January 25 – No, It Isn’t

Today’s factismal: Today is not National Opposite Day.

If you lived about 2600 years ago in Greece, you would have had very little to do other than fight off invaders, enslave the survivors, and make up paradoxes. In your spare time, you’d name the Constellations after your favorite dirty stories, er, myths, and invent mathematics and physics (but get both of them very, very wrong). But paradoxes were what you really wanted to do; if you invented a good one, you’d be famous across the land. That’s because the Greeks felt that we could only understand Nature by using logic and since paradoxes point out where logic breaks down, they helped us understand Nature best.

One of the paradoxes of Greece: the temples were also centers of science. Temple of Apollo on Aegina. (My camera)

One of the paradoxes of Greece: the temples were also centers of science. Temple of Apollo on Aegina.
(My camera)

And while Greece was full of philosophers creating new ideas and testing them with new paradoxes, one of the best came from Epimenides, a Greek who was born just off the mainland on the isle of Crete. According to legend, Epimenides was born in 900 BC, slept for 57 years in a cave, and died around 600 BC. And according to what archaeologists have found, he once wrote “Cretans, all liars” as part of an ode to Zeus; modern versions of the saying have changed it slightly to “All Cretans are liars”.

The stoa (porch) where Greek philosophers liked to hang out. (My camera)

The stoa (porch) where Greek philosophers liked to hang out.
(My camera)

Now, given that Epimenides was from Crete, is his statement true or not? If he speaks the truth, then all Cretans must be liars which means that he is a liar which means that his statement cannot be true. But if it is false, then Cretans must be truth tellers which means that his statement is true and all Cretans are liars. (As is the case with all paradoxes, there is a way out; it lies in the word “all”. If only some Cretans are liars, then the statement “All Cretans are liars” can both be a lie {because only some are} and still allow him to be a liar.) This paradox has entertained and befuddled folks ever since the time that Epimenides first told it (or didn’t). In many ways, his paradox was the model for National Opposite Day, which is today.

And if you’d like to be a model scientist, why not head over to Ancient Lives? They need your help in (literally) piecing together the past. You’ll match up pieces of papyrus and help the archaeologists discover more about how the Greeks once lived. Who knows – you may even help them uncover a new paradox! To learn more, head over to:
http://www.ancientlives.org

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