Thursday, August 11, 2011

A World of Opposites

Thinking, I mean really thinking, is hard.

While a minority of people enjoy mental effort, most of us prefer well-worn tracks. Even those people who enjoy things like logic puzzles and advanced math often have a narrow domain in which they mentally exert themselves.

The world is complex. Seriously complex.

Complexity is a problem for people that do exert themselves to find solutions to problems, if they even bother to consider it. But even among those folks who seek to systematize the world (or perhaps specially among them), complexity is pushed aside as, well, too complex.

Simplification is good. Or, is it?

There is no doubt that simplifying a problem is an important step in solving it. Breaking it down into pieces more easily understood is a necessary analytical device for most of us. In this way, simplifying is good.

But, by way of analogy, consider the difference between salt and gold. No matter how far down I divide gold, it remains gold[1]. I take smaller and smaller pieces and even down to single atoms, I have gold. This is a simple problem. It's one thing, self contained. It is reducible to the atomic level.

Take salt[2]. At first, we can divide it down into smaller pieces. Then we get to the molecular. If we stop here, all is well, but, if we continue we no longer have salt. Salt doesn't have an atomic existence. Does salt share some essential identity with sodium and chlorine? No. Salt is irreducible, just as every interesting or important problem in life is.

Irreducible complexity[3] is the hallmark of an interesting problem. That is not to say that all problems must be taken as the result of the entire system in which they exist rather, it is an acknowledgement of a critical feature that interesting, important human problems do not have: duality.

The world is not black and white, it is grey.

Black and white, hot and cold, here and there—these all arise only in relation to each other. They don't exist on their own. This is something people notice as soon as they start to think. What they often don't notice, and what leads to confusion and even human tragedy, is that just because they see something as black it doesn't make some other thing white.

Those who do see this make demands for purity. We must be perfectly white, without a blemish, because that's what makes us just. Of course, this is impossible for human beings and so you end up with a lie. That lie is used to attack everything not pure white which now, perforce, is black.

This is the problem of false dichotomy. It is pervasive. I am right, so if you disagree with me, you must be wrong. No chance for each of us to be both. It leads to ideological abuse of other people and no ideology is immune to this. They just each make their biggest mistakes in the places where they are most weak.

So, start listening to your own arguments. When you notice a dichotomy, step back. Imagine there could be a third, imperfect and unclear way to see the situation. Don't try to take a statistical average, or its moral equivalent, and then reject that. That's just a "trichotomy", and the middle position is a straw man. Instead, imagine something that doesn't lie on the spectrum you've invented. There's where you will find your way out of your dilemma.


1. Yes, of course I can destroy the atomic structure, that's not a real objection to the analogy.

2. Table salt, NaCl.

3. This is not a formal, technical use of the term. We are speaking philosophically.

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