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!
A chronicle of an Indonesian in America, continued. In Part 1 of A Child of East and West, I told the story of my upbringing in the East and my Western-leaning brain. This post continues the story with my life in the West.
This article is the sixth essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth here and here.
Part 1 of A Child of East and West left off with me finding a match between my personal philosophies and approach to life in the West. The empowered sense of personal agency allowed me to discover myself without much social ties and constraints. This was the way to live, I thought.
Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was lonely and I missed, sometimes, the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.
Trapped in a Worldview
Once in graduate school, several friends and I attended one of those Christian vs. atheist debates, in line with the ancient Greek tradition from which Western thoughts emerged, on whether there could be morality without God. Debates were enjoyable intellectual exercises, where logic was the main medium to argue and persuade.
After the event, I asked my friend, a non-Christian, about what she thought. She said it was interesting, although the atheist’s arguments sounded more logical to her. Being a Christian, my thoughts were the opposite—the Christian arguments made more sense—but I didn’t contradict her and was perfectly comfortable with her answer, because by this time, I already had a growing hunch that events like this didn’t always bridge people from two sides. It was not whether one side was more logical than the other; it was about psychology.
We are more inclined to accept positions that agree with our preconceived ideas, and those arguments will literally make more sense to us. The reasoning is clearer due to familiarity, and even our physical reactions would differ when listening to someone we like and agree vs. someone we dislike and disagree with. These are natural cognitive biases, and unless we are conscious of these phenomena and fight the urge to dismiss arguments we don’t initially like, we may be fooling ourselves when we say, I came to an objective conclusion.
In one of his social psychology experiments in The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett observed that when faced with evidence contradicting one’s previous beliefs, Easterners tend to average out and seek the middle way, while Westerners show more signs of further polarization. In this experiment’s case, they should have re-balanced their views and take into account all evidence, but they instead became stronger in their beliefs. Nisbett explained this by the Westerners’ ability to generate counterarguments against an opposing view combined with the impulse to choose one or the other as correct. When a contradicting argument is weak and they are able to argue against is, their beliefs are enforced (see backgrounds of this point in here and here). Sometimes, this approach is fine. But there are certainly cases where this is unfavorable, when instead of becoming balanced, people go into extremes.
As both an engineer and a student of nature, I see many contrasts between human designs and nature. Human designs are often too linear: take raw materials, convert into something for a single purpose, then throw away the wastes, which pile and pile in a location unseen by the general public, creating the illusion that they don’t exist. Until one day, the wastes overstress nature and a crisis emerges. Ocean pollution, air pollution, and global warming are results of this type of behavior. The economists would say, externalized social and environmental costs; these are outside the scope of the polluters’ work, so no one’s paying for it.
Natural processes, on the other hand, work in cycles. One’s discards are raw materials for another process, creating a system with net zero waste. The linear thinking starts with one objective–say, making money from selling meat–and optimizes everything to serve that one purpose. Along the way, people forget that animals are part of an ecosystem and that we can’t isolate them only to serve our economic goals (see objects vs. environment). The more I see this single narrative approach, the more I’m drawn to ecological models–holistic approaches that see interconnections between factors, appreciate complexity, see the whole and not just the parts. These are things that align more naturally to the ancient Eastern culture, although the linear thinking practice is now pervasive all around the world.
Life in General
As for my personal life, I crave certain integration between my intellectual, physical, and spiritual realms. I want to do engineering with soul, to have a vocation and not just a job, and I don’t want to be a fragmented or isolated human being. I miss robust communities, the human relationships that give life meaning. In the spiritual realm, the cerebral style of Bible studies and listening to sermons that nurtured my budding faith, eventually hit diminishing returns. As my knowledge increased, it became easier and easier to say the profound things, but with no real change in the life. How many more new sermons does one need if they don’t translate into tangible changes and actions?
In an over-intellectualized world, ideas face the danger of being disembodied, widening the mind-body separation that Plato might have liked, between what we know and what we do. The poignant question is, If we know so much, why are we still doing the same things time after time? This, as I see it, is a symptom of intellectual gluttony.
Yet there are times when I feel the most growth, the most integrated. These are when I can engage mind, body, and soul in the service of others. It is as if the fragmented pieces of me finally come together to form one whole person–me.
Re-discovering the East
It’s funny that while my body travelled geographically from East to West, I am only now rediscovering the East again. The sources of consternations above, the many years of questionings and seeking answers, along with serendipitous encounters with authors from various cultures, become an education that no school can give me. I should say that on a day-to-day basis, I am still very much Hellenized—logic and reason are still my modus operandi, especially in my line of work—but at least I am now aware that people reason differently around the world, and that there are strengths and downfalls to each paradigm. Life is messier than abstract concepts.
As for my church experience, it turns out that churches in the East and West–or at least my church in Indonesia and in the US–operate differently. In a culture where arguing with logic can sometimes be seen as immature, it makes sense that reasoning faith out is not always the primary focus of in the life of the church. People come and stay, perhaps compelled first and foremost by the community before they are convinced by the tenets of truth. I see this many times and it is incomprehensible to me because I’m not wired that way. But people are different, and cultural tendencies are also different.
Indeed, the community aspect in Eastern churches is so strong that, to me, they seem more integrated than Western ones; more people are involved in the day-to-day life and business of the church and members are more involved in each other’s lives. Of course, this level of involvement can be both good and bad, but in terms of the bond between people, it is definitely stronger. Personal connections do not only happen during the weekends, but throughout the week. I felt the strength of this community the most when my father passed away and my home church community held my family up day in and day out.
Which way is better? Well, that may in itself be a Western question–the insistence that there is a correct and incorrect way. Maybe the Eastern in me wants to seek the middle way, that there’s something each culture can learn from each other.
As a child of East and West, I am wishing for a convergence of these cultures that is symbiotic in my own life. At the very least, I can contextualize better now, taking cultures into account in my evaluation of things.
Honestly, I wish I understood these things sooner. Things are much clearer now than they were 10 or 15 years ago; this knowledge would have helped me in my younger years. Perhaps there is something to say about cultural studies for kids, especially in today’s connected world, to help us understand each other in this global village.
Which leads me to think about my future kids and their cultural heritage. While their parents are hybrids of East and West, they will be much more Western than me or my husband. In this sense, we will be of different cultures—their upbringing will starkly differ from mine, and I’m certain there will be conflicts resulting from this difference. Hopefully, knowing what I know now, I can understand them better and help them triangulate themselves in this world.
This is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s beautiful book, Lab Girl, on the joy of discovery, its mysterious and magical wonder of both the smallness and the magnitude of a single scientific finding. Any PhD student, current or otherwise, can appreciate this experience.
When a lab experiment just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work–and, similarly there are some experiments that you just can’t screw up even if you try. The readout from the x-ray displayed one clear, unequivocal peak at exactly the same angle of diffraction each time I replicated the measurement.
The long, low, broad swoop of ink was totally unlike the stiff, jerky spikes that my advisor and I thought we might see, and it clearly indicated that my mineral was an opal. I stood and stared at the readout, knowing that there was no way I had–or anybody could have–possibly misinterpreted the result. It was opal and this was something I knew, something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.
I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was–in addition to being small and insufficient–special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.
…I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother–or because I felt like nobody’s daughter–or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.
I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.
…I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn.
…Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me.