Tony Jones: The Perils of Binary Thinking

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Another way of saying “binary thinking” is “dualistic thinking.” It’s become something of a cliche in postmodernity to decry “western dualism,” so I’m going to avoid the phrase to stave off my own boredom and perhaps make a more trenchant point.

I’ve noticed that North Americans are terrible about seeing things in (cliche again) “black” and “white”, good or bad, this or that. To some extent, just to use ordinary conversational english you have to employ antonyms but that’s not what I’m talking about. Somehow for Northams (I’m not going to use the term Americans b/c of course that includes our friends in Canada and Latin America, and I’m not talking about them in this critique, mainly because I have little knowledge of whether they tend to see things the same way, but I suspect not. . . ) we hypostatize all of our dualisms into Manichean cosmological struggles. So you’re left wing or right wing, “saved” or “unsaved,” skinny or fat, whatever.

You know, at one point in my life, in a more spiritually and philosophically conservative headspace than I am in now, I was told that the critique of dualistic thinking is actually an evil — even diabolical — deception to get people to reject the most fundamental tenet of morality – a deed is either good or evil. It can’t be both, and it can’t be something else entirely. There was a sense that, if you began to question the fundamental binaryness of morality, you were approaching a “slippery slope” whose end was antinomianism (no moral law at all) and moral and ethical anarchy – the damnation of the individual and the shipwreck of society. Even profound thinkers such as C.S. Lewis (in his Space Trilogy for example) fall into this thinking.

I won’t deny that antinomianism has its dangers, but there is more to life than 0 or 1, this or that. We are not faced with just two choices in life, but a myriad of choices with consequences. Really making sound moral and ethical decisions is an exploration of a rich landscape. In that scape are fascinating characters, places, treasures, and some monsters. (Okay I played too much d&d growing up…)

Rather than the binary this or that approach, I suggest we try at least experimentally to think of moral life as an experience of choice and relationship within a rich matrix of possibilty and consequence. (Yes I used the m word, but the Matrix trilogy actually does deal with some of these very same philosophical concepts.) As this meme expands into other areas of our awareness, we may find ourselves not consigning others to one of two categories, and may have much richer emotional lives because it. We may find – I believe Kierkegaard said it – that life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.

–Tony Jones


Copyright© 2008, by Spinozablue and Tony Jones

Tony Jones: The Perils of Binary Thinking
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