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Paradoxes, Not Contradictions – Post by G. Stolyarov II

Paradoxes, Not Contradictions – Post by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
September 10, 2013

I am personally fond of Ayn Rand’s identification of certain matters as “paradoxes, but not contradictions”. In my view, contradictions do not exist in reality, though there may be elements that are difficult to reconcile mentally because of incomplete information or preliminary errors in one’s perception of existence.

A paradox arises when a person’s initial intuitions do not appear to hold. This means that either the initial intuitions are wrong, or one’s information is incomplete. For instance, the famous “water-diamond paradox” of Classical economics was an inability to explain why the price of water, which is essential for life, was so much lower than the price of diamonds, which, at the time, only had uses in jewelry and decoration. The 1871 Marginalist Revolution (a development independently arrived at by Carl Menger, Leon Walras, and William Stanley Jevons) resolved the paradox by explaining a key fact about human valuation that the Classical economists had missed – namely, that a person does not evaluate the entire stock of a given good, but only considers particular quantities of goods at the margin. So the paradox was resolved in an entirely rational, non-contradictory manner, by demonstrating that the abundance of water has enabled its life-sustaining uses to be fulfilled for most individuals, while the relative scarcity of diamonds means that, for most consumers, any diamond they obtain would be put to the highest-valued purpose they would find for a diamond.

I see the progress of human civilization as, in part, consisting of the increasing resolution of paradoxes. While, of course, it is possible that new paradoxes would arise as the old ones are resolved, these paradoxes arise on the boundaries of the new intellectual territory that is yet to be fathomed and incorporated into the domain of human mastery. Paradoxes, mysteries, and unresolved questions occur on the outermost edges of human advancement at any given time. As the edges expand, old mysteries and paradoxes are solved and new ones may arise in territory that was previously completely unexplored. In this sense, encountering a paradox can be seen as a challenge – a call to resolve the quandary and thereby score gains for human progress. As a meliorist who sees no limits to the potential of human reason and technology, I think that all questions are ultimately answerable and all paradoxes are solvable, given enough time, effort, and proper means. Sometimes the resolution of a paradox requires highly creative, unorthodox, and unprecedented thinking – which must transcend conventional dichotomies and posited antagonisms in order to arrive at a new understanding.