This is the 2nd installment of the Adventure of the Elected Man.
You can read the first installment here.
“Ah, yes what is a paradox”, said Spurgeon as he took a deep drag on his cigar and shifted in his chair settling himself in for the discussion, “defining that is certainly a good place to start”.
“A paradox”, Spurgeon explained, “is two things that are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. They are not actually contradictory because these two things are both true. For certainly two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. It is just the fault of our weak judgment and our folly that leads us to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. In this we have the makings of a paradox”.
Holmes, without opening his eyes, drew his legs up toward his chest, then asked, “interesting, and might we have a simple example to examine”?
Not wanting to be left out of the conversation, I offered up the simple paradox known as the Hooded Man. It goes something like this –
You claim that you know your brother. You claim not to know that man who just came into the room with his head covered. But that hooded man is your brother. Therefore you do not know your brother.
The statement, ‘I know my brother’ is true, but so is the statement ‘I don’t know my brother’. They are contradictory yet both statements are true giving us the paradox.
As I concluded I saw Holmes break into a grin. His eyes opened and that playful twinkle that I had come to know glimmered in them. He took the pipe from his lips and turned to me saying, “Watson, while this is no paradox, I think you have offered up an excellent example for us to study nonetheless. For, I would venture, that the solution to this puzzle will prove a useful technique for many of the paradoxes that our friend Spurgeon has in mind”.
“Surely you jest Holmes, this appears in numerous lists of paradoxes and is dated to the earliest philosophers”, I remarked.
“As my room-mate would you say that you know me well Watson”?
“I would, I know your habits, talents, and quirks better than I know myself”.
“Indeed! And you know well my talents for theater, acting, and makeup. I often put these to good use in our adventures. Do you then not recall than an instance when you walked past an old man, wrinkled with age whom you would swear before all that you did not know, only to find out that it was none other than myself, a person you claim to know very well.”
I blushed as the point Holmes made became clear in my mind. Turning to Spurgeon, Holmes explained, “this is really a sophism – a play on words – and is not a paradox at all. It might appear to be at first glance since I know my brother and I do not know my brother appear to be two truths that are indeed contradictory. Just as Watson knows me, yet when I am in disguise he does not know me. The game being played is the fact that the word “know” has nuanced meanings. In the first statement, ‘I know my brother’, means that I have a relationship with my brother and know things about him. In the second statement, ‘I don’t know my brother’, the word “know” takes on the meaning of recognition. My brother was in a disguise and I did not recognize him, but that does not change the fact that I am well acquainted with him whether I recognize him at all times or not. What is important is noting that when we recognized we had a paradox we were tipped off that we must examine the puzzle more closely. The paradox exists because we assumed we were interpreting the statements correctly. Changing how we interpret the word ‘know’ using equally acceptable meanings removed the paradox.”
“I have a feeling I know where you are going with this Mr. Holmes”, Spurgeon demurred dwelling on the word ‘know’ as he spoke. This no doubt to make sure he had another meaning for this word in mind – to perceive or understand. “Since I see we may have some differing opinions on the concept of paradox, let me suggest another one. Paul writes to the Corinthians and tells them ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’. This expression is paradoxical.”
Holmes waved his hand for Spurgeon to continue with his thought.
“‘When I am weak.’ What does that mean? It means when a person is consciously weak, when he painfully feels, and distinctly recognizes that he is weak, then he is strong. In truth, we are always weak, whether we know it or not; but when we not only believe this to be the fact, but see it to be the fact—then it is that we are strong.”
“‘Then am I strong.’ When is that? Why, a man is strong when he is consciously weak, because now he has reached the truth. He really is weak; and if he does not know that he is so, he is under the influence of a falsehood. Therefore, a man becomes strong when he is consciously weak, because he is on the truth, and is not being flattered by false hopes.”
“But it is the statement being flipped around that is equally true. And that is what I want to focus on here – when I am strong then I am weak. Holmes you are trusting in the strength of your analytical skills and sharp mind. That can lead to pride, which is indeed a weakness. It prevents us from relying on God or trusting in the things He has said are true.”
“You have been gifted with clear insight and a measure of shrewdness, and have, therefore, felt that your judgment on most subjects was that of an umpire. However, if we were to examine folly then we need only look at the wise man for this may be where it exists in its worst form. If we were called upon to select a man who, as to his life as a whole, perpetrated the greatest folly, we should mention Solomon. Yet he was the wisest of man. Yes, the cream of wisdom, when curdled, makes the worst of folly. Was ever man so insanely enthusiastic in vain pursuits as this master of all knowledge? Then, dear Holmes, whenever we feel sure of our own superior intelligence, let us suspect ourselves of weakness.”
“My good man, you are indeed ready to preach in season and out as it were. And well preached I might add. Holmes remarked, taking our guest’s barb in good spirits. Then he added, “I agree with our apostle and your overall thrust. The world certainly prizes strength and control but really has none. It is a most peculiar thing that we are strongest when we recognize our weaknesses. But since you understand this passage so well you must surely see that Paul does not present us with a paradox, but with irony.”
“Now speaking of cream, I observe that we need to call on our good lady Mrs. Hudson and get our tea pot replenished.”
Spurgeon nodded in agreement. Then smiled enjoying the compliment, and the fact that his point was not lost on Holmes. Leaning back in his chair he made the request, “might I suggest another”.