Last year’s new SEP entry on
Curry’s paradox followed in Haskell Curry’s footsteps by saying nothing about where our reasoning goes wrong in such informal versions of the paradox as the examples in the introductory section of that entry, the first of which was as follows:
Suppose that your friend tells you: “If what I’m saying using this very sentence is true, then time is infinite”. It turns out that there is a short and seemingly compelling argument for the following conclusion:
(P) The mere existence of your friend’s assertion entails (or has as a consequence) that time is infinite.
Many hold that (P) is beyond belief (and, in that sense, paradoxical), even if time is indeed infinite.
[...]
Here is the argument for (P). Let k be the self-referential sentence your friend uttered, simplified somewhat so that it reads “If k is true then time is infinite”. In view of what k says, we know this much:
(1) Under the supposition that k is true, it is the case that if k is true then time is infinite.
But, of course, we also have
(2) Under the supposition that k is true, it is the case that k is true.
Under the supposition that k is true, we have thus derived a conditional together with its antecedent. Using modus ponens within the scope of the supposition, we now derive the conditional’s consequent under that same supposition:
(3) Under the supposition that k is true, it is the case that time is infinite.
The rule of conditional proof now entitles us to affirm a conditional with our supposition as antecedent:
(4) If k is true then time is infinite.
But, since (4) just is k itself, we thus have
(5) k is true.
Finally, putting (4) and (5) together by modus ponens, we get
(6) Time is infinite.
We seem to have established that time is infinite using no assumptions beyond the existence of the self-referential sentence k, along with the seemingly obvious principles about truth that took us to (1) and also from (4) to (5).
That may look rather formal to you, but
formal logic is not even logic (it is mathematics); the above is just
very well laid out. Note the two uses of
modus ponens, the two sets of three steps, with the first three steps, (1), (2) and (3), all beginning “Under the supposition that”. You should note that because we cannot always use
modus ponens within the scope of a supposition, e.g.:
(a) Under the supposition that
modus ponens is invalid under a self-referential supposition, (A) implies (C).
(b) Under the supposition that
modus ponens is invalid under a self-referential supposition, (A).
With (a) and (b) we have, under the supposition that
modus ponens is invalid under a self-referential supposition, a conditional and its antecedent, but it would of course be absurd to use
modus ponens within the scope of
that supposition, to obtain
(c) Under the supposition that
modus ponens is invalid under a self-referential supposition, (C).
There was, then, at least one step in the above argument for (P) that stood in need of some justification, i.e. the step to (3). Were no other step deficient in justification we could conclude, from the absurdity of (P), that the step to (3) was invalid.
Of course, it would be more satisfying to see where precisely that step lacked justification, so presumably we need an analysis of what would
in general count as justification for such a step. For now, note that in order to get to (3) we used
modus ponens under the supposition that
k is true, which was no less self-referential than the supposition that
modus ponens is invalid under a self-referential supposition. In the step to (3) we had
k being true instead of (A) implying (C), and “
k is true” instead of (A).
To progress, we need to step back, I think, because I suspect that the reason why we find (P) to be beyond belief is that the above argument for (P) has
exactly the same logical structure as a clearly invalid argument for the obviously false (Q):
Let your friend say instead: “If what I’m saying using this very sentence is true, then all numbers are prime”. Now, mutatis mutandis, the same short and seemingly compelling argument yields (Q):
(Q) The mere existence of your friend’s assertion entails (or has as a consequence) that all numbers are prime.
My suspicion is based on the fact that one
could conceivably have a valid argument for
(S) The mere existence of “happy summer days” entails (or has as a consequence) that time is infinite.
For a start, the mere existence of some words can entail the actual existence of something important, as when Descartes proved that he existed: I think, therefore I am. But furthermore, there is a surprisingly valid argument from the existence of “happy summer days” to the
probable existence of a transcendent Creator of all things
ex nihilo (
this links to that), and it might only take some tidying up to get to (S), because such a Creator is an omnipotent being endlessly generating a temporal dimension. (Such a Creator could possibly have a logical existence proof, because of its unique ontological status.) And of course, were there a valid argument for (S), then there would be an identical, equally valid argument for (P).
Anyway, a six-step argument for (Q) that is identical to the Curry-paradoxical argument for (P) would have, in place of
k, some such
l as “If
l is true, then all numbers are prime”. And
l is likely to be
about as true as not, because (i) it is about as true as not that a contradiction follows from a statement that is about as true as not, since such a statement is about as false as not, and also because (ii) one informal meaning of
l is the obvious meaning of the liar sentence “
l is not true”, which is, if meaningful, about as true as not, according to my
The Liar Proof. And of course, our logic is naturally suited to that part of our language where propositions are either true or else not true, exclusively and exhaustively. For a proposition that is otherwise, we have natural clarification procedures that enable us to construct new propositions that are more suited to logical reasoning. So, it seems likely that propositions that might be
about as true as not should be ruled out from the use of
modus ponens within the scope of a too-self-referential supposition (to say the least).
Curry’s paradox entered into the analytic philosophy of the Forties, where the logical paradoxes were in general thought to be reasons for replacing our informal logical reasoning with formal logical reasoning (via the mathematical philosophy of formal languages), on such grounds as that (i) one would not expect primates, even highly evolved primates, to be able to reason perfectly, and (ii) the physical sciences use mathematics to get to the underlying physical laws. However, why would such primates not take themselves to be reasoning perfectly adequately; and why should I be doing mathematics when I am really doing philosophy?