CAN A SINGLE WORD CHANGE THE WORLD?
When I went to sleep around 4:00 AM on Sept. 11, 2001, I
still thought that, because we live in the information age, the free flow of
information would eventually lead mankind to some form of peaceful coexistence.
Some time between being driven out of my home by the first collapse and
standing on the east bank of the Hudson River after the second collapse, I was forced to acknowledge that we still live in a jungle. Despite years of pontification by philosophers and journalists and politicians we have not advanced to any significant degree from our days in the caves. We may be able to insulate ourselves from this reality but, as a species, we have gotten almost nowhere.
Since that day I have been asking myself, why. Why has
information failed us? Why don’t we truly evolve? My first though was that it
not a question of access to information as much as the way we use information. Is
there too much emphasis on the dichotomy between good and evil? The terrorists
attack us because they perceive us as evil. Our president declares them evil and
vows to “smoke ‘em out.” Any suggestion that we try to understand the
complexity of the situation or its history is met with the equally dichotomous
“Are you suggesting that it was our fault?” “Are you suggesting that we
Over the subsequent months I began to consider the
possibility that the barrier to progress was not just an over-emphasis on the
dichotomy between good and evil, but the overuse or misuse of dichotomous thinking
in general. I found myself in a in the middle of a family argument between a
mother and son who love each other but were too busy hurling insults at each
other to acknowledge that love. The issue of who was right and who was wrong
was just a distraction from the fact that, because they were one family, his
problems were ultimately her problems and her problems were ultimately his
problems. The blame game simply served to cloud this issue and exacerbate their
I found myself in conversations with people who have strong feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The arguments never went beyond: “Bla, Bla, Bla. We’re great, they suck. Bla, Bla,Bla. We’re good, they’re evil. Bla, Bla, Bla. We’re right they’re wrong, and
here are the facts to prove it.” Never a consideration of the nature of the
problem beyond: “Its their fault, they are to blame and they need to be
As the Iraq invasion began, I overheard the statement “We should all hate the French.” I wanted to ask: “What is the problem for which hating the French is a solution?”
As the months have turned to years, I continued to see more
and more instances where the overuse of dichotomous thinking interferes with
the solution to important problems. I began to wonder if this issue might not
be a candidate for humanities most fundamental problem? Is it possible that
this one issue could be a next step in our evolution?
What would it take for an idea to have the potential to
change the world? It would have to be simple enough to make sense to most
people and yet be profound enough to have at least some impact on a wide
variety of people and situations. Because this problem is manifested in so many
different ways, I think it might fit these criteria. Here are some examples of
how issues around dichotomous thinking are important to different ‘groups’ of
To the ENVIRONMENTALISTS, in the end everyone would like a
clean environment. The biggest human impediment to progress in safeguarding our
environment is the mutual distrust of the different factions. From the right
:“We do not want to turn things over to a bunch of environmental wacos.” From
the left :“We do not want to turn things over to a bunch of greedy corporate
pigs.” The more polarized we are, the less likely we are to arrive at viable
solutions that fit within the laws of nature. The more we can break down the
barriers among different groups, the closer we will be to solving (or at least
alleviating) problems like the environment.
To the CIVIL RIGHTS WORKER, all I should really have to say
is “Isn’t it obvious?” Can you think of a better example where the overuse of
dichotomous thinking causes more pain and suffering. (well, perhaps an
unnecessary war). When Dr. King called for judging someone based the content of
their character rather than the color of their skin, he was pointing out the
distinction between a justified and an unjustified dichotomy. I suggest that a
world in which the overuse of dichotomous thinking is routinely criticized, or
at least held suspect, would be an easier world in which to combat racism.
To the GAY ACTIVIST, you are also quite obviously the victim
of the overuse of dichotomous thinking. The hatred of you by many straight
males may be just as biological as your love of males, but acting on that
hatred is a blatant overuse of dichotomous thinking. The consequences of acting
on hate are extremely problematic (amplification of hate is always
problematic). That said, they are not going anywhere and so their feelings can
not be summarily dismissed. A world in which the overuse of dichotomous
thinking is routinely criticized would, therefore, be a better world for you
and your cause.
To the SUBSTANCE ABUSE ADVOCATE, you fight against
criminalization which is clearly an overuse of dichotomous thinking and in its
place advocate goal-directed acts aimed at harm reduction. A world in which the
overuse of dichotomous thinking is routinely criticized would facilitate your
efforts as well.
To the THIRD WORLD ADVOCATE, how many examples have you seen
where people in underdeveloped areas could not get past dichotomous thinking to
work together for a common goal?
Dichotomous thinking often leads to more dichotomous thinking. An
education system that emphasizes problem solving and how easily problem solving
can be confounded by dichotomous thinking might help to break this cycle.
To the ASPIRING TERRORIST, killing innocent people is a
gross misuse of dichotomous thinking. Ask yourself what is the problem for
which terrorism is a solution? There are real problems in this world and a
great deal of injustice. Many injustices come from the overuse of dichotomous
thinking. Unfortunately, acts of terrorism increase dichotomous thinking and
thus increase injustices.
To the ANTIWAR ACTIVIST, war is the victory of dichotomous
thinking over problem solving. Making peace is about breaking down barriers
between people. Wars can best be averted with communication. Dichotomous noise
can easily drown out that communication and maintains the barriers. Imagine a world
where questions like, “Who are the bad guys?”, “Whose fault is it?”, “Who
should be punished”, are automatically suspect.
Where such lines of reasoning are required to be well justified before
the suspicion of over-dichotomization is lifted. We live in a complex world.
Imagine a world where reducing complex problems to simple dichotomies is
Most people agree that there can be times when war is necessary. So the question becomes, what makes a war unnecessary? When it fails to achieve the goal of increasing the security of the nation.
Be anti-war not anti-soldier. Soldiers are still our brothers and sisters and thinking of them differently or treating them differently simply because they wear the uniform can easily be an overuse of dichotomous thinking. You may disagree with how it should be done, but most of you share with the soldier the ultimate goal of a secure nation.
To the SOLDIER, you are tasked with the goal of augmenting
our nation’s security. This requires some serious dichotomizing. Not the least
of which is deciding on life and death. To the degree to which the war is
justified, the dichotomies are justified.
As a soldier you are expected to be very dichotomous with regards to following orders. This is another example of dichotomous thinking that is justified in all but perhaps the most extreme of circumstances.
Your biggest problems with anti-war activists are when they overuse dichotomous thinking and when they disregard the security of the nation. Challenge them in these two areas. But, remember that many of them have as a goal, preventing you from dying unnecessarily. No one wants you to die unnecessarily.
To the PRO-LIFE ACTIVIST, to you a fundamental issue is:
when does life begins? A very important dichotomy. Many of you chose the
dichotomy to be at conception? This is a very logical choice. The moment of
conception is unique. A single sperm is chosen and a unique entity is created.
Unfortunately, the overuse of dichotomous thinking robs this idea of its strength.
Because the debate is so polarized, your opponents can not concede that
something special happens at the moment of conception. To do so, would open the
door to a complete ban on abortion. It is overly dichotomous to only think of
the woman at the moment of conception as either a women with the equivalent of
a one-celled wart inside of her, or as a one-celled person wrapped in an
otherwise disposal package.
To the PRO-CHOICE ACTIVIST, to you the goal is sane
legislation. The barrier between you and the pro-life advocate is a direct
barrier to progress towards a stable situation that all can live with. They are
not going anywhere and their feelings can not be summarily dismissed.
To the ATHIEST, I do not have to tell you that a lot of the problems
you can not tolerate stem from the overuse of dichotomous thinking. Worst of
all is when people use religion to justify such crap as killing innocent
people. This is as blatant an overuse of dichotomous thinking as one can
imagine. The number of abuses done in the name of religion throughout history
is astronomical. Demand that believers justify their dichotomies based on
reasonably formulated goals (such as promoting God’s will on earth, amplifying
love, dissipating hate, etc.) Challenge them to really believe in this God of
love and follow Him, his true Will which is not to hate but to love. Ultimately,
your problems with them will dissipate.
You may not believe in God, but they do and most of them are not going to stop. Their belief can not be summarily dismissed. You will both be sharing the planet for quite a long time to come and you both agree that, any dichotomies based solely on the basis of a person’s belief or not in God can easily be an overuse of dichotomous thinking.
To the NON-ATHIESTS, how often does the overuse of
dichotomous thinking interfere with our connection to God (or equivalent)? The
more the world’s attention is focused on problem solving, the more likely people
will be to realize that one of the most important problem faced by our species
is the separation from God.
To you, the existence of God justifies many dichotomies, but remember that you share the planet with atheists and non-atheists who have different belief systems. The
best way to interact with them begins with understanding how the dichotomies
you believe in differ from theirs. The next step is to ask what are the common
problems that can be worked on together.
To the CATHOLIC, you believe that mankind is damaged by
original sin. Remember the name of the tree that Adam and Eve ate from. It was
called the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Consider the possibility that
many of our problems come when we assume we know who is good and who is evil.
Instead of thinking of evil as an enemy to be defeated using hate, consider it
a problem to be addressed using logic and reason. When we act to “combat” evil,
we may create as much evil as we dissipate.
As for other forms of sin, don’t many of them stem from the overuse of dichotomous thinking, particularly sins of obsession?
To the CHILD, ever had a conversation with someone and that
person was a complete idiot who had no idea what he was talking about? If you
look closely, you will very often find that somewhere that person is reducing something
that is very complicated to a simple black and white question. For example: Thinking
about me, me, me instead of thinking about all of us. Thinking about whose
fault is it or who we should blame, instead of how to solve the problem. At
that point you can ask, is it OK to reduce this situation to such a simple
To the CYNIC, ever had a conversation with someone and that
person was a complete idiot who had no idea what he was talking about. If you
think about it, you will probably find that somewhere in their twisted excuse
for logic is an example of an overuse of dichotomous thinking. Wouldn’t it be
great if we lived in a world were the overuse of dichotomous thinking stood out
like are sore thumb, where it would bring down immediate and widespread
criticism. Consider it.
Any one who can not describe a direct connection between a proposed action and a meaningful problem may not be putting forth particularly useful ideas. How often does the logic: “All we have to do is punish the guilty party, they will stop being bad
and the problem will be solved” every really work?
We all hate BS. A lot of BS stems from the overuse of dichotomous thinking. What I am proposing can be though of as a BS filter. By rooting out the obvious overuses of dichotomous thinking, we can, at least on occasion, cut through a lot of nonsense and put the brakes on some pretty stupid ideas.
To anyone ON THE FENCE about any issue, there are two sides
and both know more than you do. They shovel facts at each other and at you.
Theoretically, whoever can shovel the greater number of facts will be the
winner and declared correct and the loser will be declared wrong. This is
particularly useless when the point to be proven is that the problem is the
fault of a particular person or group.
Ask each to define the nature of the problem. Ask each to show how their proposed course of action will alleviate the problem. Anyone who can not do these two things is unlikely to be saying anything of any real value. Otherwise choose sides based on how
important the stated problem is to you and how close the connection between
problem and proposed action.
To the PROBLEM SOLVER, you typically think in terms of
looking for the ‘cause’ of a problem. In the end, it is the laws of nature that
‘cause’ most of our problems. There are only two laws that really matter: the
first law of thermodynamics (there is no free lunch) and the second law of
thermodynamics (essentially Murphy’s law). These two laws drive everything that
happens on the physical plane from the basic chemistry of life to global
weather patterns. Short of divine intervention, we can not expect these two
laws to change. Our most fundamental problems persist is because these two laws
persist and we can only solve problem within the restriction placed by these
Unlike the laws of nature, we have complete control over how we use information. When there are persistent problems that we would all like to see solved, changing
the way we use the relevant information is an important first step. Information
uses very little energy so there is no problem with the first law of
The problem is with the second law of thermodynamics. Information can be very entropic. It is natural for people to have different ideas on the same issue. Solutions come when people agree on a solution and work together. This often requires expending energy to overcome the natural increase in entropy that leads to the diversity of ideas. Dichotomous thinking can interfere with cooperation by creating unjustified
divisions among people making it harder to achieve a consensus. A healthy
suspicion of dichotomous thinking can lead to greater cooperation.
To the JOURNALIST, your effort to avoid bias is an effort to avoid the overuse of dichotomous thinking. You are, however, constrained by the desires of your audience. The more the general public demands useful problem-based information and rejects
simple feel-good information, the more you will be free to practice your profession
in the way it is meant to be practiced.
To the POLITICIAN, legislation is by nature dichotomous. Laws
typically distinguish between that which is legal and that which is not. The
justification of the dichotomies has to be put in the context of a benefit to
the nation. If that benefit can not be clearly shown, there is a good chance
that there is some over-dichotomizing going on.
Wouldn’t it be better if the public demanded that political debates be couched in terms of “How do we make our family/community/state/nation/world more secure or
prosperous rather than in terms of who is right and who is wrong?
To the VOTERS, are you tired of being governed by a gang of
criminals? Are you tired of being governed by men and women whose addiction to
power and public adulation rivals that of any drug addict? Too bad. It ain’t
gonna change. We share the planet with these people. They are not going
anywhere and their needs can not be summarily discounted. They will find a way
to get their fix one way or another. The good news is that, our democratic
system requires them to function, to a large part, out in the open where we can
keep an eye on them.
The important thing is not who they are but what they do. It is overly dichotomous to demand them to be something they are not. In the end our goal is to elect individuals who will solve the nation’s problems. We want to elect individuals who will create policies that are in the best interest of the nation. The more we require them to act like
normal, moral people, the more we select for actors and liars over the smart
Tired of politics as usual? Tired of the way things function? Politicians will give us whatever we want. As long as attack adds are more effective than issue add, nothing will change. As long as we encourage politicians to seek credit and avoid blame, nothing will change. As long as statements like “I made a mistake,” or “I do not know,” are political suicide, nothing will change. Ask yourself if the candidate you are
considering uses problem-based logic. If so, are the problems they propose to
address meaningful to you? If so, is there a direct connection between proposed
policies and these problems?
To the POLICE OFFICER, you make extensive use of dichotomous
thinking. Who is a criminal? Who is a threat? Your calls are often
controversial (in the mind of the accused at least) but usually justified.
Accusations of brutality or excessive force are simply accusations of the
misuse of dichotomous thinking. The dichotomies you make are best justified by
showing their connection to the overall goals of maintaining the security of
our communities and upholding the laws. When true acts of brutality do occur,
they can be though of as examples of dichotomous thinking replacing the goals
of the profession.
To the PHYSICIAN, your goal is to decrease the probability that
your patients will suffer some form of bad outcome. When evaluating research
results, the priority is to determine if the information is useful in achieving
this goal. Beware the overuse of dichotomous thinking in the flow of knowledge,
particularly when dealing with drug company representatives whose goal it is to
sell a product, or administrators whose goal it is to save money or make their
own jobs easier.
To the TEACHER, there is a trend in education away from rote
memorization and towards problem-based learning. Younger children have to be taught how to categorize statements as being either true or false. Consider, as soon as
possible, introducing the concept that information is ultimately a tool to
solve problems and continually reinforce the distinction between the
dichotomous and goal directed use of information.
To the INFORMATION WORKER, you treat information as a tool
to achieve various goals. Noise degrades information. The overuse of
dichotomous thinking is often very noisy. Dichotomous noise can interfere with
the flow of information, interfere with the refinement of information into
knowledge and interfere with the application of knowledge to solve problems.
To the LOGICIAN, you work with the dichotomy of true and false. Sometimes the dichotomy is justified and sometimes it is not. Many logical fallacies are examples of the over use of dichotomous thinking.
To the LINGUIST, consider the superiority of teaching how
words are tools that are used to express ideas rather than entities with
definitions that have to be memorized.
To the PHILOSOPHER, when you teach critical thinking, there
is the concept of the Hegelian dialectic. The idea is that if two people
disagree, they argue back and forth and in the end the “truth” will emerge. Are
we really well served by this approach? To me, this encourages dichotomous
thinking and discourages problem based thinking. Is it worth considering an
alternative strategy which starts with the definition of a problem and then categorizes
ideas as useful or not useful within the framework of solving the stated problem?
To the ARTIST, how useful is the good-art-bad-art dichotomy?
If the goal of art is to enrich the lives of others, then perhaps art that is
purely self-indulgent might warrant criticism.
To the BIOLOGIST, think about how our nervous systems have
evolved from a purely dichotomizing entity able to distinguish food from feces,
friend from foe, etc, to an entity with the ability to recognize and solve
problems. We are at the cross roads of evolution. We still need the
dichotomizing functions, but we have to be on guard for their overuse. Do we
still suffer from overuse of these more primitive parts of our brains? Perhaps
the question should be, are we in cortical or sub-cortical mode, at this moment?
To the THERMODYNAMICIST, the entropic energy barrier for
getting a large number of people to wrap their brains around any one idea is
very high. The reason I think this idea can have a broad impact is because of
its ubiquitous nature. The distinction between dichotomous thinking and
goal-directed thinking is a fundamental aspect of the way we all process
information. This distinction is relevant to a wide variety of human endeavors.
I believe that the energy barrier to the widespread consideration of this idea
will be lower than many others because each individual can have a unique reason
for considering it and a unique way of applying it to their own lives.
Another advantage of this idea is the potential for synergism. Pointing out the overuse of dichotomous thinking in one setting will strengthen its impact when applied in all other settings.
To the DISAGREER, you may have found one or more statements
here that are wrong and therefore you have concluded that I am wrong. To agree
with anything is to agree with everything. You may be right. But I suggest that
you ask whether I have said anything at all that is useful. I suggest that
useful vs. not useful is a better way to categorize information than the overly
dichotomous correct and incorrect. All I am saying is that this idea might be
able to change the world.
Do you think I am wrong because I am criticizing dichotomous thinking and you consider dichotomous thinking to be good not bad? You can point to many instances where dichotomous thinking is fully justified, therefore I am wrong. It is
interesting that the overuse of dichotomous thinking is a problem that can
interfere with its own solution. By being so dichotomous, you miss the point
that I am trying to encourage people to question dichotomous thinking, not to
reject it categorically.
Do you simply disagree because you think it would put you or something you believe in at a disadvantage? If so your position may be based on dichotomies you do not really believe in. If not, remember that there is nothing wrong with treating as justified dichotomies that are based on belief, faith, emotion, etc. A world in which dichotomous
thinking takes a back seat to problem based thinking might not be as bad to you
as you imagine.
All I am saying is that vulnerability will come from dichotomies that are not justified within a problem-based or goal directed framework. Some goals are more personal and some are more universal, and we will never all agree on the same goals. We will still need to accept that one person’s goals will be different from another’s. The biggest
effect will be to make vulnerable those individuals who make no claim to
justifying their dichotomies based on any goals. “I just hate ‘those’ people,
and so do all of my friends.” In addition, this idea will facilitate communication between different groups or individuals by creating a framework in which differences can be better understood and described.
Do you disagree because you think “This will just not work.” That, of course, depends on what the goal is. I do not expect the world’s problems to disappear tomorrow, but if this improves the way we use information, I do think this effort will have a synergistic effect.
Finally, do you disagree because you think people are generally lazy? Dichotomous thinking is usually easier than understanding the nature of complex problems and some people will resist change at all costs. You may be right.
To the HUMAN, there are over 7 billion of us. We breath the same air, we drink the same water and we all seem to be subject to the same natural laws. As a result, we share a lot of common problems. Some of our problems are more fundamental than others. The alleviation of more fundamental problems leads to the alleviation of a correspondingly larger number of other problems. I believe the overuse (or at least the misuse) of dichotomous thinking is among our most fundamental problems. While the widespread acknowledgement of this problem may not immediately solve any of our other fundamental problems, I believe it will facilitate the alleviation of a great number of other problems by acting as a common framework for the exchange of ideas among different group of people.
IN CONCUSION: Am I snapping my fingers and making all the
worlds problems go away? No. Am I snapping my fingers and making any single problem go away? No. All I am suggesting is that we rethink the way we use information. I am suggesting we would all benefit from a greater awareness of the
distinction between dichotomous thinking and goal-directed thinking. I am
suggesting that, where appropriate, we replace purely dichotomous thinking with
some form of goal-directed thinking.
So what to do now? I am not sure. At the very least, avoid
dichotomous noise, demand that controversial dichotomies be justified within
the framework of a problem or goal and point out the blatant overuses of
dichotomous thinking whenever possible.
Can a single word change the world?
Probably not, but a single idea might.