Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom: The Epimenides Paradox

The liar’s paradox, as it is often called, is a fitting subject for our time. For those not familiar with the paradox, it was introduced to me by the historian Gordon Prange when I was a young Navy enlisted man attending the University of Maryland. He introduced the paradox to me as a comedic rejoinder to the charge of a certain bias in history that he considered to be without merit. He stated it this way: “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans are liars.”

The origin of this form of the liar’s paradox has many roots. It is discussed as a philosophical conundrum by Aristotle in ancient Greece as well as by Cicero in Rome. A version of it appears in the Christian New Testament and it was a source of study in Europe during the Middle Ages.

When I have introduced the paradox in a social setting and asked for a resolution to it by the uninitiated, usually a long conversation ensues. The usual approach is as a bi-polar proposition, accepting certain assumptions from the construction of the sentence, that is, if the Cretan is lying then all Cretans tell the truth which cannot be the case, but if the Cretan is telling the truth then he is lying, but he could not be telling the truth since all Cretans lie…and the circular contradiction goes on ad infinitum.

But there is a solution to the paradox and what it requires is thinking about the Cretan and breaking free of bi-polar thinking, which we often call, colloquially, “thinking in black and white.”

The solution.

The assumption in the paradox is that the Cretan in question can speak for all Cretans. This assumption could be false. Thus not all Cretans are liars and, thus, the Cretan in question is making a false statement. Furthermore, the Cretan making the assertion is not necessarily a liar–the individual could just be mistaken. We can test the “truthiness” of what the Cretan has said by testing other Cretans on a number of topics and seeing if they are simply ignorant, uninformed, or truly liars on all things.

Furthermore, there is a difference between something being a lie and a not-lie. Baked into our thinking by absolutist philosophies, ideologies, and religions is black and white thinking that clouds our judgement. A lie must have intent and be directed to misinform, misdirect, or to cloud a discussion. There are all kinds of lies and many forms of not-lies. Thus, the opposite of “all Cretans are liars” is not that “all Cretans are honest” but that “some Cretans are honest and some are not.”

If we only assume the original conclusion as being true, then this is truly a paradox, but it is not. If we show that Cretans do not lie all of the time then we are not required to reach the high bar that “all Cretans are honest”, simply that the Cretan making the assertion has made a false statement or is, instead, the liar.

In sum, our solution in avoiding falling into the thinking of the faulty or dishonest Cretan is not to accept the premises as they have been presented to us, but to use our ability to reason out the premises and to look at the world as it is as a “reality check.” The paradox is not truly a paradox, and the assertion is false.

(Note that I have explained this resolution without going into the philosophical details of the original syllogism, the mathematics, and an inquiry on the detailed assumptions. For a fuller discussion of liar’s paradoxes I recommend this link.)

Why Care About the Paradox?

We see versions of the paradox used all of the time. This includes the use of ad hominem attacks on people, that is, charges of guilt by association with an idea, a place, an ethnic group, or another person. “Person X is a liar (or his/her actions are suspect or cannot be trusted) because they adhere to Y idea, group, or place.” Oftentimes these attacks are joined with insulting or demeaning catchphrases and (especially racial or ethnic) slurs.

What we attribute to partisanship or prejudice or bias often uses this underlying type of thinking. It is a simplification born of ignorance and all simplifications are a form of evil in the world. This assertion was best articulated by Albert Camus in his book The Plague.

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Our own times are not much different in its challenges than what Camus faced during the rise of fascism in Europe, for fascism’s offspring have given rise to a new generation that has insinuated itself into people’s minds.

Aside from my expertise in technology and the military arts and sciences, the bulk of my formal academic education is as an historian and political scientist. The world is currently in the grip of a plague that eschews education and Camus’ clear-sightedness in favor of materialism, ethnic hatred, nativisim, anti-intellectualism, and ideological propaganda.

History is replete with similar examples, both large and small, of this type of thinking which should teach us that this is an aspect of human character wired into our brains that requires eternal vigilance to guard against. Such examples as the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the French Revolution, the defense of slavery in the American Civil War and the subsequent terror of Jim Crow, 18th and 19th century imperialism, apartheid after the Boer War, the disaster of the First World War, the Russian Revolutions, the history of anti-Jewish pogroms and the Holocaust, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, Stalinism, McCarthyism in the United States, Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution, Castro’s Cuba, Pinochet’s Chile, the Pathet Lao, the current violence and intolerance borne of religious fundamentalism–and the list can go on–teaches us that our only salvation and survival as a species lies in our ability to overcome ignorance and self-delusion.

We come upon more pedestrian examples of this thinking all of the time. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness, “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”

We must perform this vigilance first on ourselves–and it is a painful process because it shatters the self-image that is necessary for us to continue from day-to-day: that narrative thread that connects the events of our existence and that guides our actions as best and in as limited ways that they can be guided, without falling into the abyss of nihilism. Only knowledge, and the attendant realization of the necessary components of human love, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, and community–that is understanding–the essential connections that make us human–can overcome the darkness that constantly threatens to envelope us. But there is something more.

The birth of the United States was born on the premise that the practical experiences of history and its excesses could be guarded against and such “checks and balances” would be woven, first, into the thread of its structure, and then, into the thinking of its people. This is the ideal, and it need not be said that, given that it was a construction of flawed men, despite their best efforts at education and enlightenment compared to the broad ignorance of their time, these ideals for many continued to be only that. This ideal is known as the democratic ideal.

Semantics Matter

It is one that is under attack as well. We often hear the argument against it dressed up in academic clothing as being “only semantics” on the difference between a republic and a democracy. But as I have illustrated  regarding the Epimenides Paradox, semantics matter.

For the democratic ideal is about self-government, which was a revolutionary concept in the 18th century and remains one today, which is why it has been and continues to be under attack by authoritarians, oligarchs, dictators, and factions pushing their version of the truth as they define it. But it goes further than than a mechanical process of government.

The best articulation of democracy in its American incarnation probably was written by the philosopher and educator John Dewey in his essay On Democracy. Democracy, says Dewey, is more than a special political form: it is a way of life, social and individual, that allows for the participation of every mature human being in forming the values that regulate society toward the twin goals of ensuring the general social welfare and full development of human beings as individuals.

While what we call intelligence be distributed in unequal amounts, it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all. Every authoritarian scheme, on the contrary, assumes that its value may be assessed by some prior principle, if not of family and birth or race and color or possession of material wealth, then by the position and rank a person occupies in the existing social scheme. The democratic faith in equality is the faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions, not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatever.

In such a society there is no place for “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans lie.” For democracy to work, however, requires not only vigilance but a dedication to education that is further dedicated to finding knowledge, however inconvenient or unpopular that knowledge may turn out to be. The danger has always been in lying to ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be seduced by good liars.

Note: This post has been updated for grammar and for purposes of clarity from the original.