Dualistic Thinking and Intellectual Self-Defense

Duslistic divisions often bother me. When dualisms are conceptual, they are most irritating because at that level they can cause the greatest mischief, and of course all dualisms are ultimately conceptual.

Maybe it is the Western frame of mind that exacerbates the risk of dualisms. What I mean is that dualisms appear to be inherent to human thought and so, to that degree, they are neither good nor bad, just something to take note of. But as many have noted, dualisms play a particular role in the Western tradition (with its Zoroastrian/Manichaean monotheism), that of polar opposition leading to conflict and antagonism. Western dualisms at times bring up a battle mentality, of a line being drawn.

We have become more conceptually sophisticated in recent generations, but I would argue not yet sophisticated enough. More people seem to understand in theory about the potential problems of dualistic thinking. Nonetheless, people continue to get easily get drawn into and polarized by old conceptual dualisms.

In genetics debates, this is obvious. The standard division of nature versus nurture, genetics versus environment are ultimately meaningless. Almost everyone agrees that no such division exists in reality, but that doesn’t stop people thinking in those frames and arguing as if they were real. Many people seem to think that they can still hold onto this old dualism just by tinkering with it a bit, as if the problem wasn’t really the dualism itself but just finding the right formulation of it.

The actual problem is much deeper, though. In reality, there is no such thing as genetics separated from environment. Genetics are just one aspect of the larger environment. Similarly, environment exists within genetics and other factors related to genetics. The best example of this is epigenetics, where the environment of an individual influences or even determines the genetic expression of the following generations of their offspring.

These are just words, genetics and environment. Not reality.

Yet, even many scientists go on making claims that some trait is some particular percentage genetic influenced and a corresponding percentage environmental influence. Heated debates regularly happen in arguing over these percentages. It is complete and utter nonsense, but old narratives die hard. If we were to speak of the complexities of reality, we would have to come up with a new way of speaking about it. That would require immense effort and, more importantly, it would require us to be collectively humbled by our near inability to come to terms with reality.

There are many examples. There is the simplistic thinking of race realists who actually believe the division between black and white is genetically and biologically real. This simplistic thinking is  so powerful and pervasive that few know how to challenge it. There is much power in even the simplest of ideas.

Another example is that of economics, even more overtly mixed up with conceptual confusions. The ideological battle lines of dualistic thinking are often quite stark. We speak of politics and economics, public and private. These social constructions seem real to us. A social construction is basically an idea in the social sphere, but many people can’t comprehend how something so powerful can be a mere idea. That is the main deficiency in our understanding, that we don’t fully appreciate the power of ideas.

Ideas are powerful because they are the justications for power and so they shape how power is used. To say something is private, it is to say this is my territory and I claim it before all challengers. They are fighting words. It’s just in the modern world we use trained officials do the fighting for us. Police defend our property for us. Or if we kill someone on our property, the courts defend us and this usually keeps the family of the killed from seeking out vengeance.

All of this in defense of a fiction, the private. I’m making no moral judgment here. I’m not saying private ownership is necessarily bad, but I am pointing out that it isn’t necessarily good as based on an inherent reality. It is a fiction and we should choose our fictions wisely. If we are going to kill people over a fiction,we better be sure that fiction offers some great value.

The challenge we face is few people are educated in or well-read about philosophy. Most people don’t understand and appreciate the history of ideas. That collective state of ignorance is what allows social constructions to have so much power over us. This as true for the scientist as for the layman, as true for the economist as for the average citizen. We lack intellectual self-defense, as Noam Chomsky calls it. We are easily controlled by ideas and easily manipulated by those who control ideas.

More basically, it just leads to a lot of confused thinking and pointless debate.

11 thoughts on “Dualistic Thinking and Intellectual Self-Defense

  1. I think it’s a testament to the state of society. Really, what doesn’t fit onto a bumper sticker, a 10 second sound bite, etc doesn’t catch the attention of most voters today.

    That’s the fundamental failure of democracy it seems.

    Most issues are really gray areas where there is not a clear cut answer. But most people appear to be incapable of seeing it that way.

    • Comfort with gray areas is not a talent most people have. Yet that is what is needed more than anything. I sometimes assume that smart, informed people should know better, but experience has taught me that no one is immune to these simplistic thought patterns. Heuristics can be useful, just as long you take them as heuristics instead of as reality.

  2. It seems that we humans have a really low tolerance for uncertainty.

    I think that if we were to develop a list of successful characteristics for a culture, it would look like:

    1. Very long-term oriented: That’s something that we humans seem to be naturally really bad at.

    2. High tolerance for uncertainty: Again, we humans seem to prefer being certain of unknowns, so to speak. We a binary in a sense for the most part – issues are black and white.

    3. Low tolerance for inequality (ex: very egalitarian and anti-authoritarian): A society that is naturally geared towards wanting to be equal.

    Likewise, “rank has its privileges” or a very pyramid should not be allowed to exist.

    Equally important is equality between race and gender.

    4. Very high social capital: Very strong community bonds and a sense of wanting to help each other.

    Emphasis should be away from materialism, power, and ambition. Some degree of competition might be good, but not to the point where it is competition for the sake of it.

    5. Mildly individualistic: You want people to be individualistic enough that they think critically, that they challenge authority, and that they are receptive to new ideas. There also is a willingness to self-criticize and accept individual responsibility for lack of success.

    Excessive individualism though (a problem I think the US has) breeds narcissism, short-term orientation, and a lack of community bonds.

    6. Very Intellectual oriented: Need a society that focuses well on work, and on intellectual pursuits.

    Education and work likewise need to be very strongly emphasized.

    7. Very open culture. Minimal secrecy. No restrictions of the free flow of information. Open culture where people can discuss the quality of information.

    I do not believe that there is any culture that meets all of this perfectly.

    Perhaps the Nordic nations though are the closest. Accordingly, they dominate the living standards indexes.

    • Related to what you just wrote, I saw something about cultures of trust and mistrust in terms of economic and social functioning:


      “The more a population was exposed to slave raiding generations ago, the lower its measures of trust and economic activity today. The specter of slavery, they concluded, had done long-term damage to the social bonds necessary for efficient trade. The economies and people continue to suffer accordingly.”

      I just came across that today, but I’ve had a long-time interest in cultures of trust. It is interesting to see the opposite side of the coin with cultures of mistrust and how they can be built on old experiences of shared trauma.

      It reminds me of the Southern Scots-Irish. They are a population that has experienced quite a bit of oppression and victimization over their history. Along with a culture of mistrust, they also have a culture of honor, which seems like a bad combination. The Japanese have a culture of honor as well, but it is moderated by a culture of trust.

  3. In this post, I wrote about how maybe most people know these conceptual frames aren’t literally real. I pointed out that people will usually admit that genetics and environment aren’t actual separate things that could be physically held or pointed to. Yet people will go on speaking as if they are real.

    The line is easily blurred between the abstract and the concrete, the fictional and the real. This reminds me of the issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Here is possibly the first example where I came across this strange human cognitive behavior:


    • We really don’t appreciate the power of ideas. The best of us get locked into all kinds of ideological frames and reality tunnels. It doesn’t make us bad people or failed intellectuals. It just makes us human.

      That message hits home for me with race. Like most other Americans, I was born and raised in a race-obsessed society. Even before I consciously understood, race was indoctrinated into the very depths of my soul. I can’t help but to think in terms of black and white.

      I intellectually know that it is bullshit, but when I look at the world I see race everywhere. I don’t know how to not see race, how to not categorize people by race, how to not be a race. Part of my mind obviously doesn’t know it is bullshit.

      I know and I don’t know. There is a splitting of the mind that tears one’s soul apart, a wounding of one’s sense of self. There is a reason people seek to avoid awarness of this. The dissonance it creates is unbearable.

      Our entire society is built on this internalized fucked-upness. To say race is not real and to know that in one’s gut is to tear down the world you’ve always known, the only world allowed you. There is no separating race from racism, and there is no way to separate the racial order from the racial mindset. To challenge this all is to first and foremost to challenge oneself.

      You need not just to have intellectual self-defense. You must not merely defend yourself. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself or rather the self you have known so far. The greatest threat doesn’t come from outside of you, but from within. We all are already infected. It is too late to seek immunization.

      It is a strange thing to contemplate. There is a world that exists outside of all our conceptions of it. We can barely imagine what that world is or might be.

  4. Potentially accurate.

    I think I once read that servants of very wealthy people tend to become politically conservative – a fascinating thing.

    It’s been argued that the Mongol destruction of Baghdad helped turn the world of Islam into the unequal, low trust society that it became. The invasion probably sealed the fate of what had been a society already heading towards fundamentalism and having suffered from the Crusades.

    On the other hand, there have been militant societies too that have turned out quite well. The Scandinavians come to mind. Perhaps it is because feudalism never became entrenched?

    • Part of it is location.

      Much of Africa and the Middle East have been at the crossroads of empires for millennia. They have been battlegrounds of power and profit. The Middle East really has had it rough on the historical stage. Everyone wanted to control that region where Africa, Asia, and Europe met.

      Northern Europe, however, has been at the periphery of civilization for most of history. Not too many in the past cared much about conquering or enslaving Scandinavians. There can be some advantages to having distance between your society and where the main historical action is happening.

      Feudalism didn’t become entrenched. Many things didn’t become entrenched. Semi-isolation maybe allowed a more independent and insular development of culture, which was probably good for building a culture of trust.

  5. That message hits home for me with race. Like most other Americans, I was born and raised in a race-obsessed society. Even before I consciously understood, race was indoctrinated into the very depths of my soul. I can’t help but to think in terms of black and white.

    The reason why the Republican Party uses race baiting is because they know it works very well.

    Their target is mostly lower middle class whites, who have seen their economic fortunes decline over the past couple of decades due to factors such as outsourcing, lack of investment in human capital, and the policy decisions made by the top 1%.

    Race I think gives a convenient sort of scapegoat. These are the types of people that grew up being taught that they were superior for being White, religious, and in American conservatism. Sort of like an onion, being peeled, these myths have been proven false.

    There’s a tendency I think to want to lash out for this group because in many ways, they are the victims. In truth, they have more in common interest of course with the Black and Hispanic populations than say, the top 1% of Whites. But race offers a sort of pacifier.

    This is then ruthlessly exploited of course by the Republican Party, which does very little to help this group and much to harm them. From outsourcing to financial deregulation. But the thing is, they know that they can get away with it through their dog whistling.

    That is not to say the Democratic Party is good (far from it), but there is at least on paper a sense of acknowledgement about the problems and challenges that the US is facing.

    It’s interesting comparing how Canada is closer to a post-racial society and the US not so much. That is not to say Canada is perfect, but on this front, it’s made more progress.

    • I always wonder the big picture looks like. There is a lot of data out there. But when one focuses on one set of data, something else inevitably gets left out or de-emphasized.

      In reading those two articles, I was reminded of the fact that most Americans are in many ways more liberal or even left-wing than politicians and the media elite. Most Americans want better regulation, not less regulation. Most Americans want more money spent on public services and infrastructure. Most Americans want big money out of politics. In the South, most voting age citizens identify with the Democratic Party, which I take as an expression of liberalism rather than of partisanship.

      Partisan politics obviously doesn’t help us understand any of this. It is a combination of Democrats not fighting for the poor and Republicans having been effective in disenfranchising and demoralizing many potential voters, including many politically disillusioned poor whites. With not other viable options, you get a situation where both parties compete over the votes of a minority of Americans while the rest of the population sits back watching the charade.

      Voter turnout numbers are pathetic. But there honestly isn’t much reason for voting when the two parties control the political system and the economic elites control the two parties. To politically engage Americans, what is required is to challenge the entire two-party system. Then we would see what poor whites are made of. Those poor whites once took to violent protest against their corporate masters in generations past. Some of them even allied with poor minorities. I wouldn’t discount them.

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