Paradoxes have been used since the beginning of systematic philosophy (Zeno’s paradox, for example) to signal problems where earlier generations might have seen none. The mark of an authentic paradox is the presence of two or more sources of intuition that seem obviously true on the one hand and collectively incompatible on the other. A careful look at paradoxes often prompts developments in science or mathematics — Zeno’s paradox was addressed by the development of infinite series and the notions of limits and convergence.

More recently, I have been looking at paradoxes that arise from vagueness, such as the sorities paradox. Many terms in natural languages are vague, such as TALL. When is a person tall? A tall Pygmy is probably a short Swede, so clearly tallness depends on the context. But context by itself is not enough to remove vagueness, because we can well imagine that there are people who are borderline cases of tall, whether in the Republic of Congo or Sweden. Of course, one could stipulate a criterion for tallness, such as being “one standard deviation higher than the average for the human population under study”. While this drastic measure might solve the problem by fiat, it certainly doesnt do anything to remove our original intuition that tallness is vague. Interestingly enough while TALL is vague, TALLER is not — its pretty easy to figure out when someone is taller than another person. Its these vagaries of language and concepts that drive cognitive scientists and philosophers of language out of their minds.

Not that vagueness and paradox are purely analytic puzzles; they are deeply embedded in our existential attitudes as well. To give a prominent example — it is most obvious to us that we exist, for to doubt our own existence is to use the very thing that’s the object of doubt. At the same time we also know that we are impermanent, fated to die, ceasing to be. How did that ever happen? How can this rock solid sense of existence fade away into non-existence? Indian thinkers have famously solved this problem by postulating future lives, while Christians believe in an afterlife. In psychology and philosophy, afterlives and future lives have often been seen as responses to the fear of death. Perhaps so, but the problem is not just one of fear and self-preservation, it is also an epistemological and metaphysical problem — how does being transform into non-being? It’s this profound existential-epistemological perplexity that drives the Vedic seer to say (in the Nasadiya Sukta):

At first was neither Being nor Nonbeing.
There was not air nor yet sky beyond.
What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?
Was Water there, unfathomable and deep?

Similarly, its fruitful to read the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of suffering as a quest to solve an existential paradox: the Buddhist path meanders along the grounds of a knowing that bridges being and non-being. Much better, in my opinion, than the watered down psychological palliatives that are being taught in the name of “modern” Buddhism.