(I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Equinox. The subject of this blog may in some way be linked to this period in the year when we are poised on the knife-edge of two seasons.)
I have been rereading the early books of Carlos Castaneda. The teacher, don Juan, refers to everything we know and everything we see in the world, everything that can be described in words, as one type of reality, and tries to initiate his student, Castaneda, into another reality, which can be experienced but not described in the same way we describe our usual reality. He speaks of this “separate reality” as the realm which is attempted, by various means, to be reached by sorcerers or men of knowledge. This made me think of my studies in the Heart Sutra, which goes one step further and says that the two realities (shiki, the material world, and ku, emptiness or potential) are completely identical. Perhaps these are not exact correlates, but it is what occurred to me. Don Juan speaks of the two realities as being a true pair, in contrast to any pair we can think of, which are opposites in the realm of the material; such as black/white, cold/hot, etc. And it is true that most polar opposites we can think of are not true pairs of forever conflicting realities, but two ends or poles of a concept (such as hot and cold being opposite poles on the spectrum of temperature, etc.).
Recently I heard a person described as “non-binary”. Apparently this refers to a human being who doesn’t identify or present as either the male or the female gender. Well, how interesting, and kind of heartening, I thought. There is now a category for people who think of themselves as human beings first, and male or female second. I’ve always, especially later in life, thought like this. I realize that there are lots of people, perhaps with a greater preponderance of one type of hormone over another, for whom this idea is anathema. But surely now, with all the different kinds of people fighting for recognition, there is room for people who wish to be just plain human. And I won’t lie, it does make me feel a little better to be something, not just a “breeder”, used derogatorily in the 70s to denote a person who goes the (at the time) ordinary route of marriage to one of the ”opposite” sex and having children with them. (Interesting that this kind of “opposite”, gender, has also become a spectrum of possibility in this our material world.)
But that is not the main theme of this blog. I am referring to another way of being binary -- to imagine two distinct opposites of any viewpoint and to embrace one of them, rejecting the other. There is a lot of this going around. Recently I made a comment on something a person said, and they took my comment as a compliment. I answered, “You think that was a compliment -- interesting.” To which they replied, “So it was an insult?” There is a very large spectrum between a compliment and an insult. But this person jumped straight to the conclusion that if I wasn’t complimenting them, I must be insulting them. I felt disappointed that the discussion could go no further, but I recognized a trend that is all too prevalent these days. Things are getting more and more black and white, there is no room for shades of grey. Never mind fifty -- there is not room for even one. I have a theory as to why that is. It’s because our minds are being gradually altered from an organic, multiple-outcome, anything-is-possible state to a binary one, because of our reliance on the digital. But which came first, the chicken or the egg?
I don’t know how far AI has progressed; I don’t keep track of these things -- all I can see is the manifestation. Isn’t all digital communication based on the binary system, in other words everything must be reduced to long strings of 1 or 0? What we see on our screens -- yes / no, on / off, accept / don’t accept, buy / don’t buy -- are manifestations of this simple fact. We are being programmed by our own devices to accept or reject, nothing in between. Infinite possibility is becoming a thing of the past. Our organic brains, which can see paths to multiple outcomes, are increasingly being forced to choose between only two alternatives.
But these devices were made by human beings. Is it possible that we ourselves have a built-in preference for the black/white choice?
I remember watching the summer high school baseball tournament on TV with my sons when they were small. There was, of course, one winner. This team had climbed up through the heats until the finals, and they had beat the team that ended up in second place, which had climbed up in the same way, battling the same odds. One won undying glory, the other was forgotten. I found this cruel and barbaric. So many factors would have gone into this game -- maybe the star player of the losing team had had a stomachache that day or something. I hated watching this battle to the death. It seemed so arbitrary. “But Mom”, my sons insisted, “these guys WON.” It was incontrovertible -- this team won, that team lost.
Binary thinking. 1 or 0. One has to win, one has to lose. Shades of medieval single combat, and actually, now that I think of it, the fist fight between individuals that, it seems, has to end every thriller or action movie. We have entirely embraced the tenet of dog-eat-dog. One eats, the other is eaten. “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat” as some characters in “Cloud Atlas” say.
Sometimes the losers don’t accept the result. In the increasingly close and ferocious US Presidential election, because there are only two candidates, and they are usually pretty evenly matched, the winners (anyone who voted for the winning candidate) have become increasingly smug, and the losers -- well, just remember January 6, 2021. Half of the country is dissatisfied or worse. All the training we had in school to be “good winners” or “good losers” seems to have been jettisoned. The fight is to the death -- all or nothing. The fact that it all happens again in four years doesn’t penetrate the absolutist view.
Is this the only way we can find to be human? Is it because of this bent in our psyches that we have embraced the binary thinking of artificial intelligence so completely? I believe that AI has encouraged and sharpened this human trait to a truly dangerous degree. Of course, in social media and elsewhere, it is a big money-maker to put people at each other’s throats. “If you aren’t for me, you must be against me.” Here’s another spine-chilling pair of opposites: does it make money or not? One of the subtlest ways to divide people, as making money or not largely seems to be a matter of personality or character. I’m thinking of “influencers” etc. here. Things get ever more exaggerated, ever more confrontational, and this of course makes money for someone.
Well, I myself am firmly in the non-binary camp. I believe in shades of meaning, objective reasoning, respect for the others’ viewpoint, and organic thinking.