Uncommon Sense

June 20, 2022

Black and White Thinking

Filed under: Culture,Politics,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:18 am
Tags: , ,

I was reading a podcast (“What is Life?”) transcript of a discussion of finding a definition of life we can all agree upon. (No, we do not yet have such a beastie.)

Here is a passage that struck me:

You know, it’s so easy for humans to think in dichotomies: good–bad; black–white; day–night. These are things that make life simple. It means we can categorize things very, very quickly. And early on in human history, this was the defense mechanism, because you had to make decisions very, very quickly. Whether or not you were going to shake that person’s hand or shoot an arrow at them. So we needed to make these decisions.

But we don’t have to do that when we’re thinking about the larger issues of the natural world. The natural world is amazingly intricate and complex. And how those chemical complex systems emerge, and at what point a complex chemical system is something that we truly will call alive, is not at all obvious.

“It is so easy for humans to think in dichotomies: good–bad; black–white; day–night.”

All the time we are doing this, nature is telling us: “Remember that you are making a gross simplification!” For example, when the dawn comes in the morning, the transition from “night” to “day” takes over an hour (way over an hour in the arctic regions). So, what is it during that transition period? Is it still night, or has it become day? For scientific purposes we have defined an “exact” time at which, say “dawn” occurs, but that time is not directly observable by a casual observer. And that is just us forcing our dichotomous thinking, our “black and white thinking” onto nature.

Look at the knots Southerners tied themselves into defining the difference between “black” and “white” people. Or the Nazis in defining “Aryan” and “other” peoples.

So, “black and white” thinking is just another form of Type 1 thinking (a la Daniel Kahneman) that allows us to act in short order when that is demanded of us. Unfortunately, unscrupulous people smear that kind of thinking over into issues that do not require rapid response thinking. So, we have the “us and them” dichotomies of politics, and the “believer and non-believer” dichotomies of religion.

Do any of you see a way around this? Is there a rhetorical trigger we might invent that will shift people away from dichotomous thinking when it isn’t helpful? Being a cynical old person, I assume if such a thing existed, humans would find a way to mis-use it.

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