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.