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3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on Paradoxical Situations

Paradoxical Situations is an exclusive issue of my free weekly newsletter featuring 3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on critical thinking, practical philosophy, decision-making, mental models & more.

Catch-22 · Kafka Trap · How Zen Traps You

I. Catch-22

A Catch-22 is one of those paradoxical situations from which there’s no escape because of a cunning set of rules. It has its origins in Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name. In the story, a World War II bomber crew faces a series of potential suicide missions, but is unable to opt out:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.

‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.’

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Today, Catch-22 is generally applied to any paradoxical no-win situation. When there’s only one solution to a problem, but this solution won’t work because of a rule integral to the problem itself. Makes sense?

II. Kafka Trap

Similarly, Kafka Traps are fallacies in which your denial of an accusation is taken as evidence for your guilt. The term was inspired by Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. In the book, Josef K. is arrested by an unknown authority. His alleged crime is neither ever disclosed to him or the reader. Here’s Josef stepping into the Kafka Trap:

“But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.”

“That is true,” said the priest, “but that is how the guilty speak.”

―Franz Kafka, The Trial

Paradoxical situations of this kind might be created inadvertently by lazy argumentation or to deceive and manipulate whoever is at the receiving end. As opposed to our third example.

I’ve written about more examples of paradoxical reasoning here.

III. How Zen Traps You

Getting ourselves out of such a conundrum requires us to spot the trap in the first place. Philosopher Alan Watts explains the cunning teaching method in Zen, which is all about putting a student into paradoxical situations:

It’s just like someone being put in a squirrel cage, or set to chasing his own tail, or trying to catch his own shadow. But under the supervision of a teacher who knows exactly what’s going on. The teacher himself has been through it. And he’s not like the other kind of teacher who is still a student and is urging his students to keep on the rat race because he’s still on it.

Finally it dawns. You see, when you persistently do something absurd, eventually you’ll have to see it. As [William] Blake said, ‘The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.’

But if you’re really consistent about it, if you really go for that foolishness. Then you’ll suddenly realise that you have made yourself absolutely absurd. Then there is nothing to do but laugh.

Alan Watts

According to Alan Watts, the way of Zen is to confront students with paradoxical situations and impossible problems deliberately. This is to have them see through the futility of it all. That they themselves create those problems. You can read more about Alan Watts and his wisdom here. 🐘

Have a great week,


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