Dichotomies

The Greeks gave us many things, like democracy, philosophy, drama, art, math, and architecture. Most of them (with the possible exception of democracy) have been good for us. We’ve built our entire civilization on the premises they’ve left us. It would be churlish of me, therefore, to complain about one of their more pernicious legacies.

Still, let’s take their word Dichotomy.

Dichotomy means, literally, to cut something into two parts. It’s fundamental to the Greek system of logic and, therefore, our own. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘There are only two possibilities: win or lose.’ Or, ‘We have just two choices: peace or war.’ It’s simply ingrained into our thinking – matter/energy, right/wrong, white/black, right/left.

Problem is, most of these are simply false to fact. We used to think that matter and energy were completely separate entities. Now we know the universe happily turns one into the other as a matter of course. Pure black and pure white are intellectual constructs. Neither exists in the natural world.

Even right and left are somewhat artificial. Most of our turns are sorta right or sorta left. Our political parties are sorta left and sorta right. Right brain and left brain functions overlap a lot. We have to teach our children which is their left hand and which is their right. It is not a natural concept.

Yet we have all been trained to split the world we encounter into two parts. We are certainly capable of using a larger range of categories, but two, A or B, Yes or No, Right or Wrong, are almost reflexive to us.

On the one hand, the fundamental folly of that has given us some pretty good humor. Robert Benchley created the Law of Distinction, namely, that “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”

We know the Pessimist sees the glass as half empty, while the Optimist sees the glass as half full. But the Engineer sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be.

Then there’s “The Optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The Pessimist is afraid he’s right.” Or how about, “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”

The math geeks have even bent the dichotomy: “There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who know math and those who don’t.” And, “There are 10 kinds of people in the world: Those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

And there are even a few human dichotomies that seem to be real. There are people who know that toilet paper should roll over the top away from you and those who know it should roll over the top toward you. And let’s not even get into the whole question of putting the toilet seat down.

If you are someone who wakes late and comes into focus in a leisurely fashion, you are horrified by the knowledge (and experience) that there are not only people who wake up at obscenely early hours, but who wake up instantly, cheerfully, and (most terrible of all) vocally. I’ve known a few with whom I’ve had earnest discussions about the meaning of Justifiable Homicide.

But I digress.

The truth of the matter, I suppose, is that the Greeks did not invent the dichotomy, they merely gave it a name. One of the most basic of human instincts is to divide the world. Us and Them. Safe and Dangerous. That which we can eat and that which wants to eat us.

But we humans go beyond mere instinct and reflex. We learn. Today our very thought patterns are trained from an early age to bifurcate things. And whenever we hear someone split something, however complex, into either This or That, we find ourselves nodding. To us, there seems a certain inherent logic in reducing the world and our place in it into binary options. And once we have made our binary choices, we have absolutely no talent for rethinking them.

Hippocrates put it well: “There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.”

So now we come to that other hand. Not too many years ago, it made sense to think that Global Climate Change was some sort of weird theory, with minimal evidence and based on fairly primitive computer climate modeling. Naturally there were a whole lot of pundits who, rather than sensibly reserving judgment of the idea as a possible truth, loudly declared it to be nonsense. As bad science based on a liberal urge to suppress capitalist industry.   They collected quite a following.

Today, when the science is solidly rooted and 97% of climate scientists agree, those pundits should be admitting their errors or at least fighting a lonely rear-guard action.

Far from it. Not only are they still declaring the whole idea as junk science, they still have literally millions of followers. I know perfect rational people who still believe there are grounds to reserve judgment and postpone any actions. We are simply very bad at reevaluating our beliefs.

Or take evolution. Once upon a time, when fossils were few and far between and our genetic knowledge was rudimentary, it made sense to be skeptical about an idea that seemed to clearly contradict the Bible. Given a choice, many, if not most, people opted for the Bible.

But as the number of fossils grew into the millions and the evolutionary gaps in the record filled in, the logic of evolution was backed up by solid evidence. Genetics came along and explained the actual mechanisms of evolution. The combined sciences removed the logical grounds for any more disbelief.

It made no difference to a lot of folks. In the face of opposing scientific evidence, they simply elevated their own Biblical evidence to a higher status. The Bible, they now say, is inerrant. And since it is inerrant, the scientific evidence, however voluminous, must be wrong. And, in truth, more than wrong. It must be the result of a grand secular humanistic conspiracy. (Personally, I find this to be the equivalent a child plugging his ears and loudly chanting la-la-la-la to keep from hearing something he doesn’t want to hear. But that’s my prejudice.)

I guess my bottom line is this: we live in a very disturbed and disturbing time. Things we thought were solid and dependable have started mutating and becoming unpredictable. As human beings, the more we feel threatened, the more we fall back on our limbic reflexes. We automatically split the world into Us and Them and we question the motives of Them.

The world is clearly divided into good and bad people…and I know which side I am on. The good people are going to Heaven.

But I’m not so sure about you.

 

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