Five Paradoxes to Broaden Your Mind

Do you want to test the logical structures of your brain? Do you want to broaden your perspective with a series of paradoxes that challenged even Stephen Hawking? If so, read on.
Five Paradoxes to Broaden Your Mind
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 31 December, 2022

Life itself is a strange paradox. You strive to achieve a good job, to cover your most basic needs, and to ensure that the people you love are fit and well. However, that process is often costly to your own health, and you hardly have any time to enjoy what you’ve achieved. In fact, your existence, if you were to observe it under a magnifying glass, is an eternal contradiction.

Paradoxes serve this purpose. They make you think of the ideas, constructs, or realities that contain certain ideas within themselves, along with their opposites. For instance, you work to live, but barely have time to enjoy your life.

Something similar happens when you look at the darkness of the night. How can there be so much darkness when there are so many hydrogen stars exploding in the infinity of the universe? Is it that the stars aren’t enough to illuminate our surroundings?  It seems not. Be that as it may, paradoxes are original and stimulating and invite deep reflection. However, there aren’t always clear or conclusive answers to them.

The wisdom of Socrates

As Socrates once said, “I know one thing and that is that I know nothing”. Admitting and assuming that, as humans, we’ll never have an objective explanation for the doubts that assail us when we’re looking at the sky or at ourselves is an exercise in wisdom. So, let’s sharpen our ingenuity and analytical capacity a little with a series of theoretical proposals of this type.

“The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot. You have to be cruel to be kind. Our proverbs and popular language are full of curious paradoxes that we’re not always aware of, but that are an example of the complexity of our reality.

Woman thinking about the paradoxes that will broaden your mind
Paradoxical thought sometimes forces us to explain how absurd some things that seem obvious are.

Paradoxes to broaden your mind

One figure who claims that we constantly make thinking errors is the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman. In fact, it’s thanks to him that we understand how cognitive biases affect our judgments and decision-making. His most recent book is entitled, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (2021).

In this book, he explains how people make different judgments in the face of similar realities. He gives examples of doctors, psychiatrists, and judges who give dissimilar opinions when faced with similar events. Why does this happen? The answer is simple. Our minds are full of noise, thought biases, and automatisms of which we’re unaware.

We think fast, we think badly, and we reach wrong conclusions driven by impulsiveness and emotions. Therefore, we must learn to be more meticulous and analytical, and develop thinking that’s slower and more flexible. Paradoxes can broaden our minds and allow us to analyze reality in a broader and more critical way at the same time. They’re well worth a look.

José Ortega y Gasset claimed that there’s no greater irony than the kind that affects all public employees. Once promoted, they become mysteriously incompetent. Currently, this reality is defined as the Peter principle.

1. The paradox of happiness

Hedonism was a school of thought that claimed that it’s only when we seek pleasure that we find happiness. Later, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy argued that morally good behaviors are those that end up producing true happiness.

Later, Viktor Frankl suggested that happiness isn’t sought nor is it part of any morally positive behavior. In fact, the father of logotherapy claimed that the best way to be happy is to forget about trying to be happy and just let happiness happen (appear) on its own.

2. The black hole paradox

This was Stephen Hawking’s favorite paradox so we couldn’t leave it out. Think about a black hole and what’s said about it. Everything that comes close to its edges disappears. A particle only has to move toward one to cease to exist.

Think of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He claimed that the attractive force of a black hole is so strong that nothing can escape from it. However, quantum physics is built on the assumption that information never disappears, and that particles can transform, but never completely vanish. So, how can this riddle be solved?

3. Social butterflies: the curious paradox of friendship

A study published in the MIT Technology Review analyzed the so-called friendship paradox. It may not have necessarily happened to you but, according to mathematical and statistical models, there’s a principle that always applies. It’s this: your friends have more friends than you and have more fun than you.

This principle was discovered by the sociologist Scott Feld in 1991. He stated that the paradox is that most people have few friends, and a smaller group of people have a larger social network. By probability, it may be the case that you have at least one friend who’s a true social butterfly, someone with many contacts, and who loves parties.

4. The mad aviator paradox

This is undoubtedly the most original paradox on our list. It appears in Joseph Heller’s novel entitled Catch-22. This book tells the story of a young World War II aviator who wants to get out of the army. To do this, he plans to behave in a delusional way so that the psychiatric evaluation concludes that he’s crazy and therefore, not fit to serve.

However, the doctor explains that only crazy aviators are trained to be fighter pilots. The young man is stuck and doesn’t know what to do.

This paradox reminds us, in a way, what happens to young people when looking for a job. They’re required to have experience when, in reality, few have had the chance to achieve it.

Boy with glasses thinking about the paradoxes that will broaden your mind
The paradoxes about quantum physics are those that keep scientists up at night.

5. The paradox of tolerance

We can’t end our list of paradoxes without referring to the one that revolves around the concept of tolerance. Any society that defends tolerance is considered to be democratic. However, by that rule of thumb, at any moment it’ll also end up being tolerant of intolerance.

What’s more, the moment intolerance is tolerated, that particular society is being exactly the opposite of what it’s defending: intolerant. Far from being a play on words, if we analyze this paradox carefully, it contains a great truth. It’s clear that paradoxes possess a certain curious kind of usefulness.

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  • Sheffield, Clarence Burton Jr., 2018, “Promoting Critical Thinking in Higher Education: My Experiences as the Inaugural Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at Rochester Institute of Technology”, Topoi, 37(1): 155–163. doi:10.1007/s11245-016-9392-1
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  • Kahneman, Daniel, Olivier Sibony, & Cass R. Sunstein, 2021, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, New York: Little, Brown Spark.

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