Liar's Paradox

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Matt Geiger

“This statement is a lie.”

If the above sentence is true, then it’s a lie. And if it is a lie, it is true. 

It’s called the liar’s paradox, and it’s a response to the people who contacted me after my column about Xeno’s paradox (“Achilles and the Tortoise”) a few weeks ago. They worriedly told me they didn’t “get” the paradox I was writing about. It didn’t make sense to them, and they were confused by it. 

My answer, of course, is that’s the point. If you don’t understand a paradox, then you understandthe paradox. If you don’t get it, you get it. That’s the whole idea. Paradoxes being impossible to comprehend is like cakes being sweet or toddlers being young; it comes with the territory. 

If you think you understand a paradox, then you don’t understand it at all. And that’s what being alive really is; a vast paradox that feels like it makes sense only because of an intimacy linked to proximity. You are always very near your life, and your consciousness, and therefore you think you understand them. But if you think you understand yourself, then you don’t understand yourself. And if you think you don’t, perhaps you do, a little bit.

I’m completely mystified by people who think they understand everything. Because anyone who tells me they understand the big, ethereal, paradoxical, eternally mystifying nature of life on Earth is basically the same as someone who claims they totally “get” the liar’s paradox. That’s why, when we teach our children, I think it’s vital not to teach them WHAT to think. We can only really teach them HOW to think, and if they develop that skill, they will be able to see the world for what it really is–utterly, beautifully incomprehensible. 

Sitting around a fire the other night with friends, we discussed parenting, and schooling, and I could tell that one person in particular–the person who kept questioning whether she was making the right decisions as a parent, teaching the right lessons, charting the right course–is doing an incredible job. Because her humility, and her acknowledgement of the fact that we never know if we are making the right decisions as parents until many years later–until it’s too late, basically–is surely essential to good parenting. 

The parents that worry me, and the teachers that worry me–and of course the politicians that worry me–are the ones who are confident they have everything figured out. The ones who have an ancient, rusty set of beliefs they’ve clung to since college, without ever stopping to think: “Or maybe not?”

I have my beliefs, of course. My political sentiments, my gut instincts and the things I’ve decided are true based on books, articles, and real-world experiences. But they might all be completely wrong. Perhaps I’m justified to believe these things, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely correct. People are justified to believe all sorts of silly things, based on the evidence in front of them, but those things often turn out to be false. Jeffrey Lebowski shows his wisdom when he proclaims “New [stuff] has come to light!” 

Because the light of this world will shine on whatever it pleases, with no rhyme or reason. All we can do is look at the things it illuminates, and be amazed, and usually a little confused. We cannot really direct the light. We may only use our sciences, our religions and our mythologies to ponder the things we see illuminated. 

One thing I hear parents say, at times, is that they want teachers at school to teach their kids specific things, specific facts, or specific values. I don’t really care. I care only that my daughter learns how to think, how to process information, when to deploy the vital mercenaries of abstract thought, and how to come to the best conclusions without ever falling into the trap of totally believing them to be true. 

Because what teachers and parents believe is true today might not be here tomorrow. But our kids will be. The light will forever flit and move, but it will never go away.

I imagine a good medieval dad wouldn’t have merely handed down his rusting claymore sword to his offspring, its edge dulled and blunted by years of use on some damp moor or soggy bog. A good medieval dad would have taught his sons and daughters how to make their own swords, however big or small, sharp or dull they needed them to be.

I don’t care if my daughter, in her kindergarten class, learns about this or that, I only care that she learns how to learn, and how to be unsure of it all, and to unlearn it when the right time comes. 

Whenever someone tries to persuade me of a political idea, I always try to listen. Seriously. I have listened to and read some absolutely preposterous ideas, but I really do try to consume them and digest them and try to find out if perhaps they are better than my prior beliefs. The only time I stop listening is when the person arguing with me grows irrationally angry, because their screaming, their tears, their passion, are all sure signs that they are passionately in love with their beliefs. They love their own beliefs more than they love the truth. Their love means that they wouldn’t change their minds even if they were presented with facts that should change it. 

That’s why my daughter thinks I’m an idiot. Because after every explanation I give her, I tend to pause and say: “Or, maybe not…”

But it’s intentional, and methodical, the way I do this. Because many of the things I know are probably incorrect. I know many are paradoxes. 

“Trust me when I tell you,” I say to my daughter, “not to completely trust anything you hear.”

If that doesn’t make sense to her, good. Because if she doesn’t understand it, then she’s starting to understand. To understand me, and the other eight billion people, and the world we all must share.





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