Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Perils of Black and White Thinking

Fortunately, at least in modern physics, black and white (either-or) thinking went out with the advent of quantum mechanics. Thus, issues such as whether the photon is wave or particle are now seen as more or less quaint, and the matter is resolved by acknowledging different levels of observation at which the photon is accessed, see e.g.

In a complex, nuanced human world, black and white thinking is often downright dangerous. When one leaves no areas of gray, one de facto limits actions and thought and becomes – in effect – a robot or zombie acting purely on directives. In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, had JFK succumbed to black-white thought we’d not even be having this conversation. NO one would be around to talk about it since most humans would have been obliterated in thermonuclear war. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in a 1993 NBC interview, noted only then that the U.S. had discovered after the fact 90 ICBMs were loaded with warheads and would have been launched at major U.S. cities on the eastern seaboard had JFK bombed Cuba as the Joint Chiefs urged. This, obviously, would've triggered a massive U.S. retaliatory response, and in turn, a Soviet counter-response. Plausibly all the nuclear warheads in both nations' then arsenals, all 22, 455 of them - would have detonated).

If one reads through the actual transcripts of the tapes (in the book ‘The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis’ by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zekilow, 1997, Belknap-Harvard University Press) one will easily see how JFK was being pinned against the wall toward a black-white axis: either bomb and invade Cuba OR do nothing and be labeled an appeaser and coward. JFK would have none of it, and was intelligent enough to perceive neither option – black OR white- was satisfactory, and he wanted, demanded a third. A way out of the black-white axis. In consultation with staff he finally found it in a naval blockade of the Russian ships carrying supplies to Cuba. Each ship would be interdicted on the high seas, boarded if necessary and prevented from disgorging its cargo.

JFK had found a way out because he wasn’t prepared to surrender to the black and white thought dynamic.

But too many are. They are enslaved by primitive thought processes that won’t allow for latitudes, options or gray areas. It MUST be either so or so. A person must be either SUCH or SUCH. This leads to consequences and results that, if not amusing, are certainly replete with a cognitive dissonance.

For example, b&w thinkers are uncomfortable with a disjunctive plurality of causes, as they are a disjunctive plurality of “hats” that might be worn by other people – including the fact these “hats” may have been fitted in the course of complex personal trajectories or histories.

Thus, to the b&w thinker, if one was formerly a Catholic but years later proclaims he’s an atheist, that means he cannot use any of the resources or benefits of his Catholic university education to conduct religious arguments- though that would be the most natural thing. If he should do so, then he is labeled as “dithering” or “can’t make up his mind what he is” or some other foolishness. Indeed, the b&w thinker will be unable to process why an atheist would even consider researching or reading books outside of the mental cubbyhole the b&w thinker has assigned to him (though that cubbyhole was actually created in the b&W thinker’s mind to buttonhole and categorize other people- to make it simpler to label them. We know “labeling” is a symptom of the black and white mentality)

Thus, if the b&w thinker perceived an atheist citing a Buddhist script or book, or one with a title that includes “Gnosticism” then the simplistic conclusion reached (since the b&w brain allows no others) is that the atheist is “backsliding” on his atheism or now “embracing Buddhism or Gnosticism” or “doesn’t know what he wants”. If the atheist defends the Catholics against some onslaught or tirade, then to the b&w thinker he’s gone back to being Catholic. There is simply no room or latitude in the b&w thinker’s head for nuanced positions, nor can he discriminate temporary defenses from embracing core beliefs and precepts (the fact the atheist doesn’t accept papal infallibility, or the virgin birth, the Trinity, Jesus as God, or the resurrection, never occurs to him)

The b&w thinker, in other words, can’t get it through his either-or noggin that one can be an atheist but avail him or herself of the richness and diversity of the multiplicity of philosophical resources available to him, rather than unnaturally delimiting and thereby hamstringing himself and his thought- say in exchanges or debates. Like the Joint Chief Gen. Curtis LeMay – after hearing of JFK’s naval blockade (calling Kennedy “another Neville Chamberlain”) they cannot believe or accept that a third or gray factor doesn’t mean ‘black’ it means an alternative not previously considered, but which enriches a debate’s perspective.

The b&w thinker also misconstrues as “hypocrisy” that an atheist would invoke biblical textual analysis to refute literalist biblical claims when he may have said the bible is “full of fairy stories” or something similar. But again, the b&w thinker confuses ANY biblical reading or references with a particular type or form of CRITICISM of them. Thus, the b&w thinker misses the point that the atheist is using textual analysis to critique a particular way of reading the bible!

Via this mode, the atheist dismisses the literal adoption of any self-evident metaphor (without textual filtering) as fairy stories! Thus, the literal take on Jonah living in a whale IS a fairy tale, as is Adam and Eve! The Jonah whale tale is just that, and copied from the more ancient Greek Heracleid in which Hercules was swallowed by a whale. The real meaning of "Adam and Eve" is the birth of genetic consciousness in embodied matter, nothing more.

What the atheist is trying to do is point out to the b&w thinker and literalist that he’s reading an essential novel or work of fiction as fact when critical analysis shows it isn’t historical or biographical. Obviously, in order to make his case, the atheist can't argue from atheism - but rather from any religious education he may have been provided with in the past - say in terms of biblical criticism. This places him on an advantageous footing relative to other atheists who may not have had the benefit of such exposure - when confronting literalists. Thus, it is totally unfair to label him a "hypocrite" for doing this when there is really no better way to debunk biblical literalist mythologies!

In the matter of morality and ethics the b&w thinker gets into even more trouble, since his b&w morality won’t allow or permit flexible response. Thus, the mother nine months pregnant who is on the verge of death, if she's allowed to go into labor, would be permitted to die so a fetus could live. Their b&w proscription for abortion would permit no other course of action.

It doesn’t occur to them that there is a third way between total moral relativism and total moral absolutism, which has been called "provisional ethics" or moral provisionalism. According to Michael Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil) :

Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"

An illustration of moral provisionalism would be the case of the American nun recently excommunicated by the Catholic Church for saving a 27 year old mother’s life at the expense of her fetus. Her moral choice was either to let the birth occur and see both mother and infant die, or prevent the birth (because of the mother’s blood pressure complications) and save the mother. In provisional morality the greater relative good is always chosen over the lesser one. In this case, two deaths with two life saving efforts represents the lesser good, while one death with one life saving effort represents the greater one.

The error of the Bishop that excommunicated the nun was in upholding an absolute right to life ethic for both when in practical terms both could not survive. But this is the very danger of "black and white" moral absolutism. It determines that all involved in a case must perish to preserve an abstract principle, rather than allowing one to survive- but foregoing the absolutist pretensions for a relative GOOD: One living!

One hopes that as technologies and issues become ever more complex, human thinking adjusts to the increased complexity and doesn’t retreat (as the author of The Noonday Devil) feared. What we cannot afford is a majority of people immersed and in thrall to black and white thinking.

1 comment:

janidebar said...

This is a terrific article which says it all. What it also shows me, is that black and white thinking limits the use of intelligence. Even if some person may have a higher than average IQ, if he engages in b&w thinking he automatically limits it to maybe 80 or moron level, because b&w thought forces him to think in boxes.

It's like you pastor bro, he mixes everything up about you, including calling you a "Catholic" or "Buddhist" because you defend them, because he thinks in little boxes. One box is labelled "C" for Catholic, so if one acts in any way that he associates with box C, then he must be Catholic. In so doing he confirms his own stupidity.

Being a Bible crazy who believes every word is literal truth also encourages b&w thought, obviously. It is only through hermeneutical interpretations that one is freed from those thought chains.

I don't believe any of the fundies ever will be. It's too comfortable for them to continue to think in boxes than to break out of them!