Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Upleveling: What to do about your dos and don'ts

Upleveling: What to do about your dos and don'ts
The Buddha said we suffer because we cling to our desires, and it's true. I'm always clinging to the past or future, what I wished had happened or what I hope will happen. It's terrible. So I've tried to just live in the here and now, to enjoy every moment and accept what is, without clinging to anything. In fact, I've tried and tried, but my unhealthy habit of clinging hasn't gone away. One friend said it's a life's work and told me not to give up, but another said, Look at you clinging to nonclinging,' which I realize is absurd. So I don't know. I want to not cling. I want to cling to not clinging. It's confusing.

Is clinging to desires healthy, or unhealthy? Maybe you're over this old question, the one that set Buddhism, Lutheranism, and other religions on their course through human history. Whatever your opinion of clinging, the course a question like this takes as it works its way through us is itself quite fascinating.

Notice that the question identifies a state: to cling, as in cling. Notice that in saying, cling, I'm splitting my personality, being both the guy who clings and the guy outside, looking at my own clinging.

People talk about their behavioral states all the time. Still, such personality-splitting statements have driven thinkers to distraction for millennia, because it's through them that we can produce (actually, we can't help but produce) paradoxical statements that don't compute - undecidables, they're called - that throw into question all our logical methods.

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The oldest is the liar's paradox: I am now lying. If it's interpreted as an outsider observing something's state, it's like looking at a green car and saying, That car is green. Telling the truth about a green car's color doesn't change its color. But observing that am now lying is quite different. An outside observer objectively describing a statement as a lie flips the statement's truth value: If it's true that you're now lying, then it's false that you're now lying. It's as though, just as you called a green car green, it turned red.

If, instead, the statement I am now lying is a confession uttered from inside the state, it starts out untrue, which means it's not a lie after all. It's as though, just as you called the now-red car red, it turned green again.

I shouldn't cling is another such self-referential paradox, as is It's wrong to be judgmental, I should not be negative, I should always be flexible, and other such popular yet loopy admonishments. If clinging to your desires is unhealthy, you should stop it, in which case you should cling to a new desire to not cling anymore, which is a new kind of clinging, which you should stop, in which case you'll end up clinging more. Damned if you do, twice damned if you don't - twice damned because, having flipped the implications of the statement twice, you begin to realize you're stuck in a loop (though, as we'll see below, being twice damned can be a blessing in disguise).

The liar's paradox, identified by Epimenides in the 6th century BCE has been debated ever since. Most of that time, it was seen as a peculiarity, a novelty of language, but gradually it became clear that it isn't just about liars - it is about any statement that influences how the statement is read. It even shows up in basic math, for example, when you try to find the square root of negative one. The two x's (x times x equals negative one) refer to each other, but the references of the two x's won't hold still. Whatever number you pick to fill one of the x's changes the number you have to pick for the other x. Self-referential loops are everywhere. They paralyze Excel spreadsheets. In computer programming, they're the primary source of crashes and lockups.

As academics began to realize that these paradoxes are a fundamental problem, they tried to design a new system of logic that avoids them.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead thought they had found a way to do it, a complete and universal logic that was airtight because it prevented all such self-reference. It did so by expelling them - making them, in effect, out of bounds. But then Kurt Gödel (pronounced girdle, as in the device that holds confusing stuff in) proved that you couldn't do that: If you put them outside the logical system, your system ends up depending

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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