Green tea presents a paradox, the kind of thing Oxford philosophers would perhaps refer to as ‘The Green Tea Problem’. (I’ve been there and met those people; that’s what they are like.) On paper it should be utterly foul – it looks like urine, smells like bark and tastes like what would happen if you were to scrape rust into pond water. And yet.
And yet Green tea is not foul. Yes it tastes like rust and pond water, which we can safely assume is foul. I think the following seems eminently plausible:
(1) Anything that tastes like something foul itself tastes foul.
But the example of green tea seems to contradict proposition (1).
We can also safely assume, I think, that urine looks foul and that bark smells foul. Given the fact that green tea looks and smells like these things, and given the further seemingly undeniable fact that green tea neither looks nor smells foul, we seem to have counterexamples to the following two eminently plausible propositions:
(2) Anything that looks like something foul itself looks foul.
(3) Anything that smells like something foul itself smells foul.
Furthermore, it seems reasonable to believe the following proposition:
(4) Anything that looks, smells and tastes like foul things must embody the same foulness as the combined foulness of each of the things that it looks, smells and tastes like.
However, the falsity of any one of (1), (2) and (3) would suffice to render (4) false, and we have seen that (1), (2) and (3) are all false. So (4) must be really, really, really fucking false.
“Ah!”, our hypothetical interlocutor might say. “(4) isn’t really very plausible anyway. After all, is it not often the case that the result of combining several foul things is itself nowhere near foul? Take a cake for example. Flour is pretty rank, as is raw egg. But put them together and BOOM! A delicious, non-foul treat.”
On might take issue with this in a number of ways. For one thing, it misreads (4). To get a counterexample to (4) out of what our hypothetical interlocutor has said, it must be the case that anything that looks, smells and tastes like a delicious cake (the combined foulness of the ingredients in this case adding up to something that is itself not foul; an interesting problem perhaps, but not the one that constitutes our present focus) must itself have the same level of deliciousness of said cake. This does seem very plausible to me, although one could perhaps take issue with it using extremely esoteric counterexamples (I leave it to the reader to work these out). The very fact that such counterexamples would need to be so esoteric, however, merely confirms what I was trying to say in the first place – that (4) seems very plausible. And yet green tea seems to be a (non-esoteric) counterexample to it.
But what if we are irrevocably dedicated to (4)? Let us then assume that (4) is true, and that green tea is really foul. This leads us onto another problem: many people do not think green tea is foul. Thus, if we assume that green tea is foul, then we are left with a pressing need to account for the fact that it feels, physically and spiritually, very non-foul to a lot of people. To sum it up with an aphorism:
HOW CAN SOMETHING SO WRONG FEEL SO RIGHT?
On the one hand, this doesn’t seem, generally, to be a very difficult thing to explain. You would probably find lots of items of food that, if you were to really delve down into how they are constructed, you would designate as ‘foul’, but which nonetheless taste nice. Think of McDonald’s, for example, the enjoyment of which is a result of clever marketing, a lot of salt and some mental compartmentalising. Green tea, however, presents a problem because there is a very real sense in which it isn’t actually all that pleasant anyway. Given this, an explanation presents itself: people like it (i.e. it appears to people to be non-foul) precisely because it is foul. Think of it this way: far from being sources of disgust, its taste, smell and appearance actually lead to the drink feeling rather worthy, like a cup of pure health. And healthiness is not really supposed to taste that great, is it? If the thing tasted like Nesquick or Panda Pop it wouldn’t be the same. I myself am tempted to state that green tea is really problematic, in that it is non-foul precisely because it is foul. This can be expressed thus: p, therefore not-p. Or to be really nerdy about it: p→~p. But even were we to retreat from this utterly outlandish, logic-defying claim and simply say that green tea merely appears to be non-foul (because it is foul), this, I submit, would still be a very quirky claim indeed. I struggle to think of anything else that appears to be not-p for the reason that it is p.
So to sum up. If green tea is not foul, then this must be because either (1), (2) or (3) is false (or all of them together). But each of these propositions is very plausible. If any of these propositions is denied, then (4) must be false, but (4) is itself a very plausible proposition. And even if we maintain, in spite of all this, that (4) is true and that green tea is foul after all, we are still faced with the need to explain its non-foul appearance, the most ready and plausible explanation for which is, in many respects, otherwise very odd. So there you have it: the three horns of the Green Tea Problem.
Now I don’t expect publication in the Philosophical Review here. I don’t even necessarily expect a retweet. I’m just bringing The Green Tea problem out into the open, should anyone choose to look. Future research, I suggest, lies in unpicking possible ambiguities and equivocations in the word ‘foul’.
Yes ladies, I am single. Very much so.