This article on either-or thinking is the seventh and last essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth here and here, and sixth here and here.
In Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ, one of the ways that Eastern and Western mindsets differ is in resolving contradictions. Easterners tend to transcend different and opposing views, seeking the middle way and finding the truth on both sides (i.e., dialectical reasoning), while Westerners tend to insist more on the “rightness” of one view over the other. The laws that govern much of the Western intellectual culture–the law of identity and the law of noncontradiction–lead to a method of thinking dubbed either-or thinking.
What is Either-Or Thinking?
Either-or thinking is a method of parsing concepts by dividing them into a dichotomy–two opposing options–where the alternatives cannot coexist with each other. It is absolutely one or the other, also known as black and white thinking. This methodology can be useful, such as in solving math problems, but it is not without weakness.
Observant readers may say, Isn’t the Western vs. Eastern comparison itself a false dichotomy? To which I would answer, yes, if it is seen as an either-or situation. Ideas don’t belong exclusively in the East or West, and anyone in the East or West is likely a hybrid of world cultures. These are abstractions, general categorizations to represent sets of ideas, models to represent real life. In other words, they are theoretical dichotomies, and as such, they involve simplifications of reality.
In real life, Western and Eastern ideas travel and mix together. General trends may be observed, but the details are far messier than what essays can describe. Further, the world is not divided into just two mindsets–there’s a spectrum of thoughts and paradigms in across Earth’s geography.
What then is the point of discussing these concepts at all, as I have for many extensive posts (see links above)? Well, models and simplifications are still useful in getting some modicum of understanding. The danger is in extrapolating the lessons too much, beyond what the models are intended to represent.
The Downfall of Either-Or Thinking
In the Greek intellectual tradition that values public discourse and debates, it is easy to see how either-or thinking flourishes. It is a perfect set up for an engaging debate in pursuit of answering the question, Which side is more right?
Quoting Richard E. Nisbett again from The Geography of Thought:
The obsession with categories of the either/or sort runs through Western intellectual history. Dichotomies abound in every century and form the basis for often fruitless debates: for example, “mind-body” controversies in which partisans take sides as to whether a given behavior is best understood as being produced by the mind independent of any biological embodiment, or as a purely physical reaction unmediated by mental processes. The “nature-nurture” controversy is another debate that has often proved to generate more heat than light…nearly all behaviors that are characteristic of higher order mammals are determined by both nature and nurture. The dichotomy “emotion-reason” has obscured more than it has revealed…it makes sense to separate the two for purposes of analysis only.
Throughout Western intellectual history, there has been a conviction that it is possible to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for any category. A square is a two-dimensional object with four sides of equal length and four right angles. Nothing lacking these properties can be a square and anything having those properties is definitely a square.
While either-or thinking can produce a clean analytical narrative, a comprehensive understanding of each side, perfectly defined and characterized, it often doesn’t correspond to real life. As Nisbett says, separating a phenomenon into two ideas is convenient for theoretical analysis only, but if it is not followed by a zoomed-out view back to reality, it can lead to useless fights. Real life does not deconstruct itself neatly into two buckets.
Either-or thinking is less prevalent in the intellectual culture of the East, where things are not always defined by necessary and sufficient conditions. The ambiguity of definitions is prevalent, concepts can be fluid, and dialectical reasoning transcends the opposing views.
The West Side of the East
Nisbett’s book deals specifically with the differences between the West and the Far East, those influenced by the ancient Chinese culture. These serve as an interesting backdrop for me to compare and contrast with Near Eastern thoughts. I should note that I do resent the Euro centricity of these terminologies. The “far” and “near” designations are decidedly Western, and I will try to avoid them.
This is perhaps the right time to reveal the motivations behind the essays in Between Jerusalem and Athens (see links above). My forays into these worldviews were first prodded by certain dissatisfaction in religious dialogues, which, being a Christian, were intertwined with the culture and traditions of the Mediterranean region. I enjoy analytical readings of the Bible, which I learned largely after my move to the West (see A Child of East and West, Part 1 and Part 2). Yet, there are limits to a Western analysis of the Bible, especially because the Bible comes from an Eastern society. Its stories, language, and images come from a different world, and this discrepancy can cause misunderstandings.
I do not mean here that some Bible teachings only apply to people in the East and not the West, or vice versa. The principles it teaches transcend cultures, but they are delivered and couched in a particular societal context. An understanding of the context will allow proper understanding of the principles that are being communicated.
Being a Christian in America, one ought to be aware of the cultural differences between oneself and the writer of Biblical passages. Words and concepts can have different nuances in different place and times, and one should always fight the urge of imposing her own culture to the text, imposing meaning that is not intended by the writer.
Unfortunately, these things happen. It is not easy to escape the bent of one’s mind. Biblical concepts, which have many paradoxes, are often discussed in an either-or manner that result in debates between two camps without much edification.
Examples of either-or fallacy include questions like, Is there such thing as true altruism, as in, is an altruistic deed still altruistic when the person feels good about it? Which one is more important, the motive or the deed? The more Christian versions of these questions are on faith and works, justice and mercy, God’s love and His anger, Christ’s divine and human nature, and many others. Is obedience a condition of the heart or a deed? Each issue can make friends and enemies, dissecting a community into 2 debate teams. As for me, I am often confused at the resistance against embracing both sides of the paradox. Why can’t it be both? We don’t have to accept one side in exclusion of the other, especially when the Bible teaches both. Is this a cultural phenomenon?
The Beautiful Resolutions
For an either-or mind, paradoxes are sources of consternations. But, say, you take the either-or framework away, things may actually resolve itself. Listen to what Abraham J. Heschel, a Jewish writer, wrote in his essay Jewish Thinking:
We are essentially trained in a non-Jewish world. This is where we obtain our general training. We are inclined to think in non-Jewish terms. I am not discouraging exposure to the non-Jewish world. I am merely indicating that it is not biblical thinking… If you take biblical passages or biblical documents or rabbinic statements, and submit them to a Greek mind, they often are absurd. They make no sense.
This absurdity comes the mismatch between the mental frameworks of the source and the analyst. Understanding the Bible requires an understanding of life as seen by the Bible.
In God in Search of Man, Heschel wrote (emphasis mine),
Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectic pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties. As in a magnet, the ends of which have opposite magnetic qualities, these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the very heart of Judaism, the polarity of ideas and events, of mitzvah and sin, of kavanah and deed, of regularity and spontaneity, of uniformity and individuality, of halacha and agada, of law and inwardness, of love and fear, of understanding and obedience, of joy and discipline, of the good and the evil drive, of time and eternity, of this world and the world to come, of revelation and response, of insight and information, of empathy and self-expression, of creed and faith, of the word and that which is beyond words, of man’s quest for God and God in search of man. Even God’s relation to the world is characterized by the polarity of justice and mercy, providence and concealment, the promise of reward and the demand to serve Him for His sake. Taken abstractly, all these terms seem to be mutually exclusive, yet in actual living they involve each other; the separation of the two is fatal to both.
In the way he united the many facets of God’s character, from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity:
God is Judge and Creator, and not only Revealer and Redeemer. Detached from the Hebrew Bible, people began to cherish one perspective of the meaning of God, preferably His promise as Redeemer, and become oblivious to His demanding presence as Judge, to His sublime transcendence as Creator. The insistence upon His love without realizing His wrath, the teaching of His immanence without stressing His transcendence, the certainty of His miracles without an awareness of the infinite darkness of His absence—these are dangerous distortions.
And finally, I love how he resolves the faith vs. works in God in Search of Man:
The dichotomy of faith and works which presented such an important problem in Christian theology was never a problem in Judaism. To us, the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible. The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities. Deed and thought are bound into one. All a person thinks and feels enters everything he does, and all he does is involved in everything he thinks and feels.
Spiritual aspirations are doomed to failure when we try to cultivate deeds at the expense of thoughts or thoughts at the expense of deeds. Is it the artist’s inner vision or his wrestling with the stone that brings about a work of sculpture? Right living is like a work of art, the product of a vision and of a wrestling with concrete situations.
There’s a time to atomize something, and there’s a time to see it at a distance. Life is indivisible. And Biblical concepts are also interrelated. Loving God is not separate from loving fellow mankind; being forgiven by God is not separate from forgiving others (see the Lord’s prayer); a kind deed to fellow mankind is seen as a deed towards God (see Jesus’ words).
This concept of indivisibility–in education, in academia, in engineering, in life–is really at the core of all of the past essays. And this post being the final one of this series, I’d like to close with this quote:
If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is so to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God.” – Heschel
Come back to read the overview of the Between Jerusalem and Athens series!