Friday, August 16, 2013

What is a Paradox?

Like many questions in philosophy, this one is deceptively difficult. In fact, it will be one of the subjects of the course. But let me start the wheels of analysis turning (if slowly!) before we all get together. Here's a try at a definition: it's something surprising whose surprise we have trouble shaking. Take the "Twin Paradox", of for example. Al and Beth are twins. Beth wins a contest when they're 20 and gets a ride in a spaceship travelling at speeds approaching the speed of light. She's gone a long time, according to Al. She comes back when Al's 40 having aged only a few years. So twins can be different ages. That is certainly surprising, but apparently true — at least, according to Special Relativity.

However, what is surprising probably depends on one's context. People used to speak of the "Copernican Paradox": the fact that the spinning Earth hurtles around the sun (rather than vice versa) and we don't much notice. But even if I can work up a certain degree of wonder at the thought of Earthly motion, it seems wrong to call it a surprising fact. So on this definition, apparently, things are only paradoxes for particular people (or in particular ages, relative to certain bodies of knowledge). Perhaps the "Twin Paradox" will one day go the way of the "Copernican Paradox" and dissolve into familiarity. . . .

One might reject the definition on these grounds or accept it as a result. I'm not sure what stance is appropriate. In any case, it's probably too broad. Natural wonders — the Grand Canyon, for example — can seem permanently surprising too. But surely they're not paradoxes!

More tries later. . . .

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