Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What Metaphysical Contradictions Look Like

While eating breakfast one day I watched an episode of Tales from the Darkside, a somewhat cheesy fantasy show with unmistakable similarities to the famous Twilight Zone series. The episode I had watched was particularly frightening to me: It was called "Effect and Cause," about a woman who suffers from the invalidation of the law of identity. (**Spoilers below**.)

First off, I must admit that this plot synopsis is based on my own interpretation, not the one the writers of the show intended. What the writers wanted to show was a woman who experiences the reversal of cause and effect, that she experiences effects before the causes are initiated. This, however, is logically impossible to portray even with the most vivid of imagination. To borrow an example from a philosophical friend, try to imagine your arm punching without it moving. It can't be imagined and it can't occur: punching (the effect) requires motion (the cause). As such, I conclude that what the writers actually succeeded in portraying is the invalidation of the law of identity, especially considering that, after experiencing the effects of something, the cause was never initiated (thereby being an effect without a cause). For example, at the beginning of the episode paramedics rush to the woman's house in order to treat her for her injuries sustained from falling down the stairs, only to find that she just fell down the stairs as they arrived. No one in the woman's house actually called the paramedics, therefore the arrival of the paramedics is unprompted and thus uncaused. They may have received a telephone call on their end, but no such thing occurred in the woman's house.

Essentially, what happens in the episode is that the universe within the main character's house suspends the law of identity, causing objects within to start acting contrary to their nature. Objects get replaced, things start warping to different locations in the house, and some things start doing things they logically can't do. After the woman comes home from the hospital and notices these goings-on, she explicitly waxes philosophical about subjectivist metaphysics, stating that perhaps the only reason why the universe has any order to it is because human consciousnesses imposed such order. The woman thereby reveals herself to be a mystic and gives reason that it is her own mysticism that suspends the law of identity in her home.

At first her realization is a novelty. She manages to convince her somewhat mystic friend of what's happening inside her home and entertains him with the absurdities, such as watching cards in a deck change and mix up or making the friend's car keys warp from one side of the room to the other. The mystic woman is completely unbothered by what is occurring and treats it like an everyday amusement.

However, as she maintains her mysticism the universe in her home becomes continuously unstable. The formal name for the law of identity is the law of non-contradiction, and its antipode is the law of contradiction. As the law of contradiction becomes more and more consistent within the woman's home, things become horrifying. The woman no longer knows what to do or how to act safely in her home; objects start warping, changing into other things (such as a vase into a mouse), or just start plain disappearing. Electricity manages to pour through the kitchen faucet, and highly pressurized water starts rocketing out of the stove top burners, acts that are contrary to the nature of these objects. She can't predict what's going to happen next and so is frightened to interact with anything. Having a broken leg from falling down the stairs, she's hardly mobile on her own. In a panic at how the universe inside her home is literally becoming chaos, she calls her non-mystic friend to pick her up.

When the friend picks up, we receive more evidence that the main character's mysticism is the cause of her troubles. The woman's friend thinks her mystical worldview is just a bunch of nonsense, and through imposing her objective metaphysical views the reality inside the woman's home temporarily stabilizes and objects cease changing and warping. However, the universe continues coming undone after her friend hangs up. The woman tries to call her back, only to have the phone warp away from her. The phone then begins warping around so rapidly that the woman cannot predict or find where it goes, until it temporarily situates itself, absurdly, inside the refrigerator. When the woman tries to answer the ringing phone all she gets is a notification that it's been disconnected, where it then warps and suspends itself from the ceiling. Having enough, the woman tries to leave her home -- only to have the doorknob release from its socket, seemingly dangling from a snake skin. Full terror succumbs the woman. She turns around to see a horrifying painting in front of her that had just warped before her. She then takes off running, only to trip over furniture. When she looks up we see half of her face is melted; the law of contradiction was starting to take over her body. The episode closes with the woman laying on the floor screaming for help. The police are starting to pull up to her house -- to respond to an explosion that was about to occur.

This episode particularly intrigues me since it managed to frighten me on a metaphysical level. Before I thought such horror movies as ones about living dolls or ventriloquist dummies were the most frightening, but it really unnerves me to try and project what horror it would be to have to law of identity suspended in my home. If that happened, you would literally not be able to predict whether the next thing you touch is going to disappear, change, or perhaps even kill you. Regardless of your best efforts, escaping harm would be pure luck.

On an intellectual level, this episode offers me some insights on a problem that has been bothering me for quite a while. In this instance, it shows that people who state that the law of contradiction is what's truly the law of the universe do not truly know -- or perhaps evade -- the true logical implications of what the law of contradiction would entail. Put very mildly and in the absolute smallest degree, you would observe something similar to what happened to that woman: objects warping and changing without logic or consistency, effects without causes, and even things acting in way that isn't possible to their nature (such as the stove top burner streaming jets of water). When you look around your own home and everywhere you go, this obviously isn't the case. Objects don't randomly change, teleport, or act in ways that are logically impossible to them. There's consistency, order, logic. There are, of course, people who do adhere to the same mystical worldview as the woman in that episode, but we can observe that, despite all their beliefs and wishing, that their worldview doesn't actually cause the law of identity to be suspended. In its most consistent form, the law of contradiction would be absolutely unfathomable, and if anyone experienced it with absolute consistency then they'd surely be killed, eliminated from existence, wiped from history, or worse.

It seems to me that people who try to imagine what entails from the existence of the law of contradiction do so only by imagining it affecting a severely localized portion of reality. They speak of leaves that are all green and all red at the same time, but the tree that has the leaves and all of the earth beneath them still has identity and is still acting in accordance to that identity. Even the episode detailed above hardly scratches the surface, as it shows the law of contradiction only affecting movable objects in the woman's home, only briefly showing the woman's face had been affected by the law of contradiction before she is presumably killed. To use an analogy, the consistency of the law of contradiction shown in this episode is like holding a lit match to the sun: the comparison is way off.

In a way this television show can serve as intellectual ammunition. It goes to show just how silly the opponents of the law of identity really are. Do they honestly expect us to believe that such an absurdity as what went on in that woman's house is what happens in everyday life? Literally: Open your eyes.


  1. I like the way the writers needed to use the law of causality to show what the law of contradiction would look like. As you pointed out, the imagination can't construe a model of consistent contradiction (which would in and of itself be a contradiction) because it would entail the total collapse of all existence. So, in order to have a plot at all, the effects of the law of contradiction had to be both set in motion by something and confined to a certain pattern of occurrence. There was no other way to do it other than to use the law of causality, similarly to the way one has to use reason to argue against reason.

    Not having seen the show myself, I can't really say, but it seems like a metaphor for what happens inside a person's mind when he/she rejects objectivity. It's the person's thought patterns that gradually behave in more dangerous and unpredictable ways until they finally destroy the person.

  2. Hmm! Nice point on how this episode could be representative of a person's inner state!


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