On not reducing the world to black and white

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.

Bush in white cowboy hatWherever 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):

mind/emotions, body/spirit

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:

fundamentalist/atheist, moderate/agnostic

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.

Conclusion:

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.

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16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 11:21:31

    Atheists don’t claim to “know” in the same way that fundamentalists do. We admit we might be wrong, for example. Atheism is just a belief (or lack thereof, in the case of “weak” atheism.)

    Reply

  2. Simen
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 12:41:43

    The atheism-fundamentalism one is wrong or at least misleading. Instead, it should have theism and atheism forming a continuum and agnosticism versus certainty on the other. Certainty and uncertainty is one continuum, belief and lack of belief is another. This is the neat thing about the meaning atheists like to give “atheism” and “agnosticism”: theism is belief in god, atheism is lack of belief; certainty (some would say fundamentalism) and uncertainty (agnosticism) is orthogonal.

    Apart from that, I completely agree that a binary view of the world is rarely if ever accurate.

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 13:16:23

    • JA:
    You quote John McCarthy with approval on your blog today:

    An atheist doesn’t have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can’t be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question.

    I assume it’s accurate to say you’re fairly certain that werewolves don’t exist? In the post, I claim only that fundamentalists and atheists are “relatively certain”: i.e., relative to agnostics and “moderate” theists.

    Obviously atheists don’t like to be grouped with fundamentalists. Some atheists are as dogmatic as fundamentalists, though: Dawkins comes to mind, and I think you would agree with me.

    • Simen:
    As I have arranged the quadriform, atheism and fundamentalism are opposite to one another. That’s consistent with the fact that atheists and fundamentalists believe opposite things.

    It’s also reasonable to place both agnosticism and “moderate” theism part way between those two poles, as I have done. However, because of the approach I’ve taken, there is no way to draw a line showing the progression from certainty to uncertainty.

    I like your suggestion, though — I’ve just drawn it on a sheet of paper. Maybe I’ll draw it in Paint Shop later today and post it on the blog, so people can see the logic of it.

    I wanted to arrive at the idea of an “open space” instead of a left/right dichotomy. That goal is achieved no matter how the quadriform is arranged.

    Reply

  4. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 19:18:52

    I like the title… very Rousseauian. For some reason philosophers like to start their titles with “On.” Really, it seems like a very logical word to start most titles with, but it becomes so common to have more fancy, elaborate titles in today’s pieces. Something about it now seems to ring of some sort of aged wisdom, hehehe.

    As for the idea of “pure evil” and “pure good” (the latter of which neither you nor Sullivan mentioned), the fact that Bush talks about them in such blatant terms suggests his lack of understanding what it means to be a Christian, really. As far as I would have been concerned, as a Christian, the two poles can be found in only the spiritual realm, with God representing pure good, and Satan representing pure evil. Sullivan’s post, which you directed us to, had a very interesting theological point by Thomas Aquinas, and I have to say I am now siding with the line of thinking that Satan does not truly represent a “pure evil”, that that can really only be embodied by Hell itself, which would be a complete void of God and thus goodness. However, all theological jargon aside, simply that Bush can think of forces of pure good and evil being embodied in human devices seems to denote the fact that he does not acknowledge that God loves each of us, and that all men have sinned.

    In short, the fact that Bush does not realize that men are naturally somewhere in the middle of Good and Evil suggests that he does not have much sense of what it says in the Bible, despite claiming to be motivated by just that.

    That, of course, not even getting into the justification of torture issue. To speak in large-scale black and whites, but then say that little black and whites (certain actions being right or wrong, absolutely) seems as contradictory as declaring oneself the herald of democracy and then acting unilaterally on the international scene to impose it on other countries. But then, since we’ve been there and done that, why not accept the other contradiction, right?

    Reply

  5. JewishAtheist
    Mar 31, 2007 @ 01:02:44

    I don’t think it’s helpful to compare strong beliefs in opposite directions. For example, Neil Armstrong passionately believed he walked on the moon. In fact, he punched someone who denied that it was true. Yet do we clarify the world or muddle it by saying he has a lot in common with people who think the whole thing was staged for the government by Hollywood?

    I agree that Dawkins has something in common with the religious extremists he so hates — but to compare his beliefs with theirs is absurd. The similarity is in zeal, not in anything relevant to the beliefs in question. Dawkins accepts basically all known facts about the world. The religious extremists he most opposes think the world is less than 10,000 years old.

    Back onto the topic, I think Harris’s point about moderates providing cover for fundamentalists has some truth to it. For example, I grew up in a large modern Orthodox community. Most of the adult laypeople were intellectual professionals with perfectly reasonable beliefs about the world. It’s billions of years old, evolution happened, etc. Many are personally fine with gay people and enjoy secular books and movies. The fundamentalists of the community, though, eschew the secular world and are almost all young-earth creationists.

    So what do outsiders see? They see a whole bunch of Orthodox Jews, some of whom are reasonable. The reasonable people, who are much more likely to interface with the outside world, of course, make it seem like Orthodox Judaism provides a reasonable world-view. It doesn’t, though. The moderates, in this case, simply don’t take the parts seriously that they disagree with.

    I think your quarrel with Harris stems from using two different meanings of “moderate.” You seem to be thinking of people like yourself who steadfastly hold to a moderate kind of religion. I think he’s referring to people who “moderately” follow a crazy one.

    Think of the Catholic church. The majority of American catholics support legal abortion. Isn’t that bizarre? Yet Catholicism gets respect in large part due to the size of its membership, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the large number of Catholics provides some political weight to the leadership’s positions on abortion, condoms, etc. One can’t simply dismiss the Catholic leadership as being crazy when it has so many members! Imagine if all the pro-choice Catholics left the Church? Would it still hold such influence?

    Remember how John Kerry was derided by the right for claiming he was a Catholic but also pro-choice? He in fact holds the majority view for American Catholics on the issue, but by continuing to associate themselves with the religion, the moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists’ views.

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    Mar 31, 2007 @ 09:24:43

    Knotwurth:
    Sullivan’s post, which you directed us to, had a very interesting theological point by Thomas Aquinas.

    I’m glad you followed that link. I didn’t really expect anyone to, but I certainly found the argument interesting.

    That Bush does not realize that men are naturally somewhere in the middle of Good and Evil suggests that he does not have much sense of what it says in the Bible.

    I agree with your interpretation of the Bible. However, you have to be aware that biblical authors are also fond of binary opposition. For example, this saying of Jesus may lead to confusion:

    “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Luke 11:34-36, ESV).

    Jesus acknowledges that the light in you — presumably referring to religious folk, including his own followers — can be darkness. But he also says that your whole body can be “full of light, having no part dark”.

    Similarly, consider St. Paul:

    “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2Co. 6:14).

    The text seems to make an absolute distinction: believers are light, unbelievers are darkness. I don’t think that’s really what Paul meant, though; compare Eph. 5:7-9 —

    “Do not become partners with [immoral people]; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light … and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”

    Here Paul makes a similar point (believers and unbelievers shouldn’t form partnerships because they are as different as light and darkness). But then Paul acknowledges that Christians can sin, and therefore they must be on guard against that possibility.

    Still, there is real tension in biblical teaching on this subject, and it has been a source of theological confusion down through the centuries. To take another example, consider the dichotomy between saved and unsaved: the Bible speaks as if the difference between the two statuses is absolute. Is it?

    • JA:
    Neil Armstrong passionately believed he walked on the moon … [but other people] think the whole thing was staged for the government by Hollywood.

    I have no problem with this part of your argument. I don’t think all beliefs or opinions are equally valid. Some are consistent with a mountain of evidence, and therefore likely to be true; others are contradicted by a mountain of evidence and therefore likely to be false.

    I’m not trying to play a shell game: i.e., the quadriforms are not offered as proof that fundamentalism and atheism are equally likely positions. Maybe they are; maybe fundamentalism is likelier than atheism; maybe the reverse is true. We’d have to decide that question on other grounds, because I haven’t offered any evidence either way in this post.

    I think your quarrel with Harris stems from using two different meanings of “moderate”.

    I don’t think so, but people should go back to Harris’s arguments (linked in the earlier post on this topic) and judge for themselves.

    So what do outsiders see? They see a whole bunch of Orthodox Jews, some of whom are reasonable. The reasonable people, who are much more likely to interface with the outside world, of course, make it seem like Orthodox Judaism provides a reasonable world-view.

    But I don’t care what outsiders see. People need to become grown-ups in their thinking — you and I agree on this point. People should investigate the evidence before they claim to know something about Orthodox Judaism.

    The fact that people don’t investigate the evidence doesn’t make “moderate” theists responsible for covering fundamentalism. Personally, I have given a great deal of thought to this topic (God, religion) and my conclusions have been purchased at considerable personal cost.

    So have yours, I know. Do you feel partly responsible for the atrocities committed by Stalin, simply because you are an atheist like he was? Or would you prefer that people learn to make distinctions? — All atheists are not equally amoral / immoral.

    People should learn to distinguish shades of grey, or better yet all the colours of the rainbow. That’s the point of this post. I offer religion as an example of a widespread phenomenon.

    “Moderate” theists do not provide cover for fundamentalists, even if some folks sloppily group all believers together.

    Reply

  7. Stephen
    Mar 31, 2007 @ 11:25:26

    p.s. re Dawkins:
    You called Dawkins out on your blog for his statement,

    “Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place.”

    Are we to assume this opinion of Dawkins’s is evidence-based? Or does Dawkins here reveal himself as the atheist equivalent of Pat Robertson? Frankly, it makes me wonder whether his objectivity can be trusted when he interprets other data.

    Atheists can be “fundamentalists”, not merely in terms of zeal, but with respect to dogmatism.

    Reply

  8. JewishAtheist
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 19:19:47

    Do you feel partly responsible for the atrocities committed by Stalin, simply because you are an atheist like he was? Or would you prefer that people learn to make distinctions?

    I see what you’re saying. But atheism is not analogous to, e.g., Christianity. Your analogy would be better if you asked a communist if he felt partly responsible for Stalin. In fact, that’s an interesting parallel. Do communists who aren’t murderous dictators provide cover for those who are?

    Reply

  9. Stephen
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 20:20:22

    JA:
    That’s an unsubtle rhetorical tactic!

    The USSR was actively hostile to religion. Atheism is a relevant variable in the history of Stalinism.

    If Stalin (or Marx) had understood Christianity the way that Martin Luther King Jr. understood it, or the way that (communist) proponents of liberation theology in Latin America understand it today, the history of the USSR may have been very different. That is, a Christian strain of communism might have borne different fruit.

    Maybe Stalin’s atheism was the single most important variable in leading him to commit atrocities: in which case you are providing rhetorical cover for a pernicious social evil.

    Alternatively, maybe one atheist is not like another. Follow the argument where it leads.

    Reply

  10. JewishAtheist
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 21:12:45

    The USSR was actively hostile to religion. Atheism is a relevant variable in the history of Stalinism.

    But clearly less important than communism, right? I know they were incredibly hostile to religion — my (Jewish) family is in part from the former U.S.S.R. But he killed for power and in the name of communism, right?

    Atheism *might* have been a relevant variable, but it was certainly less of one than communism. I think religion was seen as a threat not against atheism per se but against communism.

    Similarly, I wouldn’t blame Hitler’s atrocities on the fact that he was (probably, more or less) a Christian. Or on his vegetarianism. He was about power, racism, and fascism.

    The Muslim extremists are primarily about radical Islam. The anti-gay, etc., Christians are primarily about Christianity.

    That’s why I think communism is a better analogy than atheism.

    Reply

  11. Stephen
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 22:08:50

    Atheism *might* have been a relevant variable, but it was certainly less of one than communism.

    And you have hard data to prove that, do you?

    In any event, you’re making a distinction between Stalin’s murderous policies and his atheism — you’re arguing that other variables are more pertinent.

    I’m asking for reciprocal treatment for Christians, but you prefer to blur the distinction between moderate theists and fundamentalists. That’s a double standard you’re exercising.

    Reply

  12. JewishAtheist
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 23:14:47

    Christians themselves justify their actions on Christianity. As far as I know, Stalin never used atheism as a justification.

    Reply

  13. Stephen
    Apr 02, 2007 @ 09:28:19

    Does it matter whether Stalin used the justification publicly, or whether it was merely a private motivation?

    But let’s see if we can escape this loop. Belatedly, I came to a better understanding of your point about communism. “Moderate” theism and fundamentalism are both explicitly religious views. Atheism and communism are two independent concepts, not necessarily related to one another. OK — point taken.

    So to shift the debate, let me offer a different example. Does socialism (parallel to moderate theism) provide cover for communism (parallel to fundamentalism)?

    Canada is, by comparison to the USA, a socialist country. The federal government is very active in redistributing wealth from better-off individuals and provinces to relatively “have-not” individuals and provinces. Plus we have universal free healthcare, etc.

    Does that make Canada a progressive country, or are we splashing around in the same dirty bathwater as the former USSR? Should Canadians hang their heads in collective shame because we provide cover for communism?

    I’m sure some free market advocates would make exactly that argument. But I think there’s a legitimate distinction to be made between Canada and the former USSR.

    People should learn to make these sort of grown-up distinctions instead of dividing the world into binary opposites. And I am a little shocked that you’re trying so hard to make this case, as if your mind works like George Bush’s (You’re either with us or you’re against us).

    Reply

  14. JewishAtheist
    Apr 02, 2007 @ 09:45:03

    It’s not the relatedness that’s relevant, but the terms. Canada does not call itself communist. Stalin did not style himself a defender of atheism.

    You and Pat Robertson, though, both call yourselves “Christian.” It’s not a huge deal, but it is what it is.

    Think about this. If members of al-Qaida were the only “Muslims” in the world, wouldn’t that change the dynamics of things? I agree with you (I think) that religious moderates have more in common with secular moderates than with religious extremists. But the labels provide some degree of cover.

    Reply

  15. Simen
    Apr 02, 2007 @ 10:00:22

    JewishAtheist, I don’t think that line of reasoning is entirely valid. The Nazi Party called themselves National Socialists, does that mean that everyone who call themselves socialists provide cover for nazism?

    Reply

  16. Jamie
    Apr 05, 2007 @ 10:34:17

    Stephen: I was hesitant to comment on this post, because I half agree with you. On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about your perspective.

    [T]o think in binary terms results in a loss of moral perspective.

    Arguably, the opposite is true: When you destroy binaries and make everything relative, that’s when moral perspective is lost. This is true in both politics and religion, wouldn’t you agree?

    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.

    As I said, I half agree with you (and I sometimes argue this point myself). But on the other hand, aren’t all those binaries accurate, in some sense? I see the need to recognize distinctions, but I’m not one much for relativism.

    Reply

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