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Living in the Age of Contradiction

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My first philosophy professor at the university, when it could still be plausibly described as a place of learning, was a deceptively brilliant man. Professor Henderson was prone to delivering a string of resonant tautologies as if permitting us a glimpse into the most solemn and abyssal mysteries of metaphysical speculation. I recall in particular one lecture in which, before a packed but comatose auditorium of resentful sophomores, he expounded on the great dictum of the pre-Socratic sage Parmenides: “Whatever is, is.” Those of us who were still awake had no idea how to react. Should we ask for an explication? Were we missing something? Were we too callow to fathom so profound an indubitably mystical utterance? Or, more cynically, if this was philosophy, was it a discipline we should consider pursuing? Whatever is, is?

I got to know Professor Henderson a little better in the latter years of the general arts curriculum and discovered a number of salient facts about him: he was a friend of Bertrand Russell, whom he called “Bertie,” was chauffeured to university in the back seat of a silver-and-green Bentley, like a contemporary Plato on a visit to the court of Dionysius of Syracuse, and always managed to suggest that the given was precisely that which was rarely understood, that the obvious was usually inscrutable to the lazy mind. Clearly, he was no rubicund eminence waiting to be pastured out into the land of memoirs and reminiscences, as many of his students tended to think, but an impressive scholar familiar with the arcana of his subject. Whatever is, indeed is. It is more than we assume and at the same time less than we typically dissemble. “We have great trouble,” he once said to me, “with the is. We are far more comfortable with the is not. Pity.”

Half a lifetime later, I find myself thinking back to Professor Henderson’s Parmenidean analysis of the world, not so much in a metaphysical but in a political and cultural framework. It seems far more pertinent to me now than it did when I was his often baffled student. We live in a very strange time, an age whose mindset is dominated by the spirit of contradiction and non sequitur, as if in a concerted assault on the Parmenidean apothegm and its expansion in Aristotle’s laws of thought as enunciated in the Metaphysics: namely, the laws of Identity, Non-contradiction and the Excluded Middle. It seems that we in the West have taken direct aim at these axioms, which govern coherent thinking and are clearly mutually implicated. The Law of Identity, a slightly exfoliated re-statement of the Parmenidean maxim, maintains that “everything is the same with itself and different from another”; that is, everything that exists has a specific nature and cannot be something other while retaining its particularity. The Law of Non-contradiction stipulates that “one cannot say of something that it is and is not in the same respect and at the same time.” The Law of the Excluded Middle states that “there cannot be an intermediate between contradictories, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate.”

Violation of these laws in the domains of experience and discourse cannot be explained away as a manifestation of fuzzy logic, as developed by AI researcher Lotfi Zadeh in the 1960s, who used the concept of “degrees of truth” to refine the laws of mathematics and their eventual application to computer technology. We use fuzzy logic in everyday life in those cases where judgment is inherently uncertain -- how fast is that car approaching? -- or playfully paradoxical -- is the glass half full or half empty? But in the sphere of determinate events -- the jetliners piloted by jihadists are flying toward the towers in order to kill as many people as possible -- logic can be fuzzified only at our peril. In other words, fuzzy logic is not the same thing as fuzzy thinking; the first is chiefly the purview of competent specialists in a scientific discipline (and individuals in intrinsically fluid situations), the latter is the staple of the liberal intelligentsia, post-modernists, post-colonialists and progressivist ideologues.