Ancient Greek philosophers loved a good paradox. Some of the most famous paradoxes were developed by Zeno of Elia, who lived in the 4th century BCE. Unfortunately, Zeno’s book of paradoxes was lost and we only know about them secondhand from Aristotle and his commentators, such as Simplicius. His most famous paradoxes focus on motion, namely, Achilles and the Tortoise and Arrow. However, our discussion today is about one overlooked writer of paradoxes — Eubulides of Miletus, one of Zeno’s contemporaries. While Zeno developed dozens of paradoxes, Eubulides came up with only seven. The most famous of them is the Liar Paradox (or Liar’s Paradox); Eubulides asked, “A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?” Here is the conundrum: is what the man says true or false? If it is true, it is false; and if it is false, it is true. So it is both true and false. WTF?
Graham Priest, a professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne and author of Logic: A Very Short Introduction, discusses how these paradoxes tied up philosophers in knots: “The paradox and its variations were discussed by Ancient philosophers, and have been subject to much discussion in both Medieval and modern logic. Indeed, those who have engaged with them in the 20th Century reads rather like a roll call of famous logicians of that period. But despite this attention, there is still no consensus as to how to solve such paradoxes. Solutions are legion; but the only thing that is generally agreed upon, is that all of them are problematic.” Two philosophers wrote extensively about the Liar Paradox: Theophrastus, a successor to Aristotle wrote three papyrus rolls, while Chrysippus, a Stoic philosopher, wrote six. Sadly, like’s Zeno’s book, these manuscripts are lost. In fact, one scholar died trying to solve the paradox — Philitas of Cos, the first major Greek writer who was both a poet and scholar, died of insomnia. His epitaph reads: “Philitas of Cos am I / ‘Twas the Liar who made me die / And the bad nights caused thereby.”
This begs the question: why should we give a shit? That is to say, more politely, why have philosophers wrestled with this question for centuries? Why does this matter now? All good questions. Meet Philosophy Professor Bradley Dowden, CSU, Sacramento and a contributor to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy who believes that the Liar Paradox is a serious problem: “To put the Liar Paradox in perspective, it is essential to appreciate why such an apparently trivial problem is a deep problem. Solving the Liar Paradox is part of the larger project of understanding truth. Understanding truth is a difficult project that involves finding a theory of truth, or a definition of truth, or a proper analysis of the concept of truth.” Thus, at the heart of the paradox is man’s age-old quest for Truth.
Eubulides would be delighted to know that the Liar Paradox is alive and well in the modern Google Era. If you read or listen to the news each day you know what I mean. Take the President of the United States (please!). Many historians, journalists, and pundits recognize that President Trump has some difficulty discerning the truth. As former FBI Director James Comey wrote in his recently published book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, “We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country,” Comey writes, “with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded.” And according to The Washington Post, that has staff dedicated to tracking the President’s lies, Trump has made 1,318 false or misleading claims in just 263 days: “This tendency of Trump is all too familiar to The Fact Checker. He is quick to make claims full of superlatives — the greatest this and the most beautiful that — with little to no empirical evidence to support them… The Fact Checker has completed two-thirds of our year-long project analyzing, categorizing and tracking every false or misleading claim by Trump, as well as his flip-flops. As of our latest update Oct. 10, 2017, or his 264th day in office, the president has made 1,318 claims over 263 days. He has averaged five claims a day, even picking up pace since the six-month mark.” John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine a former presidential speechwriter, expresses it more directly, “Trump’s career has demonstrated that he lies without consequence.” And herein lies the rub: each week when Trump is confronted with the lies, this is his response: “President Trump states that the story on X is fake news.” Is it true, is it false, is it true and false? Like, Philitas of Cos, Americans are inextricably trapped in the Liar Paradox, struggling with heightened anxiety and insomnia.
Certainly, as Zeno and Eubulides have shown us, the search for truth is critically important — especially in a democracy — and worthy of attention and discussion. In his essay on Truth, Michael Glanzberg notes: “Truth is one of the central subjects in philosophy. It is also one of the largest. Truth has been a topic of discussion in its own right for thousands of years.” Unfortunately, in the topsy-turvy Trumpian world, one has to carefully traverse the minefield of Liar Paradoxes on a daily basis to arrive at the truth.
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For further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/paradox-zeno/
Real Time with Bill Maher, April 27, 2018