomes profoundly absolute and non-incremental, stressing sudden insight into everyday things and endlessly playing with paradoxes about its own claims. The effect of this play, though, disappointingly, is often just to reinforce the claims as special. We still become focused on the paradoxes themselves rather than the mystery that was there all along and did not actually depend in any way on the paradox.
The solution for Buddhism, as for any other tradition, I think, is to train much more deeply in scepticism: to apply that scepticism thoroughly, not as denial, but as agnosticism and provisionality. There is both a philosophical and a psychological aspect of this provisionality: it means working with our mental states as well as thinking. And we need to let go of paradoxes. Paradoxes are no more significant than anything else – which is, of course, highly significant.
Related links on the main Middle Way Philosophy site:
Picture: Lightmatter tortoise by Aaron Logan (Wikimedia Commons): picture only is freely reproducible under Creative Commons licence provided it is attributed.