Tag Archives: dichotomies

Going Beyond Dualistic Thinking

Many thanks to diligent reader LH for asking the question in response to yesterday’s post: is it possible to go beyond dualistic thinking? The post yesterday discussed ageism in Plato’s Apology: is Socrates condemned in part because of a conflict between the old and the young? Of course, the focus on ageism is not to discount the other factors, such as the conflict between the aristocrats and the democrats. Oops, that’s another example of dualistic thinking! It’s sure hard to get away from it.

Dualistic Thinking in Philosophy

Since it’s been steady stream of philosophy books of late, what better place to start the discussion on dualistic thinking! So, what do we have in philosophy? For starters, there’s materialism (primacy of matter) versus idealism (mind over matter). Then there’s empiricism (trust sense) versus rationalism (trust logic). But that’s not all. There’s nominalism (particular examples) or realism (existence of universals) and naturalism (natural laws) and theism (God exists). Lots of examples of dualistic thinking!

Monistic and Triadic Structures

Now the question is: does it have to be like this? For example, instead of dualistic dichotomies, there could be monistic or triadic structures. Let’s start with triadic structures. Plays sometimes have three acts. There’s the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. And of course the Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Then there’s music: the triad of the root, third, and fifth form a cornerstone of harmony. What else? There’s the troika: the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. Oh ya, and triangles too.

Then there can be monistic structures. A line or a strand is monistic. One can make patterns out of it. Celtic or Muslim arts come to mind. They weave the strand into patterns and shapes sensible to human understanding. Instead of a chord, a note is a monistic structure. One could play scales. What else? I’m having a hard time thinking of other examples.

Part of the problem with monistic structures is that there’s nothing there to oppose them. So it’s hard to define them. We don’t think about it all the time, but a lot of the time we define what something is by coming to terms with what it is not. Take a superhero. He is defined as much by his powers as by the types of villains he fights against. The negative part is half of understanding. So that’s the drawback of monistic structures: the lack of the negative element.

What about triadic structures? Well, the common denominator looking at the above list is that they’re complicated. The Trinity is just complicated a priori. Anyone been following the Greek crisis?-just look at how complicated any negotiations are with the Troika! And then consider geometry. The complexity going from a point (monistic structure) to a line (dualistic structure) isn’t doubled. It’s more like a hundredfold more complex. The same with going from a line to a triangle (triadic structure). The geometry isn’t doubly complex, it’s infinitely more complex than the line. So that’s the drawback of triadic structures: they’re very complicated.

As a matter of fact, you can have triadic structures in philosophy. Take Hegel. His logic is triadic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And his system is also threefold: logic, philosophy of nature, and philosophy of spirit. But can anyone properly understand Hegel? Just look at the multiplicity of competing interpretations out there of each of his ideas! Just exactly how does one get to the Absolute Spirit through synthesis and why is it possible? Through a faculty of the soul? How does he know about this?!? Could you imagine having Hegel as your professor lecturing at 8AM Monday morning on Absolute Spirit? So, like I was saying, triadic structures are like chords. The amount of sounds harmonic structures (chords) can make on, say a piano, aren’t doubly or trebly more than is possible playing individual notes but is infinitely more complex (remember there are also the harmonics of notes blending together when played simultaneously).

So, with dualistic thinking, you get the drawback of an us against them mentality. With monistic thinking, there’s ‘us’ but who’s ‘us’? This is the superhero without the villain. Finally, with triadic approaches, the complexity becomes too great for most mortal minds to handle. It’s not very accessible. Opportunity cost. Always opportunity cost.

Another Approach

One thing that’s been of interest of late is the question of monism and dualism as it pertains to consciousness. Dualism would say that there is the body and the mind and that the mind (or consciousness) is something separate from the body. Monism would say that consciousness arises from the physical properties of matter. So, in a way, the philosophy of the mind or the philosophy of consciousness is dualistic in nature. And since the monist and dualist views have been duking it out since Plato’s time (with Plato expounding dualism and Lucretius monism-there is a specialized type of atom making up the Lucretian soul), it’s likely that the solution will not come from within philosophy itself.

This is where science comes in. This is the approach that will allow us to go beyond dualistic thinking. If the scientists can come up with a hypothesis of consciousness and devise a proof of concept (through artificial intelligence, perhaps), then the debate between monism and dualism (not to be confused with dualistic!) can be solved once and for all. And until science steps up to the plate, the debate between monism and dualism will never be solved by reason alone. Either consciousness can arise from matter or it can’t. Now, given that the brain is the most complicated machine in the whole universe, it’s going to be a tough go for science to find out it’s secrets. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to one day in the future. Monism can be proved if a physical basis can be found for consciousness. And dualism can be proved if there was a way to separate consciousness from the body. Like they do in the movies when the lawnmower man uploads himself into the internet. A self aware machine could also prove dualism.

My take is that dualistic structures have drawbacks but something in the deep structure of how we think (from fight or flight instincts, etc.,) makes them appealing. Triadic structures are too labourious for all but the most hardy intellects. And monistic structures lack the negative portion of a definition. Dualistic structures can be transcended, but not by thought alone, which, for all the things it does has limits. If philosophy with its love of dualistic structures is going to be transcended, it’s going to be by the slow trial and error process of science. Philosophy is that area which science has not figured out yet. As science progresses, it does so at the expense of philosophy, whose domain is becoming ever more encroached upon.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and there’s no dualistic roadblocks in my single minded pursuit of Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Bonus dualistic comic! Materialism vs idealism–

Dualistic Comic Marx vs Descartes

Dualistic Comic Marx vs Descartes