Trilemma: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A trilemma is a difficult choice from three options, each of which is (or appears) unacceptable or unfavourable.

There are two logically equivalent ways in which to express a trilemma: it can be expressed as a choice among three unfavourable options, one of which must be chosen, or as a choice among three favourable options, only two of which are possible at the same time.

The term derives from the much older term dilemma, a choice between two difficult or unfavourable alternatives.

The earliest recorded use of the term was by the British preacher Philip Henry in 1672, and later, apparently independently, by the preacher Isaac Watts in 1725.[1]


Trilemmas in religion


Epicurus' trilemma

One of the earliest uses of the trilemma formulation is that of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, rejecting the idea of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God (as summarised by David Hume):[2]

  1. if God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent
  2. if God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good
  3. if God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil?

Although traditionally ascribed to Epicurus, it has been suggested that it may actually be the work of an early skeptic writer, possibly Carneades.[3]

Apologetic trilemma

One well known trilemma was put forward by Christian apologists as a proof of the divinity of Jesus, and is most commonly known in the version by C. S. Lewis. It proceeds from the assumption that Jesus claimed to be God, and that therefore one of the following must be true:[4]

  1. Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.
  2. Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
  3. Lord: Jesus is God.

The trilemma, usually in Lewis's formulation, is often used in works of popular apologetics, although it is almost totally absent from discussions about the status of Jesus by professional theologians and biblical scholars.[5]. In his 1993 book The Metaphor of God Incarnate, John Hick recalled having been taught this argument as a child, and states that there are certain New Testament scholars today that do not support the view that Jesus claimed to be God.[6]

Trilemmas in Philosophy

The Trilemma of suppressing free speech

In Mill's On Liberty, as a part of his argument against the suppression of free speech, he describes the trilemma facing those attempting to justify such suppression (although he does not refer to it as a trilemma, Parker-Rees (2009) identified it as such). If free speech is suppressed, the opinion suppressed is either:

  1. True - in which case society is robbed of the chance to exchange error for truth
  2. False - in which case the opinion would create a 'livelier impression' of the truth, allowing people to justify the correct view
  3. Half-true - in which case it would contain a forgotten element of the truth, that is important to rediscover, with the eventual aim of a synthesis of the conflicting opinions that is the whole truth.

Trilemmas in economics

In economics, the trilemma (or "impossible trinity") is a term used in discussing the problems associated with creating a stable international financial system. It refers to the trade-offs among the following three goals: a fixed exchange rate, national independence in monetary policy, and capital mobility. According to the Mundell-Fleming model, a small, open economy cannot achieve all three of these policy goals at the same time: in pursuing any two of these goals, a nation must forgo the third.[7]

Steven Pinker noted another social trilemma in his book The Blank Slate: that a society cannot be simultaneously fair, free and equal. If it is fair, individuals who work harder will accumulate more wealth; if it is free, parents will leave the bulk of their inheritance to their children; but then it will not be equal, as people will begin life with different fortunes.

Arthur C. Clarke cited a management trilemma encountered when trying to achieve production quickly and cheaply whilst maintaining high quality.[8] In the software industry, this means that one can pick any two of: fastest time to market, highest software quality (fewest defects), and lowest cost (headcount). This is the basis of the popular project-management aphorism "Quick, Cheap, Good: Pick two".

The Münchhausen Trilemma

In the theory of knowledge the Münchhausen Trilemma is a philosophical term coined to stress the impossibility to prove any certain truth even in the fields of logic and mathematics. Its name is going back to a logical proof of the German philosopher Hans Albert. This proof runs as follows: All of the only three possible attempts to get a certain justification must fail:

  1. All justifications in pursuit of certain knowledge have also to justify the means of their justification and doing so they have to justify anew the means of their justification. Therefore there can be no end. We are faced with the hopeless situation of an 'infinite regression'.
  2. One can stop at self-evidence or common sense or fundamental principles or speaking 'ex cathedra' or at any other evidence, but in doing so the intention to install certain justification is abandoned.
  3. The third horn of the trilemma is the application of a circular argument.

The Trilemma of the Earth

The “Trilemma of the Earth” (or “3E Trilemma”) is a term used by scientists working on energy and environment protection. 3E Trilemma stands for Economy-Energy-Environment interaction.

For the activation of economic development (E: Economy) to occur, we need to increase the energy expenditure (E: Energy) however this raises the environmental issue (E: Environment) of more emissions of pollutant gases.[9]

The Žižek Trilemma

The “Žižek Trilemma” is a humorous formulation on the incompatibility of certain personal virtues under a constraining ideological framework. Often attributed to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, it is actually quoted by him as the product of an anonymous source:

One cannot but recall here a witty formula of life under a hard Communist regime: Of the three features—personal honesty, sincere support of the regime and intelligence—it was possible to combine only two, never all three. If one was honest and supportive, one was not very bright; if one was bright and supportive, one was not honest; if one was honest and bright, one was not supportive. [10]


  1. ^ Allan A. Metcalf, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, Houghton Mifflin Reference, 2004, page 106-107.
  2. ^ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779.
  3. ^ Mark Joseph Larrimore, The Problem of Evil: a reader, Blackwell (2001), page xx.
  4. ^ Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity, pp. 54-56 (In all editions, this is Bk. II, Ch. 3, "The Shocking Alternative"). London: Collins.
  5. ^ "Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?", in Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O'Collins, The Incarnation: an interdisciplinary symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford University Press, 2004), p222-3.
  6. ^ John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, page 27: "A further point of broad agreement among New Testament scholars ... is that the historical Jesus did not make the claim to deity that later Christian thought was to make for him: he did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate. ... such evidence as there is has led the historians of the period to conclude, with an impressive degree of unanimity, that Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate."
  7. ^ Maurice Obstfeld, Jay C. Shambaugh & Alan M. Taylor (2005). “The Trilemma in History: Tradeoffs Among Exchange Rates, Monetary Policies, and Capital Mobility” in The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 87, No. 3, Pages 423-438. Accessed 13 April 2007.
  8. ^ Arthur C. Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks, (Gollancz, London, 1990), page 73.
  9. ^ Hamakawa, Yoshihiro (2002). “New Energy Option for 21st Century : Recent Progress in Solar Photovoltaic Energy Conversion” in Japan Society of Applied Physics International, Vol 5, 30-35. See also the Trilemma Council.
  10. ^ Slavoj Žižek "The Dreams of Others" In These Times, May 18, 2007

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Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Modelled on dilemma, replacing di-, two with tri-, three


Wikipedia has an article on:


trilemma (plural: trilemmas or trilemmata)

  1. A circumstance in which a choice must be made between three options that seem equally undesirable.
  2. (logic) A syllogism containing three alternatives that each infer the same conclusion.
  3. (the trilemma) A form of apologetics meant to prove the divinity of Jesus.

Related terms


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