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Can We Live With Clarity?

To err may be human, but to resign to contradiction is to embrace darkness. What’s the answer to the comedy writer’s riddle, “can we live with contradiction?” Hint: When have we not?

The dubious counsel implicit in the question becomes apparent later in the scribe’s diatribe: “cutting ourselves — individually and as a culture — some slack for being inconsistent.”

Comics are necessarily jesuitical; their livelihood depends on milking confusion and pitching it as the ambiguity of life. Sometimes they set up really funny choices such as:

a) Humans are meaningful; the things they do make sense.

b) Humans are things with causes like anything else — as meaningless as forest fires.

Such philosophical dualisms amount to intellectual parlor games. They reveal an underlying worldview in contradiction with itself, not an actual problem faced by real people.

These are serious times however, demanding serious responses. I like to laugh as much as the next guy, and have even been known to crack a joke once or twice, but pardon me Jesus for using your name in vain—Jesus!

Squeezing contradiction, paradox and inconsistency into the same box ends up being a Procrustean bed for everyone who buys it.

A contradiction is like when someone says they love and support you, but when the chips are down they stab you in the back. Does that call for cutting them some slack? Perhaps, but only if you’re able to grow eyes in the back of your head, and they’re willing to look at what they’re doing.

A paradox is a seeming contradiction in aesthetic tension, something that’s pleasing to the mind and heart when perceived. The fact that “humans are both sources of meaning and subject to causation” is, with insight, a paradox, not a contradiction.

As far as consistency, with all due respect to Waldo, who can even say what Emerson meant by: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

The American disdain for philosophy was thus given great impetus by the most philosophical of American writers. Now there’s a contradiction!

Consistency can be foolish, especially when it’s consciously maintained, or it can be mistaken for persistence and insistence on clarity—the bugbear of those who traffic in confusion and contradiction.

In any case, inconsistency and contradiction are different animals altogether–inconsistency being human, and rationalizing contradiction being pigheaded.

Though many people in America now consider themselves philosophers, comedy writers aren’t really cut out for questioning Descartes and Kant. (Philosophy can’t be eaten a la carte without regurgitating indigestible cant.)

Besides, we’ve used up all the slack. How can anyone call for cutting ourselves more of slack when the earth is maxing out from man, and the shining city on the hill has become a madhouse run by a leering egomaniac with his twitchy little fingers on the nuclear button?

Resolving contradictions is therefore not just an intellectual and behavioral nicety, or some quirk of philosophers (though admittedly, we have a lower threshold for contradiction). It’s a basic requirement of psychological and emotional health, as well as inward growth.

Should we “despair of coming up with a rigorous consistent theory of what distinguishes demented mothers from chickens in time for all the people whose mothers have dementia”?

Why put so much weight on theory, especially when we now know, or should know, that “all data is theory-laden?”

That simply means that we inevitably organize our ideas into a coherent worldview (coherent to us anyway), however much it may contradict the way we actually live, much less the uncapturable complexities of the human condition.

So “if we can’t come up with a theory in enough time for us to live our lives, what should we do?”

In the first place, the justly maligned elites of New York, Washington and Los Angeles (that is, the media, government and entertainment complex) wouldn’t know a workable theory of human nature if it hit them over the head.

More importantly, an explanation of the human condition, however accurate and logically consistent (as opposed to behaviorally consistent), won’t change the explained—you and me. Only diligent self-knowing can do that.

Even so, it is necessary to roughly resolve the most basic, existential contradiction, which is between humans and nature/the universe. How can it be that nature unfolds in a seamless, inseparable multiplicity of orders, while man descends into increasing fragmentation and disorder? We evolved in nature, so how did this contradiction arise?

To my own satisfaction, which is all a philosopher can hope to do, I’ve resolved that contradiction into a paradox. But here’s a clue:

Would a vastly more technologically advanced alien species treat humans as lower life forms, the way humans treat the animals with which we share the earth? Or, given that they have made the transition from slaves of thought to masters of mind, would they recognize the same latent potential for awareness in us that has flowered in them?

Alas, how far we’ve come, from Star Trek igniting the imaginations of future scientists and philosophers, to Big Bang Theory arresting the development of citizens, resulting in a child-president.

Martin LeFevre


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