Computers are binary. We are not. The human brain is NOT a computer, and the computer as a metaphor for the mind is ultimately a weak one. If you’ve ever learned a programming language, and actually written code instructing a machine to do something, you find out straight away that computers are dumb. They can’t do anything on their own. They have to be instructed, and those instructions have to be syntactically perfect or the whole thing falls apart. Now it’s clear that a computer can “learn” if the programmers create such a possibility. And I expect in my lifetime that a computer will pass the Turing Test and fool people into believing it is conscious. But that’s not important to me, what’s important to me is thinking and learning.
One of the most destructive and pernicious fallacies we engage in is this idea of “both sides” of an argument. Pro/Con. For/Against. Yes/No. This is fine for politics, where one must vote to fund something or not, to allow or disallow something or not, to chose candidate A over candidate B. That’s the system and that’s how it works. But the problem is that that kind of thinking—that there are only “two sides” to every issue—is nonsense. The world is much more complex, filled with nuance and subtlety, and issues are multi-faceted. We see and feel all these facets and know they exist. But the complexity is frustrating so we lump it all together and mush it around and turn it into a binary problem.
Is there a god? Yes or no! Really, that’s all I get? Two choices? Fuck you. No, really. Do you think the world is that simple? That god is reducible to a yes/no choice? I once had a classmate ask me “do you believe in Creation or are you one of those Darwin dudes?” One of the most interesting questions in all of human history—the origin of life—which ABSOLUTELY NO ONE has the answer to, and he gave me only two choices. The hell with him. It’s OK, it was 8th grade, we were all stupid then. But I’m a grownup now and I still encounter this kind of thinking. We have science and we have religion. And every wonderful and fascinating inquiry into Nature is, at best, a multiple choice test of which the “answers” are plucked from one or the other.
Stupid. Hopelessly and irrevocably stupid. The universe is not either/or. It’s much too marvelous for that sort of simple-mindedness. There are some days in which I believe one thing and some days in which I believe another. I find myself rejecting beliefs I once had and accepting things I once doubted. Or doubting things I once believed. And then it happens again, and again, and I’m in a new place, one I had not imagined previously. I assume this happens to everybody. Does it? I feel like I’m a river, in the sense of Heraclitus’ dictum “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I’m always jumping my banks, or changing my flow. I’m always moving, evolving, and adapting. I’m the same guy, but I’m in flux. Buckminster Fuller said “I seem to be a verb.” I’ve always liked that. Nouns are supposed to be persons, places, or things, but really those are just labels. Nothing ever stays the same, life is dynamic and ceaselessly changing. How can this kaleidoscope of chaos we call the world ever be squeezed into the straitjacket of binary thinking?
I think we should embrace contradiction and inconsistency. I think we should ask questions that don’t have yes or no answers. I think we should stop deciding if we are for or against something and instead plunge, eyes wide open, into the messy, tangled, intricate, and convoluted nature of things. A made bed is nice to look at, but it’s lousy for sleeping in. A gorgeous presentation at a fancy restaurant is grand, but it’s only there to be rearranged by me and then turned into turds. Life is a process, not a thing.
I came across something in my reading the other day, it’s from Will and Ariel Durant‘s The Age of Louis XIV, volume seven of their Story of Civilization. A Frenchman named Fontenelle is quoted thusly:
Je suis effrayé de la conviction qui règne autour de moi.
“I am frightened by the certainties that reign around me.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
You are not a computer. There is no certainty in your inputs and outputs. Your memory is not fixed, you can’t run out of disk space. You don’t need to be replaced every five years. Since you aren’t a machine don’t think like one. Be analog, not digital. Enjoy the richness of the universe and don’t crush the life out of complexity by over-simplification. Whenever anyone tells you a problem has a simple solution tell them to go back to math class. (I love math. But math class problems aren’t real life and don’t give you an adequate picture of the beauty and power of mathematics.)
And, for the love of god, stop turning everything into a vote. Thumbs up or thumbs down is bullshit, stick that thumb in your mouth and suck. Your thumb is attached to your hand and thence to your arm and to your shoulder and to your head and ultimately to your brain. That’s right, your thumb is part of your brain. And when you twiddle your thumbs you are, at the very least, investigating possibilities!
2 thoughts on “Binary”
Another great blog post! I like to think of my life’s journey as “Sitting back in the saddle of complexity”. Sit back, be aware yet relaxed, feel the bumps and enjoy the ride!
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