“Stop! You’re both right! New Sparkles is a floor wax and a dessert topping!” — Saturday Night Live, Season 1
Before I go on, a brief word from our sponsor concerning the word “contradiction.” The most common colloquial use of the word refers to intellectual dispute. That is, “Light behaves as a wave.” “No, I must contradict you: light behaves as a particle.” Some use (or seem to use) the word as if it were equal to paradox or impossibility–that is, as something that can exist in the human mind, but not in nature.
What it means, in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, is something that is at once itself and its opposite.
Nature abounds with these. Mechanical materialists are profoundly disturbed at the notion that there can be contradiction in nature, and twist themselves into pretzels finding ways the contradictions they see are not contradictory. (A favorite technique is to make a long explanation that boils down to, “because it exists in nature, it cannot be a contradiction. Therefore it is not a contradiction. Therefore your argument that nature is full of contradictions is without support.” St. Thomas would have been proud.) The thorough-going idealist, meanwhile, has no trouble with nature being contradictory, but sees it as contradictions imposed by the mind–his own or God’s, as the case may be.
I’ll add that certain schools of vulgar Marxism use the word as a club, much as a weak academic uses the word “subtext.” That is, as the end of a conversation where it ought to be the beginning. One points out to one of these fellows that he has said both that the working class must be broken from their reliance on the bourgeois parties and that it is important to support the Democratic Party in it’s fight for Gay marriage. This ingenious fellow might reply, “That’s the contradiction,” and stop. One thing contradictions do is resolve. If one is going to say, “That’s the contradiction” in answer to an argument, it must be followed with, “Here is the movement of forces which resolves that contradiction, this is why such an action is permissible, and here is the way forward it indicates.”
Contradictions certainly exist in society, and most people don’t have trouble with that. I can point out that Lincoln suspended parts of the constitution in order to save the constitution, and that isn’t a problem. I can point out that Bush and Obama are doing the same thing Lincoln did only for the opposite reason–to destroy the constitution–and people don’t have a problem with that. To me, this is very significant: Society is one thing, the natural world another. But society grew out of nothing except the natural world. That, in itself, is a contradiction. Discovering it’s resolutions is exactly what the social sciences are (or ought to be) about.
Contradictions do occur in nature, but not just any contradiction anywhere someone wishes it to be for convenience. Indeed, discovering the contradictions and how they resolve to create new contradictions is the very essence of the job of the scientist.
This brief interlude isn’t meant to be either exhaustive or convincing. I am, for now, only establishing a definition. We will come back to this in more detail, because it is vital for how we analyze everything from the freezing of water to the US policy of assassination. But for now, just keep in mind that I use contradiction to refer to something that is simultaneously itself and its opposite.
11 thoughts on “Anti-Dühring Part 8: Interlude on the word “Contradiction””
Which brings us to a quote I really did not ever expect to be able to use:
‘The counterpart to Marcuse’s Hegelianizing of Marx is a total neglect of Engels.’
MaCintyre, back in 1970…
I can’t imagine why you thought that quote would never be useful.
In math, but nowhere else, a contradiction works like this:
Start out with some statement, I’ll give it the name A.
And start out with some set of axioms.
You can prove that A is true.
You can also prove that A is false.
At that point you are pretty much done with that particular collection of axioms. If you can prove one thing both true or false, then you can prove everything else both true and false. Having one contradiction is like having one hole in your balloon. Once you have one contradiction, nobody wants to play with your axioms. They just are not interested.
Everywhere else, everything but mathematics, it doesn’t work that way. Math is the only place you can do logic that truly works, because it was designed so logic would work with it, and it isn’t about anything. Anywhere else, the concepts have a lot of looseness. They give. When you try to talk about the real world, you can’t be sure your concepts actually fit.
So if you argue “It’s a particle!” “No, it’s a wave!” then maybe it’s both. Or maybe it’s something else that’s kind of like both of them. They might not be as opposed as you thought they were.
When you get a contradiction it doesn’t mean you have to throw away at least one axiom. It does mean you need to redefine something. When you do that properly, you go from
A is true and also A is false to
B is true (and B is not the same as A, but it means what you used to mean when you said A is true, only better) and also
C is true (and C true is not the same as A false, but it means what you used to mean when you said A was false, only better).
I’m pretty sure this is what dialectics means about thesis-antithesis-synthesis. You start with a claim like “A is true”. But then you find out that A is also false, the antithesis. Then you find a way to redefine things so the contradiction goes away. B is true and also C is true. That’s the synthesis.
The way I see it, if you get a contradiction among your concepts, and you can fix it by changing your concepts, the contradiction was probably not actually in nature. It was in your description of nature and not in the real thing. It bothers me a little that Steven says this is a favorite argument of mechanical materialists and implies it is wrong.
Can I find an actual contradiction in nature? I can find one in electric circuits. You can design an electric circuit that has a sensor to tell whether the circuit is on. If the circuit is on, the sensor reports that to a switch which turns the circuit off. If the circuit is off, the sensor reports that and the switch then turns the circuit on. The result is that the circuit turns itself on and off as fast as it can.
There used to be a sort of toy, you turn it on and a hand comes out of the lid, slowly pulls the switch off, and then goes back into the box. If you had something like that with two hands, and one of them turns it on when it’s off while the other turns it off when it’s on….
Wasn’t there something about contradictions causing oscillations? Maybe this fits.
I felt I needed to do a bit more reading regarding examples of contradictions in nature, and this is what I think I understand now:
A contradiction is:
A thing is (done) or isn’t (done);
An action / reaction;
In the process of a change, the total of what a thing was, is and will be.
But then I went back and re-read the original post and now I’m not so sure.
Elegance and precision are important because, uh, because they’re important.
Nicky, I think the language is loose because the same word can be used in a variety of useful contexts.
For example: These two ideas are incompatible but I want to believe both of them. (Find a way to change one or both of them or their component ideas so they stop being incompatible.)
This historical situation cannot continue indefinitely. (Expect it to change.)
My debate opponent’s stand argues against itself. (Try to persuade the audience to ignore him even if he says he will cut taxes, cut the deficit, and increase services — when his contradiction promises them what they want and cannot have.)
What they have in common is contradiction. A thing and its opposite, both somehow existing when there is not (or soon will not be) room for both.
That, at least, I can understand. What I’m still struggling with are examples of contradictions in nature. Though, I think that difficulty stems from a too narrow definition of nature. More often than not I think of nature as it relates to biology, probably because my understanding of complex sciences and mathematics is only rudimentary. If I try to understand it more broadly as ‘anything that exists materially around us’ then I think it gets easier for me to see contradictions. Though I certainly wouldn’t mind more examples, if anyone is willing to supply them.
Nicky: I was hoping to not get into this yet, but, hey, I brought it up. The easiest example is: it is a contradiction for an object to both be in a place and
not be in that place at the same time, or for an object to be in a place and somewhere else at the same time. But that is exactly what movement is–it is the constant creation and resolution of that contradiction.
Touch something. Say, your keyboard. The more you understand the cellular, molecular, atomic, and subatomic events happening when you do that, the more you realize that nothing is, in fact, in reality touching–that empty space is in contact with empty space. And yet, you are still touching it; you feel the sensation of touch, and if you are replying that my example is wrong, then you are even pressing the keys, making them change position. And still all that is in touch is the space between objects, not the objects. That is is a contradiction that we resolve and then recreate as we touch things; it seems not to be a problem in our day to day life.
Water can be liquid, solid, or gas; not more than one at the same time. Yet while the transition between two of those states is happening, that’s just what’s going on.
We’ll get into more of these later.
Here’s an example. Lots of places, pines can survive for awhile. Their seeds get distributed, and their seedlings grow, and they create a pine forest. But then hardwood seeds get distributed, and they grow into seedlings in the shade of the pines. When each pine tree dies it is replaced by hardwoods. PIne trees make enough shade to slow down their own seedlings, but they don’t make enough shade to stop the hardwood seedlings. So they put themselves at a disadvantage. There are places they can grow that the hardwoods can’t grow, and they can try to expand from those safe enclaves.
Some pines have a method to dominate places they normally could not. They drop lots of needles and “duff”. This makes acid soil that some of their competitors do poorly in. And then some dry year, they have a big fire. The duff burns hot. The pine trees burn hotter. Everything is killed, leaving black ash. But some of the pine seeds are protected, and they grow fast in this environment. The hardwood seedlings that would otherwise outcompete them have been destroyed. So the pines survive another generation. They survive another generation each time they manage to create a fire that kills them all.
Various other plants do that. Eucalyptus. Chaparral. It’s a strategy that works better when there’s at least an occasional drought.
It seems like a contradiction. Set fire to every living growing thing and kill them all: Maintain a successful ecosystem.
But it works for them.
Ah, thank you both for the easily understood examples. And sorry for making you jump ahead. I figured if a word was important enough to need its own post, I ought to understand it as best I could.
G.K. Chesterton – very far from being a Marxist, but always worth reading – argued that the world is full of paradoxes, and I can’t really disagree with him. Our very existence, so obviously the sum of our material parts and yet so obviously transcending them, reminds me every day that he had a point. But that doesn’t mean rejecting reason in analysing the world. The scientific method begins with observation of reality, not with an attempt to make reality fit into pre-existing categories.
It’s quite possible there’s a deeper truth underneath what seems to be a contradiction or a paradox. As J Thomas pointed out above, light may be neither a particle nor a wave, but something we do not currently understand at all which can be expressed as a particle or a wave. The contradiction may be the symptom of our own limited understanding – or it may be a feature of the universe we live in. We’ll never find out if we cling to simplistic explanations just because they make us feel safe.