The Dirty Shirt Paradox, or - when does an event happen?

by Colin Bower (Dec. 2006)


No man willingly wears a dirty shirt. Yet, at some stage between early morning, when a man dons a clean shirt, and late evening, when he removes a dirty shirt, and tosses it contemptuously into the laundry basket, he is knowingly wearing a dirty shirt. For if it was dirty when he took it off, it was previously also dirty.  He perceives the shirt to have been clean all day but somehow instantaneously dirty only at the moment of removal. Such a perception deceives us all, and there are millions of men world wide who spend a good part of every day wearing dirty shirts. That this occurs does not represent a failure of hygiene, but the failure of Newtonian science, which posits an imperturbably linear dimensionality to the world in which we stake out our lives, largely oblivious to the terrifying chasm of metaphysical uncertainty that threatens our certain certainties.


Let me explain. A dirty shirt when it is removed at 6 pm is no more embarrassing and uncomfortable than a dirty shirt at, say, 3 pm. Yet few men that I know take along a spare clean shirt to work to change into at the precise moment when their previously clean shirt becomes dirty. There is a very good reason for this that has nothing to do with convention or convenience, and everything to do with metaphysical uncertainty. For exactly when does a clean shirt become dirty? If we knew, we would be able to change it at the appropriate time. We can certainly define what constitutes a dirty shirt, and – having defined it – we can submit any shirt we wear to a dirty shirt test. But at what point does this happen…? Oh Euclid, Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Richard Dawkins, and all you writers of bumper stickers whereso’er you may be! This is not a question; this is an exclamation of despair! When does a clean shirt become dirty? When does the sun set? When do I enter the room? When does any event take place?


Oh yes, you there so comfortable and smug curled up with your book by the fire, you think you know when an event happens. But you don’t!


If you happen to live in Cape Town, watch the Sun go down over the Atlantic from your parking space above Camps Bay, for instance. Watch that massive orb erroneously held to be an accumulation of burning gases, but which the better informed amongst us knows is the Sun, and say when it disappears. Yes, we know when it is still visible. And we know when it is invisible. But exactly when does the transition take place?


A moment’s reflection will tell us that this is and must perforce always be a puzzle beyond the solution of the science we currently master.  This is for the very good reason that as prosaic and practical as the question “when does an event happen?” may ostensibly be, it is of course a metaphysical question. How astonishing it is to realise this. You may counter with the assertion: the sun went down at 6.30 pm. But “6.30 pm” is a construction of knowledge that has meaning only as a vague analogue of what really happens when the sun goes down. No measurement in time can ever define the moment of transition between being and non-being. For when the Sun is still in the sky it is not down, and however infinitesimally brief its existence as a not-yet-set Sun may be, it is always capable of being briefer. At any given moment, it is either visible or invisible; therefore the transition from visibility to invisibility takes place in a moment out of time. This was clearly the problem Eliot devoted his great poem Four Quartets to unravelling, for it is replete with different formulations of the same thing:


At the still point of the turning world…

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered…


Only through time time is conquered…


The tolling bell

            Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried

            Ground swell, a time

            Older than the time of chronometers, older

            Than time counted by anxious worried women

            Lying awake, calculating the future,

            Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel

And piece together the past and the future.

Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception.

The future futureless, before the morning watch

When time stops and time is never ending…


For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time…


This is the spring time

But not in time’s covenant…

Where is the summer, the unimaginable

Zero summer?...


Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always…


In concord at this intersection time

Of meeting nowhere, no before and after…


…for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments…


One might just as well quote the whole poem in demonstration of the point.


To profess the impossibility of saying when an event takes place is of course simply to re-formulate Zeno’s paradox, Zeno being the wise and witty Greek to whom it was obvious all those years ago that life was a metaphysical emanation which we but poorly seek to measure and define with our scientific analogues such as mathematics and chronometers.


If you’re on the point of abandoning this short polemic on the grounds that it is irretrievably facile and useless, I beg you, give me one more moment of your time. We grapple with this issue in very real life-and-death terms when we consider the question: when does human life begin? And we seek to adjudicate on this very issue in regard to seriously important matters such as abortion. Discarding for a moment the view which has it that the actual life of a newly fertilised egg is already human life, or  the even more extreme position that the potential life of an about-to-be-fertilised egg is also already human,  and assuming that you cannot call  a fertilised egg human life, but you can call the baby that issues from the womb some nine months later human life, and knowing that most of us agree that the gratuitous taking of human life is murder, the moral challenge of abortion should be easy to adjudicate. Decide at what point non-human life becomes human life, and let that be the moment critique before which abortion is abortion, and after which abortion is murder.


Of course, the problem is that we can’t. At some stage on its journey through time from being a single celled zygote to being a multi celled foetus, an organism becomes a human being. We can’t say when, nor will we ever be able to. We are defeated not by moral complexity, but by metaphysics.


There is a clear dissonance between life as we experience it, and the knowledge we have invented to explain it. Either life is, on the one hand (a), a perfectly straight-forward phenomenon in terms of which things are what they seem, common-sense is our reliable guide, and the challenges of living, loving, begetting and sustaining ourselves is challenge enough, and the scientists and philosophers have invented a nightmarish world of the intellect in order ostensibly to “explain” it, characterised by an unintelligible construct like “infinity”, which has no paraphrasable meaning outside of the self-referencing world of mathematics, or, on the other, (b), life as we experience it is permanently mysterious, inexplicable and metaphysical, and our invented constructs are intelligible, consistent, logical, comforting and desirable. But the two worlds never cohere. This is why the clean shirt I put on every morning has become an intolerable shirt of flame by the end of the day, convincing me of Socrates’ grim warning: that person is the wisest, who knows he knows nothing.



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