A binary mindset is actually a single-minded sort of thing

How binary looks like a unity

It occurred to me the other day that one of the obstacles preventing people from understanding how binary logic penetrates into every aspect of their lives, and how this pervasiveness causes all kinds of problems they cannot see -- just like fish cannot "see" water in the way we can -- is the fact that binary logic manifests in day-to-day life as a sort of single-mindedness.

The expected duality, the double-mindedness is there, just under the surface, but the single-mindedness is all we see. How it can be seen is best captured by this well-known quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

What he's talking about here seems to be about two things: two opposing ideas. But in fact, he's talking about three. I bolded the last portion because the ability to function is the third element.

It works like this: When you are a binary-minded person, a fundamental part of your attention regarding new information is focused on being 'right,' which happens mostly by avoiding being 'wrong.' Thus, when you learn new information using the binary logic scaffold (which everyone does except very young children), your first task is to see where it fits against all that you've learned previously. You must do this quickly. You are either told, or rapidly figure out, where the new information fits, and you put it there. From that point forward, you do not question its place again. It's a silent categorization tactic that most people have no idea is happening. We're extremely good at this. A good example is in how we form long-lasting opinions of people within microseconds of seeing them for the first time.

Not questioning the place of information after it is placed is an important part of the binary way of organizing information. Those who do question such things are those rare people who are able to hold two opposing thoughts in their mind simultaneously, which is an important step in the ternary way of organizing information. Holding two opposing thoughts is no great feat -- but doing so while retaining the ability to function is a great feat.

In other words, the ability to function is a normal, everyday process which gets disrupted by holding two opposing thoughts.

Binary thinking is linear thinking

Therefore the ability to function normally is, roughly, a process of thinking a series of single thoughts at a time. This kind of linearity is well known to be how binary logic processes information. For example, computers, which are more rigidly binary than we are, process information in this manner. While it is true there are multiple elements to complex thoughts, they do not typically oppose each other simultaneously.

Note that I'm not saying opposition never happens. Opposition which happens sequentially is common, but it slows down thought, hence there is value in sayings like "he who hesitates is lost."

Note I am also not saying people can only hold two thoughts in their head at once. Three or four seem to be the upper limit for ordinary people. Cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker put it this way in his 2014 book The Sense of Style:

Human working memory can hold only a few items at a time. Psychologists used to think that its capacity was around seven items (plus or minus two), but later downsized even that estimate, and today believe it is closer to three or four. 

He then goes into detail about how we manage this bottleneck by clustering information into abstract chunks which allow us to think of many things while still actively tracking only three or four.

I'm being clear about all of this because the problem I'm writing about is not simply thoughts which oppose each other, but opposition which happens simultaneously. This simultaneity is what slows everything down. That's what we want to look at more closely: the "dysfunction" that comes by holding two opposing thoughts simultaneously.

Step back for a moment and consider a big-picture view of this dysfunction. It seems reasonable that the ability to be aware of multiple things at once would be evolutionarily more resilient than the ability to be aware of a single thing. So why didn't evolution give us the ability to be aware of multiple things at once? Actually, it did. The entire right hemisphere of our brain is devoted to this ability. But here's the rub: in the West, we rarely access our right hemisphere thinking. We live in a heavily left-hemisphere-oriented culture, where we are trained early and often into the merits of focusing on details at the expense of seeing the greater context.

What's happening is that the aspect of our awareness which is devoted to being 'right' -- mostly by avoiding being 'wrong' -- is consuming a lot of attention. This leaves us limited in how much attention we have left to organize other information.

I recently discovered a quick way to find out if you're a binary or a ternary-structured thinker. Simply answer this question: "Are you right, or left handed?" The vast majority will say one or the other. Even if they say left-handed (therefore right-brained) this means they are navigating through life with a left-hemisphere, zero-sum, binary structure to their thoughts and actions. People who use one hand for some skills and the other hand for other skills are half way there, but are not at the seamless level of competence I'm talking about. Only an extremely small minority will feel constrained by the question, because their answer is: "I'm ambidextrous. I use both hands seamlessly." This is ternary-structured thinking.

Teach your non-dominant hand to catch up to the other

Using both halves of your bicameral mind simultaneously is a ternary thing, because something in the middle is orchestrating both halves. The governor in the middle is the ternary portion of the formula. It's where "first-rate" intelligence lives.

I know this from experience because I've been teaching my left hand to catch up to my right hand for about a decade now, at first in tiny increments, but increasingly more over time. The experience has become unexpectedly insightful as it develops. I now override my own right-handed habits often as I let my left hand take lead while washing dishes, cooking meals, and other such routine tasks.

Slowly, over time, my left hand is becoming more competent. The inner dialog about this whole process has become complex. It's like each hand has a representative in the inner discussion of what and how to do various chores. A very rich narrative developed, which I never expected. I will someday write about this experience in detail, because doing this persistently over years opens up a fascinating study of one's own mind and delivers insight into concepts like equality and equalibrium and balance and resilience. For now, the point is, I've been teaching myself to be ambidextrous for years, but still feel like I have a long way to go.

It seems that a whole new world of equilibrium is dawning within my consciousness. It was never there before because only one part of my brain was driving all voluntary motor skills. Now two parts are involved, and the two halves increasingly have to negotiate control, like two people carrying a large piece of furniture up stairs and around corners have to work together very closely or else cause lots of damage. I had no idea when I started teaching my left hand to get stronger that I was developing a ternary skill in my brain, so it was pretty exciting for me to realize that I've been training myself to be more ternary for years without realizing it.

[Update, Sept 30 2021, 3:00 a.m.] I just discovered a wonderful new angle on this single-minded insight I'm talking about here. In an interview with Quanta, Christopher Fuchs is talking about "the removal of the subject from our consciousness starting with Greek thought," an observation which Schrödinger pointed out years ago. Here, the easiest way for me to show this is with a screenshot:

So good to see Schrödinger, yet again, at the center of such a great insight (as he does in several other important areas). Although I'm not sure the reader will immediately see the connection here, I long ago identified this problem of removing the subject -- without understanding it as concisely as it is said here -- and even had a hunch that this went back to the introduction of binary thinking in the Greek era.

In fact, this is the underlying point I was aiming toward when I started writing this article. Now, months later I finally have a framework within which to make the point. Framing things as binary vs ternary has helped me understand the concept that Fuchs is talking about when he says "The subject matter of the theory is not the world or us but us-within-the-world, the interface between the two." Most people will need to read that a few times to get what he's saying. This is because he's talking about something we literally have no language for in the West. We intentionally excluded it long ago.

Thanks to this article, I now know that the "single-minded" structure I was writing about when I began this article is because we've removed the subject from discussion and only talk about the object. To give an example of what this means, think about how a science paper is written without ever referring to the author. When doing science, one talks about "oneself," not about "myself."

To me, this raises the question immediately: where does the subject go? I believe it goes into the "excluded middle" of binary logic, meaning we pretend as if it does not exist. I recognize this "ignoring" aspect from other thought experiments which involve the ego; it's a fundamental part of how the ego operates.

It appears when we eliminate the subject from language, we create an ego (a "perfect" version of ourselves) and, being perfect, place ourselves in a seat that rightly belongs to God. Ironically, it is his lack of ego which makes him the native holder of that seat. When we sit in that seat with our imaginary self-centered ego, instead of his other-centeredness, we lose our stable reference point. We wander, led by selfish desires, and create a trail of confusion in all we see, think, feel, say, and do. Re-integrating back to the way of seeing which prevailed before ancient Greece introduced binary thinking is a process of learning to be other-centered.

The advent of binary thinking corresponds with the advent of the times of the Gentiles

There was a reason binary thinking prevailed for 2500 years, a period of time roughly coinciding with "the times of the Gentiles," which is a Biblical concept. If the pattern of the 40 years in the desert applies, God allowed us to wander in the desert because he was extincting some attribute of the human condition out of our nature all the while. So far, it has taken 2500 years to do this, and we had to walk around in darkness, stumbling, unable to see the truth that is right in front of us, because this attribute -- whatever it is -- had the potential to do even worse damage to our condition than this.

This last part I say, because this is how God works: he does not allow evil to come upon us arbitrarily, but always when it advances, it is because there is a worse evil that is being prevented. When it is said "God is just," this is where the line of his justice is drawn. From his perspective, he knows what would happen if certain kinds of evil were allowed to advance. Preventing one kind of evil by allowing lesser evil to advance in its place is an aspect of the grace by which he operates.

Before there is any misunderstanding of what I just said, I do not mean that we should "choose the lesser evil," which is a policy that ends badly because we do not see clearly enough to measure such things. Instead, what I mean is more general.

We need to move gracefully, not suddenly

As a result of thought experiments on grace, I have learned that it is both an end and a means: From our perspective, grace is a process of moving from imperfection to perfection gracefully, not suddenly. God is merciful to us in a state which is imperfect because we are growing. If we stop growing, then he will be just in allowing consequences (which he is holding back because we are growing) to come upon us. In other words, we do not need to know which of two evils is greater or lesser, we simply need to keep growing -- keep being obedient -- and God will manage that for us.

So, that being said, it remains yet to identify what was the potential evil that God was plucking out of our midst during that miserable 2500 years[1]. I wish I had the answer. I'm certain that as these ideas mature, I will be able to identify what that attribute is. Understanding it is an important aspect of being able to manage it instead of being dragged through our own 40 years of wandering around, unable to find our way because God is gracefully protecting us from our own potential to do great harm by the wandering.

When Israel wandered for 40 years in the Old Testament days, it was because they did not trust God would protect them as they entered the Promised Land, populated by mighty giants. So there's a clue. Our wandering ends as we learn to trust him.

This whole insight falls in line with the larger arc of the transition out of ternary, into binary "forked tongue" thinking, and then out again into a new ternary way of seeing, which properly places God at the center of everything in a way that will be so memorable we will never be tempted to take his seat, nor wander into the desert of our egos, again.

Looks like we've been here before

[Update:September 30, 2021, 8:30 a.m.] Ha Ha! The laugh is on me. I just found I wrote about this same excerpt from this same interview with Christopher Fuchs more than two years ago: The Greek subject lives in the excluded middle of binary logic. This is hilarious to me because it reminds me of how I took Logic 101 in college three times, with passing grades each time. I was so absent-minded that I didn't realize I had already taken the class -- and I did that twice, would have done it again except I got a copy of my transcript during that third round and realized what was happening.

So, going back to what I wrote in 2019, I observed that the Greek "subject" lives in the excluded middle, which I had left out of this post, so I went back and edited what I wrote above to inject that point where it's relevant. Also, that first blog post talks about a StackExchange article which talks about Frege's observation that ancient Greeks shifted the act of judgment -- which lines up perfectly with my point above about how we took God's seat.

The core insight is deep. I reckon there are a dozen more observations like this to be drawn out of it, enough for a full paper, now that I'm working on papers to publish. Along those lines, it's probably wise to lump in a couple other blog entries, binary-logic-is-actually-ternary-in-structure and on-learning-how-to-see-ternary-logic-with-ternary-eyes-instead-of-binary.

Now this is a curious confirmation

[Update: January 18, 2024] I was reviewing this article, lightly editing it for clarity, and decided to add a footnote about the "times of the Gentiles." While searching, I found something amazing, which is a remarkable parallel of the idea that the times of the Gentiles has to do with binary thinking. Take a look at the image below, which identifies the "times of the Gentiles" as forking (at the time of the Resurrection) into the TWO legs of the colossus from Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the Book of Daniel.

This is a fascinating insight which likely leads much deeper, but this is all I have for now:

Click for a larger image on the original site (Blue Letter Bible).


  1. ^ It's been that long since since Isaiah wrote about it. He marked precisely when it began in chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah, when he has the vision of God on the throne. At that time, God commissions him to usher in the time of confusion, the time of binary thinking, which is later called "the times of the Gentiles." Now, as that time draws to a close, we can increasingly see it for what it was.

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