Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The “Binary Thinking” Habit

Are you for or against cutting Medicare? Are you for this budget or not? It’s a simple up or down question with an embedded dichotomization of positions. Such forced choice questions are in the air just now. They are a bit like the binary view of the world as organized into male/female, matter/spirit, reason/intuition etc. We have a 2 party political system and it makes for polar positions at times. This perhaps feeds on a Manichean tendency we have to set many things up as exclusive and naturally opposed choices.
Looking at the world in terms of binary of dichotomous categories simplifies things. Indeed there is a long tradition of binary or dichotomous thinking in our common-sense cultures, but also in formal philosophy. Structuralism, for example, sees binary opposition as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language. We get trapped into such binary simplification for several reasons including:

  • the sequential nature of writing,
  • the ease of considering one alternative
  • tradition,
  • habit and
  • a common sense ontology (things are alive or they are not, right?).
As a result much of our everyday analysis frames issues in terms of binary opposites. You can see a remarkable prevalence of assumptions based on implicit, binary opposites in casual conversation and even on this Blog. Are secular humanists liberals or can they be conservative? Thee may be false dichotomies representing an erroneous reduction of many possibilities down to only 2. Essential this creates an either/or situation that may not exist or which is a poor model of what does exist.This blog had a binary style debate on whether what is moral is objective or subjective. Is this a proper frame for the discussion? Perhaps not – there may be other positions and some middle ground. The middle is often good territory especially when opinions are dichotomized. But some situations shouldn't be treated this way and answers can be more in one direction than another. In the biological argument between a creationist and evolutionary position on where did species come from, I would argue strongly for the evolutionary side.

A binary style with false dichotmies can lead us to some pretty weak conclusions. If you are not a Democrat, then you must be a Republican. Remember where this argument lead us in 2001:
“You are either with us or against us.”
Lots of things warn us off such a false dichotomization, but an ironic lesson comes from this equally simple formulation:

There are only three types of people in the world, those that understand math and those that don't. “

In recent years efforts like the deconstructive reaction against structuralism have exposed some problems with traditional simple polar opposites. My earlier post on Mark Twain is relevant. Twain was a great realist writer who deconstructed cultural assumptions about what is good or bad in society. Twain's fiction showed that the categorization of binary oppositions often is value laden and ethnocentric. It relies on some unstated, unanalyzed and perhaps superficial ordering mechanism such was evident in the Antebellum South. 

Another problem is that some binary categories arise from an unconscious tendency towards reification. Reification of a concept means making an idea (like “soul”) concrete. This often leads to binary thinking. Descartes dualism is a famous example. Another folk wisdom example might be reifying an abstract concept like strength in a person. We talk about a “strong person”. We thus make it concrete, put it into everyday language and divide people into strong and weak (alternatively good or bad). A culture or a conversation now, has some verbal artifact that can be employed as part of binary thinking.
We even see some reification sneaking into early social science. An example is the coining of a term like “intelligence”. By converting an abstract concept, intelligence, into a word implying "unitary thing," intelligence becomes a "single substance." It becomes an "object" that occupies space inside the brain and can be measured on a test. At the turn of the 20th century psychometrists established intelligence as a tool for ranking individuals, social classes, and races on a uni-dimensional scale of "worth." You are smart or you are not. This concept could then be picked up by a broad social movement like Social Darwinism, where policies were formed based on the belief that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. Such simplifications make their way into easy conversation, but as in the case of Social Darwinism they can be dangerous. I’m afraid that we can see much of this reified, binary thinking in some of the current political debates. They remind me of earlier formulations:
  • America: love it or leave it.
  • Either support States rights or Texas will separate from the US.
  • Every person is either wholly good or wholly evil. 
 Not the best way to frame arguments on difficult topics.



Gary Berg-Cross said...

For an interesting video showing 2 frames side by side of opposites like ice- fire baby- old death- life opposites see

Don Wharton said...

It is profoundly easy to let structural complexity inappropriately fall into our linguistic categories. Yet without those categories it is difficult even to imagine how best to talk about much of our experience. We sometimes realize that to really communicate about the underlying complexities we would need something of the magnitude of a very large book. It is easier to just be quiet than attempt that.

I also enjoyed the video you referenced in the comment.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Language as a symbolic system lets us signal ideas to other cognitive agents. That's very useful with survival value. Signs and words serve a mind solving problems and representing the future and things to do given future possibility. But it is worth working at having an adequate language system to express our ideas. 3,000 years ago we didn't have much of a vocabulary for Physics or Geometry, but the Greeks helped advance both. We are still doing this for social sciences and Humanism needs some of that language development.