As kids, we believed lots of different things, from thinking that the gifts under the Christmas tree were kept there by Santa, to imagining a tiny fairy came in at the dead of the night to steal the loose tooth from underneath our pillows.
Most of the things we believed in as kids are magical, information pieced together by stories that we’ve been told by adults, or things we watched on TV. One of those things some of us watched on TV and believed in was Barney. That’s right, that purple dinosaur.
Barney’s theme song, while nonsensical, offers us a rather interesting paradox. The song goes Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination. Barney shows us lots of things like how to play pretend. Which begs the question, if Barney was the one who taught us how to play pretend, then how did we imagine him to be in the first place?
It’s the classic causal loop, where an event in the future, creates an event in the past, which creates the event in the future, and so you’re left without a point of origin.
Paradoxes are all around us. From the shows we grew up watching as kids, to the songs that were stuck in our heads throughout middle school.
You know that song by One Direction that goes, “you don’t know that you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful.” Just think about it for a moment, for her to not know that she was beautiful, she had to have been beautiful in the first place, which means that that couldn’t have been what made her beautiful.
As if that wasn’t enough, the song is all about telling the girl that she is beautiful. So does that mean then that when the song is over, the girl stops being beautiful? Because now that she knows that she is beautiful, shouldn’t that make her no longer beautiful? But if she stops believing she’s beautiful, doesn’t that then make her beautiful again? It’s a weird thing in that the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.
Relationships are also weird. Two random people meet each other and decide that they want to spend all or at least most of their time together. You’re asking each other silly paradoxical questions like, “if a person who can read minds and a person who can predict the future fight each other, who would win?”
Soon after, you’re both in bed on a cold windy night, sharing secrets you said you’d never tell anyone. You’re lying down there with your partner in a windowless room and then it begins to rain. You don’t have any idea of what the weather outside is like, you have no weather app or anything like that, and so when your friend walks in and tells you it’s raining outside, you don’t believe them.
In that scenario, your friend can say about you, “it’s raining, but John doesn’t believe it” and it would be perfectly acceptable. So why is it that if you say the same thing, “it’s raining, but I don’t believe it is” everyone in the room might think you’ve just lost your mind?
Why is the second question absurd and not the first? Why is it absurd for us to say something that is true about ourselves?
Speaking of truth, what do you think would happen to Pinnochio if he said the words, “my nose will grow now.” If Pinnochio’s nose grows, then that means he was telling the truth, so his nose shouldn’t have grown. But if his nose does not grow, then he just told a lie, and so his nose should grow.
Some people do not consider this to be a paradox. The argument is that Pinnochio’s nose would not grow because he did not lie, he simply made a false prediction. But hey, where’s the fun in that?
A lot of the times we say things that make sense to us on the surface. However, on closer inspection, you quickly realize that things are not as they seem.
Let’s say you go out and buy a lottery ticket knowing fully well that your chances of winning are 10 million to one. It would be perfectly normal for you to conclude that you did not get the winning ticket. In fact, it would be considered a bit crazy for you to think that your ticket won.
You’ll also be justified in thinking that your friend, your uncle, his sister, their cousin, and their dog, all have losing tickets. You look around you in the store and you’ll be justified for thinking everyone who has just bought a ticket will lose. You are justified in believing that everyone you encounter will lose, and in turn that no ticket will win.
However, knowing fully well that the lottery was fair and that there must be one winner, you are justified in believing something you know to be false. Just, how?
This only goes to show that truth is relative. It depends on context, on knowledge, and perspective about the world. Because the truth is that the only thing you can prove with certainty is that nothing is certain.
I watched a couple fighting outside a Starbucks the other day. The woman turned to the man who was with her and in a slightly raised voice she said, “deep down, you’re really shallow.” And while the rest of the coffee shop pretended that they didn’t just hear that, I had to pause to think about it for a moment.
If he had a deep down, then how can he be shallow? But I bet that’s not what was in his mind, or was it? For all we know, he was probably thinking of shallower thoughts, deep down in his heart.
For a relationship to succeed, everyone in the relationship needs to trust one another. But this is real life, and sometimes people are insecure and sometimes it’s not their fault. Everything from anxiety to past traumatic experiences, the reality of the world forces us sometimes to be insecure.
This is why people often find it easier to talk to strangers about their deepest darkest secrets, than the ones they claim to trust. It is the paradox of trust. We claim to trust this person, yet we fear they would judge us for our secrets.
And on the flip side, we feel most comfortable telling people who we do not trust, the secrets that could damn us.
Not long before the couple finished their argument, the baristas in the coffee shop walked out to the little girl with her mom in the chair adjacent to me. They handed the little girl a tiny birthday cupcake and sang the happy birthday song to her.
As she closed her eyes to make a wish before blowing out her candles, I quickly glanced around the room and I thought to myself, “huh, what are the chances that someone else in here right now, also has their birthday today?” And like most rational people, I concluded that it was far too unlikely.
There were less than 30 people in the coffee shop that day, and there are 365 days in a year. So of course the chances that two random people would have the same birthday would be slim, right? Well, most people would say yes. But according to the birthday paradox, most people would be wrong. Because if there are 23 people in a room, there is a 50% chance that two of them share a birthday.
Now to fully understand this one, we’re going to need some math so permit me to do a little bit of probability analysis here. Let’s start small, with just two people. Let’s ignore leap years or twins or any patterns that suggest that babies are born more times at certain periods of the year than others, because those are just too confusing.
Okay, say you and I are in a room together, there’s a 365/365, or 100% chance, that I have a birthday, and a 365/365 x 364/365 chance that we both do not share the same birthday.
Now let’s say one other person joins us in this room, the probability that this new person does not have the same birthday as either of us becomes 365/365 x 364/365 x 363/365. And that multiplication just goes on and on for however many babies you want.
When you get to the 23rd baby, this incredibly long series of multiplication gives you the number .492, which is basically 49.2%. Now this is the probability that we do not share a birthday. To find out the probability that two random people in this coffee shop do share a birthday, we have to subtract that number from 100%, which gives us 50.7%.
If you don’t fully understand the math, honestly I barely did too, but it checks out, trust me.
While we’re on the subject of math, a teacher once walked into her class on Friday and announced that there would be a surprise test sometime next week.
As she left the class, the students began to murmur to each other about when they thought the test would happen. One clever student stood up and told his mates that the test couldn’t be given on Friday, because when Thursday comes around and they don’t have the test, then they will know that the test is on Friday. But it has to be a surprise test, so it cannot be Friday.
Because they already know it cannot be Friday, if by the end of Wednesday it doesn’t happen, then they’ll know it’s Thursday, so it cannot be Thursday either. The student continues his analysis for the rest of the week until Monday. And finally, he comes to the conclusion that the test cannot be given at all since they would know but the teacher said it would be a surprise.
So when the teacher walks in on Wednesday and hands them their test sheets, the students are all surprised. How could this have happened, they all ask themselves puzzled?
We are living in unprecedented times. With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the whole world is currently sitting on a live grenade. One wrong move from any of the world powers and we could very well find ourselves in the middle of another World War.
It’s in times like this that you just pause and think about the paradoxes in the way our society operates. We claim to be free, but there is no freedom without law and order. And as the Latin saying goes, “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” which, despite my poor pronunciation, translates to “if you want peace, prepare for war.” It’s a strange thing to think about, and even a stranger thing to be living through.
In World War II, pilots could only get out of combat duty if they were psychologically unfit to fly. However, anyone who tried to get out of combat duty proves he is sane. Today, we call this a Catch-22, after the satirical World War II novel written by Joseph Heller.
We see Catch-22’s everywhere in our world today. To get a job, you need work experience, but to get that work experience, you need to have had a job. We’ve all seen it, companies asking for 5 years of experience for entry level jobs.
Or coal miners who have only two options, to quit working and die of starvation, or to keep working and die of pollution. Most people pick the latter, because then they can at least say they tried their best.
The world is unfair. Some people are born into wealth, power, and privilege and never have to work a day in their lives. The rest are forced to struggle and slave away just to make ends meet.
Truly, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. On the surface, this statement might not seem logical. However, on close inspection it may prove to be well founded, and even true.
- EE, MM