Monday, September 27, 2010

Two Plays by Tom Stoppard

I just reread The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte, two plays by Tom StoppardThe Real Inspector Hound, a parody of the "murder at the stately English country home" genre, is much the better.  But my favorite exchange was in After Magritte:

THELMA:  ... All I can say is I'll be glad when it's all over and things are back to normal.  It's making you short-tempered and argumentative.  You contradict everything I say --
HARRIS: (heatedlyThat I deny --

What if, instead of contradicting her, Harris had agreed with Thelma and said "You're right"? 

Stoppard has worked on film scripts as well as theater.  The dystopian film Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, is one of my favorites.  I didn't realize that he also contributed much of the dialog for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a Steven Spielberg film that I also enjoyed.

This (substantive) modification of Stoppard's dialog has bothered me:

ALICE:  You contradict everything I say.
BOB:  You're right.

I considered whether this might be some variant of the Liar Paradox similar to:

The next sentence is false.
The previous sentence is true.

That really is a logical paradox:  try to make the first sentence true - it doesn't work;  try to make the first sentence false - it doesn't work either.

But there's really no logical problem with Alice and Bob.  Alice's statement is false and so is Bob's.  Bob's response falsifies Alice's previous statement.  Bob proves Alice wrong by agreeing with her.  However since Bob proved Alice wrong, in a certain sense he actually did contradict her.   Which would seem to make Alice's statement true (or at least it could be true - assuming all of Bob's other statements also contradicted her).  But didn't I just say it was false?  Still it isn't really a paradox in pure logic.  Is it?

While we're at it, let's take a look at this stripped-down version of Stoppard's original Thelma and Harris exchange:

THELMA: You contradict everything I say.
HARRIS: That I deny.

Thelma's statement could be true (at least when Harris contradicts her in all other cases - let's go ahead assume that).  The Harris statement denies what Thelma just said, that denial counts as a contradiction (I suppose) and so the Harris statement is consistent with the meaning of Thelma's assertion.  Hence, the Harris statement supports Thelma's assertion.  Then given that we're assuming Harris otherwise contradicts Thelma, Thelma's statement must be true.  On the other hand, Thelma asserts that Harris contradicts everything she says and Harris' subsequent statement supports that.  If Harris' statement supports Thelma's statement, it can hardly be contradicting her.  So Thelma's statment must be false.  But didn't I just say Thelma's statement must be true?  Oops. 

What do you think?  But please, don't contradict everything I say.

"if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."
--- Tweedledee in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

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