I wonder about the extent to which dichotomous thinking is either hard-wired or at least dependent on completely non-social forces. It seems almost to be a thermodynamic question, that is, a question of trying to optimize the amount of energy spent in thinking for a given situation. Thinking is a very expensive activity, physiologically speaking – it is essentially a catabolic process which relies upon the breakdown of molecules for their energy.
Evolution isn’t usually needlessly extravagant – in fact it’s kind of lazy, if you don’t mind the anthropomorphism. It seems that in a broad sense, there is a sort of law of diminishing returns for the energy investment required for thinking. In other words, if you encounter a situation in which some kind of action or distinction is called for, you get the most bang for your buck by quickly assessing things according to an either/or model. Identify one aspect, which automatically calls up some kind of opposite, and make a determination on the basis of this division. It’s quick, dirty, and effective for generating actions, feelings, and new thoughts. If the feelings, actions, etc. that result from this distinction are ‘good enough’ then there is little reason/pressure to continue the act of thinking about it in a way that calls into question the basic assumptions of the underlying duality. In other words, it’s easy to make and maintain the most basic of distinctions, those of duality.
So it seems to me that it is largely social factors that mitigate this tendency. Trying to think through the layers and layers and layers of connection that inevitably describe EVERY situation is simply not practical energy-wise, and thus requires very significant counter-pressure for its activation. We must run into situations in which our original duality is experientially shown to be inadequate for there to be a commitment to another round, or three or ten, of thinking over and through a given situation. At some point things seem to just get too complex and we give up, and the point at which we abandon the process relates to the level of depth and complexity we are able to experience.
This is why I really like Kwame Anthony Appiah’s appeal to respectful experience with people not like us, i.e. through conversation: “Conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it’s enough that it helps people get used to one another” (Appiah, 2006, p.85). At a very basic level, time spent with others presents us with countless variations on the experience of discovering that our implicit or explicit distinctions are not always shared. This presents (often, but maybe not often enough?) a kind of social pressure to go through a second round of thinking about our primary distinctions, the effect of which at least sets up a greater likelihood that we can ‘get used to’ differences which before were causes for anxiety.
In any case, it seems that there is a certain amount of ‘going against the biological grain’ required to produce people like Morin, Bernstein, or Appiah. Luckily it’s not all biology! Of course, applying this little analysis to itself, I should be wary of relying upon the duality of biology/sociality, because, following Morin, ‘it isn’t quite that simple’. Round 1 over.