A contradiction is anything that contains logical inconsistencies, hypocrisies, or oppositional elements that cannot be both true at the one time.
Five common types of contradiction are:
- Logical contradictions: This occurs when two or more propositions within an argument cannot be true at the same time.
- Empirical Contradiction: This arises when a statement or theory is contradicted by observed evidence.
- Hypocrisy: This happens when someone’s actions contradict their stated beliefs or principles.
- Self-Referential Contradiction: This is when a statement refers to itself in a way that creates a contradiction, such as “95% of facts are untrue”.
- Semantic Contradiction: This arises from the use of language. For instance, “bachelor” means an unmarried man, so “married bachelor” is a semantic contradiction.
There are other types, such as mathematical contradictions, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be exploring the five common categories above, with examples of each.
1. Logical Contradictions
Logical contradiction is a term used when two statements disagree with each other so much that they can’t both be true at the same time. Think of it as two people saying exact opposites.
Let’s use color as an example. If you say an apple is red but I insist it’s blue, we’ve landed in a logical contradiction. We can’t both be correct because a red apple can’t be blue at the same time – one of us must be mistaken. A person listening to us might insist: “you’re contradicting one another!”
We come across logical contradictions regularly in our lives, often causing us some degree of cognitive dissonance, or confusion. For example, a meteorologist on your morning news might predict a sunny day, while your smartphone weather app alerts you to prepare for rain. Both forecasts cannot simultaneously be true. Either it’s sunny or it’s rainy, it cannot be both.
Similarly, in philosophical debates, a logical contradiction may occur when two theories or explanations compete, yet only one can accurately explain the situation at hand. This stirs up important discussions and debates, encouraging us to critically examine statements to reach a closer approximation of the truth.
2. Empirical Contradictions
Empirical contradiction involves a direct conflict between a claim or theory and observed facts or empirical evidence. It’s not just a clash of words or ideas – it’s a clash with reality.
Imagine, for example, that someone tries to convince you that there are no girls at your school. But you go to school and you see girls there with your own eyes. The person’s claim is contradicting your direct observation.
Often, empirical contradictions are present in scientific experiments. For instance, a scientist may propose a new theory expecting certain results from a test. When the test results inevitably differ from their expected outcomes, the theory faces an empirical contradiction. It implies that the theory may need refining, or perhaps discarding entirely.
Solving empirical contradictions is a key part of scientific progress. Confronting theoretical predictions with collected evidence either consolidates or challenges our understanding of natural laws. Hence, empirical contradictions can lead to exciting shifts in our knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
Hypocrisy is a form of contradiction where a person’s actions or behavior don’t align with their stated beliefs or values.
It involves professing moral standards or beliefs, but not living by them, thus demonstrating a disconnect between what one preaches and what one does.
Consider the case of a person who advocates for environmental conservation but leads a lifestyle of excessive waste and consumption. Their actions contradict their vocal advocacy for the environment, rendering them hypocritical.
Hypocrisy becomes especially potent when it involves public figures, leaders, or institutions because their influence is extensive, and their actions can significantly sway public opinion or behavior.
4. Self-Referential Contradictions
A self-referential contradiction is a specific type of inconsistency where a claim or assertion contradicts itself.
Unlike logical or empirical contradictions where two different statements are at odds, a self-referential contradiction resides within the one claim itself.
Essentially, it’s when a statement, proposition, or argument invalidates itself. A simple and classic example exists in the statement: “This sentence is false.”
If we analyze this sentence, we find it twists into a self-contradictory pretzel. If the sentence is true, then it must be false (as it claims to be). But if it’s false, it cannot be true. Either way, the statement contradicts itself.
5. Semantic Contradictions
Semantic contradiction refers to a conflict of meanings at a linguistic level resulting in an inconsistency or paradox within the sentence or proposition.
Unlike logical contradictions which focus on concepts, semantic contradictions focus on the actual words or expressions used in a sentence – where the words used have definitions and/or connotations that are mutually exclusive. Essentially, the meanings of the words clash in context, making the statement undefined or nonsensical.
A classic example of a semantic contradiction is the phrase “round square”. In geometric terms, ’round’ and ‘square’ involve mutually exclusive properties – a shape cannot have all points equidistant from the center (round) and four equal straight sides (square) simultaneously. This creates a semantic contradiction.
Quick Note: If you’re not sure what semantics is, see my introductory guide to semantics.
Understanding contradictions – whether they’re logical, empirical, hypocritical, self-referential, or semantic – sharpens our abilities to evaluate, comprehend, and navigate the complex world around us.
Being able to spot and resolve contradictions aids us in refining our views, challenging scientific theories, and fostering more conscious communications.
Ultimately, contradictions push us to a deeper exploration of truth, keeping us vigilant and adaptive in our evolving understanding of the world.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]