A WOMAN once approached me with a curious problem concerning her husband. Like most people who choose to get married, she had promised to love her spouse to the exclusion of all others. But there was a problem: according to her, the man she married simply wasn’t the same person any more. He had the same name and career, the same memories and skills. But over many years, an accumulation of small changes had, she felt, made her husband a completely different person.
This woman had approached me not because I’m an expert in matters of the heart, but because I had just given a talk about paradoxes. These puzzles have entertained and perplexed us for millennia. They force us to grapple with some of the deepest matters of logic and meaning. What does it mean for something to be “the same”, for instance?
I couldn’t offer the woman any simple answers. I reminded her that she had probably changed quite a bit since her youth too. And I pointed out that sometimes our intuitions about concepts like identity can be unhelpful.
In fact, the point goes well beyond relationships. Chewing over paradoxes can show us places where our intuitions need tweaking, and this applies everywhere from the foundations of mathematics to social media and our efforts to live more sustainable lives. Paradoxes have helped thinkers resculpt our understanding of key concepts and attain fresh scientific insights time and again. Now, a new way of thinking through paradoxes is emerging, one that holds promise because it puts our mushy human intuition front and centre.
One reasonable way …