August 18, 2006

Binaries, labels, and human nature

Posted in Musings at 12:36 am by The Lizard Queen

Throughout my life, I’ve often found myself caught in the middle. It’s happened among family members; it’s happened among friends. I’m used to being able to see both sides of an issue, even when I feel strongly about that issue. I recently listened to someone rail against NPR for only talking about civilian deaths in Lebanon and ignoring those in Israel. I disagreed with her perception that the reporting was unbalanced, and I certainly didn’t feel that the Israeli civilians deserved more sympathy than the Lebanese civilians. Still, I listened, and was able to see where she was coming from, even though I didn’t agree.

That ability to listen and consider even when I don’t agree has influenced other areas of my life beyond interpersonal relations. Perhaps most notably (or, at least for today, most pertinently), it has influenced my spiritual life. I suspect I had a slightly different reaction to this piece than other non-religious people might have. I feel like it presents a binary: either you operate solely based on reason, or you operate solely based on faith. Like most binaries people try to apply to human behavior, though, I don’t think this one works, because most people I’ve met fall somewhere in the middle. I certainly do. Raised the way I was, it would be difficult not to be a devotee (if you will) of science and reason, and yet I’ve always felt that, to paraphrase Hamlet, there are more things in our world than are dreamt of in all our philosophies.

That idea, then, got me thinking further about those binaries people try to apply to humans and their behavior. Male or female. Black or white. Gay or straight. Liberal or conservative. Intelligent or stupid. And so on and so forth. Just thinking about those five categories, there are only two in which I feel like one side of the binary applies to me much more than the other, and overall I’d say all five (and pretty much any other category one could name) should be considered spectra rather than binaries. Of course, without the binaries, it’s difficult to label people, and without the labels… then what? Why do we have this constant desire to label people? One explanation I’ve heard is that, quite simply, it makes life easier. Categorizing people allows us to understand them (at least in theory) and how they work that much sooner.

So, ultimately, I take issue with binaries and labels, but could we ever actually be rid of them?



  1. DavidD said,

    Just 2 out of 5?

    As your link illustrates, intentionally or not, the dichotomy between faith and reason is a false one. No one has faith without some reason. One can speak of the objective reasons one has faith from an observer’s perspective, what culture one grew up in and so forth. The person who has faith always has subjective reasons for why he or she feels secure in that faith. Even the person who grasps a Bible and says, “This is my faith,” has reasons, unless he or she is playing dumb. The difference between good reasons and bad reasons is a valid dichotomy, or one should say spectrum. I say if God appears before me and says, “Here, have faith,” or words to that effect, I’d call that a good reason to have faith. PZ Myers and many others would call that something else, but they don’t know anything, never having had God do that for them, and being fairly arrogant creeps about things they don’t know.

    Dualities are often false, because reality in fact breaks down into more than two categories or because the difference people think they see is meaningless. I heard Richard Leakey say something about race once, how he is not the color of a piece of paper, nor had he ever met someone in Africa who could accurately be called black. Everyone is flesh colored. Of course denying a duality to that extent is also wrong. People don’t make these things up. They just oversimplify and overgeneralize, as people are prone to do.

    I’ve wondered how much some love affair with duality like Taoism is based in people’s gender being so important to us. It’s hard to say as a neuroscientist where this comes from, but black-and-white thinking is clearly something that comes to us naturally and cannot be stamped out. My experience is that people can’t even recognize it in themselves. People are too busy defending that they’re right in what they say.

    The older I get, the more I hate theology and philosophy. They are thoroughly corrupted by human bias such as black-and-white thinking. Science has a way around such bias, for subjects where one can be empirical, but there are so many subjects like what’s beyond the world of our senses, where all I have are the lessons I learned from science regarding having an open mind, but one that closes when I encounter something that makes no sense, and I don’t mean the superficial way that someone like PZ Myers sees that, with his contempt for anything religious. It’s not an easy thing to describe for anyone, how to insist that everything fits together, even for ideas that some are sure are insane. One has to go through it firsthand. One has to have faith in terms of trust and devotion. Then one can learn why to believe anything or not.

    People prefer labels. It’s natural. It’s fast. It’s stupid. Time will fix this eventually.

  2. DavidD said,

    I looked for a link earlier that would say something about evolutionary psychology and black-and-white thinking. There isn’t such a place. Leaving out an adjective for “psychology” yields all kinds of consumer-oriented sites by people doing their own version of cognitive therapy. They don’t say much more than that black-and-white thinking is bad.

    If you wanted to go to a cognitive psychology textbook in the library, you could see how academics approach this issue. They have diagrams, since no one knows exactly how the brain makes concepts out of neurons. Whether one has neurons making concepts or electronics doing the same, a basic feature of any concept is the boundary between what fits in the concept and what doesn’t, which makes black-and-white thinking a basic feature of any system using concepts, be those concepts barcodes, words, images, entire scenes, whatever.

    The more interesting part is what our brain or something we program does with ambiguity, with the same word meaning a number of things or the same scene being interpreted a number of ways depending on the experience of the observing person or machine. That’s when you can start saying what the difference is between good reasons and bad reasons to justify a label.

    In the absence of science providing much detail regarding that at this point, there are millions of people on the internet or in real life just going with whatever comes to them, whatever is natural for them. That has its shortcomings, as nature does in many parts of life.

    A case in point is how I agreed with you that labels have practical benefits. Of course they do. And that’s about all one can say about the evolutionary psychology of labels at this point, but the reality of that is in how neurons make concepts, not in any common sense rationale. Of course that’s the sort of thing that people who attack science love to attack, because years from now when neuroimaging and genetics have explained much more about the brain, the scientific wisdom may only be that labels are easy. So all the believers in common sense can say, “Well of course, what a waste to investigate it.” But another possibility is that science will develop a discipline about how to think well about things that gets past the oversimplification, overgeneralization and other flaws of theology, philosophy and scientists when they speak as human beings and not as scientists.

    That could kill labels as well as medicine kills certain disease. Of course that leads to all sorts of brainwashing fantasies. Maybe in the future everyone will have their brains washed voluntarily and call it education, with good results instead of oppressive ones. Maybe you’d have to have such conditioning to be a teacher or a therapist, not because the Nazis have taken over, but because it makes for better teachers and therapists in ways that anyone can see.

    I think very few people now have any idea how much they don’t know or how much common sense makes little sense. Time will change that. Look at the last hundred years. The next hundred years will be unimaginably more than that.

    There still won’t be flying cars, though. There is such a thing as oversimplified fantasy.

  3. off topic…but I believe Vox is finally scraping the bottom of the barrel. He used to be able to find other topics besides how useless women were…all he’s been doing for like three weeks…of course the 8 men who are his regular readers love it!

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