Curry's paradox

Curry's paradox is a paradox in which an arbitrary claim F is proved from the mere existence of a sentence C that says of itself "If C, then F", requiring only a few apparently innocuous logical deduction rules. Since F is arbitrary, any logic having these rules proves everything. The paradox may be expressed in natural language and in various logics, including certain forms of set theory, lambda calculus, and combinatory logic.

The paradox is named after the logician Haskell Curry. It has also been called Löb's paradox after Martin Hugo Löb,[1] due to its relationship to Löb's theorem.

In natural language

Claims of the form "if A, then B" are called conditional claims. Curry's paradox uses a particular kind of self-referential conditional sentence, as demonstrated in this example:

If this sentence is true, then Germany borders China.

Even though Germany does not border China, the example sentence certainly is a natural-language sentence, and so the truth of that sentence can be analyzed. The paradox follows from this analysis. The analysis consists of two steps.

  1. First, common natural-language proof techniques can be used to prove that the example sentence is true.
  2. Second, the truth of the example sentence can be used to prove that Germany borders China. Because Germany does not border China, this suggests that there has been an error in one of the proofs.

The claim "Germany borders China" could be replaced by any other claim, and the sentence would still be provable. Thus every sentence appears to be provable. Because the proof uses only well-accepted methods of deduction, and because none of these methods appears to be incorrect, this situation is paradoxical.[2]

Informal proof

The standard method for proving conditional sentences (sentences of the form "if A, then B") is called a "conditional proof". In this method, in order to prove "if A, then B", first A is assumed and then with that assumption B is shown to be true.

To produce Curry's paradox, as described in the two steps above, apply this method to the sentence "if this sentence is true, then Germany borders China". Here A, "this sentence is true", refers to the overall sentence, while B is "Germany borders China." So, assuming A is the same as assuming "If A, then B". Therefore, in assuming A, we have assumed both A and "If A, then B". Therefore B is true, by modus ponens, and we have proven "If this sentence is true, then 'Germany borders China' is true." in the usual way, by assuming the hypothesis and deriving the conclusion.

Now, because we have proved "If this sentence is true, then 'Germany borders China' is true", then we can again apply modus ponens, because we know that the claim "this sentence is true" is correct. In this way, we can deduce that Germany borders China.