Richard’s Paradox

What is Richard’s Paradox?

Richard’s Paradox is a brain teaser from the world of maths and logic. A paradox is like a puzzle that doesn’t have a clear answer, it’s like an unsolvable problem. This particular paradox shows us a conflict between numbers and language—two things you might not think would conflict. At its heart, Richard’s Paradox looks at descriptions of numbers and finds a situation where our understanding hits a wall.

Here is one simple way to explain it: Imagine you have a giant list of phrases that describe different numbers, and each phrase fits with just one number. Now, think about a rule that tries to create a new number based on that list but ends up making a number that can’t be on the list. It’s strange, right? That’s Richard’s Paradox. In another simple explanation, picture an instruction for finding a lost treasure that somehow says the treasure can’t be found. That’s what Richard’s Paradox does with number descriptions in language—it creates instructions that lead to an impossible situation.

Origin of Richard’s Paradox

The puzzle comes from Jules Richard, who in 1905, played with the idea that we can describe mathematical truths with words. Specifically, he focused on real numbers—which include numbers like pi (3.14…) and square roots—and found a contradiction when trying to list these number descriptions. Let’s dive into how this puzzle works.

Richard began by looking at all phrases that define numbers. Even though there are infinite phrases, they can be ordered in a list paired with natural numbers. So, for each phrase, there is a number: the first phrase defines the first number, the second phrase the second number, and so on. Now, imagine making a new number by picking digits so that it doesn’t match any of the numbers defined by the phrases. You would think you’ve created a number that can’t be on the list. But if you can explain how you did this, that description should put the number on the list. Yet, it cannot be on the list since it’s different from all the other numbers. See the problem? That’s the paradox—it’s a circular loop of confusion.

Key Arguments

  • The paradox shows that not all real numbers can have a phrase that describes them. This goes against our assumption that we can put every real number into words.
  • It creates a puzzle between “definable” numbers and “indefinable” numbers, and asks if we can really draw a line between the two.
  • It challenges the idea of how we count things. We thought we could count all definable numbers, but Richard’s Paradox shows a situation where that counting doesn’t make sense.


Let’s look at a few examples that illustrate Richard’s Paradox in action.

  • Think about naming every single book in the world. If someone told you there’s a book that can’t be named by following your naming rule, but then gives that book a name, you’re in a similar kind of paradox.
  • Explanation: This is like Richard’s Paradox because the new book is both nameable and not nameable at the same time.

  • Imagine you made a huge playlist of every song ever made that you can listen to. If you then create a song that doesn’t fit in because it’s somehow different from every song in the playlist, but then you describe it and add it to the playlist, you’d feel pretty confused.
  • Explanation: This is an example of the paradox because the new song is supposed to be unlistable, yet it ends up on the list.

  • Let’s say you have an ice cream menu that lists all the flavors. Then someone invents a flavor that should not be on the menu because it’s not like any other. But if they can describe it, it ends up on the menu anyway.
  • Explanation: This demonstrates the paradox because the new flavor both doesn’t belong on the menu and has to belong because it has a description.

Answer or Resolution

People have worked hard to resolve Richard’s Paradox, leading to new thinking in philosophy and maths. The main way to solve the paradox is to realize that using language in a careless or vague way can cause problems. It’s like trying to explain a game’s rules using two different languages and mixing them up—it just doesn’t work. This led to new systems in maths that are clear about the difference between the language we use for talking about objects and the language we use for discussing the language itself.

The famous logician Kurt Gödel helped clear this up by showing that formal systems, like the ones used for maths, have limits. One result from studying Richard’s Paradox is this: there are so many real numbers that most of them cannot be caught in phrases or sentences like we thought.

Major Criticism

Some people argue that Richard’s Paradox is just a mess created by mixing up maths and language. They say mathematical ideas need clear, strict definitions, not loose and confusing phrases. They also point out that for practical things like computer work and sciences, which use well-defined numbers, the paradox doesn’t really matter.

Practical Applications

It might not be easy to see how a confusing puzzle like Richard’s Paradox is useful in everyday life, but it actually helps make the foundations of logic and maths stronger. Here are some ways:

  • When creating computer programming languages, knowing about these paradoxes helps avoid mistakes that spring from unclear thinking.
  • It shows people who work in math and science the importance of spelling out the rules and basics clearly.
  • In the world of philosophy, it gets people thinking about how to deal with infinite things and the boundaries of language.

In short, Richard’s Paradox doesn’t give us a direct thing to do, like a tool or formula does, but it strengthens the ground our other tools stand on.

Related Topics

Besides Richard’s Paradox, there are other complex ideas and puzzles in logic and mathematics. Some related topics are:

  • Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems
  • Explanation: These theorems, like Richard’s Paradox, show that there are some truths in maths that can’t be proven within their own systems.

  • Cantor’s Diagonal Argument
  • Explanation: This argument uses a similar approach to the paradox to show that there are different sizes of infinity, which also pushes the boundaries of our understanding of counting.

  • The Halting Problem
  • Explanation: This problem is about computer programs and whether you can predict if they will finish running or go on forever, which relates to defining ‘indefinable’ processes.

  • Zeno’s Paradoxes
  • Explanation: Zeno’s famous paradoxes challenge our understanding of movement and infinity, questioning how we reach conclusions about the physical world.

  • Liar Paradox
  • Explanation: This paradox involves a statement that contradicts itself, like “This sentence is false”, and leads to similar confusion as Richard’s Paradox does with numbers and descriptions.

Why is it Important

Why bother with a confusing paradox like this? Well, it might not directly change how you make a sandwich or choose a movie to watch, but it deeply influences the tools we use for all kinds of thinking and problem-solving. If we want our computers to work right, our planes to fly safely, and our science to make sense, we need the firmer ground that comes from wrestling with things like Richard’s Paradox.

To someone not working in maths or logic, it might just look like a strange problem. But for the person designing the app on your phone or figuring out climate change, understanding this puzzle makes all the difference. It’s about making sure we get to answers that are solid and true, not just guesses. By working through this, we unlock ways of thinking that keep our modern world spinning.


In the end, Richard’s Paradox hooks our brains with a twisty, seemingly unsolvable problem. It shakes up our understanding of maths, logic, and the very language we use. This paradox might not give us a shiny tool, but it polishes our ability to think, paving the way for everything from computing to theoretical science. By poking at the cracks in how we describe mathematical ideas, we’re ensuring that the building blocks of technology and knowledge stay strong and secure. It’s like solving a riddle that in turn solves other mysteries, helping us paint a clearer picture of the universe we live in.