Berry paradox

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{math, number, function}
{language, word, form}
{theory, work, human}

The Berry paradox is a self-referential paradox arising from the expression "the smallest possible integer not definable by a given number of words." Bertrand Russell, the first to discuss the paradox in print, attributed it to G. G. Berry (1867–1928),[1] a junior librarian at Oxford's Bodleian library, who had suggested the more limited paradox arising from the expression "the first undefinable ordinal".


The paradox

Consider the expression:

Since there are finitely many words, there are finitely many phrases of under eleven words, and hence finitely many positive integers that are defined by phrases of under eleven words. Since there are infinitely many positive integers, this means that there are positive integers that cannot be defined by phrases of under eleven words. By the well ordering principle, if there are positive integers that satisfy a given property, then there is a smallest positive integer that satisfies that property; therefore, there is a smallest positive integer satisfying the property "not definable in under eleven words". This is the integer to which the above expression refers. The above expression is only ten words long, so this integer is defined by an expression that is under eleven words long; it is definable in under eleven words, and is not the smallest positive integer not definable in under eleven words, and is not defined by this expression. This is a paradox: there must be an integer defined by this expression, but since the expression is self-contradictory (any integer it defines is definable in under eleven words), there cannot be any integer defined by it.


The Berry paradox as formulated above arises because of systematic ambiguity in the word "definable". In other formulations of the Berry paradox, such as one that instead reads: "...not nameable in less..." the term "nameable" is also one that has this systematic ambiguity. Terms of this kind give rise to vicious circle fallacies. Other terms with this type of ambiguity are: satisfiable, true, false, function, property, class, relation, cardinal, and ordinal.[2] To resolve one of these paradoxes means to pinpoint exactly where our use of language went wrong and to provide restrictions on the use of language which may avoid them.

This family of paradoxes can be resolved by incorporating stratifications of meaning in language. Terms with systematic ambiguity may be written with subscripts denoting that one level of meaning is considered a higher priority than another in their interpretation. The number not nameable0 in less than eleven words' may be nameable1 in less than eleven words under this scheme.[3]

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