Human beings have a lot of accomplishments to celebrate. We’ve repurposed and reshaped our environment to suit our needs. We’re even gearing up to settle other planets once we outgrow this one.
Being on top is a great place to be, but it’s easy to forget our limitations. The human brain is, after all, hardwired to think in certain ways. While it’s a powerful tool for making models of the world, those models are limited by the way we’re naturally inclined to think. As a little reminder to remain humble about our cognitive powers, here are 10 paradoxes to try and wrap your head around.
Quick note before we get started: This list takes paradoxes from a number of different fields, all of which tend to use the word paradox differently. Some of these paradoxes are highly unintuitive but objectively true, while others seemingly cannot exist in reality as we understand it.
Paradox of hedonism
This may very well be one of the most practical paradoxes to understand. In utilitarian philosophy, hedonism is the school of thought that pursuing pleasure is the best way to maximize happiness. However, psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote, “[Happiness cannot] be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Constantly pursuing pleasure and happiness is neither pleasurable nor likely to yield happiness; therefore, the best way to be happy is to forget about trying to be happy and to simply let happiness occur on its own.
The black hole information paradox
In physics, apparent paradoxes are really just puzzles we have yet to figure out yet. One of the biggest puzzles in physics we have yet to figure out is the black hole information paradox.
Quantum mechanics (for a variety of reasons outside the scope of this article) states that information — things such as the mass and spin of a particle, the structure of atoms that make up a carbon molecule, etc — can never be destroyed. If you were to burn two different letters, putting them back together from ash would be nigh impossible, but not entirely impossible. The subtle differences in smoke, temperature, and the amount of ash would still retain information about the two different letters.
The trouble is, black holes suck things up and then, over a very, very, very long time, radiate that stuff out in the form of Hawking radiation. Unfortunately, unlike the smoke and ash from burning a letter, Hawking radiation contains no information about where it came from: all Hawking radiation is the same, which implies that black holes destroy information about the universe.
Physicists are getting closer and closer to resolving this puzzle, and Stephen Hawking himself believed that the information of particles that enter black holes does eventually return to the universe. If it doesn’t, then we need to seriously rethink much of modern physics.
Joseph Heller gets credit for inventing this phrase in his eponymous novel, Catch-22. In the novel, a World War II pilot named Yossarian is trying to get out of military duty by requesting psychiatric evaluation, hoping to be declared insane and therefore unfit to fly. His doctor, however, informs him that anybody trying to get out flying in combat cannot possibly be insane; the insane thing to do would be want to fly into combat.
That’s the catch-22: a situation that somebody cannot escape because of paradoxical rules. If Yossarian wants to be considered insane, he has to fly in combat. If he flies in combat, then being labelled as insane doesn’t do him any good. It’s like how young college graduates need experience to get a job but can’t get a job without experience.
The Monty Hall problem
This paradox lies in how human brains tend to approach statistical problems. It’s named after the host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal, which featured this classic problem. There are three doors. Behind one is a car, and the other two hide goats. You pick a door. The host then opens another door, revealing a goat, and asks if you would like to change your selection to the single remaining door.
Most people believe that there is no advantage to switching doors. After all, there’s two doors, so there’s a 50-50 chance that one has the car, right? Wrong. Switching doors actually raises your odds of picking the car to 66%. Because the host has to pick the remaining goat, he’s provided you with extra information. If you’ve picked a goat on the first try (which will happen two out of three times), then switching will win you the car. If you’ve picked the car (which will happen one out of three times), then switching will cause you to lose.
As in physics, paradoxes in biology really are just unsolved puzzles. Enter Peto’s paradox. Biologist Richard Peto noticed in the 1970s that mice had a much higher rate of cancer than humans do, which doesn’t make any sense. Humans have over 1000 times as many cells as mice, and cancer is simply a rogue cell that goes on multiplying out of control. One would expect humans to be more likely to get cancer than smaller creatures such as mice. This paradox occurs across all species, too: blue whales are much less likely to get cancer than humans, even though they have many more cells in their bodies.
Named after physicist superstar Enrico Fermi, the Fermi paradox is the contradiction between how likely alien life is in the universe and its apparent absence. Considering the billions of stars in the galaxy like the sun, the many Earth-like planets that must be orbiting some of those stars, the likelihood that some of those planets developed life, the likelihood that some of that life is as intelligent or more intelligent than humanity, the galaxy should be teeming with alien civilizations. This absence led Fermi to pose the question, “Where is everybody?” Some answers to that question are unfortunately a little disturbing.
The billiard ball paradox
Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned time paradox? Theoretical physicist Joseph Polchinski posed a puzzle to another physicists in a letter: consider a billiard ball tossed through a wormhole at a certain angle. The billiard ball is then sent back in time through the wormhole and, because of its trajectory, strikes its past self, knocking the ball off course before it can enter the wormhole, travel back in time, and strike itself.
It’s a more whimsical and less gruesome version of what happens when you murder your own grandpa in the past and are never born, or if you travel back in time to kill Hitler, thereby obviating any reason you would have had to travel back in time in the first place.
The observer’s paradox
Originally coined for the field of sociolinguistics, the observer’s paradox is that, when observing a given phenomenon, merely observing it changes the phenomenon itself. In sociolinguistics, if a researcher wants to observe casual communication in a population, those being observed will speak more formally since they know their speech will be involved in academic research.
In a Western Electric factory, researchers wanted to see if improving the lighting of a production line would also improve efficiency. They found that improving the lighting did so, but then returning the lighting to its previous conditions also improved efficiency. Their conclusion was that observing the workers was itself the cause of the improved efficiency.
The paradox of tolerance
Without a doubt the most culturally relevant paradox on this list, the paradox of tolerance is the idea that a society that is entirely tolerant of all things will also be tolerant of intolerance. Eventually, the tolerated intolerant elements of a society will seize control, rendering that society a fundamentally intolerant one. Therefore, in order to remain a tolerant society, intolerance cannot be tolerated.
The intentionally blank page paradox
My personal favorite and also the least consequential: Many official documents will print blank pages in order accommodate formatting concerns. To ensure that readers don’t think that they’ve received a defective publication, the blank page will often include the phrase, “This page has been intentionally left blank,” providing the page with text that annihilates its status as a blank page.
This article was originally published on Big Think in October 2018. It was updated in October 2022.