July 5, 2013 6:30 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Should we resolve our contradictions?

Is is really impossible to have your cake and eat it?

The Shrink

Human beings don’t like contradictions. This feature of ours has a name: cognitive dissonance. When we realise we hold two conflicting beliefs, or that there’s a clash between our values and our actions, we tend to feel uncomfortable and so seek to reduce the discordance by changing one or the other.

An illustration depicting life's contradictions©Laura Carlin

But we are always going to hold some contradictions. Just think of the patchwork of beliefs, attitudes and habits you have acquired, in different contexts, over your lifetime. They are more like a higgledy-piggledy accretion of discrete bits than a clearly laid out coherent plan. We are inescapably compartmentalised to some extent.

Some contradictions are small enough to ignore. So what if you’re convinced of the superiority of real ale and yet find you prefer the taste of lager? Others may well be beyond resolution: you are too sceptical to embrace a religion, for instance, and yet you feel an attraction to places of worship and religious rituals. Even if it’s uncomfortable, however, you can learn to live with this tension, perhaps make creative use of it.

But in some cases we would do best to tackle our contradictions head on. Say you firmly believe in equality and yet consistently fail to do your fair share of the housework. It would be very easy to resolve the clash by making up ad hoc rules about why this is OK. Instead, it may be worth putting some effort into examining the source of the conflict, tidying up some of those straggly bits, getting rid of one or adjusting the shape of another.

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The Shrink & The Sage

Or you’re clear in your mind you should become a vegetarian but find yourself repeatedly tucking into the meat course. Your disappointment may be somewhat relieved by telling yourself you’re just too weak, or can’t do it unless your partner follows suit, or some other kind of rationalisation. But instead, you could inquire into what’s going on, whether you have doubts about your decision, or need to strengthen your resolve. This may not yield an immediate resolution, but it’s better to file an important issue under “work in progress” than pretend it does not exist.

The Sage

Asking a philosopher if we should resolve our contradictions is like asking a mechanic if we should fix cars. Mechanics exist because cars break down and philosophy exists because our thinking about the world leads us to logical breakdown. We believe we have free will but our physics seems to leave no room for it; we believe we have a special duty to favour family but also that morality requires impartiality; we believe in the scientific method but struggle to give a rational account of why it is sound. The removal of such contradictions is philosophy’s raison d’être.

One philosopher’s tool can also help resolve the contradictions of daily life: checking whether the contradiction is real or merely apparent. Is it really impossible to have your cake and eat it too, for example? Only if you want to eat and keep all of it: there’s no contradiction in cutting a slice and keeping most for later. What can look like pedantry is actually a powerful rigour that can remove some contradictions by simply showing that they are no such thing.

There is no reason why the same technique cannot be applied to practical life. You want to visit your parents, for example, but you always find them infuriating and leave vowing never to return. So there is an apparent contradiction: you want and do not want to see them often. But ask if this is a real contradiction and what you’ll probably find is that the situation is merely complicated. There’s no contradiction in wanting to see loved ones you do not find easy, enjoyable company. Making that explicit can help you approach your visits as difficult chores you willingly take on, better able to accept the irritations that come with them.

Many of life’s “contradictions” are of this sort. We don’t so much resolve but dissolve them. They are impulses, values and desires which are in tension with one another but they are not necessarily incompatible. With a bit of hard thinking, we can often find ways to do justice to both without having to give up either.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@ft.com

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