Sharing Paradoxes: Impossible Spaces, Impossible Times and Impossible Facts. The Function of Self-Contradictory Structures in Arts, Sciences and Philosophy. (Part 4)

A first step in dealing with paradoxes is then to accept their double existence as being true and false. Outside academic studies, it is a natural process implied in the appreciation of any narrative art. As it has been described about cinema, there is a point where we accept the false to be true, as if trying to find a proof reducto ad absurdum. This process is called the suspension of disbelief (Walton, 7). Proposed first by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it has extended in the study of literature, cinema and videogames to name a few. This refers to any action where the false is taken as possibly true in order to appreciate a narration and facilitate the immersion process. Youssef Ishaghpour describes the duality implied as the reality of the image and the image of reality (Ishaghpour, 8-11). The suspension of disbelief is therefore a way to conciliate this duality in order to appreciate the fiction.

The difference when working in a fictional environment rather than in a scientific one is that every time a contradiction or unearthly events appears, it is usually taken as an extension of the perceived diegetic world: when the staircase optical illusion appears in Inception, it is accepted as part of the fictional world. Instead of defying physical rules, it is simply accepted as a new information contained within the fiction. Again, as in Kierkegaard or Bohr’s vision, it is an extension of the paradigm. The same happens for multiple worlds’ diegetic construction such as previously mentioned in movies like ExistenZ or Avalon. The multiple ontological world, very similar in their nature to the Russell’s paradox are accepted as such. The suspension of disbelief catalyses the conceptual acceptation of such constructions and even changes them into interesting and pleasing artistic visions.

Cat'.s Paradox

Figure 7: The cat’s Paradox. Source: Wikipedia

The use of paradoxical constructions taken from science does not end here. Another case comes from quantic physic. Erwin Schrödinger described the nature of some quantic events by the metaphor of a cat in a box. Let say there is a cat and some poison inside a box. There is as well a 50% chances for the poison to be relieved and therefore for the cat to die. The way quantic physics works is that as long as the information about the cat has not been extract from the situation, the cat is in both states: alive and dead. Both states excludes each other and therefore it leads to a paradox that of ‘’ the living and the dead cat mixed or smeared out in equal parts.’’ (Schrödinger) What modern physics proposes as a solution the acceptation of both state for a certain period of time. This process is known as quantic bifurcation. Even if this is very difficult to accept as being true for neophytes, when transferred to fiction it leads to acceptable and interesting narrative constructions. An example of a movie using this type of multi-linear time frame is Source Code by Duncan Jones. In this movie, a soldier is sent multiple times in the past to prevent a terrorist attack. After failing multiple times, he achieves his goal and life continue normally in this new independent timeline. The use of quantic bifurcation appears in multiple science-fiction movies and communities of fans are sketching schemas to understand the structure behind the film. Movies like Primer by Shane Carruth and Looper by Rian Johnson have generate numbers of complicated charts using quantic bifurcation in order to explain these narrations. (Figure 8)


Figure 8: Looper movie chart by Rick Slusher. Source:

Another paradoxical time construction that has caused many problems is the time loop. Circular construction of time was accepted by many cultures around the world: Egyptians had circular time named Neheh (Assman, 137), the tzolkin, the Mayan calendar based on cycles of 260 days (Falcón, 19-21) and Hinduism has constructions of multiple intricate circles (Eliade, 134-136). This vision does not conciliate with the European linear construction of time, but it still easily apply to fiction.

Time being both in the future and the past appears in various fictional cases. First of all, whenever there is a time loop a cyclic time has to be accepted. Movies like Terminator (Cameron, 1984), Before the Rain (Manchevsky, 1994) or Chin Chin el Teporocho (Retes, 1976) all present this cyclic time construction. Indeed, time loops can be multiple and quantic bifurcation might again apply.

In the quantic bifurcation case as in the circular time construction, the paradoxical construction induces multivalued time states, discrete moment can be different but at a same time distance from a specific moment, the bifurcation point or those previous, or they can stand both in the future and in the past of a referential moment. It can also be seen as a specific case of multiple ontological states, as previously described, but with the specificity that the ontological state is defined by a time value.

It can be presented in a more mystic way as in the movie Voyage in Time by Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra. In this case, the movie shows the directors talking about the film they will make about a trip they once had. The anecdotes supposedly in the past appears as well in front of the camera and therefore the time of the movie is triple, it stands for the past, the present and the future as in Three Sundays in a week, but without the logical explanation.

Perhaps the most well-known results about paradoxes is Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. After Cantor and Russell discoveries, logicians have tried to build a perfect and complete system for logic. The project happened to be more problematic than expected and new set of axioms surfaced. The outstanding result obtained by the mathematician Kurt Gödel changed radically the conception of logic and left the community in crisis. The incompleteness theorem states that no matter how many axioms we add to a logic system, there will always appear some statements that will be undecidable, meaning it will be impossible to prove them right or wrong (Nagel, 19-20). This is a perfect example of Paz’s perspective of grasping dual objects as such instead of considering them as problematic undefined concepts to reach a better understanding of it. In this case, the conclusion obtained by paradox is that paradoxes are inherent part of complex logical systems.

Paz’s consideration encompasses a big range of logical instance and, as seen previously, they apply to a wide variety of paradoxical objects: from optical illusions to narrative charts passing through quantum physics. It still does not hold for a type of undecidable statements. Some facts are not necessarily true or false; they stand somewhere in between as a result of incomplete definitions. They work as ambigrams but instead of offering mainly a finite amount of elements, they offer a continuous range of possible information. Such problems are common in everyday life since more situations are not clearly defined. For instance, we can pretend the sky is blue but it can’t be proven without adding precisions to the statement offered; at night the statement does not hold for instance. A relatively new branch of mathematics dedicates itself to such logical system. The idea behind this fuzzy logic, as it is coined, is to attribute truth values that varies continuously between the usual zero and one (Kandell). Therefore allowing any probability of truth ranging from zero to 100%. Such logical system coincides with perspective of quantum physics allowing diverse states with various probabilities. It is the case for instance for electrons in the atomic model were they navigate through a probabilistic area instead of following a precise trajectory.

Finally, paradoxes can appear within humoristic or philosophical functions. The twist are often used in usually called intellectual humour such as Woody Allen’s work. In Allen’s quote from Annie Hall ‘’ The food here is terrible and the portions are too small’’, the double statement stands in the contradiction that, in fact, if the food is terrible there is no reason to ask for more, but complaining about small portions implies asking for more food. This kind of construction can be found as well in Annie Hall: ‘’ Life is full of mystery, loneliness, and suffering –and it’s all over much too soon’’. The role of the paradox is then, in this case, to release a tension constructed around the paradoxical statement. In this situation, the contradiction, or double truth value, stands as a sign that the joke has reached its climax. The contradictory aspect of the logic involves is to be read as a sign to character does not make sense anymore, therefore the humoristic relief. The humour can follow as a comment on a paradox: way before Russell, Lewis Carroll underlines that no one can contain himself because of excitement because nothing can contain itself (Benayoun, 84). These considerations follow the seriousness of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of logic as the art of thinking within human capacities (Benayoun, 113), the presence of this limit is in itself both humoristic and a relief.

Paradox Humour

Figure 9: Paradox humour

In a broader perspective, the same applies to koans, small stories or statement present in the zen tradition. The sentences serve to increase doubt and questioning. The simple logic behind the koan ‘’What is the sound of one hand clapping’’ is similar; it states the possibility and impossibility of the referred sound. Possible since it is stated there is a clap sound and the impossibility by the uniqueness of the hand producing it. In this case, the paradoxical information serves again to release tension. The same holds for the koan: If you have a stick, I’ll give one to you, if you don’t I’ll steal it from you. The tension is released with acceptation to work outside a strict logical frame, to accept our humanity as proposed by Bierce.

This work outside logic may serve as well, paradoxically, for theological arguments. To understand we have to go back to the unliftable rock paradox. God, being almighty, should be able to create an unliftable rock, but then if he can lift the rock he is not almighty. An easy solution to this problem is to state that God’s work beyond human based logic.

As we have shown, the contradictory dialectic raising from paradoxes only cause problem within its own paradigm of binary logical values as being true or false. When grasped as specific concepts gathering both values, or, even infinitely many values ranging from absolutely true to absolutely false, many applications can be found. Accepting such condition standing in between these poles is what allows us to enjoy narratives in different ways; first to enhance the emotive effect of a diegetic world by accepting the ontological quality of fiction as being an image of reality that is itself included in and presented as a simulacra of reality, secondly as to define science fiction or fantastic narratives as legitimate by extending the accepted diegetic world. Logical statements sharing both truth and false value are integral parts of human scientific and cultural knowledge[1]. It is hoped that more research to consider paradoxes in their social appearances will be provided as to understand better their functions as a fundamental part of human thinking rather than solely as odd mythological thoughts gravitating in the abstract spheres of philosophy and logic.

Felix Lambert

First version September 2015

[1] As it is the case in Dialetheism. For a good review of this as a philosophe, the reader is invited to read the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Francesco Berto.



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