Is it possible to solve a question with no answer?
A man sits in an interrogation room, hands shackled, feet bound. A stern-faced officer with a large, bushy, mustache enters and sits across from the man.
“Were you responsible for the death of Zachary Hynes?”
The officer raises an eyebrow questioningly. “Are you lying to me?”
The man sighs and rubs his eyes wearily. “Actually, I am. The truth is that I am lying right at this very moment.”
The officer stops to think for a moment.
Then his brain implodes.
By claiming that he is lying, the man is not, in fact, lying. By definition, a liar would not admit to lying, since doing so would make them truthful. However, if the man is indeed honest, then he must be lying, since that is what he claims to be doing.
This scenario creates a paradox, defined as an inherently impossible situation. In the example above, the man makes a claim that cannot possibly be true under really any circumstances. With that being said, of course, it is. At any point, any given person can claim to be lying and create this paradox anew. It’s not as if the world explodes and everyone dies or anything absurd like that. Instead, everybody stops for a second, looks around for a bit and then leaves because nothing happened and they have better things to do. So, at least for the time being, most paradoxical scenarios are generally theoretical. This fact is even more apparent when we consider physical paradoxes. One of the most well known examples is commonly referred to as the grandfather paradox. Let’s create a scenario:
A man steps out of his time machine. He’s done it. He is the first human to ever travel into the past. He looks around, and, with the help of a convenient newspaper, he comes to the conclusion that he is now in 1982.
He couldn’t have chosen a better time.
A child walks past. The man recognizes the boy as his grandfather, but the child before him appears to be only about eight years of age. The perfect victim is one who can’t fight back. Before he can question the morality of his actions, the man forcefully shoves the child into the street, where a speeding vehicle slams into the boy, killing him instantly.
The man’s head explodes.
Then the entire planet implodes in on itself.
The grandfather paradox is generally well known due to how easy it is to understand. Most paradoxes are exceedingly convoluted, but this one is relatively straightforward due to one reason in particular: any individual human is genetically unique to every other human on the planet. Never again will any human be completely genetically identical to any other (with the exception of twins). Knowing this, the man’s grandfather is directly responsible for his own birth. Without the input of his genetic material through his parents, the man cannot exist. Therefore, by killing his grandfather as a child, he prevents his own birth, meaning he could not have been alive in order to commit the murder in the first place, meaning his grandfather should still be alive.
These implications are precisely why time travel is such a tedious topic. The potentially disastrous complications that arise with the theory of time travel would unravel the entire concept of time as a whole. Like a chain of dominoes, any minute change at any point in the past has the potential to snowball into something entirely different in an array of possible futures. With that being said, solutions have been proposed. For example, it can be argued that anything that could possibly affect the timeline already has. Essentially, every instance of time travel from every point in the future has already occurred. Say someone traveled back in time in an attempt to invent a telephone before it should exist. According to this theory, they must have either failed, or done something to contribute to the introduction of the phone indirectly in a fashion that we are unable to identify in modern society. Of course, there are a number of holes in this theory, such as why time travelers aren’t distinctly more common in ancient collections or early photographs. Even now we should, in theory, be experiencing an inflow of time travelers. But this is the fundamental issue with the concept of time travel: there is no perfect answer as to what it might entail, which leaves the question of if it’s even possible at all. Time travel is, in and of itself, a paradox that we still don’t have an answer to.
Paradoxes can be located in a number of different fashions. Some rely entirely on wordplay, and basic human thought, such as the paradox of the raven, which is described as such: all ravens are black. This implies that if something is a raven, then it must be black. This statement leads to the fact that if something is NOT black, it is not a raven either. Since an apple is red, it is not black and therefore is not a raven. Ultimately, confirming an apple as red supports the statement that ravens are black, despite the fact that the two observations are not even remotely connected. This paradox relies almost entirely on implication and the conversational abilities of humans as a species. The fact that ravens are black doesn’t necessarily mean that anything not black can’t be a raven (albino ravens do exist), but it does imply that that would be true. The paradox only functions properly if we assume that anything that isn’t black isn’t a raven, which is usually true, but not guaranteed. The paradox of the raven is, as are many others, more theoretical than not.
Let’s say a man had a boat named Mary Sue. He’d had her for years and years, and she was getting pretty old. The man decides to fix her up, but can only afford to restore one of her planks at a time. Each day, May Sue loses an old plank and gains a new one. By continuing this process, after a year Mary Sue is an entirely new boat… at least until she suddenly implodes.
Mary Sue represents the ship of Theseus. At its core, the question is this: if every component of an object is replaced, is that object still the same as it once was? This paradox functions mainly off of human attachment. Physically, the answer is relatively clear: once her boards have all been replaced, Mary Sue is no longer Mary Sue; she’s an entirely new boat. However, what made Mary Sue herself was never her planks, it was her owner. The man who named Mary Sue reserves the right to believe that a new boat is still the same as his old one. Even though the boat is physically different, the man’s perception of it is not, meaning, to him, the boat might as well be exactly the same, just with a fresh coat of paint. This is why the ship of Theseus raises such an interesting question. Does human attachment trump tangible change? Of course when something happens, it happens, and nothing can actually change that, but can the belief that nothing happened at all actually alter enough perspectives to essentially emulate a false reality of sorts? However, this entire situation brings in a whole lot of philosophy that I really don’t care to deal with, so I’ll refrain from talking about this any further.
Paradoxes are, at their core, questions without answers. They force a person to question what can actually happen and what that indicates for something else entirely. The reason they appeal to me as much as they do is because they raise more questions than they answer. Rather than seeking out solutions, I prefer hunting problems, and paradoxes are nothing if not mind-bending, confusing and unnecessarily convoluted. There isn’t, and probably never will be, a definitive answer for most paradoxes, which means that they exist eternally without a tangible form. But, at the end of the day, does any of this really matter? After all, I’ve been lying, haven’t I?