I could have titled this post, Quadriforms as a tool to avoid binary opposition, but I feared people would immediately stop reading! Instead, let’s begin with a concrete illustration: both to introduce a somewhat abstract concept and, hopefully, to engage the reader.
1. The harm that results from binary thinking:
George Bush is a prominent example of someone who thinks in binary terms. The statement, “You’re either with us or you’re against us” is an obvious example. In other words, there are only two options, however they may be characterized: with/against, us/them, yes/no, white/black, good/evil, etc.
President Bush implied the same thing when, on another occasion, he described certain countries as forming an “axis of evil”. The implication is, The world consists of good guys and bad guys, at both the individual and the national levels.
Wherever he looks, President Bush evidently sees cowboys in white hats vs. outlaws in black hats. And such a claim may be defensible in rare instances. World War II and 9/11 are the exceptions that are normative for President Bush. (But even here, the idea of “pure evil” is arguably misguided.)
To think in binary terms encourages conflict rather than reconciliation. Thus President Bush is one of the most polarizing figures in the world today. (Notwithstanding his claim, “I’m a uniter, not a divider”.) It isn’t a coincidence: it is an unavoidable consequence of his binary worldview.
Moreover, to think in binary terms results in a loss of moral perspective. “Good guys” can do no wrong because their goals are just. Therefore even torture can be justified, so long as the good guys are doing it.
Religion provides a second prominent example. Christianity, Islam and other faiths must resist a natural tendency to think in binary terms: us/them, believers/unbelievers, saved/unsaved, those who possess the truth/those who are deceived.
I believe the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists is legitimate. But evangelicals must exercise constant vigilance to maintain the distinction. To some extent, evangelicals necessarily share the binary worldview of the fundamentalist — thus the natural affinity between George Bush and conservative Christians in the USA.
2. An alternative way of constructing the world:
In a previous post, I mentioned that Sam Harris would like to obliterate the distinction between “moderate” Christians (whatever that may mean, exactly) and fundamentalists. In other words, Harris advocates a binary worldview: theists/atheists. Here Harris makes “strange bedfellows” with the fundamentalists he loathes.
But what is the alternative? How can we conceptualize the world so as to capture at least part of its complexity, instead of thinking in reductionist, binary terms?
I came across an answer in a surprising source: Appearance & Reality by Stephen Hogbin. The book is described as “a visual handbook for artists, designers, and makers”. Hogbin utilizes 30 quadriforms to convey his ideas. For example, this one (p. 22):
The above quadriform isn’t original to Hogbin, of course, as he himself acknowledges. The point is, notice how it sidesteps the potential for binary opposition: on the one hand, between mind and emotions; on the other hand, between body and spirit.
By incorporating these four elements of the human psyche, the quadriform creates an open space: akin to a narrow forest path that suddenly opens up into a clearing. An individual may conceive of himself or herself as belonging anywhere within that space, instead of being limited to the usual binary left/right choice.
Other examples come readily to mind. For example, here’s a quadriform that Sam Harris would do well to contemplate:
The fundamentalist and the atheist represent one continuum. They have something significant in common: they are both relatively certain of what they claim to know.
The moderate theist and the agnostic provide a cross-cutting continuum. Moderates and agnostics alike acknowledge the uncertainty of all human knowledge of ultimate realities. Therefore both remain open to competing points of view.
Admittedly, the quadriform cannot capture the full complexity of human experience:
Nothing is so simple that it can be placed only or always in four ways, but this does offer a start to the inquiry. … The elegant simplicity of a neat experiment carries with it the danger of losing important phenomena, so it is well to think of the quadriforms as a broad map and not as a substitute for the complexities of life. (Hogbin, p. xii)
However inexact the fit may be, the quadriform has its merits: it reminds us that a binary worldview is simplistic and necessarily leads us into error.