CONTRADICTION... and humor!


"The conjunction of any proposition with its negation"; a conjunction which is always false. While these definitions detail the function of contradictory propositions in Logic, they don't necessarily reveal the full impact of the general nature of contradiction. For the specific purpose of symbolic logic, it is enough to equate (P · ~P) with the value "F", but that isn't where you are most likely to bump into contradictions, for contradiction is at the root of much unclear thinking. Consequently, contraditions are the source of much frustration... as well as the source of much humor.

As to the first part; it is easy to see how the statements "it's raining" and "it's not raining" run in direct opposition to each other. Perhaps it is less so with the propositions "What a downpour out there!" accompanied by a sarcastic or ironic return like, "Yeah, it's beautiful weather we're having." But contradictions are evident even when propositions are not expressly formulated. For example, the scientist who holds that all events can be explained by laws of nature, physics or chemistry, yet fervently prays for a miracle cure for a sick relative is holding contradictory positions (his materialist view opposes his spiritualist view). So too with the ecologist who litters, the doctor who smokes, and the shoplifter who complains that he wouldn't be tempted to steal if the prices weren't so high. If you recall, one of the key elements to any acceptable methodology is that it be consistent, and obviously, these examples lack consistency.

While the philosophic views one may study in class (Descartes, Bergson and most every other) often seem strange and obscure, they are usually consistent views as opposed to the philosophies that many of us unthinkingly hold to. Having never been pressed for consistency, many people express anger at being stolen from, yet excuse themselves from the same, or they'll complain that "something ought to be done" yet they have never volunteered solutions or assistance on any comparable level. Is it any wonder that, like a dog chasing after its own tail, or the painter who has painted himself into a corner, people holding contradictory views are often frustrated? It's often easier to see the moat (the contradiction) in another than it is in oneself, but hopefully, improved analytic skills will allow us to lead lives more free of contradiction and frustration!

Now, about humor. While we cannot even attempt a decent analysis of comedy here, suffice it to say that the root of much irony, absurdity and even slapstick (purportedly the lowest form of humor) lies in contradiction. When the vaudeville act gets a laugh from a prat fall, it is funny (and not tragic) precisely because what shouldn’t happen, does (and usually happens with precise timing). Perhaps such humor is universal because the concept of contradiction itself is universal. Better humor often has a "double" contradiction to it, or at least the contradiction is augmented to a higher level. Actor Dick Van Dyke once did a bit where he presented an ostensibly serious lecture (and one shouldn’t laugh in lectures!) about how society’s sense of humor has matured since moving beyond slapstick comedy. While giving the talk he slips off the edge of the desk, cuts himself with a letter opener, trips on the rug plus a series of other classic slapstick moves! In a similar vein some of the best humorists often present one humorous punchline, pause for laughter, then follow through with another line that augments the first ("I was so bored last weekend I decided to give the cat a bath." — {pause for reaction, then in a dead-pan voice continues...} --- "I still have fur on my tongue!")

Going back to the weather, part of the enjoyment of Gene Kelly’s classic "Singing in the Rain" involves the contradiction between his character’s blithe atmosphere and the atmosphere usually generated by such a damp air. This serves as the basis of yet another scene that evokes irony, tragedy, and yet again humor when in "A Clockwork Orange," the lead character performs the "Singing in the Rain" routine while soundly thrashing his victims.

Least you be left with a low opinion of the nature of contradiction, give a thought to some positive systems that exploit inherent conditions, and sometimes actually resolve problems. How many can you think of?