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. [Allan A. Metcalf, "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success", Houghton Mifflin Reference, 2004, page 106-107.]

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): [David Hume, "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion", 1779.]

1. if God is willing but unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent

2. if God is able but 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. [Mark Joseph Larrimore, "The Problem of Evil: a reader", Blackwell (2001), page xx.]

Lewis's 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: [Lewis, C.S. (1952). "Mere Christianity", pp. 54-56 (In all editions, this is Bk. II, Ch. 3, "The Shocking Alternative"). London: Collins.]

# "Lunatic": Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.
# "Liar": Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
# "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. ["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.] . In his 1993 book, "The Metaphor of God Incarnate", John Hick recalled having been taught this argument as a child, and states that New Testament scholars do not today support the view that Jesus claimed to be God. [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."]

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 forego the third. [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.]

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 among a product being done quickly, cheaply and of high quality. [Arthur C. Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks, (Gollancz, London, 1990), page 73.] 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:
# 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'.
# 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.
# The third horn of the trilemma is the application of a circular and therefore invalid 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. [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] .]


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  • Trilemma — bezeichnet eine Wahl aus drei Optionen, bei der jede der drei Optionen als inakzeptabel oder ungünstig erscheint. Der Begriff ist eine künstliche Bildung aus dem griechischen Wort Dilemma und soll andeuten, dass drei Optionen vorliegen. Es gibt… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Trilemma — Tri*lem ma, n. [NL., fr. Gr. ? (see {Tri }) + {?} any thing received, in logic, an assumption. Cf. {Dilemma}.] 1. (Logic) A syllogism with three conditional propositions, the major premises of which are disjunctively affirmed in the minor. See… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Trilemma — (v. gr.), dreigehörnter Schluß, s.u. Dilemma …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • trilemma — /truy lem euh/, n. 1. a situation, analogous to a dilemma, in which there are three almost equally undesirable alternatives: His trilemma consisted in not knowing whether to acknowledge receipt, deny it, or simply leave. 2. Logic. a form of… …   Universalium

  • Trilemma — Trilẹmma   [griechisch] das, s/ s und ta, Logik: Urteil, in dem einem Gegenstand drei einander ausschließende Eigenschaften zugeschrieben werden. Das von H. Albert formulierte Münchhausen Trilemma kennzeichnet die Problematik des Begründens und… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • trilemma — noun a) A circumstance in which a choice must be made between three options that seem equally undesirable. b) A syllogism containing three alternatives that each infer the same conclusion. See Also: dilemma …   Wiktionary

  • Trilemma — Valg mellem tre muligheder …   Danske encyklopædi

  • trilemma — tri·lèm·ma s.m. TS log. argomentazione simile al dilemma, composta di tre alternative possibili {{line}} {{/line}} DATA: 1960. ETIMO: comp. di tri e 1lemma …   Dizionario italiano

  • Trilemma — Tri|lẹm|ma 〈n.; Gen.: s, Pl.: s od. ma|ta; Logik〉 Urteil, das einem Gegenstand od. Sachverhalt drei sich ausschließende Eigenschaften zuschreibt; →a. s. Dilemma [Etym.: <Tri… + Lemma] …   Lexikalische Deutsches Wörterbuch

  • Trilemma — Tri|lem|ma das; s, Plur. s u. ta <zu ↑tri... u. gr. lẽmma »Annahme«, Analogiebildung zu Dilemma> die dreiteilige Annahme (Logik) …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

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