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  • Brooks Applegate

The Problem of Paradox

Certain modes of thought dominate the West that many remain unaware of or simply accept as self-evident and a priori. These functions of thought date back to the Pre-Socratics, specifically, Parmenides. Parmenides is attributed with penning something akin to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, from here on labeled PSR. But it was the philosophers Leibniz and Spinoza that formalized and systematized it. The PSR states that everything must have a reason or a cause, ex nihilo nihil fit, nothing comes from nothing. The PSR has a cousin that is equally influential the Principle of Noncontradiction, from here on labeled the PNC. Aristotle formulated the PNC as part of his metaphysics and claims that without it we would know nothing. Observation itself relies on our ability to say that this is not that. These principles have served humanity throughout history to great benefit. Like many things though, the PNC and PSR are over-utilized and lack in certain arenas, namely paradoxes. New tools are needed to lessen human suffering.

Paradoxes, for some, are a source of anxiety and frustration. Paradox is a dirty word tinged with a negative connotation. When something is wrong it is oftentimes paradoxical and tools like the PSR and PNC help to point them out. I would argue however that paradox and contradiction are inherent to life and is a factor in what it means to be human. For example, why do sworn protectors kill those they are meant to protect? Why do leaders fail to help the people that they claim to represent? Why do we destroy the very planet that keeps us alive? These are paradoxes, or, at the very least, contradictions. How then do we embrace the inherent contradiction of life?

But Koans might be able to help. A Koan is a tool utilized by Zen Buddhists of the “Rinzai school” that employs small aphorisms and cryptic phrases and stories in order to promote Buddhist teachings. These teachings include non-dualistic thinking, self-understanding and ego-consciousness, mindfulness, and an anti-philosophy. There are over 1700 Koans and with sub-questions stemming from these koans there are over 3000. Here is an example of a Koan.

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.

One said, “The flag moves.”

The other said, “The wind moves.”

They argued back and forth but could not agree.

Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”

The two monks were struck with awe.

I picked this specific example because of its reliance on observation and because it centers on the principle of non-dualistic thinking. Observation is the power to recognize that a thing is either this or that. Either the flag is moving, or the wind is moving. Someone might say that this is a false dichotomy, obviously, it’s both. The wind moves and pushes the flag moving it as well. That’s fine, but what moves the wind? Remember, nothing comes from nothing, everything has a cause. A reasonable retort might be a weather system, geothermal vents, the movement of tides, etc. Again, all fine answers but then how then did those things originate? And so it follows the problem of infinite regress (The Second Mode of Agrippa). With the problem of infinite regress, we can never arrive at the first cause of something. Thus neither of the two monks seems to have a clear answer but neither do answers derived from the PNC and PSR. Let’s analyze the third monk answer.

The “mind” is what moves sounds very reminiscent of Descartes Cogito argument, the “I think, thus I am” argument. The monks are simply witnessing the movement of their two chosen stimuli (the flag and wind) through the purview and functions of the mind. The third monk sounds like a pure idealist. In other words, everything is merely a function of my mind. This though inherently implies a consciousness, a detached ego, or I separate from the rest of the world or the movements of my mind. If they were together the world would be an incoherent mess of stimuli. Thus the mind, the ego, or the I exist separate from the rest of the world. The problem of infinite regress still stands in the way. What created the mind and so on and so on, turtles all the way down.

While my analysis might frustrate and sound ridiculous it illustrates and promotes the idea of non-dualistic thinking of Zen-Buddhism. Both of the first monks arrived at a solution to their query and then cemented their position against that of the opposing monks. The monks were stuck in this back and forth until the third monk arrived which allowed them to recognize not that their minds were moving everything but that their own egos had denied them access to the whole of understanding and the recognition of the pointlessness of their debate. By driving their thinking further from their egos and static, either/or thinking, the monks are reluctant to consider the others' observations.

So, what then? Knowledge is impossible. The world is crap. And we’ll never know if a flag is moving or the wind or both. No, the Koan above simply defies the principles of the PNC and PSR. It's contradictory and paradoxical, like life. But this doesn’t mean that anyone should remain in a state of inaction. There are real material and historical concerns in the world. What the koan practices teach is that dualistic thinking leads to suffering and pointless conflict. Dualistic thinking is at the heart of many conflicts and sources of anxiety. And what I believe Koans help identify is to embrace rather than shun paradox. The world is full of paradoxes no matter how much we reason, so don’t let it lead you to inaction and anxiety. I’d like to leave you with one more Koan to think about and embrace.

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

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