Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Trouble with Binary Thinking

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report discussed the magical implications of getting out from under the influence of the mass media and popular culture, and thus from the dumbing-down effects these things exert on the mind. That’s a crucial step, but it’s only a first step, because as soon as you extract all that thaumaturgy from your mind, something is going to fill the resulting void.

Entire industries exist to see to it that what fills the void is simply another version of what you tried to get rid of. The sorry fate of the so-called Voluntary Simplicity movement of a few years back makes a good case study of the way these industries work. It was a bad move right at the beginning, to be sure, that the founders of the movement watered down Thoreau’s original and far more powerful phrase “voluntary poverty” so that it didn’t frighten their middle-class target audience. As soon as the idea began to attract attention, that first mistake became the opening wedge that admitted a series of marketing campaigns that pitched supposedly “simpler” consumer products to a mostly privileged audience at steep prices.

Before long a glossy concept magazine packed with ads surfaced on the newsstands, and the whole mvoement devolved into one more mildly exotic lifestyle choice for bored yuppies who were tired of the older options for conspicuous consumption and wanted to try a new one. Not simplicity, but a set of abstract cultural representations of simplicity that were heavily marketed to sell products, became the hallmark of the movement, as torrents of overpriced goodies manufactured in Third World sweatshops and marketed through lavish catalogs and websites came to define what had started out as a not unreasonable attempt to raise questions about the contemporary cult of clutter. What Thoreau would have thought of all this, while stepping out of his shack at Walden Pond with an ax in his hand to split firewood in the chill October air, does not bear imagining.

My more perceptive readers may have grasped from this example one of the reasons why I persist in using the old-fashioned and hopelessly unpopular word “magic” for the inner disciplines and traditional philosophies I’ve been discussing in the current series of posts. “Magic,” like “voluntary poverty,” is an unappealing focus for mass marketing in the context of today’s popular culture. Repackage it under some more comfortable label, and it’s a safe bet that within a few years at most your new label will have been hijacked by the thaumaturgists of marketing and advertising departments, turned into yet another cheap sales pitch, and used to pimp attitudes and ideas, as well as products, that are antithetical in every way to what your label was originally intended to mean.

That’s exactly what happened to the New Age movement, which started out as an intriguing attempt to find common ground between cutting edge sciences, traditional wisdom, and the experiences of contemporary visionaries, before it got mugged by the marketers in the dark alleys of the early 1980s. For heaven’s sake, Gregory Bateson used to count as a New Age thinker. What he would have thought of today’s New Age scene—well, let’s just say that if he suddenly stepped out of a shack at Esalen this evening with an ax in his hand, I’m not sure how confident I would be that he had firewood in mind.

Still, the machinations of marketers are not the only difficulty that has to be faced here. Certain inborn habits of the human mind, even in the absence of modern mass media or the equivalent, tend to leave a nasty trap in the way of the aspiring mage, or for that matter anybody else who recognizes that there’s something wrong with the worldview of a dysfunctional culture. Enough of my readers may have one or another part of their anatomy caught in the jaws of this particular trap that it’s probably wisest to follow the approach standard in magical instruction—that is, to present the model as an abstraction first, and only then move into the potentially controversial territory of actual examples.

A bit of jargon will unfortunately be necessary. Human beings, according to the teaching you’re about to receive, normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on. The drawbacks to this handy set of internal categories don’t seem to bother any of our primate relatives, and probably became an issue—like so much that’s part of magic—only when the rickety structure of the reasoning mind took shape over the top of the standard-issue social primate brain.

The difficulty, like so many of the difficulties that beset humanity, is one of overgeneralizing a good idea. There’s no significant middle ground between food and nonfood, say, or between predator and nonpredator, and so the reactive response we’re discussing excludes the possibility of middle ground; it’s either edible (or considering you as edible), or it’s not. The more complex classifications that the reasoning mind can use, though, admit of a great deal of middle ground, and so do the equally complex relationships that develop in societies once the reasoning mind gets to work on relationships between social primates. When we have the opportunity to consider such things carefully, it’s not hard to see this, but the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire (food rather than nonfood) or fear (predator rather than nonpredator). Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

In the tradition of Druidry I mostly teach and practice, there’s a neat mental trick for sidestepping the binary-producing mechanism when it’s not useful. It consists, first, of learning to recognize binaries at sight, and second, when a binary is encountered, looking for a third option that will turn the binary into a ternary, a threefold relationship. Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.

This useful little exercise has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume. Take any political debate you care to name; inevitably, there are possible choices more extreme than either of the two sides, as well as choices in the space in between, and still other choices that aren’t in the same continuum at all. Ternary thinking helps you pop out of the binary mode long enough to see this.

What makes the process of ternary thinking fascinating is that its effects are not necessarily limited to the person who practices it. Fairly often, when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

At this point, as my readers have doubtless guessed, we’ve strayed into the realm of magical combat. You’ll notice that lightning bolts from wands and incantations in bad Latin are not involved; those belong to cheap fantasy fiction, not to actual magic. Instead, the combat is a struggle of narratives or, if you will, of ways of structuring experience. Among the tools that practitioners of mass thaumaturgy use to weave their spells are emotionally charged images and ideas that trigger the hardwired binary reaction in our brains. Among the effective options for doing battle with them, in turn, is ternary logic, which defuses the binary reaction so that whatever issue is up for discussion can be put back into its actual context, and is no longer seen exclusively through the filter of food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and the like.

This can only be done, though, if you’ve already learned how to deactivate the binary automatism in yourself. In magic, as in so many of the things we’ve discussed in this blog, the starting point is always your own life, and of course that’s unpopular; trom Al Gore’s carbon footprints to all those gay-bashing preachers who end up being caught with their boyfriends, America these days is awash in people trying to demand changes from other people that they haven’t been able or willing to carry out themselves. That’s ineffective magic in any context, and especially so when it comes to ternary thinking. If you try to work with ternaries when you’ve still got a great deal of emotion and personal identity invested in binary thought patterns, for example, you’re probably going to fall into a binary between the abstract concepts of binary and ternary thinking, see ternary thinking as “food” and “nonpredator” and binary thinking as “nonfood” and “predator,” and pile on the binary reactions while convincing yourself that you’ve transcended them.

I wish this were merely a theoretical possibility. Those who think it is might be well advised to pick up a copy of Matthew Fox’s book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ and read what Fox has to say about dualism—that’s his term for binary thinking in a religous context. He denounces it in harsh terms, but he then goes on to say that there are basically two kinds of religion, dualist and nondualist, and dualist religion is bad while nondualist religion is good! At one point—it’s on pages 134 and 135 of my copy—he sets out a convenient list of the differences between the two, and it’s all a matter of hard oppositions between contending extremes. All in all, it’s hard to think of anything more dualist this side of 3rd century Johannite Gnosticism, and yet Fox, at least when he wrote the book in question, was apparently convinced that he wasn’t a dualist.

The problem with binary thinking—or, if you will, with dualism—is not that it’s bad. It’s simply that it’s very often overused, and even more often used inappropriately. If you’re at risk of starvation, or being stalked by a predator, the hardwired binary reaction with all its emotional force is more likely to keep you alive than a philosophical attitude toward eating or being eaten. There are other times and contexts, furthermore, in which a nonreactive, thoughtful dualism, like the Taoist conception of yin and yang, is a very flexible and useful tool. The point of learning to think in ternaries, in turn, is not that ternaries are good and binaries are bad; it’s that learning the trick of ternary thinking widens your range of options. The same traditions that taught (and teach) ternary thinking go on to explain that every number denotes a way of conceptually dividing up the world, and teach more advanced students how to use a range of whole numbers—anything from the first seven to the first twenty of them, depending on the tradition in question—as abstract models for thinking, each in its own proper place and each with its own distinct effects.

The details of how this is done belong to the technicalities of magical practice and so, like some of the other points raised earlier, don’t belong in these essays. The crucial point I want to get across is simply that any binary division that comes to mind, unless it has to do with food, predators, or a handful of other very basic biological drives, should be regarded with a significant amount of wariness. This is especially true, by the way, in American politics. The two main parties have spent the last century or so cashing in mightily on the binary reaction; their rhetoric always treats the choice between them as though it’s as absolute as the choice between yes and no, or at least the one between A and Z. In reality, of course, it’s more like the choice between N and Q; even in the alphabet of contemporary political thought, there are plenty of other options, and there’s also the very real possibility of bringing in, say, Σ or Ж from another alphabet entirely—but of course any such variation is exactly what the two major parties fear most, and they put a great deal of effort into trying to forestall it.

The same logic applies to plenty of other binaries in circulation these days. Think of the number of times you’ve heard people insist that doing without some specific technology we use these days is equivalent to doing without all technology, and going back to living in caves. Think of the broader discourse from which this derives, in which any alternative to continued progress along the lines that (supposed) progress is (allegedly) progressing is equated to catastrophe. Think of the people who insist that their political movement, or religious movement, or activist movement or, really, any kind of movement you care to imagine—barring the one obvious and scatological exception—is the only alternative to whatever the horrible future du jour happens to be.

Some of these are innocent enough, but a great many more are the result of deliberate thaumaturgy, and if you trace back the rhetoric to its source, it’s not hard to see the thaumaturgy at work. If the source is a book, look for the couple of chapters right up front that describe the horrible future we’re going to get, barring a miracle, and notice further on that the plan of action offered by the writer doesn’t actually promise the miracle; the resulting doublebind heightens the stress on the readers and thus makes the binary reaction harder to shake off. If it’s visual media, watch for the same things, heightened by sharp juxtapositions between images that have radically different emotional charges—the famous ad run by the Johnson presidential campaign in 1964, alternating images of a hydrogen bomb going off and a little girl plucking daisy petals, is a classic of the type.

Other media have their own distinctive strategies of thaumaturgy. There’s a certain amount of entertainment value to be had in making such analyses, but to be quite frank, it’s more useful in practical terms to minimize your exposure to the phenomenon. The work of noticing the overfamiliar effects of thaumaturgy, analyzing the intended manimpulation, and using ternary logic or any of the other practical methods of the operative mage to pluck out one barbed emotional hook after another—well, let’s just say that it gets old very quickly, and once the lesson is well learnt there’s rarely much of a point in repeating it.

Certainly it’s possible to have a significant impact on the collective conversation of our time without exposing yourself to the thaumaturgic media. Though most mass media in every age are designed to force the recipient into a passive relationship to the incoming stream of information, disinformation, and thaumaturgy, there are always a few options that give the individual a voice or allow a conversation to take place, or both. The blogosphere is the current example of the species; a lively world of noncommercial monthly and weekly journals did the same thing through most of the twentieth century, and will no doubt do the same thing again through the second half or so of the twenty-first. There are other modes of shaping collective consciousness as well, of course, with the influence of personal example standing out in many ways as the most potent of the lot.

Still, there’s another dimension to binary thinking that has to be discussed in this context, one that reaches right down to the roots of what this blog and the peak oil blogosphere generally are trying to do. We’ll talk about that next week.


Roy Smith said...
Regarding Matthew Fox, I am generally a fan of his work, but I have to agree with your point that he turns the distinction between dualistic and non-dualistic religion into a dualism of its own. In spite of this rather annoying flaw, I would highly recommend his works (particularly Original Blessing - though be warned, his theology can be rather dense at times) to those who would like to see a view of a tolerant Christianity that is actually centered in compassion and life (or are unaware that such a perspective even exists), rather than the hate-filled worship of death and suffering that gets served up to us by religious fundamentalists.

10/26/11, 8:18 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Roy, I'm not a fan of Fox, but I know people who are, and I certainly wasn't suggesting that he be dismissed out of hand on the basis of a very common bad habit of thought. (For all I know, he's gotten over it by now.)

10/26/11, 9:05 PM

PhysicsDoc said...
I have heard the term "false choice" used where political or social issues are framed in a way that intentionally only allows or considers two opposing solutions or choices. This seems similar to what you are discussing in this post.

10/26/11, 9:34 PM

Ryan said...
Would you, please, describe in more detail the exercise of finding 9 binaries and then identifying a third for each. I want to wrap my brain around it and your guidance with the exercise would be very helpful. Thanks

10/26/11, 9:35 PM

Mike said...

Thank you for that post, and of course all of the others through the years. There is something interesting, useful, and truthful to what you are writing about. I'm glad I didn't leave after the discussion of the "Theology of Compost" a while back.

10/26/11, 9:36 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Doc, good. Now imagine a false choice that has been dressed up with emotionally compelling images and buzzwords so that most people don't even think about it, they just react -- that's binary thaumaturgy.

Ryan, sure. You pick up your morning newspaper, and there's an article on the front page about national politics here in the US. Some Democrat is saying that to decrease the deficit, it's going to be necessary to raise taxes; some Republican is arguing that no, we have to cut wasteful social programs instead. They're talking as though those are the only options.

Stop right there. Write down another option. It can be anything from "cut the Pentagon's budget" to "default on the national debt." If you've got a few moments, as you sip your coffee, think about the implications of your alternative choice; then go to the next paragraph, or the next story and do the same thing. Does that make more sense?

Mike, glad you're finding this useful.

10/26/11, 9:47 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@PhysicsDoc: There's even a Wikipedia article on that. "False dilemma" seems to be the term preferred by philosophers, who regard it as an informal fallacy.

The psychologists also have some theories to explain the thinking behind it.

It occurs to me that the Hegelian dialectic is very closely related to the idea of finding ternaries to binaries.

10/26/11, 9:56 PM

John Wheeler said...
Ugh, another cliffhanger.... I'm loving it!

While it's not ternary thinking, I'm reminded of the traditional taijitu diagram of yin and yang ☯ where there is a little circle of white in the black half and a little circle of black in the white half. As I understand it the purpose is to remind people that even opposites have something in common.

I'm also reminded of the complex relationship between food, medicine, and poison, the difference mainly being the dosage. You can eat mint leaves, and they can have medicinal value, especially if you concentrate it into mint oil, but if you give too much mint oil to a child it can poison him or her. Completing the circle, eating too much food can act as like a poison.

I'm not sure I will benefit from the newspaper exercise, because it seems I can easily come up with third alternatives. (I do think I will try it just to confirm.) What I suspect will be extremely useful is, when I do feel powerful emotions, to check to see if I'm using binary thinking.

10/26/11, 10:03 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
"Curiouser and curiouser!" Says Alice!

There is absolutely no doubt that I practice dualistic thinking. With your post I suddenly remembered the new Pirates movie I just bought for my room mate, (surely you don't think I WOULDN'T watch it too?) The scene where Jack Sparrow and his girl frienemy are fighting off the King's men in the store room of a tavern. It's a triumph of thinking on your feet, or ternary thinking 'as it were.' It seems like thinking on your feet is a common Jack Sparrow feat! ;D (Okay I'll stop!)

My subconscious is really good at doing such things as in when I was arguing with a dyed in the wool male chauvinist and coming up with a counter to his statement that devastated his point. And later wondering how I did that!

I really need to practice the magic you are illustrating in this series of posts. It would clean up my life tremendously. I have such a hard time making decisions since I second guess myself so often it results in a bad case of inertia!

At that I tend to come up with a third way just often enough to surprise and irritate the snot out of the people I'm attempting to persuade to a different point of view. At least I'm good for their sinuses.

Wadulisi Tsalagi

verification word ancivell

10/26/11, 10:04 PM

Mister Roboto said...
One thing I get out of this post is that while its a good thing to have values, those values need not necessarily you down certain paths of fallacious thinking. My own perennial example is liberals such as myself who followed liberal Democratic blogs on the Internet during the outrages of the Bush the Younger years. When Barack Obama began to perpetuate and normalize many of the policies that fueled the righteous outrage of the Bush years, we discovered to our dismay that our favorite righteous bloggers were just another class of Kool-Aid drinker. Those of us who were growing tired of kidding ourselves year after year about the Democratic Party, finally had to realize that just because we favored liberal and left-leaning values didn't mean we had to let our minds be shepherded into false binaries that only imprison the mind.

I suppose it is also important not to let whatever alternatives there may be to that not also become yet another form of binary mental imprisonment.

10/26/11, 10:26 PM

D^2 said...
The hardest thing for me to accept in thinking about peak energy is that my descendants may not be among the survivors of a mass extinction event. That thought runs up against the fundamental reason for being- to propagate DNA into the future, common to microbes and mammals alike. I think that is one reason, if unacknowledged, why there is so much resistance to even discussing peak oil, much less proposing alternative arrangements to lessen its impact.

The conversation about peak oil, in binary form, could be reduced to a mass extinction event, on the one hand, and a technological deus ex machina, on the other. (I suppose the other hand could also be the simple denial of peak oil, eg. abiotic oil.)

So does the nonbinary conversation about peak oil posit outcomes where 7, 8 or 12 billion humans survive on sustainable energy sources? That would seem to be in the realm of miracles, not magic. How do you inspire the masses to take painful, proactive steps- voluntary poverty- if it involves them contemplating the demise of of their genetic lineage.

Nevermind, I think I just answered my own question. Or maybe not, I will 'stay tuned' to this channel.

10/26/11, 10:27 PM

BrightSpark said...
Wow. Just when I think you've exhausted all options of possible thought, and you come up with something else again. And then, when on reflection, the concept seems so simple that you wonder why you hadn't previously thought of it!

On another note, I recently spent time in Bolivia, and I remember a discussion about the Aymara language online. Apparently it is one of the few languages to have ternary logic built into it, with a fundamental word/concept for "maybe", or "other" in the same place that we English speakers would put yes and no. Even more interesting, their word order (and thus the thought-concepts that flow from it) structure the past as something in front of an individual, whereas the past is behind them.

The limits of language are the limits of our world, and as a speaker of only one of them, I suspect that's half the problem!

10/26/11, 10:41 PM

Glenn said...
Loved it. I'm a contrarian, I usually assume a devil's advocate position simply for the pleasure of argument, or discussion if you feel charitable. When presented with a binary decision, my natural tendencies make me come up with at least two or more _other_ alternatives. The universe, while not infinite, is reasonably large. There are many options.


10/26/11, 10:47 PM

Ares Olympus said...
This may be related to Schumacher's "two types of problems" - oops - Binary thinking?! But the idea of classifying convergent and divergent problems, the second a dualistic tension of opposite, where either side alone fails to face the demands, so practical solutions come as a synthesis out of that dynamic tension (being a third way).
Also, maybe related to William Blake's "Four fold vision" seems to be a useful way of seeing multilayers of awareness, mostly seemed to be a rejection of scientific materialism which he saw as reducing reality to its objective measurements, and denying inner experience.

10/26/11, 11:27 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
...and of course, when you say 'ternary logic', my philosophy-Tourette immediately makes me blurt out 'Kantian dialectics'!

But now you have me puzzling over the question whether my reaction is an case of binary (philosophy vs. magic) or ternary (philosophy vs the antithetical pair of magic and mass culture) thinking.

Oh well, it's probably something else entirely.

I like the newspaper excercise. Definitely going to be using that. For myself, just for fun, but mainly to teach it to my kids.
Give 'em a head start.
Their generation is going to need all the head starts they can get.

10/26/11, 11:28 PM

PhysicsDoc said...
This may be a bit of a stretch, but maybe our almost exclusive use of binary logic in modern computing systems was driven not so much by the availability of two-state electronics, but by our bias for binary thinking.

10/27/11, 1:00 AM

Guardian said...
Thank you for another wonderful post. A couple of books I can recommend on recognising and neutralising binaries are 'The Tarot: A contemporary course of the quintessence of hermetic occultism' by Mouni Sadhu and 'The Good, the Bad, the Funny' by Ramsey Dukes. The former is also wonderful synthesis and introduction to much of the continental occultism referred to in the last post, the latter is more 'psychological' and written with great wit and wisdom.

10/27/11, 1:28 AM

Derv said...
Hey, I've been following along here for years and have especially enjoyed the latest series of articles on "magic." (I put it in parentheses so as to distinguish it from the common conception that is against my religious sensibilities, not to argue with your use of the term.)

I've had a vague understanding of these concepts for a while, half-formed and dancing in and out of my mind from time to time, but you've crystallized them in a way that will permanently alter my way of thinking, and for that I thank you.

One nagging thought still gets to me about this whole series of articles, though: the (admittedly implied) concept that society can do without these forms of, shall we say, mental scaffolding. Thaumaturgy as a concept seems, to me, not an absolute negative given the nature of people as a whole. When it is disingenuous or done for personal gain, then it certainly is, but when it is used to promote, say, noble ideals, national pride, enforcement of appropriate social mores, etc., I don't see how we could go on without them frankly.

I know that you covered this in your previous essay talking about how appealing to nonrational desires is uniquely unsuited for achieving a rational effect. But call me an elitist, I have always considered rational humanity to be a small subset of the general populace. Our efforts in the US, over the course of two hundred years of trying to create an informed, politically rational populace, have failed miserably (though you may argue thaumaturgy has much to do with that).

It's not that I don't admire the idea of everyone behaving rationally; rather, I agree that it is by far the best option if it were doable. I just think that it's wildly, wildly unrealistic to think you'd ever have more than a small minority of people actually thinking and acting rationally. These concepts are fairly deep, even if intuitively grasped, and as you've said they need to be more than simply conceived of to have an effect.

I'm sorry for the rant; the long and short of it is, do you really believe we could actually have a society that was entirely (or even mostly) rational? If not, what's the alternative, beyond the philosopher-kings (of yesteryear or today)?

10/27/11, 1:35 AM

Joel said...
I remember when I learned this process, late in middle school. Bullies weren't nearly as bad, after I gained enough confidence to use it with some force: they'd give me two options, and I'd take a third.

I'm not sure how I learned it. Probably church.

Thanks; I'm looking forward to more in this vein.

10/27/11, 2:32 AM

hales said...
Hi John,
A fine & interesting read. For some reason it started me thinking about Luke Rhineharts' "The Diceman", - a useful companion in my travelling days.

10/27/11, 2:50 AM

russell1200 said...
Along with what Doc was talking about, there is also (I think it is called) the presumed close.

Will you be taking (buying) the blue car or the white one?

My little one used to use this on me when he was 14 months old, but has seems to have abandoned it for either "selective particularization to death (a favorite of talk radio- pundit TV) or an active search for the third-way (Grandma).

10/27/11, 2:52 AM

gpickard said...
This reminds me of what bothers me about some of the rhetoric around the Occupy Wallstreet movement: 99% vs 1%.
I agree with most factual demands I've heard so far (prosecute skimmers, do something about too-big-to-fail, campaign contributions). In order to have an effective movement it needs a lot of discipline I think. Focusing on pointing fingers at others can be dangerous; there's three pointing back.
We the middle-class contribute mightily to, live off our consumer economy.

10/27/11, 3:24 AM

sofistek said...
Good straightforward points here. What I don't understand, though, is why you need to bring the terminology into it. Of course, you've described magic and thaumaturgy in previous posts so we know what you're writing about here. But I don't know why the arguments couldn't be made without that.

All the points about binary and ternary thinking make perfect sense and I recognise a lot of what you've written in my discussions with people about the long descent, and in my own thinking. But I do still cringe a little when you mention magic, even though I know you don't mean the fantasies that most people associate with the term. I feel sure that many people who consider themselves rational thinkers (whether they are or not) would probably not even read past that terminology.

10/27/11, 4:16 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

I was hoping that this weeks discussion was going to be about halloween, monsters, vampires, werewolves, etc! Oh well, maybe next year.

This weeks blog put me in mind of the comment by one of your ex-presidents who said something along the lines of, "if you're not with us, you're against us". But, well, as it didn't affect me personally, I was kind of apathetic as a response - am I with them or against them, I'm just not sure?

Before anyone goes ballistic on me in comment land, the above is meant to be a form of humour based on ternary logic. Well, at least I was amused by it.

On a serious note (and this is on topic too), my wife took a distressing phone call this evening from an old mate of mine and it's left me with a question: Why is it that people think that if it's not of their progeny then they won't have as much love for it as if it was of their own? Surely this is binary thinking writ large.

By the way the above reference was to my mates predicament and had nothing to do with mine.

Voluntary poverty is hard work! I built my own house from scracth and it is hard, difficult work and it's only a small house. Still, I have to fight off people all the time:

Why haven't you got a brushcutter? - I've got a scythe and a brush hook.

Why haven't you got a ride on mower? - Err, because I've got native animals and a hand push mower.

Why haven't you got a tractor? - Well, because I've got a wheelbarrow.

People always think things have to look a certain way. I don't fear decline because I've travelled to developing countries and the people there get along OK. Sure it's not the first world, but it's not the zombie apocalypse either.

But if you look in your own backyard you can see that they're starting (even here) to wind back some of the publicly funded medical services on offer. Interesting times.



10/27/11, 4:46 AM

Yupped said...
Thanks again. I remember back in the 1990s how Clinton’s political strategy was referred to as “triangulation” in the media, usually with a sneer. I wasn’t particularly a fan of the boy from Hope, but it did seem a little churlish to sneer at attempts to find a third way forward, even if he was doing it for convenience. A popular stereotype back then was to describe a pragmatic person as wishy-washy and “running for congress” – just telling people what they want to hear. That imagery seems out of whack with our now more apparently ideological politics.

Coming into this series of posts I was holding on to the naïve idea that politicians did believe what they say, and that the polarizing ideology that crept in over the last decade or two reflected a hardening of commitments and beliefs about stuff (social policy or belief in the market or whatever). I didn’t understand this, and really didn’t get how serious people could get so worked up over concepts and details. I’m realizing now that political polarization is probably mainly the result of the perfecting of political marketing along those binary paths you discuss. Which makes me even happier that I stopped believing in political solutions a good while ago.

On a minor quibble, while I understand your frustrations towards the somewhat high-jacked and compromised aspects of New Age, Living Simply and the like, your dismissal could be interpreted as being slightly dualistic. Mostly, people do need to be met where they are to start a change, and a lot of people are just not ready for hardcore poverty talk. My dear wife, for example, who at one time was keeping the big-box industry in business is now living very simply indeed, composting and foraging in the fields with the best of them. But it took a while, and did indeed start out with that simply awful magazine and meandered through various phases of crystals and incense. But you have to get off the highway first to find that less travelled path.

10/27/11, 5:04 AM

Mean Mr Mustard said...

I must confess to getting a bit lost with the Magick and Faeries discussion of late, but binary thinking is a recent concern, having researched bipolar disorders in connection with a relative.

Apparently a common aspect of the condition is a strong need for control of others, and related to that, 'splitting' - best friends becoming sworn enemies overnight - all or nothing, black and white thinking. Borne of a strong need to simplify and regain confidence by asserting 'control' - and at its root lies stress.

If it's challenging enough to maintain relationships when stressed, complex systems are a different ballgame altogether.

The aviation safety discipline has labelled this 'Human Factors' - in which bad decisions or 'pressonitis' compounds the problems / predicaments, and crashes the airliner. I guess the same applies for the bank, nation or civilisation, complex systems all.

Incidentally, a retired 747 pilot friend summarised it as situation normal, abnormal and emergency. For which the procedures differ, and sometimes you even get a warning light too, which one may act upon or ignore. (binary) But it would now seem we are in an emergency and ALL the lights are flashing. Which to ignore, to monitor, and act on immediately? No time for perusing pilots notes which didn't forsee the problem anyway, and sadly nobody bothered with a simulator to check out the safe flight limits or pilots' competence under pressure.

But for all the complexity, surely it's all binary in the end? From those options you can see, you choose do something, or do nothing.

"If you choose not to decide,
You still have made a choice.." (Rush)



10/27/11, 5:05 AM

John Michael Greer said...
John, the Taoists have their own way of defusing the binary reaction, which you've neatly described -- find the yang in the yin, and the yin in the yang. Different strategy, same useful effect.

Girl, "good for their sinuses" nearly got a significant part of a cup of tea up mine. Thank you!

Mister R, exactly. Ideals are vital; recognizing that other people may try to use your ideals to manipulate you is just as vital.

D^2, if propagating genetic material into the future was as powerful a drive as current ideologies tend to suggest, celibacy would not be anything like as common a cultural phenomenon as it is. It's far more about the way our current culture uses fantasies about the future to create meaning -- and that's something that has to be challenged up front.

BrightSpark, Goethe's comment that those who only know one language don't know any language remains relevant today. I didn't know that about Aymara -- that's most interesting.

Glenn, exactly.

Ares, Schumacher's binary is a useful one -- again, binaries aren't bad, they just get used very often in places where they don't work too well. As for Blake, he's going to be central to a future post. More soon!

Thijs, a terrnary of philosophy, magic, and mass culture wold certainly be worth exploring. Good.

Doc, that's a fascinating hypothesis, and deserves looking into. I wonder if anyone tried using other forms of logic in the early days of computing.

Guardian, good heavens. There's a name I haven't heard anyone else mention in a while! Mouni Sadhu's books were important influences on me back in the day, and though they're a very mixed bag in some ways -- his rant about the evils of masturbation is one of the funniest pieces of unintentional comedy in print -- a lot of the material in them holds up very well. I haven't read the Dukes book, though -- have to check that out one of these days.

Derv, of course not. No individual human being can be wholly rational, and a society of human beings can't do without the nonrational, either. The issue with thaumaturgy is that so often it's used by one set of human beings to manipulate and abuse other groups of human beings -- and it's this latter that a good practical grasp of magic can help counter.

Joel, if you learned that in church, your church was doing a lot better than most. Glad to hear it.

10/27/11, 5:28 AM

wvjohn said...

Many thanks for this stimulating post! Examples of this process are everywhere and it is really useful to be challenged to consider them in everyday life. My day job for the last 20 years has been as a trial attorney in the criminal justice system, and I have worked both sides of the street. To me, a criminal trial is a classic example of magical combat between two thaumaturges. Someone calls the police and reports that their bicycle has been stolen. In most cases there is simply no evidence that is absolutely conclusive, like a video tape clearly showing the defendant stealing the bicycle. The prosecutor works the binary side, and the defense attorney works the ternary side. Endless books have been written on the subject, but your model can be elegantly applied.

Stated simply, the prosecutor calls a police officer who testifies that a bicycle was reported stolen, a witness who testifies that someone stole their bicycle, and a witness says they saw the defendant steal the bicycle. The choice presented to the jury is a very simple one, thief or not thief, and the presentation of that choice is frequently a forced choice: are you going to accept the testimony (and therefore the beliefs) of the uniformed and official protectors of society, or are you going to let a crime go unpunished? The more serious the crime, the higher the “primal factor”, and the more the playing field is tilted in favor of the state. Unfortunately, the “primal factor” can become so high that a fair trial is almost impossible.

A good defense attorney asks the jury to consider alternatives to each fundamental “truth” presented by the state. A police officer may have a good faith belief that the bicycle was stolen, because it was reported stolen, but really all that is only evidence of the report of the theft, not the theft itself. The owner testified to the theft, but what other evidence is presented to corroborate first the ownership and then the loss of the bicycle? What alternative motives exist for reporting the loss? Finally, eyewitness testimony has been empirically shown to be moderately reliable at best - there is a standard litany of questions that demonstrate this weakness. The jury is challenged over and over to look at alternative scenarios and explanations, and to reject the core message of the state -“do not let this crime go unpunished..” Once in a while, a defense lawyer can completely reverse the playing field and use binaries against the state. The classic example is the O.J. Simpson murder trial where the jury was told “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”

In the end, the thaumaturge who presents the most convincing “illusion” prevails. I use the word “illusion” because it is very rare that either side in a criminal case actually knows all of the facts, or is able to produce only unbiased witnesses. A highly skilled trial lawyer can in fact create a nearly impenetrable illusion - it is truly instructive to watch one work. In the days before television and such, local courthouses were packed whenever their was an interesting trial and the proceedings were the topic of lively conversation in the community.

10/27/11, 5:30 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Hales, thanks for the tip -- I haven't read that one yet.

Russell, if your little one takes to using emotionally compelling images and buzzwords along with the various logical tricks, you've got a budding thaumaturge on your hands.

Gpickard, most of the "99%" are part of the 1% globally. What they're protesting is the fact that they've suddenly found themselves facing the same reality that most of the people on this planet have always had to live with.

Sofistek, then by all means take the ideas and present them in different language. I've explained more than once why I use the terms I do.

Cherokee, good. You've just neutralized the binary (to use a bit more jargon) between current developed world lifestyles and a zombie apocalypse, using today's nonindustrial world as the third factor tht completes the ternary.

Yupped, that's interesting to hear. I hadn't encountered anyone before for whom Simple Living et al were, so to speak, the gateway drug for actual simplicity. Good to know.

Mustard, it's not binary, because you always have more than one choice alongside doing nothing -- you can do this, or that, or the other thing, and that multiplicity of options is the thing to keep in mind.

10/27/11, 5:41 AM

Robert said...

What I find most interesting about the Occupy Wall Street people is that they do not seem to be very focused on building a political movement or working out a political program for change at all. If they did one of the other of these things, of course their movement would certainly be co-opted, or just enough short-term fixes would surely be made to create an illusion of programmatic change.

Rather, the OWS people seem to be attempting something else. They are, I think, trying to create a perfect storm of rage, a kind of human hurricane that will eventually wreck everything in its path, including both government and society.

And they seem to be challenging the so-called 1%: "OK, you are the rich guys and the smart guys. *You* fix the system, and *you* spend *your* money fixing it, or we're all going to go down together. You have a lot to lose; we don't have all that much to lose any more. Get busy!"

This sort of thing rarely ends well.

Robert Mathiesen / Mageprof

10/27/11, 6:03 AM

The Unlikely Mage said...
Reading this post, I think about Book II of Agrippa's "Three Books of Occult Philosophy" and all those chapters on numbers and scales. Lists and lists and lists of ways to divide up reality, each useful in their own way and some still mysterious to me.

I don't know if Agrippa was intentionally trying to make me eventually be able to think in 12+ different modes of thinking, but I find it starting to happen with the scales that I work with regularly.

It's also more *fun* to think of how a person's personality or mode of thought could be described as planetary combinations in differing levels of dignity and types of filtration from the signs.

But it's also important not to get stuck in that mode. As rich as traditional astrology can be, and correct for the most part in my experience when performed skillfully, I don't believe it to be the end-all-be-all of life patterning. Especially so if the patterns are identified and worked upon.

10/27/11, 6:17 AM

Robert said...

Binary thinking, especially about political matters, is massively reinforced by the culture of competitive sports. There are always two teams, and one of them will usually win, the other usually lose. If you start with more than two teams, you pit them against one another by twos, until only two remain at the end. Always binary choices!

And similarly, in politics there can be only two positions, and only one of them can prevail. There can be only two parties, and only one of them can win. And the TV covers politics in much the same way and with much the same vocabulary as it covers sports.

Politics didn't use to work like sports, or be covered in the media as if it were the ultimate sport. I'm old enough to remember when things weren't like that. And I blame TV for the change.

Of all the wise and canny things JMG has ever recommended on this blog, I think the wisest and canniest is to get rid of your TVs -- and get your friends and neighbors to get rid of theirs, if only you can.

Robert Mathiesen / Mageprof

10/27/11, 6:19 AM

Rashakor said...
I would actually avoid using the term ternary (3-way) thinking because it is arguably as barely less limiting than binary thinking.
I would like to propose the term spectrum thinking giving than solutions to problems or modes of thinking usually find themselves in a multi-dimensional space than offers infinite outcomes. 2 or 3 is very limiting.
Also Sprectrum is one of those words that conjure ghosts and spirits in common parlance and yet is one of the most profound concept in rational modern sciences.

10/27/11, 6:20 AM

Yupped said...
I think for my wife Simple Living was one of several things that helped her to see how much marketing BS there was in the world. And those things planted a seed and she started to step away from it all. Learning her own lessons proved much more effective than all my badgering over the years. She was able to rationalize my anti-consumerist tirades as the ramblings of a Brit-pessimist. But once she started to feel taken advantage of by marketers, she got her Simple on. Or something. Anyway, the closets have never been emptier at our place.

10/27/11, 6:39 AM

Nano said...
Fantastic post. I'm a big fan of "Maybe logic" as well. I hope others find the links interesting.

10/27/11, 6:52 AM

Mike said...
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the world can be divided into two kinds of people, and those who don't.

10/27/11, 7:17 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
I really enjoyed this post! And lots to comment about…

As soon as the idea began to attract attention, that first mistake became the opening wedge that admitted a series of marketing campaigns that pitched supposedly “simpler” consumer products to a mostly privileged audience at steep prices.
Yes! When that magazine “Real Simple” came out, I almost vomited – what a load of marketing crap! And yet I’ve seen it in homes of friends and families, who are entranced by the slick/sleek images and supposedly “helpful” articles… they don’t really want to give up their middle-class lifestyles; they just want manufactured confirmation that they are “trying to simplify”. It’s really disheartening. And I remember when a clothing line called “Ideology” suddenly appeared in ads – again, really disgusted me… by then I was already trying to pull back from the consumer culture.

What Thoreau would have thought of all this, while stepping out of his shack at Walden Pond with an ax in his hand to split firewood in the chill October air, does not bear imagining.
Are rumors correct that Thoreau actually lived next to a main thoroughfare, a mile from “home” and went home for cooked meals and received throngs of visiting friends? When I read that, I was disappointed in Thoreau, too…

That’s exactly what happened to the New Age movement, which started out as an intriguing attempt to find common ground…
Yup. I remember that. When the first “New Age stores” showed up, they were small collections of books you couldn’t get otherwheres and handmade items that might help someone in a meditation practice. By the time they got to rooms full of imported crystals, candles, gongs, CDs and glossy books (thousands!), I knew the movement had been co-opted…

It consists, first, of learning to recognize binaries at sight, and second, when a binary is encountered, looking for a third option that will turn the binary into a ternary, a threefold relationship.
In Jungian practice, it’s described as “holding the tension of the opposites” until the transcendent third appears. That phrase I think more adequate describes the pain that one undergoes when trying to deal with what seem like polarities… if all our binaries where simply mental, it would be much easier – a mental exercise. But so many are emotional (move/stay where you are, divorce/no divorce, whistleblow/keep silent). And the third doesn’t easily appear. I have practiced the Jungian method, and the transcendent third is most often not at all what you can arrive at simply mentally.

it’s that learning the trick of ternary thinking widens your range of options.
It’s also that each time you “expand” from a set of polarities, your psyche (inner nature) has grown, and matured a bit more…

of course, it’s more like the choice between N and Q; even in the alphabet of contemporary political thought,
Reminds me that from my 20’s I often wondered what would have happened if they had framed “black vs white” as “brown vs. pink”…

If the source is a book, look for the couple of chapters right up front that describe the horrible future we’re going to get, barring a miracle,
We used to call that “setting up a paper tiger”… as in a false enemy to be destroyed.

10/27/11, 7:26 AM

RainbowShadow said...
Wait a second, Robert, that's a simplistic, and ironically "binary" (given the topic of John Michael Greer's article this week) portrayal of the OWS movement.

You're letting mass media depictions of OWS run your thinking rather than using primary sources to investigate what the OWS is actually made of. The OWS has no desire to "destroy society," that is hyper-emotional reactive thinking.

It's like liberals claiming Bush wanted to destroy the country, or conservatives now claiming Obama wants to destroy the country. You're ascribing motives of personal wickedness to a group you hate, namely the OWS movement in this case.

There's much more to what the OWS is actually saying (as opposed to what TV "tells you it's saying").

The reason it isn't making coherent "demands," which is what I assume you mean by being nervous about this group, is because it is an amalgamation of representatives of many different groups.

Young people, elderly people, liberals (and yes, a tiny small amount of socialists), far-right conservatives of the John Taylor Gatto and Lew Rockwell variety, people with lousy jobs, people with no jobs at ALL, people who hate corporations, people who hate the government instead but were also outraged at the bank bailouts and failed CEO bonuses, people who love small businesses but hate government and business, etc.

The OWS movement cannot be summed up in binary "they're the saviors of our country, no they wish to destroy the country" thinking. There's too much diversity and variety among the motives of everyone within the movement to stereotype them like that, and frankly too often we accuse anyone we don't like of wishing the destruction of our country when in fact they might have valid reasons for pointing out a problem.

I know you meant to say that the OWS group's motives are binary, but ironically since their motives are "in reality" more complex than what you're saying, maybe it's you who's being binary.

John Michael Greer, absolutely FANTASTIC post once again! It makes a lot of sense, and I feel like I'm not crazy for thinking that it's a bad idea to constantly keep calling each other fascists or socialists.

Once again, you're a breath of hot air and an oasis of reason. Thank you so much, again!

10/27/11, 7:46 AM

Justin said...
Along with that, I 'd say that most kinds of physical training will strengthen your binary thinking in a more appropriate evolutionary context of mental and physical reaction/reflex. Martial arts are specializations, its all reflex, muscle memory, and minor adjustments made on the fly without thinking. Binary and ternary+ thinking are both valuable when appropriate.

I'd also wager that they are both something you have to do to get better at, even if you understand them conceptually. I can explain to you how to hit a speed bag in great detail with physics diagrams, but until you put in the time practicing and sharpening your physical reflexes and timing, you are not going to be any better at than someone who hasn't gotten the explanation. I'd wager Practicing ternary+ thinking is also something that has to be practiced to find a feel for, not just understood.

10/27/11, 8:43 AM

Justin said...
As an example of binary thinking, here is an article by a post peak oil blog about the current financial system.

This is why I see the near-term outlook for the world financial system as very ominous. We have a seriously broken system, but no good way of fixing it.

The ternary option here is to question whether or not we want to fix it. Why do we even want to find a good way of fixing it, much less a bad way of patching it to get it a bit farther until it breaks down again? The assumption in his question is that we want to fix it and should at least try, even if we know it may be hopeless. That thinking will lead to a series of lesser of two evil options approach at each step of the way that continues pouring more scarce resources into a cause which may be open to wondering about whehter it should be abandoned with relish rather than reluctantly.

10/27/11, 8:49 AM

andrewbwatt said...
JMG, nice - in the old sense of elegant or precise.

I'm finding that my work as a teacher of design these days involves a lot of ternary thinking. At my friend D's wedding two weeks ago, we learned that the fridge wouldn't hold all the food for the reception. The two immediately apparent options, "let the food stay warm" and "buy a new fridge" were neither really good options. It led immediately to a ternary, "find a way to keep the food cold." And that led to "Lots of big coolers from a camping store, or big coolers from WalMart?" Which wasn't good either... around and around... We finally built temporary coolers out of four spring-loaded yard clean-up bags ($7.00 each) and three bags each of cheap ice ($1.49 a bag) from a nearby convenience store. So, instead of buying an $800 new fridge, or $250 worth of large coolers, we improvised, and solved the problem with around $50 worth of materials. We probably could have gone even cheaper.

Similarly, in our school's design lab, a group of students built some cloth sound baffles to reduce the echo in the high-ceilinged, hard-walled chamber, out of $4 worth of string, $15 worth of fabric, and $3 of PVC pipe.... all of which would have cost $5000 or more for the sound engineer and his pre-made solutions.

Last week, @physicsdoc asked what one could gain from the study of magic, and part of it (for me) was this: Increasingly I think about building and making and creating my tools, toys, and entertainment rather than relying on the entertainment of others. And I encourage others to do the same. There's a miniature community of designers and thinkers and tinkerers that's springing up (or let's be honest here — was already here in central CT, but is now more connected as a result of) around the Druid ritual in my living room every six weeks-ish. But it took two years or more of my regular practice — as a magician, as an artist, as a thinker, as a person who refused TV and film —for that mindset to appear in me; and another two years for me to have the confidence to begin to open that mindset to others.

So Peladan's example from last week of being a light to others is critical, yes. But equally critical (perhaps a priori) is learning to see many options, and not just the first two most obvious choices.

@rashakor, I'd encourage using the term ternary, because many people think in binary terms — and there is also a group out there trying to make use of the "Third Way" meme as a thaumaturgical weapon. It's not the case that we want people to think of our "Third Way" as the only "Third Way"... it's the case that one wants people to search for the third way, and so wake up from the binary thaumaturgy that's been cast on them — not become the new "better half" of the new dualism.

I hope I got that right. I may not have. :-)

10/27/11, 8:55 AM

Richard Larson said...
"The more complex classifications that the reasoning mind can use, though, admit of a great deal of middle ground, and so do the equally complex relationships that develop in societies once the reasoning mind gets to work on relationships between social primates."

I am hung up on this sentence. Surely, social primates aren't able to accommodate complex reasoning?

This essay hurts!

10/27/11, 9:09 AM

Fran said...
Hi John,

Apropos of false dualities, I think this very rsa animation on the brain hemispheres is germane.


10/27/11, 9:15 AM

William Hunter Duncan said...
The most prominent binary relationship I focus on is God/Devil. Two male deities at eternal odds - as if there could be no feminine divine, or any other divine anything, or for that matter, the divine being somewhere else in some other place, anywhere but here, of the earth, or in ourselves.

10/27/11, 9:25 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
@Doc and JMG: When I first read Doc's comment about ternary computing, I thought it sounded fairly improbable. But some reading turns up all kinds of interesting bits of trivia.

Indeed, some theoretical work was done on ternary logic in the early 20th century, in the form of ternary logic systems that preceded fuzzy logic.

In terms of actual ternary computers, way back in the 1800s, Thomas Fowler, (who incidentally also invented the thermosiphon), made one out of wood. At the time, however, his use of ternary was a step down from Charles Babbage's difference engine, which used decimal (and was consequently massively complicated and impractical).

More recently, the Russians built a functioning digital electronic ternary computer called Setun. Interestingly, those Russians feel that "ternary logic has better accordance with the Nature and human informal thinking ". Besides them, there hasn't been much uptake of the idea, although computer science luminary Donald Knuth apparently believes strongly in it.

So yes, ternary logic has been tried out in both theory and practice, and some very erudite people see a future in it (though I suspect that someone would have to make a "business case" to a large computer chip manufacturer before that would come about).

10/27/11, 9:33 AM

Ploughboy said...
Like I always say, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who divide people into two categories, and those who don't!

Too, as you've mentioned before in this space, the whole "left-brain vs. right-brain" distinction has also gotten pretty out of hand, ignoring both the theoretical science and the observable reality of how people typically think and act. That can lead to some real reductionist thinking, as you’ve outlined here in this post.

My own conclusion is that human thought processes...and the organic brain functions that produce them... are the result of a quantum operation, what I tend to think of as the ultimate ternary.

Have to also say that you’ve nailed the whole “Real Simple” phenom for what it is (isn’t?). My wife stopped bringing that magazine into the house as she knew it would prompt a detailed deconstruction from me, page by page, of what she can’t now help herself from calling the “Real Stupid” marketing strategy. (Buy more, to be more simple…) Jeez Louise. You ever calculate the ad space-to content ratio of that publication?

10/27/11, 9:53 AM

Tracy G said...
Mr. G and I became interested in voluntary simplicity in the mid-90's. I still use that term to describe our lifestyle. I guess I'm ornery that way.

I am aware of the term "voluntary poverty," as well, I but haven't adopted it because I don't think I've earned it. I do periodically flirt with it, though. I'm now about three months into a year-long "Buy Nothing New" experiment. This idea is not original to me—I'm following a set of guidelines that I've modeled on The Compact of San Francisco. Ironically, I first learned of The Compact several years ago while skimming an article in Yoga Journal (a magazine which I don't like very much). The author made a placating remark to the effect that we don't have to go to such extremes as those folks who are using toilet cloths (washable fabric wipes which replace toilet paper). And I thought, "That doesn't sound all that extreme to me."

I'll likely return more or less to my usual way of living after this experiment is over. That's partly because it'd be extremely difficult to abstain from purchasing new items indefinitely, but mostly because it feels a bit miserly to me. Among other things, I miss being able to at least occasionally buy a new work by my favorite authors and musicians. Bartering for those items would be a great ternary alternative, except that tends to be impractical when long distances are involved or if needs and/or wants are mismatched.

Regardless, I still consider the project worth doing for the specific time frame I've set. Exploring the edges of a binary (mindless consumerism vs. a near complete opt-out) helps me determine whether my own middle ground lies where I imagined it to be. Sometimes it's farther out than I thought.

10/27/11, 10:08 AM

blue sun said...
I must say, having witnessed over the years so many good ideas (and their proponents) "selling out," especially the voluntary simplicity movement, I had very little faith in humanity when I first came across your blog. Still do, for the most part.

About this exact time three years ago (in my very first comment no less) I predicted "that people will quote you and cite your works and distort your message." I haven’t seen that happen. You have so far demonstrated a discipline that provides ample reason to have faith in your character. But this is America, after all, so there's always the risk that anybody could sell out at any time. (If you ever begin farming out responses to comments, I’ll begin to worry you have “sold out”….)

Perhaps the stench of your corporate-marketer repellant is stronger than I think, but it wouldn’t seem such a stretch to me if temptations came your way to sell out.

I consider you the greatest living genius in America (not that my opinion means anything in this sea of comments). From what I can tell, the secret to your success is discipline. It appears you have built a ‘moat’ around your rational mind, and continue to maintain it.

As for third ways, it’s funny, I find that most people can acknowledge a third way, if not accept it. In American politics, people will admit that it exists, but there is a sort of fatalism that we are trapped in a binary system. Many people feel you have to pick the lesser of two evils. Ralph Nader’s 2000 run for president is a great example. I struggled with this “necessary evil” voting for a long time but have finally concluded that I’ll vote for who I like, then at least my conscience will be clear.

It’s amazing, you always have to be on your guard not to slip into the “social primate brain.” It seems to be a never-ending battle. I think that’s because it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with anybody without it slipping in somewhere.

10/27/11, 10:31 AM

Nick Vail said...
Thanks so much for your insightful and often humorous offerings of practical wisdom. Been reading an incredible investigation into myth making and the human mind called When they severed earth from sky, by EW and PT Barber. I greatly appreciate your discussion on binary and ternary thinking. Keep up the great work!

10/27/11, 10:48 AM

Joel said...
@D^2: Most social creatures never reproduce.

Only a tiny fraction of ants do. About two thirds of women, looking deep into genetic history, reproduce, but only about one third of men.

However, there will be relatives of yours that survive, if any humans do. The question is one of how close a relation we're talking. And how much gratification would you get from ensuring that some good aspects of your culture survive?

(In the spirit of breaking out of binary thinking.)

10/27/11, 10:51 AM

nutty professor said...
I am afraid that I don't quite follow everything you have laid out there, but that is nothing that re-reading and pondering won't fix. I beg your patience with my question, uninformed as it might be. With respect to decision making and binary thinking processes: is the practice of "agreement" or "disagreement" as a strategy for organizing one's myth-existence a form of binary or dualistic thinking?

10/27/11, 11:00 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Wvjohn, fascinating. I have basically no exposure to the culture of legal trials, but your description makes perfect sense.

Mage, exactly. The numerical scales in Agrippa (and in other works by mages of the same period) were meant precisely for that purpose -- to teach the student to move from one set of abstract world-models to the other.

Robert, thank you. If I could convince even a small minority of readers of this blog to follow the cue of the first line of the chorus of "Spanish Pipe Dream," I'd figure all the effort this blog has taken was well spent.

Rashakor, binary thinking isn't bad, or limiting; it's simply overused. Thinking in ternaries, in turn, isn't the be-all and end-all, but -- as I explained -- it's a useful trick that makes shifting out of the binary reaction much easier.

Yupped, well, that's good to hear! Apparently some good did come out of it, then.

Nano, thanks for the link.

Mike, no, there are three kinds of people in the world -- those who divide people into two categories, those who don't, and those who find some other option!

Cathy, well, yes, Walden Pond wasn't out in the middle of the wilderness by any means, and Thoreau did visit his parents now and then. In the context of the time, it was still an interesting experiment. As for the Jungian approach, oh, granted, once complex emotions get tangled up in a binary, getting out of it can be a very painful process. One of the benefits of thinking in ternaries in less charged situations is that the habit makes it a bit easier to see your way out of binaries of the sort you've described.

Rainbow, thank you! Er -- a breath of hot air?

Justin, exactly. I compare magic to the martial arts frequently when teaching; it really helps get the point across that this is not just a head trip -- it has to be practiced relentlessly, woven into your nervous system and your body, so that you can respond appropriately at once whenever you need to. As for the financial article, good -- though it's always worth remembering that any ternary option you come up with is only one such option, and there are always others.

Andrew, thank you. Yes, you got it right.

Richard, sorry -- I meant us social primates, the ones belonging to the species reading this blog post.

Fran, thanks for the link.

William, I suppose not having been raised in a Christian family makes that binary fairly abstract to me. There's also the monotheism/atheism binary, which is far more pervasive these days, and can be neutralized in any number of ways.

10/27/11, 11:07 AM

Vicky K said...
Another interesting take on avoiding being swallowed by mass culture.

Once when I was trying to put a new word into my brain I noticed that I was having difficulty because it was a very nuanced word and it really wasn't a pure substitute for another, in other words it was not a synonem for another and a slot couldn't be found for it. As I was having this mindblock it was as if I was looking into the 'machine' and saw that contrast was the way it worked. Being able to distinquish between shades of grey is harder than high contrast distinctions.

Although most people think of their conscience as an arbiter of truth or righteousness it also has this bi-nary aspect. It even speaks to the old biblical tale of the fall of man. Eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The good or evil is never a nuanced factor.

Appeals to peoples 'higher' self or moral nature is also a form of deceptive manipulation. Whenever anyone tries to make an argument like this with me I always tell them I only have one self and they need to go pedal their wares elsewhere. Charitable organizations are especially prone to use this tactic.

I also am of the opinion that at least in the English language the moral usage of right is confused with something being correct as in logically consistent or factual.

Being correct in an argument [that is, your evidence is better than your compatriots] is conflated with being morally correct or right. Therefore political arguments become polarized more easily into moral stances. Some groups have even labeled themselves, such as the moral majority.

This mental binary tendency [probably an artifact of bilateral symmetry]has been over accentuated because it is a form of control of others. Parents start it when they want to control the children's behavior and associate certain behaviors with being 'good' children and punishment or rejection for 'bad' behavior.

I cringe when I hear someone say 'I follow my conscience' and think, poor baby, if you only knew that it was a cultural artifact and not a guide to right action.

All of this is not saying that we don't need acculturation but being able to step back and recognize the weaknesses of the system [both the structure of thinking and the culture you find yourself in] is a partial antidote to the worst pitfalls.

10/27/11, 11:09 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Kieran, that's fascinating! I'll have to follow those up as time permits.

Ploughboy, it's been years since I even looked inside a copy. There's an entire genre of feelgood faux-green magazines out there that make my gorge rise in short order, and I don't need the additional stress!

Tracy, excellent. I may just have to talk about the Compact, and salvage lifestyles more generally, when it's time to wind up the green wizardry posts in a bit.

Blue Sun, thank you. One of the huge advantages to being an archdruid -- or anything else that people in the mainstream culture consider to be stark staring nuts -- is that it's a lot harder for the mainstream culture to co-opt or buy out your message. Mind you, I've turned down a couple of fairly lucrative proposals that would have required me to put most of my time into something not connected to the work I'm trying to do, and those may have been buyout attempts for all I know. Still, the fringes are a relatively safe place from which to try to shape the collective dialogue, as long as you're comfortable there, and don't cherish fantasies of ever becoming acceptable.

Nick, thanks for the suggestion!

Professor, of course it is -- but I'm sure you've encountered plenty of situations where you've thought, "Well, I don't really agree with that, but I don't entirely disagree with it either..." That's the beginning of ternary thinking.

10/27/11, 11:16 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Vicky, excellent! You get today's gold star for catching another core logical fallacy in today's thinking, the fallacy of ambiguity that equates "factually correct" with "morally good." I'm rather taken with your analysis of the Genesis myth, for the matter, as a fall into binary thinking.

10/27/11, 11:19 AM

RainbowShadow said...
My apologies, that was a typo.

I meant to type a breath of FRESH air, not a breath of HOT air.

I promise you I intended absolutely no insult.

10/27/11, 11:36 AM

Nano said...
@Cathy - you wrote "In Jungian practice, it’s described as “holding the tension of the opposites” until the transcendent third appears. That phrase I think more adequate describes the pain that one undergoes when trying to deal with what seem like polarities… "

In some magickal practices, and please any one correct me if I am wrong; this pain can be referred to as the "Dark Night of the Soul" it can also be described as the cognitive dissonance one experiences, when one's reality tunnel/POV is turned on its head.

I think it could be helpful to consider the "Qliphothic manifestations" that may come about while changing one's consciousnesses. As we reprogram ourselves, older well rooted programs may begin to act up or act out of turn. We ought to mind the Fnords too :)

10/27/11, 12:05 PM

Ploughboy said...
I think you are wise in just avoiding contact with those kinds of influences. Your lack of television is no doubt contributing to your clarity in these matters. I indulge in things like deconstructing media messages mostly for the sake of my own foolish entertainment and for the enlightenment of my children, ages 7 & 8. I well remember sitting in my living room in the early 60’s, watching (b. & w.) television with my mother, who would put up a running critique of the advertisements. Her recurring theme was, “They must think we are stupid.” She missed her calling as an editor for Ad Busters. In some ways, I think it inoculated me. As a counter-incantation, it worked wonders to break the spell. I do the same with my children now, when I’m unable to turn it off for them altogether. From reading your post today I realize I’m introducing the ternary into the whole “buy vs. don’t buy” dichotomy. It is: “Don’t want, or need.” Or, as Ma would have said…

For others I love, I wish they could see more clearly the perniciousness of the magic being leveled at them. My wife was raised in a small Southern (GA) town, where courting the positive opinions of others was, and largely still is, seen as the best use of one’s time. When you marry that to the gigantic discontentment machine of modern advertising, especially as to the content of the average “woman’s” magazine, you can put yourself (with help) in a box with no lid. You become only as good as you think others consider you to be. This, I am convinced, is the number one crippler of young adults everywhere.

Your post today also brings me back to one of your recurring themes that has always resonated with me. That is, the nation’s turning away from appropriate technology in the late 70’s and early 80’s, to pursue….what, exactly? I think it was Neil Young who frankly admitted in an interview once that he spent the entire decade of the 1980’s completely bewildered by his (adopted) countrymen. Got that one Neil, for sure. In 1980 I was a newly minted B.A. degree holder from a college just east of you (Carroll County, MD). Given all that I knew then about the probabilities of resource depletion and ecological degradation, the path we were veering onto struck me as completely nuts. And of course, once you have that knowledge, you can’t ever pretend you don’t. That conviction has cost me dearly in my personal relationships over the year, especially for the women who misjudged just how deeply those certainties ran with me. The upshot has been, for over three decades, I am completely and irrevocably unfashionable.

Which leads me back to your musings on binary thinking.

When I look back at those days, my lingering memory is of a time when you were constantly being asked to choose between two poles. You could choose to throw your lot in with those who were said to be clinging to the outmoded values of the hippies, or you could get with it, make a bunch of money, buy a snappy disco outfit and join the “winners.” In America, as we all know, it is always about being identified as a winner or a loser, and that is why the magic is so pernicious, isn’t it? I see you as someone earnestly trying to tear down that false dichotomy. Go man.


10/27/11, 12:28 PM

marxmarv said...

As a matter of fact, there have been experiments over time with digital computing machines using multi-valued logic. Trouble is, while it's trivial to robustly sense and generate the two extreme states of some signal, the introduction of a third state adds great complexity to each logic cell, thus increasing materials cost and power dissipation -- none of with which you or I would be on board, I think. :) Functionally speaking, three-valued logic tends to be prone to ambiguity (noise), not a desirable trait in numerical processing, and slow, further increasing the amount of energy per unit work.

Analog electronic computing machines, however, were quite well developed before ENIAC and for a couple or three decades afterward, eventually carrying their real-time heritage into audio synthesizers as epitomized by the ARP 2600. While they weren't programmable in the modern sense of stepwise instruction processors, the independent, well-defined modules could be configured, connected and reconnected to perform whatever function was required.

My only objection to your article is your suggestiong that it is fallacious for people to think that anyone to the right of HRC is a fascist. As it happens, neither Hillary nor the rest of the Democratic Party is all that left-leaning when viewed outside of the continuously force-fed mainstream of feudally-framed illusions; apparently allegiance to the fairness, rightness and urgency of concentrating wealth is a prerequisite to hold any sort of effective role in US government. It ends up that nothing gets done unless there's something in it for "big bigness": in the financial/insurance/real estate sector, the medical sector, and the so-called content sector, those players large enough to conduct interstate commerce are seeing their interests particularly well cared for lately at the expense of the social welfare they purport to serve.

I'm greatly enjoying this series. It inspires in me a determined acceptance, or an accepting determination, and I need and appreciate that in my life right now. Thanks again!

10/27/11, 12:34 PM

Zach said...
There's another form of that proverb:

"There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can do math, and those who can't." :)

We are certainly awash in false binaries these days.

An opposite problem that I see, though, is that we are also awash in fuzzy, relativistic thinking, which refuses to accept binaries (or ternaries, or any sharp distinction). "Who are you to say! A can be not-A if I feel like it!"

Unfortunately, as C. S. Lewis observed, "one error begets the opposite error and, far from neutralising, they aggravate each other."

In a perfect storm, you can get both -- someone locked into a false binary, but who can breezily ignore anything that might jar their model of the world.


10/27/11, 12:58 PM

Zach said...
@Roy Smith,

Well, that's quite a slander on a broad swath of believers.

And if you think Matthew Fox is an apostle of tolerance, you've clearly never been on the other side of a disagreement with him. "I can tolerate anything except intolerance" sounds wonderfully broadminded, until you realize that in practice, it generally ends up meaning "I'm great with people who don't disagree with me about anything I consider fundamental -- otherwise, the gloves are off."


10/27/11, 1:03 PM

idiotgrrl said...
Cathy McGuire said "Reminds me that from my 20’s I often wondered what would have happened if they had framed “black vs white” as “brown vs. pink”…

While this is not what you meant, I find it a startling reflection of the way the American dialog on race has changed in the past 6 decades. To precisely that!

And don't tell me the characters I entered don't match your verification word this time! I'm looking straight at it, you stupid robot!

10/27/11, 1:04 PM

flyingcardealer said...

Here's my entry for the story contest ...

Sorry I'm such a slow writer. I hope I got it in on time.

Thanks for posting the challenge. I had fun with it. Take care.

Drew Miller

10/27/11, 1:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Rainbow, no offense taken! I thought it was funny -- and wondered if you live in a cold climate, where a bit of additional heat would be welcome.

Ploughboy, there was a lot of very nasty binary-bzsed thaumaturgy going on in the 80s. That wasn't the only factor at work by a long shot -- the collapse in energy prices was a huge factor, as was the extent to which the Ecotopian left had allowed itself to become dependent on government subsidies -- but it certainly played an important role.

Marxmarv, thanks for the info on ternary computing. As for fascism, you know, that word actually does have a meaning; it's not simply a generic political snarl, nor is it a synonym for "conservative" -- the Nazi movement was not conservative in any imaginable sense, which is part of why the conspiracies against it that came closest to blowing Hitler to smithereens all came from the right, not the left. Fascism is a very specific kind of politics and, as I pointed out in a post a while back, the current habit of flinging around "fascist" (and "feudal") as all-purpose denunciatory words really isn't helpful.

Zach, it doesn't take a perfect storm. The basic m.o. of mass thaumaturgy using binaries is to get people locked into a binary, and then pile on the emotional goads until they literally can't think clearly about anything. As for Lewis' comment, though, we'll be getting to that in a bit; Aristotle had some useful things to say along those lines.

Grrl, er, please do specify which stupid robot you're talking about -- I wondered for a brief moment if you were addressing Cathy in those terms!

10/27/11, 1:29 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

The Garden of Eden story isn't inherently binary or dualistic; the standard Christian interpretation of it certainly is.

One of the the Jewish interpretations of the same text is ternary. The Creator anticipated disobedience. He wanted Adam and Eve to grow up and live in the real world. Sexual awareness and pleasure are only possible if you have a physical body, in which case you are going to have to work for your food, deal with predators and (perhaps) suffer labor pains. These are consequences, not punishments.

10/27/11, 1:31 PM

Michael Tweiten said...
So then what is the ternary magical practice?

As you wrote on September 28th: Theurgy is training and guiding your own biological and social drives; thaumaturgy is training and guiding other people's drives.

What is the third option? I'm not sure I can find one but it took some serious contemplation. Which I appreciate. I think the comments about yin and yang and drinking your own Kool-aid helped out. Instead of a third type of practice I tried to find the yin in the yang and the yang in the yin, or the thaumaturgy in the theurgy. The thaumaturgists risks training his own drives and responses as he influences others. It seems you are suggesting that by focusing on your own responses you will likely have an effect on other people. I think I understand the concepts better for all that. Thanks.

10/27/11, 1:31 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Drew, got it. You're in the contest.

10/27/11, 1:32 PM

siddrudge said...
JMG - thanks for another great post!

There is a poem by Rumi that ends “Somewhere between right and wrong there is a field, I'll meet you there”

I'm with Rumi on that one!

I guess I'm a contrarian too. I've never liked most of the choices offered to me by this sick society. The fact that I'm even expected to make a choice sours my sensibilities.

Is it just me, or has anyone else observed that in spite of all the tedious dualistic blather, nothing ever gets RESOLVED? I'm convinced that that must actually be the strategy to retain control -- keep everyone obsessing over the same ridiculous options. Recycle and repackage the same old tired arguments for a new generation of fodder.

When asked my position on abortion-- "pro-life?" or "pro-choice?," my answer is always 'pro-education!.'

I had a friend who doesn't want to be "put in a box" by coming out as gay. He thinks by doing so he risks losing his whole identity. So when asked, he tells people to reframe the question: "Are you gay, straight or an artist?" It works for him.

My bachelor brother resents being asked why he's not married. He's not gay, he just hates the institution of marriage. And he's very opinionated about the whole gay marriage debate. "It's a farce of a farce!" He can't understand why gays are begging society to put them into one of their boxes.

But hey, we're offered hundreds of options for toothpastes, cereals, techno gadgets and even -er- healthcare -- and we'll gladly send our children to war to defend our freedom to choose.

Are you democrat or republican? And would you like fries with that?

With this weeks theme, I can't resist offering the lyrics to that 1960's song "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds:


Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

10/27/11, 1:32 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Deborah, that particular narrative has been reinterpreted more often than the Kennedy assassination, starting with the Gnostics if not before!

Michael, excellent. Excellent. This is exactly the sort of reflection I hoped to encourage.

Siddrudge, to anticipate part of next week's post, the whole point of a binary is that it doesn't get resolved. The two sides of a binary strengthen and solidify each other; when you want that effect, you use binary logic -- and yes, it can be done honestly and for good reasons, as long as you recognize and admit to yourself that that's what you're doing. Lock two forces together in a binary relationship, and you have a firm foundation on which to build; bring in a third, and the foundation begins to move. And a fourth -- ah, but I'm getting way ahead of myself there.

10/27/11, 1:39 PM

beneaththesurface said...
The problem with binary thinking—or, if you will, with dualism—is not that it’s bad. It’s simply that it’s very often overused, and even more often used inappropriately..... The point of learning to think in ternaries, in turn, is not that ternaries are good and binaries are bad; it’s that learning the trick of ternary thinking widens your range of options."

I like the way you put this. There are some people I know, maybe myself at times too, for whom emphasizing ternary thinking can become a problem too, and constantly contemplating the complexity of everything, they create a binary between binary and ternary thinking (I sometimes see this in some academic-types who are good at analyzing things, but can't make a strong position of any kind). For instance, someone who can see multiple sides of an issue, may never be able to take any stand at all, just wallow in the complexity of everything. Certainly there are situations where being caught up in the complexity of everything and not having a strong opinion, can paradoxically become a simplistic stance by default. Sometimes a simple "NO!" (or "YES!") may be the most honest and appropriate response to a situation.

10/27/11, 1:54 PM

Robert said...

You misunderstood what I was saying, which may be my fault. You have tried to fill in what look to you like gaps in my comment from the current usual talking points.

They are not gaps; it is just that we are not starting from more or less the same position. Nor are we starting from more or less opposite positions, either. By temperament I am a hermit, and I instinctively mistrust everything that groups of people do or think together.

Despite this, I like very much what [it seems to me] OWS is trying to do, namely, trying not to become a political movement or to develop a political program. This, I think, is greatly to its credit.

Rather, [as it seems to me,] OWS is trying to challenge the wealthy and the powerful to pay attention to the very serious problems that their own greed has created, and to do the hard work needed to fix those problems before we all go down in ruin together. They, after all, are the ones who have the wealth and the power to get things done, if they choose to.

And massed popular rage seems to be the closest available tool to force the hand of the rich and the powerful, to make them wake up and get to work on the problems.

Whether that tool will get the job done, or not, remains to be seen. But I think it has a better chance of effecting meaningful change than any political movement or program ever could -- at least, at this point in our nation's history.

I expect that whatever is worth doing will have to be done outside of "politics as usual," whether on the right, on the left, or in the center.

10/27/11, 2:10 PM

Philip Steiner said...
OK, I couldn't resist:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary, and those who don't.

There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand trinary, and those who don't.

The last one is pertinent to this discussion, to quote the linked page:

Trinary logic is three-level digital logic, with states represented by the numbers -1, 0, and 1. Alternatively, the three states can be represented by the numbers 0, 1, and 2. The smallest number corresponds to logical falsity, the highest number to logical truth, and the middle value to logical neutrality (neither truth nor falsity). Trinary logic is not often used. Binary logic, in which there are only two states represented by 0 and 1, is the most common in computer science and electronics.

So mathematically there is the notion of neutrality.

It also brings to mind the database concept of a NULL value, which is a query result this is not, neither true nor false.

10/27/11, 2:43 PM

sgage said...

"And a fourth -- ah, but I'm getting way ahead of myself there."

And there is one kind of Archdruid - those that are rascals! ;-)

10/27/11, 2:52 PM

Roy Smith said...
@Zach - that wasn't intended to be a swipe at a broad swath of believers (maybe a narrow swath, but that isn't my point, either). Rather, it is an invitation learn more aimed at people who are outside Christianity and whose views of what Christianity is are informed by a small and very loud minority of people who present their form of Christianity as being hate-filled and glorifying death and suffering. Even if they don't view themselves that way, that is certainly what it looks like to the outsider. Perhaps I worded my original post poorly. (And I don't know if this is much better, to be honest.)

And in a different vein, since the binary math puns are coming out, we must have this one: "There are only 10 kinds of people in the world - those who understand binary, and those who don't."

10/27/11, 3:00 PM

Justin said...
Leaving aside any comment on any of the specific points and factions of OWS, the reaction to OWS has been a good demonstration of the degree to which binary thinking dominates our cultures mindset. The movement is incomprehensible to a binary mindset. Where is there concrete single, universal proposal with which we can give render a yes or no judgment of the whole in binary opposition to the status quo?

All the sputtering about how the movement is incomprehensible is the collision of binary mind and a ternary movement. The expectation that they would become coopted, whether by a political party or a vanguard that would emerge and unify the various grievances and demands of all individuals involved is a binary yearning for a pole to materialize.

10/27/11, 3:19 PM

Cathy McGuire said...
@MeanMr.Mustard: having researched bipolar disorders in connection with a relative. Apparently a common aspect of the condition is a strong need for control of others, and related to that, 'splitting' - best friends becoming sworn enemies overnight - all or nothing, black and white thinking. Borne of a strong need to simplify and regain confidence by asserting 'control' - and at its root lies stress.
You’re referring to borderline personality disorder… bipolar is a mood disorder, and does not have “splitting” as a symptom. Check DSM-IV if you’re not convinced.

@wvjohn: In the days before television and such, local courthouses were packed whenever their was an interesting trial and the proceedings were the topic of lively conversation in the community.
Whereas now the jury selection room has a tv, for all those who can’t go a couple hours without passive stimulation!

@JMG: Grrl, er, please do specify which stupid robot you're talking about -- I wondered for a brief moment if you were addressing Cathy in those terms!
LOL! I didn’t think that for a moment! One thing I’m sure of – I’m not a robot! :-D

@sidrugeg: Is it just me, or has anyone else observed that in spite of all the tedious dualistic blather, nothing ever gets RESOLVED? I'm convinced that that must actually be the strategy to retain control…
Nah – it’s just human nature. If you don’t like the vote, immediately start the campaign to vote/decide again! I’ve seen it on all levels of human interaction… basic 5-year-old’s response to life.

10/27/11, 3:30 PM

Adam Streed said...
It's funny---what you call "magical combat" looks a whole lot like what goes on in a philosophy seminar.

This whole series of posts about magic has been pretty interesting for me, really; much of it seems to be about phenomena I'm familiar with in a vocabulary I'm not. In particular, this most recent post sheds some striking light on my work as a philosophy instructor, and especially on my logic classes. I cover the fallacy of false dichotomy (what we call binary thinking) and maybe a dozen other informal fallacies, and make every effort to find examples from newspapers and ads. I'd always thought of this teaching as important work, but never as a kind of magical initiation ...

10/27/11, 4:21 PM

whblondeau said...
There are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don't.

10/27/11, 4:26 PM

Joel said...
The "stupid robot" Idiotgrrl mentioned seems to be the CAPTCHA system.

I've found that my CAPTCHAs often expire as I read the comments and compose my response, and the system says I've mis-entered them (usually offering a longer, more-obfuscated string of characters).

This has to be done, because there are spammers who either hire people to enter CAPTCHAs all day, or offer pirated content in exchange for entering them, or design machine vision AI to break them. In the latter case, there's some lag between the spammer opening the Blogger window here, and the accomplice entering the text (or the AI figuring it out); Blogger gives this misleading response to thwart such efforts, and lighten the moderator's load.

10/27/11, 4:37 PM

Joel said...
John Wheeler: "As I understand it the purpose is to remind people that even opposites have something in common."

Maybe one or two additional purposes: they aren't just nuggets of contrasting character, they're seeds. So to me, this also encodes the concepts of regression to the mean, and of homeostasis: that extremes tend, over time, to cause or at least pre-figure contrary trends. Like the way each economic boom contains seeds of a future bust.

10/27/11, 4:52 PM

idiotgrrl said...
OH, no! Apologies to Cathy and everybody else! I meant that word verification 'bot, that bounced my reading of the word twice. The first time, maybe; the second seemed crystal clear; the third was.

All right. I talk back to machines. VERY bad thinking patterns. Even so, the monkey brain treats them as if they had intent, generally malicious intent. If I could only get it through my thick head that machines ARE stupid! As Asimov once said, "A robot is always logical and never reasonable." Like having someone around who is on a Rulebook Strike.

Pat, caught with her baboon backside showing.

10/27/11, 5:44 PM

Petro said...
JMG - I just wanted to drop off a more fundamental explanation for the habit of binary thinking.

The clue, I think, is in language, which is the expression of the mechanism of rational thought. In order to name something, and express its relationship with something else a mark, or division must be made, or there is simply nothing that can be "talked" (thought) about.

There are, of course, more, shall we say, impressionistic manifestations of consciousness that I believe would correlate with what you are reaching for with the concept of ternary or nondualistic. I have a quibble with this being an enhancement or outgrowth of a more "primitive" binary mode - perhaps that is not what you meant but it is what such terminology implies.

I believe this conceptualization is at the root of what trapped Fox to unconsciously create the binary "dualism vs. nondualism" in his reach to escape it.

Bottom line is that I think that these "modes" exist in tandem - and that the impressionistic form of consciousness is the more primal of the two. It's just that gaining the ability (habit) of rational thought can cause one to "forget" (or demote) the other.

So, I would say that one does not have to develop this nominal "ternary" awareness, but rather permit it to come to the fore more frequently - to learn to "fall back" on impressionistic observation. This thinking is congenitally incapable of making judgments, and as such is a valuable information source to inform the "talking" part of the mind, which tends to get trapped in concepts that are by definition dead, or stale.

Of course, none of this contradicts the overall points of your analysis - I hope, rather, that it can be seen as an augmentation.

10/27/11, 5:53 PM

Stan Gardeys said...
Ah, yes, the magazine about reality and simplicity with endless hints on clutter-proofing that itself piles up in the house because it's too glossy and snazzy to pitch with the junk mail. My wife loves that one. She also likes the Container store, and misses the psychosis of being in there: we buy stuff to organize our stuff so it looks like we have less stuff so we can fill the resultant increase of useable space with more stuff...

Anyhow, something you may be interested in are the Fnords. There's a sci-fi book series called Illuminatus! that features a world where children are taught to subconsciously see and dread a certain key word (represented by "fnord.") This word is distributed throughout news media to keep people feeling scared and desperate, but the fnord is absent from advertising, so people want to buy to feel safe. The word 'fnord' I am told, comes from Discordianism, but I admit I have not read up on that in detail. You strike me as a fellow who has "seen the fnords."

10/27/11, 7:23 PM

Roboslob said...
i don't consider myself a duelist or a dandy, still i had my reasons for creating this halloween "tribute" to steve jobs:

10/27/11, 7:25 PM

hadashi said...
Once again, JMG, you have put (eloquent) words to notions I’ve lived by all my life but never had the ability to articulate. For decades I resigned myself to ‘living on the fringes where I cherished no notions of becoming acceptable’ (your words) so, as I’ve commented before, it feels wonderful to have arrived at this ‘hot air oasis of reason’ where others of my ilk are free to speak about toilet cloths, the Garden of Eden, O.J. Simpson and frustrating robots. Herewith, a few unconnected observations and responses to the previous comments . . .

Simplicity: As someone who doesn’t wear shoes—I’ve run marathons without ‘em—it’s amazing how many times acquaintances draw my attention the latest ‘shoeless shoe’ being promoted by footwear companies.

Binary thinking: It’s sad that I avoided Philosophy or the intriguing-sounding Phenomenology of Religion as subjects when I started university. I’d heard that the former consisted of mainly either/or argumentation about which of two boxes things fitted into. That same dualism took away from my enjoyment of Zen and the Art of Motor-cycle Maintenance too. And I also seemed to get into trouble when others would force me into the predicament of choosing from either of two equally unpalatable alternatives. ‘Now go away’ I wanted to say (lacking the faux-Latin of a better spell).

Spectrum thinking: Reminds me of Edward de Bono’s six-hat thinking.

@Siddrudge My parents always hummed the Little Boxes song. I thought it was an anti-government housing statement. And I’m all for pro-education too!

And now for something completely different, we appear to be at Peak Postage Stamps too!

10/27/11, 7:57 PM

Irrational Athiest said...
John! It sounds like you are making the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Lunbaugh wizards of the highest order.


10/27/11, 8:21 PM

Ozark Chinquapin said...
About Thoreau, I think the Thoreau-bashing that's out there really misses the point. Yes, he lived near town and was not self-sufficient.

However, I didn't get any impression from Walden that he was claiming to be subsisting fully from the land, in fact he states clearly about the grain he buys. His experiment was never about sustaining himself from the land, and it wasn't the same pressing issue in his day when the majority were small farmers as it is now. That's not to say sustainable farming or wilderness survival wouldn't have been a worthwhile goal at that time, it just wasn't Thoreau's.

As for criticising him for living close to town, that's just a straw man argument, as he never claims otherwise in Walden. He states that he likes to spend the majority of his time alone, but also writes of his walks around town and his interactions with others. You can spend most of your time alone without being fully isolated.

Thoreau was demonstrating that it's possible to live a fulfilling life with minimal material things, and how voluntary poverty can actually allow more time to persue other thing, such as his naturalistic and his spiritual work. This is at least as relevant now as it was in Thoreau's time.

It's striking to me when reading Walden how so much has changed, yet much is the same as well. Thoreau's contemporaries had the same obsession with material wealth as modern America, it's just that fossil fuel affluence has immensely multiplied the toys available. Walden as a way of thinking outside the cultural box and living for something other than material progress is quite relevant today, even though he's not the source to go to for the nuts and bolts of living more sustainably.

10/27/11, 8:45 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Beneath, excellent. Yes, and in fact that's why we have that hardwired binary reaction -- under certain not uncommon circumstances, a fast binary response will keep you alive better than anything else. No one numerical pattern is better than any other, except in specific contexts.

Philip, I'm reminded of another Robert Anton Wilson quote: "All statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, and meaningless in some sense."

Sgage, nah, there are a limitless number of kinds of archdruids, but all of them are rascals in one way or another!

Justin, good. I'll be suggesting next week that there's quite a bit more strategy involved in the Occupy movement's unwillingness to be pinned down to a specific set of demands -- and they're also quite adept at using binaries: "the 99%" vs. "the 1%" is a truly elegant bit of mass thaumaturgy.

Adam, well, given that most of the classic traditions of Western magic have been profoundly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, the similarity may not be accidental!

Joel, I figured as much, but only on second glance.

Grrl, nah, I figured out what you meant. I've just seen lists and forums blow up when a comment like that was accidentally taken the wrong way.

Petro, there I have to say I disagree with you. Of course there's a binary dimension to logic, but the binary reaction I've discussed here -- the freezing of thought into a yes/no pattern charged with intense emotion -- isn't a logical process; furthermore, ternary thinking isn't a vague intuitive state, it's a specific practice meant to override a nonrational reaction and free up the reasoning process.

Stan, not only have I seen the fnords, I'm a properly ordained Chaplin in the Legion of Dynamic Discord; I read Illuminatus! when it first came out, and went through a Discordian phase over the couple of years that followed. Yes, the fnords are a good metaphor.

Roboslob, very funny indeed.

Hadashi, I'm coming to think that Richard Heinberg called it right, and we are at Peak Everything!

10/27/11, 9:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Irrational, not at all. If they're wizards, they're of a very debased order; they simply have the advantage of a very receptive, angry, brittle audience.

Ozark, that seems a reasonable analysis.

10/27/11, 9:07 PM

RainbowShadow said...
No, I don't live in a cold climate. I live in a moderate clilmate. It really was just a typo, but I'm glad I didn't do any harm.

I meant what I said, I really, really, REALLY enjoy reading your blog, you're a breath of FRESH air.

Oh, speaking of binary thinking, there's something else I'd like to bring up:

About a few months ago, you did a series of posts about our tendency to scapegoat.

What I felt was missing in your analysis was that Americans have become especially, nightmarishly adept at accusing EVERYONE ELSE of avoiding personal responsibility, of making excuses, of scapegoating.

And that, in my opinion (you're free to disagree with me), is just as bad. For an arbitrary example, and this was BEFORE you suggested that I sit down with a Tea Party member and do more listening (I may still do that on my upcoming trip to another state), I recently spoke to a Republican whose opinion was something like this:

"The right wing is ALWAYS RIGHT, because the left NEVER takes responsibility for its own actions, but blames others instead. Obama is the President of not my fault, and we Republicans were right all along, because WE'RE man enough to take responsibility, and YOU aren't."

I'm paraphrasing, of course, this was months ago.

So, I attempted to persuade him that in a complex society like ours, EVERYONE (including myself, because I kept asking my parents to buy me videogames as a kid instead of books) had a part to play in contributing to this mess, including the Republicans just as much as Obama since the Republicans angrily declared that they would make Obama a one-termer before he even took office, prioritizing Obama's defeat over the health of the country. I refer of course to Rush Limbaugh "I hope the country will fail so Obama will be out of office" or Mitch McConnell "We must make Obama a one-termer at all costs."

I thought I was just pointing out the obvious when I said that if you always accuse others of avoiding personal responsibility, and you say you always take it, that's actually a means of AVOIDING (not taking) personal responsibility on your part, because you've egocentrically controlled the debate so that your own criticism is legitimate, while everyone ELSE'S criticism is scapegoating.

In short, constantly accusing others of "blaming others" IS ITSELF a way of "blaming others," and most Americans, including Democrats (I just chose that one Republican as an arbitrary example), don't understand that. How's that for a mind screw? ^_^

Or is saying that wrong of me? If it is, please tell me.

What do you think, John Michael Greer? Have I added to complex understanding to what's going on in this country, or should I not have brought any of this up?

10/27/11, 9:44 PM

Petro said...
Well, in the face of such a definitive rejection, I will certainly investigate this further, with vigor.

Thank you!

10/27/11, 9:46 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

One of the unusual things about US culture is that there is this general belief that your political system is owned by either the Republican or Democrat parties. As an outsider to your system, there doesn't seem to be that great a difference between the policies of the two parties.

It kind of seems obvious to me, but the two parties don't actually own the electoral system and as much as it may irk them, they do have to go to the polls on a regular basis. You guys are actually in control of that system whether you believe it or not.

Nothing would improve the political tone and debate in your country than the establishment of a more centerist leaning party. A third choice. I guarantee that it would get the attention of the two main parties who are probably pretty comfortable with each other.

Sorry, people but I'm dismissing the Tea Party outright because they are a radical fundamentalist off shoot of the Republican party.

Over here, we have a third choice party in the Greens who control the upper house of Parliament. They tend to have a moderating influence on the legislation passed through Parliament. No bad thing. Rarely does a single party gain control of the lower and upper houses here and usually the outcome for that party is not good because they persue ideological concerns.

By the way, I'm very excited because a bird is visiting my garden which is not even meant to be in this range. It's a gang gang cockatoo and you can't miss it, because of the bright red head and it also sounds like a really loud squeaky door.

gang gang cockatoo

PS: Much respect John, for fielding and responding to all of the comments that you do.



10/28/11, 12:34 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey Ozark,

I liked your description of Thoreau. It's funny, but there's this mindset out there that if you're not 100% self sufficient then you're somehow, well, a fake. What does that mean though? I don't get it.

Sorry JMG, but I do like eating wheat products.

I've noticed that this year some wheat has popped up amongst the herbage. Not sure how it happened really. Still, I buy in my flour rather than growing and milling it because it's easier and the quality is quite good.

At a guess, I reckon the attitude may be reflective of the mindset that says that there is only the perfect answer out there and if reality doesn't meet that then it's not worth achieving. Life is messy and unpredictable though. People have become just too comfy.



10/28/11, 1:41 AM

phil harris said...
As usual your post and the thoughts of others stirred my own thinking. I also read your 2007 post re 'fascism' and 'feudalism' that you pointed to just now.

The formation of societal 'uber' structures might cause us to think further about the relevance of 'voluntary poverty' in this time, (Wordsworth's 'take' was 'plain living - high thinking'). Persons having hard-won elite skills or specialisms could play an especially important and favourable role, not by 'taking charge' or propagating dubious forms of 'thaumaturgy', but by especially embracing voluntary poverty? I can think of many heart-warming examples where this has worked happily, while consuming minimally, and thereby reducing the 'need' to commandeer the service of others. Not being 'that bothered' or even rejecting with humour 'my wholly deserved rewards' or 'heirarchical status'? Indeed, I am warming myself by reflecting on examples of such just now - don't even need rosy nostalgic or sentimental filters on the end of my nose. There must be caveats of course, and jokes about persons we might otherwise look up to, but generally, the valuable persons I am remembering had grasped that point!

Seems perhaps a way that in our mass society we could encourage and be encouraged and could expand an existing loveable and valuable tendency?

Just dreaming! 'Shadow projections' retreat beside these camp fires?

10/28/11, 3:39 AM

idiotgrrl said...
Here is a link to a forum discussion that has turned to how the internet itself and especially Google et. al. have become tools of the thaumaturgists rather than facilitators of individual opinion. This discussion just came up last night.!

10/28/11, 4:59 AM

Rashakor said...
Dear JMG

I would have a little suggestion to help casual readers of this blog (like myself); at this point in your teaching i could really use a glossary of the terms that we are using in your own words. Like whati would assume a few others i have still a challenge in wraping my mind around your definitions of Magic, Thaumaturgy, Theurgy, Alchemy,...
I came from the generation of pop fantasy so i still see these through the lens of Role playing game mechanics...

10/28/11, 5:56 AM

Ainslie said...
JMG, the John Prine link was appreciated. (you've got me looking up more of him.) As a kid of parents who replaced the TV with the likes of Rajneesh and Summit lighthouse, I am rather keenly aware of the need for concrete cultural activity whilst weaning off the thaumaturgy. I must admit the age of computers has given me the opportunity to catch up on popular culture, analyze it and build a bridge in my mind between what needs it serves, what games it plays, and the larger human project of culture, from the indigenous on up. It's a middling place, a ternary I suppose, but It's where I am. I hope I am filling myself with insights that may be needed by fellow humans when the project collapses.

10/28/11, 6:39 AM

Maria said...
I'm a non-linear thinker -- it's just how I'm wired. It has taken me until the past year or so to grasp the idea that not only do a lot of people find it annoying (that much I was aware of) but they actually find it threatening to think outside an either/or paradigm.

I certainly fall into the trap of binary thinking a times when I should be looking for creative solutions -- and sure enough, as you pointed out, JMG, it is when I am under stress. Now I understand what's going on and I can watch for it, so thank you for that.

I've noticed, though, that life is easier to navigate once I realized that a lot of people are thinking in either/or, us/them, good/bad patterns. Or, as I like to put it, they haven't mentally graduated from high school, so they are either sitting at the Cool Kids' table (however they define it) or they wish they were.

I guess I haven't changed all that much either -- I am still content to sit by myself reading Victorian novelists or to talk to interesting people -- but now that I understand the paradigm a bit better, I can work with it.

10/28/11, 8:38 AM

Ruben said...
@Mean Mr. Mustard,

Your comment on Human Error reminded me of the book The Human Factor, by Kim Vicente.

The chapter that has stuck with me most was about the Three Mile Island meltdown, and how the many warnings klaxons and lights prevented the operators from thinking of a solution. They spent much of their time running around turning alarms off so they could have some quiet.

I was very disturbed to read an article about the Deepwater Horizon, which described the same situation--the design engineers have not learned.

So plane crashes and meltdowns and oil spills are called "Human Error." But really, the system could only be operated by a super-rational, like Mr. Spock. They cannot be safely operated by human beings.

The errors are design errors, for not taking Human Factors (which may be physical, mental or spiritual) into consideration.

10/28/11, 9:40 AM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

The U.S. reached Peak Single Family Dwelling Size in 2007.

The article attributes the shrinking average size of newly built homes to the recession and demands for energy efficiency.

10/28/11, 1:27 PM

russell1200 said...
I finally got around to looking through my Gnosis magazines to find a more concise (better/ different?) definition of magic....and..... I didn't find any. When speaking of the general practice (versus specific disciplines) they pretty much said the same thing you did, but you were more concise.

You earlier commented on my little one being a thaumaturge. There was an article in there on that so I will have to check it out. I would say he is favoring the Lawyer blood on his matriarchal side, but I prefer the old Judges Guild faux-Medieval term Litigation Trickster. He has Litigation Trickter in his veins.

10/28/11, 1:52 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Cherokee Organics, small political parties have more power in a parliamentary democracy than they can achieve under the U.S. Constitution. A growing portion of the American electorate does not identify with either major party and would support a third if it had any prospects.

Election of the chief executive is separate from election of the legislature. In a Presidential election, a third party only acts as a spoiler. By dividing the votes of relatively like-minded people between one of the majors and the third party, it makes it easier for the other major party to win a majority in the Electoral College.

This has happened twice in recent years: the Clinton/Bush/Perot election, in which the conservative populist Perot gave the Democrats the victory, and the Nader/Kerry/Bush the Younger election, in which a candidate running to the left of the Democrat produced a near dead heat and the Republican squeaked through.

Because of this structural feature, third party presidential campaigns get organized around individuals and don't outlast them. There has not been a significant ideologically based third party in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

A third party delegation in either house of Congress can make the difference between whether a bill passes or fails. That potentially gives it bargaining power.

However, when and in what form the bill comes to a vote is controlled by committee chairmen. In order to become a committee chairman, one must either belong to the party with the most members in that house or form a permanent alliance with that party, Senator Bernie Sanders being an example of the latter.

10/28/11, 2:11 PM

katsmama said...
If I could convince even a small minority of readers of this blog to follow the cue of the first line of the chorus of "Spanish Pipe Dream," I'd figure all the effort this blog has taken was well spent.
Love that song, love John Prine, we haven't blown up the TV yet... On topic, I try to encourage going beyond binary thinking among my students- kids from 11-14. Abstractions are tough for these kids, and the possibility of an answer that goes beyond "right" or "wrong" is hard to wrap your head around.

10/28/11, 4:19 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Rainbow, that's definitely an issue. It's what happens when a culture gets exposed to psychological insights that go beyond what it's able to integrate; the new insights get turned into fodder for the same old behavior patterns.

Petro, fair enough!

Cherokee, given the way US politics works, the rise of a successful third party would probably mean the collapse of one of the two existing parties. More on this in next week's post.

Phil, that's potentially a very interesting strategy.

Grrl, most interesting! They're quite right, of course, and this is something that happens in the history of most communication systems.

Rashakor, hmm. I'll consider that.

Ainslie, a middling place is not necessarily a bad place to be.

Maria, exactly! One of the things that gives the operative mage an advantage in dealing with other people is that he or she has some sense of the nonrational programs that dominate so much human behavior, and can take them into account in others and in him- or herself.

Deborah, good. Small is beautiful.

Russell1200, now there's a blast from the past. Judges Guild! I had a mess of their stuff back in the day. As for definitions, well, it's a tricky matter, and I'm still mulling over Rashakor's request.

10/28/11, 4:20 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Katsmama, it's exactly the young who most need to learn this skill. As for blowing up your TV, the last one I ever owned got dropped, many years ago, two floors down off a fire escape into an open dumpster. The flash and bang as the picture tube imploded was truly heartwarming.

10/28/11, 4:23 PM

Moniker J said...
It might be early for the number four, but for some time I have let it suggest to me that what is taken for or celbrated as a grade-A sense of self can be mutable philosophically, cross-culturally, and individually.

This has followed from imagining a two-by-two matrix of four total categories of senses of self.

The individual axes are probably not fundamentally important, but I have taken them to involve two dichotomies. First, sense-of-self qua whole-in-itself, versus sense-of-self qua part-of-a-whole. Second, sense-of-self qua unique person, versus sense-of-self qua undistinguished person. Two dichotomies giving four categories.

Useful, perhaps, for questioning appeals to a particular sense of self?

10/28/11, 7:06 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
I heard a debate on the radio in England last week about the Occupy protesters outside St Paul's. One (brittle, irate) merchant banker kept saying over and over that they had no right to protest 'as the Soviets demonstrated that Marxism doesn't work'. So there you have it - we can either have casino capitalism or Soviet Marxism.

Luckily a 'third wayer' was on hand to calmly repeat that we have more than two options - a point that the banker was eventually forced to concede.

The creation of either/or wedge issues has, of course, been a favoured tool of politicians for quite some time. Let's face it - it often works.

As far as self-sufficiency and Thoreau goes, I knom a man who says he has reached '80% self sufficiency' and is happy with this. As he pointed out to me 'It's proving hard to barter agricultural produce for house insurance'.

By the way, I have made some important edits to my sci-fi short story so I hope you don't mind downloading it again - thanks. Readers will be happy to note that the story features a stupid robot.

Here is the edited version

10/29/11, 3:00 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
@JMG: Here’s an essay by Jeffrey D. Sachs that is pertinent to one of your posts
These are a few snips from the longer essay:
First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do....
At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society....America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising....
The same, of course, has happened to politics. American politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal. Anybody – and any idea – can be sold with a bright ribbon and a catchy jingle...
Many neuroscientists believe that the mental-health effects of TV viewing might run even deeper than addiction, consumerism, loss of social trust, and political propaganda. Perhaps TV is rewiring heavy viewers’ brains and impairing their cognitive capacities....

And he agrees with your “cure”:
Of course, the best defense is our own self-control. We can all leave the TV off more hours per day and spend that time reading, talking with each other, and rebuilding the bases of personal health and social trust.

I do think neuroscience would discover impairments due to tv (if the PTB allowed such studies to be funded!) – it’s not just a harmless bit of relaxation, IMO.

10/29/11, 7:05 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
@Ozark: However, I didn't get any impression from Walden that he was claiming to be subsisting fully from the land, in fact he states clearly about the grain he buys. His experiment was never about sustaining himself from the land, and it wasn't the same pressing issue in his day when the majority were small farmers as it is now..,..
As for criticizing him for living close to town, that's just a straw man argument, as he never claims otherwise in Walden. He states that he likes to spend the majority of his time alone, but also writes of his walks around town and his interactions with others. You can spend most of your time alone without being fully isolated.

Thanks for the feedback – I suppose I’ve been relying on what others say about Thoreau (read him in high school; started to re-read recently but too many other good books – got distracted). I will go back and read all of Walden (now that I’m almost done Glass Bead Game). I generally criticize “preachers” to the same extent that they are criticizing others – ie: if they are railing against others’ behavior, then their behavior had better be exemplary! If they are compassionate toward others, then I am less critical... and it’s mostly criticism of the hypocrisy, not the point of views.

And I certainly agree that you can spend most of your time alone w/o being a full hermit – that’s how I live… days w/o seeing or speaking to anyone, except perhaps to wave at a neighbor from a distance, or to compose a response to a blog. I appreciate the ability to pull back and examine my own semi-conscious thinking and feeling… this is an insistent and intense culture, and w/o distance, it becomes difficult to catch the sneaky thaumaturgy – for me, at least.

10/29/11, 7:37 AM

Robert said...
Your last few posts have prompted some unsettling reflection on my part. I did a fair amount of reading on "occult" matters, mostly in the mid to late 70s, although I didn't adopt any practice. Now it has become apparent that much of what I have done has been the result of the subconscious influence of this reading.

For instance, I have a mental habit that has grown over the years which I have always regarded as a neurotic mental tic that can be seen an exercise in ternary thinking. It was prompted by a book or pamphlet on numerology that I read in about 1974 that I never believed for a minute. I have also done many things over the years that many would regard as mistakes that have helped to ensure that I wasn't temped by degenerate boomer consumerism. I wonder how much this was a subconscious response of my reading of works influenced by people like G. I. Gurdjieff.

You should mention to your readers the benefits of pursuing esoteric knowledge in the community of like-minded people as you have done. Many traditions believe that there are dangers in a solitary pursuit.

Do you have an opinion of Gurdjieff's method? One thing I know is that his followers expect you to give them a whole lot of money.

I should point out that there is more than one person whose responses appear here under the name "Robert". This is my first response in many months.

10/29/11, 8:20 AM

Jennifer D Riley said...
Thanks for clarifying voluntary poverty; food for thought. Fitting this week to post my local progressive Independent article link:

10/29/11, 9:11 AM

Kieran O'Neill said...
Engaging in the exercise of spotting binaries in the paper over the past few mornings, I came to an interesting observation: binaries can also be used as a form of stage magic, to direct attention to a simple binary relationship in a more complex system, while other parts of the system are quietly manipulated in ways that make the binary relationship getting all the attention a distraction from what's really going on.

I'll illustrate with the case example that brought me to this conclusion, which is also incidentally rife with local versions of many of the issues discussed on this blog.

BC Hydro, the power utility in British Columbia, generates most of its energy from hydroelectric power. The generated amount is seasonal, being highly dependent on snow melt and rainfall. Ten years ago, this was balanced out by importing electricity from the US in bad years, and exporting it to the US in good years. In the past ten years, however, consumption has increased to a point where BC Hydro is importing nearly every year, but rates have not been increased (in fact, for some businesses, they have been cut). As an aside, they have been spending a certain amount of money on energy conservation advertising lately, and this would go a long way to explaining why.

Now BC Hydro is run as a semi-independent government corporation, with "profits" going back to the provincial government. In the past, to stabilise the cash flow to the government, "deferral accounts" (going into debt) were used to make the "profit" roughly equal in either good or bad years. Now, however, there is no such thing as a good year, but the government needs a stable cash flow from the utility, or they would, presumably, have to increase taxes. At the same time, they don't want the utility to increase its rates, as that would be as unpopular as increasing taxes, and they are hurting for popular support at the moment. So instead, BC Hydro has continued to use the deferral accounts, and is racking up vast debts, which will one day have to be repaid in the form of much higher electricity rates at some point in the future. It's a fascinating local study in mortgaging the future for a little bit of comfort today.

New accounting standards that are supposed to be adopted Canada-wide would stop them from doing this, but the provincial government is considering legislation to exempt the utility from these standards. This is the immediate and real binary at question, but the problem itself is at least ternary, with the government juggling costs back and forth, and ultimately vanishing them into the coat sleeves of costs to future generations while everyone is watching the birdie of increased rates.

But even more interesting is looking at the comments below the article, where people try very hard to shoehorn the issue into various other widely popular binaries. For instance, proposing that privatising the utility would solve everything (while ignoring the point that a for-profit company with a complete monopoly is the exact opposite of a free market). Another that seems to come up is outrage that the government takes money out of people's rates (while ignoring that the money has to come from somewhere, be that taxes or rates). There are also, of course, plenty of 99% comments, which may have some point to them (the highest paid executives in BC work for public companies like BC Hydro), but also miss the bigger point.

All in all it makes me agree even more strongly with you about the future of North America. Judging from this issue and the general response, when the reckoning comes, it will be a very serious shock to a lot of people.

10/29/11, 10:49 AM

Jennifer D Riley said...
Here's a warning from my Voluntary Poverty: I threw out my hi-fi stereo and my long playing album collection. I feel stupid now that it's gone to the landfill. I have zero long play albums and no stereo. The turn table always produced a faint grinding sound, and I'm not certain how I would replace the stereo needle, haven't even bothered to look. My advice is to use the "put it in a cardboard box for six months" as the intermediate step.

On another topic, if the link does not get posted to my local progressive Independent newsie, the cover article is on the 99%. The author states that the banks received their bailout at below market interest rate, and paid back TARP at below market interest rate. None of the rest of us, the 99%, will ever have 0% interest rate and that's part of OWS. Unequal terms.

I think of New York City, Washington, DC, and a few other cities as the epicenter of capitalism. The rest of the US is mired in a monetary and employment Depression.

10/29/11, 11:43 AM

penrodschofield said...

As a teenager in the 1970s, I felt intuitively that the college-success/no college-failure duality was false, but I lacked the will to resist. I ended up with two degrees, learning little along the way. Oh well.

I've posted a slightly revised version of my short story, "Red Wing." It's at

Thanks for all you do . . .
-Bart Hillyer

10/29/11, 2:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Moniker, that's one example of thinking in quaternaries; good. I'd encourage you to generalize from there, and think about how two independent polarities interact in general.

Jason, I'm going to take that as a favorable omen! It's also a good example of the way that the ternary strategy works: apply it insistently enough, and even those who have an agenda that depends on binaries have trouble maintaining them.

Cathy, having watched for many years the differences between people who use TV and people who don't, I'm convinced that TV users have a consistent syndrome of cognitive and neurological impairments, and it would be intriguing to run a good controlled study to scope out what those are.

Other Robert, I haven't really pursued a study of the Fourth Way, to use the Gurdjieff system's proper name; my path led in a different direction and, yes, there was the cash-up-front issue. I'm not at all surprised, though, that some aspects of magical mind training stuck with you -- or that they've been an advantage to you. That's one of the points of this series of posts.

Jennifer, thanks for the link!

Kieran, excellent! You get today's gold star. Yes, that's one of the lessons you learn once you start analyzing the news using tools like ternary thinking. There are many more.

Jennifer, that seems like good advice.

Penrod, got it. You're in.

10/29/11, 2:31 PM

beneaththesurface said...
The news media has created a binary between capitalism and communism, as if there are no other options. It's interesting, because my brother-in-law grew up in the former Soviet Union. He sometimes remarks that he thinks there are actually a lot of commonalities between capitalism and communism, even though they are framed as if they are the antithesis of each other. I'm thinking that a tendency of binaries is that when they are presented as only two opposite ends to choose from and fight over, those two ends start becoming a reflection of the other in certain ways, even though those persons emotionally invested absolutely in one side or the other often fail to see this.

10/29/11, 4:09 PM

das monde said...
Rebuffing the dual thinking correlates well with accepting reality as it is (as psychologists say it), without a pre-conceived framework. This is indeed not about rejecting the dual thinking, but setting it aside sometimes. Fran’s video suggests that the two brain hemispheres play a different role in this, hmmm, duality. One morning this week,
after listening to Paul McKenn’s hypnotic tapes, I distinctly felt the hemispheres differently - a funny sensation.

Allying with most of the compliments, I wish to back marxmarv’s remark about yet another political equivalence in your text. In R.A. Wilson’s terms, those standard equivalences of political sides are just opinions inside your head; the correspondence with the outside could be better and less lazy. I would say that what the Republicans are doing is more or less the straightforward thaumaturgy than many know in some way or other. The Democrats are practicing methodical betrayal, spending their public capital in dishing everything they are supposed to stand for. The 99% movement just shows how many unforced concessions they made in the last decades. My “theory of everything” for the last 30 years is summed up in one word: corruption. One party follows unabashedly the dictate of some part of 1% (that just amassed the share of financial power beyond any proportions known to humankind perhaps), while the other tries to make stronger opposing appearances for as long as possible while doing the same dirty droppings. Neither role looks attractive, for sure. But what repeated equivalences do is they relieve the latter party from any pressure to live up to their pledges. No one in politics is left to question the ridiculous dualism capitalism-or-socialism. Ha, if Obama is indeed a socialist, then Nixon was even more so, and there was not THAT much difference between the Cold War sides after all. This dualism (like many others) has the tragical consequence that many perfectly good ideas are being cheaply rejected and distorted, probably for a long time.

10/30/11, 7:26 AM

Brother Kornhoer said...
Mr. Greer,

I initially misread the word “ternary” as “territory.” But it still was a useful mental image – you have two positions like two mountain peaks, but you also have valleys, rivers, lakes, even another mountain range across the landscape near the coast that you can inhabit, leaving the absolutists to their mountain tops. As I learned while painting watercolor, sometimes your mistakes end up being the best part of the painting if you learn to take advantage of them.

Interesting that you brought up the false binary of monotheism / atheism. How do the Hindus feel about that, eh? That reminds me of a funny example of ternary thinking that a friend of mine in college used on a fundamentalist Christian preacher. Unfortunately for the preacher, my friend had just gotten out of philosophy class where he was studying Existentialism. So, when the preacher confronted my friend with the binary question “DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD OR NOT?”, my friend immediately replied, “It doesn't matter, because either way we are still free.”

Actually, as an atheist, that does really describe how I feel – I'm an atheist who thinks that the question of the existence of God doesn't really matter that much – I think we are all obligated to act morally whether God exists or not, whether we're rewarded or not for doing so – acting morally is it's own reward. So if someone is a sincere Christian and that helps them act in a truly moral fashion, I respect that. The biggest fault I find with (some) Christians (and many believers in other religions, such as Islam) is the belief that theirs is the only path to God, or putting it another way, the only way anyone should live. Of course, many atheists fall into this trap as well, and it took me some time to get out of it. I was helped by – you guessed it – seeing the example of people who tried to quietly live as true Christians rather than run their mouths about their piety.

I'm in my mid 40s, so by the time I heard of the New Age movement, it had already degenerated into marketing theme marked by an unintelligible mishmash of ideas coupled with a vague, (and seemingly to this skeptically-inclined engineer) unjustified giddy optimism. But I was able to see how astonishingly quickly the Voluntary Simplicity ethos was changed into a marketing scheme, despite the ludicrousness of buying more stuff in order to live simply. Same idea as “Buy these expensive products in order to save the environment.” Reminds me of my response to an acquaintance who was puzzling over her task to write up how a new luxury resort would be environmentally sustainable for a marketing brochure - “That's easy – don't build it, and it will be sustainable.”

10/30/11, 9:09 AM

Brother Kornhoer said...
Mr. Greer,

Further comments -

I have personally found quite a bit of resonance with some of the points you make about stepping outside of the binary political identity prevalent here in the US. For example, when reading one of Sharon Astyck's blog posts about how feminism predictably resulted in lifestyle changes consistent with more consumption and consumerism (two- and three-car families, outsourcing of more and more daily tasks such as food preparation and childcare from inside the home to outside the home, basically, the commodification of the family life), it struck me that that outcome is what cultural conservatives are talking about with their concern over the demise of the family, though they may not realize it. Now to be clear, I think the cure is not to go back to the nuclear family model of the 1950s, but for everyone to start tilting the work / home balance back to home. And many conservatives would probably agree with me – while they may promote the 1950s family as the ideal, in reality they are quite proud of their daughters' career achievements.

Same with your observation about how liberals promote policies that damage the working class. For example, the (elitist) liberal stance on illegal immigration. First, they use a bit of transparent thaumaturgy by calling illegal immigrants “undocumented workers,” like they are victims of some kind of clerical mistake instead of more accurate terms like “modern-day slaves.” And then dressing up the exploitation of illegal immigrants as some kind of broadminded charitable exercise, instead of a means of keep working-class wages at brutally low levels while incidentally adding to our overpopulation problem in the process. I remember clearly my reaction to hearing an National Public Radio commentator making the tired claim that Americans don't want to work as nannies and lawn-mowers. My first reaction was the thought that I know of no one personally who has a nanny. My second reaction was to ask how then my neighborhood has somehow produced a long succession of white teenaged boys who will carefully cut your lawn and trim the bushes for a reasonable price.

Regarding the OWS protestors and the comparison to communists, one tactic that has worked pretty well with my conservative friends is to point out that the biggest threat to free markets in the US are not the protestors or the government in and of itself, but large corporations, which do whatever they can including gross political manipulation to eliminate competition and lock up markets.

Finally, speaking of fallacies, another fallacy I see quite often in the political realm is “arguing the consequent.” For example, I'm an advocate of building out a decent passenger rail network in the US as a means of reducing CO2 emissions and preserving long distance travel in a future where high oil prices bankrupt the airlines and put air travel out of reach of all but the rich. Inevitably, the argument comes back that “America is too big for rail travel – people won't stand having to travel for two days to get across the country.” But wait – wasn't I just making the point that air travel will be out of reach? Sometimes, how much you want something has no bearing on how available it is. Besides, this response ignores that rail networks held the US together from the 1870s to the 1950s quite well.

Hey, it goes without saying but I'll say it anyway – another great essay. By the way, I find that it often is easier to write my comment in a word processor, then cut and paste it into Blogger. That way it can't log you out.

10/30/11, 9:11 AM

Glennda said...
I've sent you a short story for the anthology using your verison email address. Hope it gets through to you okay.

I've enjoyed this thread about magic, though I've been too busy with the local OccupyOakland effort to comment. When the the thread turns more political I may have things to report.

I managed to do the last revision to the story in time I hope.

10/30/11, 9:55 AM

ando said...

As promised and long overdue is the analysis of Peak Oil and
consumer society from the Advaita point of view. I am really unqualified
to talk about Vedanta per se. My mentor in advaita follows the non-duality
pointers of Nisargadatta Maharaj. While Nisargadatta did practice the Hindu
religion, after his realization (or change in consciousness) he emphasized the
pointers (or teachings) as they related to the Ultimate Sickness or duality. The Ultimate
Medicine was to follow the pointers to Oneness or Unicity, or Consciousne

The Hindu Religious writings do make reference to duality and the Oneness. Nisargadatta,
however said the Truth was not found in any words or writings. His solution was to become free
of all the personas that result from identification with the body, mind, and religious/spiritual teachings.
These personas and attachments are taken on as a result of the conditioning, programming,
domestication, and acculturation that occur as a result of being brought up in a dualistic society.
The personas reside in the "mind" which is the storehouse for all the "learned ignorance" that accumulates
as the result of the conditioning and programming mentioned above. The Truth in this context is that
we are nothing more than elements and consciousness mantifested in the Relative. "JMG" or "Ando"
are just personas given to us without our permission. At some point these so called bodies will demanifest
and so will the "mind." There will be no reincarnation. Nisargadatta said there was no reincarnation and
that caused him some trouble with the Hindu authorities.

This learned ignorance leads to an existence which is based on reactions rather than natural action.
The yoga that leads to freedom and natural action rather than being driven (as opposed to being
in the driver's seat) to reaction is Nisarga or natural yoga. The practice is to contemplate the personas
that drive us and become free of them. My mentor points to Realization or Understanding via a return
path. The seeker is taken back to Source via the same path that the consciousness was corrupted by conditioning
and programming. Body, Mind, and Relgious attachments are de-accumulated.

Theses same personas especially those assumed as a result of acculturation are the driving factors behind oil addiction
and mass consumption. In the past 40 years the personas have been reinforced by a most powerful mass media,
especially the glass teat. (Ellison's TV) The corporations have advertised that accumulation is a sign of success
(especially in sexual conquest). For forty years teen aged boys have been taught that cars are a sign of virility and
sexual prowess. These personas lead the unrealized to make very bad choices as it relates to their health and the
health of the planet.

I am going to stop here and write another on the Hindu magic your comments led me to research. If I missed something
in which you were interested, let me know.

Your work is very much in line with the Advaita pointers and is appreciated greatly.



10/30/11, 12:54 PM

Brother Kornhoer said...
Clarification to my comment above - I meant to say that feminism was predictably co-opted in such a fashion to ensure more consumption, not that there is anything inherent in feminism itself that encourages more consumption. If I recall correctly, Sharon Astyck's orginal point is that there were discussions among feminist thinkers in the 1970s about the different concrete manifestations that feminism could take, and the manifestation that consumed the most won out in our consumerist society.

10/30/11, 1:21 PM

RainbowShadow said...
"Regarding the OWS protestors and the comparison to communists, one tactic that has worked pretty well with my conservative friends is to point out that the biggest threat to free markets in the US are not the protestors or the government in and of itself, but large corporations, which do whatever they can including gross political manipulation to eliminate competition and lock up markets."

Holy nuts, Brother Kornhoer, you actually managed to convince conservatives that corporations were acting unethically without them calling you the next Chairman Mao or an adolescent or an avatar of Satan made flesh?!

I should try your tactic with the next Republican I meet.


10/30/11, 4:53 PM

Tracy G said...
Huh. Wikipedia says American social philosopher Richard Gregg coined the term "voluntary simplicity" in a 1936 essay entitled The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. I didn't know that—I might have to track down a copy.

Is it possible that Gregg opted for that phrasing (as opposed to "voluntary poverty") due to the horrendous involuntary poverty which so many suffered at that time? That's a sincere question—I have no idea myself, but it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have been sensitive to that issue. Doesn't really matter, I guess. Either way, it probably has little bearing on what's happened to the term "voluntary simplicity" over the past 15 years or so. I was just surprised to learn that it took close to 60 years before marketers started to seriously cash in on it.

Real Simple magazine launched in 2000. I've seen it at our public library. I'm just sort of perplexed by its success. I don't recall ever seeing anything in it that I'd personally want to own.

10/30/11, 5:19 PM

siddrudge said...
JMG-- Is Monday 10/31 the absolute deadline for the short story contest?

10/30/11, 7:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Beneath, good. Both are bureaucratic industrial systems based on a scientific-materialist worldview, so just how different could they be?

Das Monde, it's always possible to nitpick at generalizations. Of course there are differences in detail between the GOP and the Democrats, but they are far less important than the broad similarities.

Brother K., that's a useful misreading! The map, of course, is not the ternary...

Glennda, got it.

Ando, thank you! I wasn't at all familiar with Nisargadatta's work -- my readings in Vedanta, such as they are, mostly involved a few pieces of Shankaracharya's works and some essays by Christopher Isherwood.

Tracy, I didn't know it went back that far! Thank you for researching it. You may well be right about the reason behind the label; even so, I'm not at all sure it worked out well.

Siddrudge, not quite, but please get any remaining entries in soon. I'll be starting the selection process pretty much as soon as I get back from ASPO.

10/30/11, 10:00 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Just in case you missed it, The Rodale Institute has released a report on it's 30 year farming trial comparing organic and conventional farming methods:

Rodale Institute 30 year farming trial

Hope you enjoy it.



10/31/11, 3:01 AM

ando said...

Glad I could help, but please be clear, I described Nisargadatta's advaita pointers which he emphasized for those seeking the the change in consciousness (or realization). Advaita Vedanta basically means "Non Duality Writing", so to focus on Vedanta we would need to study the vedas. I AM looking into the Atharva Veda which has the magical incantations and spells.



10/31/11, 5:44 AM

ando said...
JMG as the Archdruid, you might like this hymn to the goddess earth, or Prithvi Sukta, from the Arthra Veda



10/31/11, 7:41 AM

Tracy G said...
You're welcome, JMG, and I don't disagree with you at all. My best guess, without devoting hours of research to this topic, is that even though the term "voluntary simplicity" has been around a while, it began to surge in popularity only in the 80's. A book by Duane Elgin helped to revive it in 1981. In what I'm sure was a completely unintended consequence, glossy new catalogs like Gaiam started to pop up by the late 80's and early 90's. The term "ethical consumerism" entered popular use in 1989. And so, within a few short years, "voluntary simplicity" came to be widely regarded as a business opportunity.

I ran out of time yesterday to look for Gregg's essay (I've put myself on a digital diet, along with everything else). It's here. I haven't quite finished reading it myself, but it's not extremely long, and you might enjoy it. He even references Toynbee. Here's one quote which might be relevant to your past few posts:

"To those who say that machinery and the apparatus of living are merely instruments and devices which are without moral nature in themselves, but which can be used for either good or evil, I would point out that we are all influenced by the tools and means which we use. Again and again in the lives of individuals and of nations we see that when certain means are used vigorously, thoroughly and for a long time, those means assume the character and influence of an end in themselves. We become obsessed by our tools."

I'm afraid I'm having a minor identity crisis because I've long considered myself a practitioner of voluntary simplicity, and I can't seem to find a better term for it. The way it's now used in the mass media, though, is definitely quite different from my own understanding of it. It's frustrating. I think you are wise to stick with less popular words.

10/31/11, 8:40 AM

SLClaire said...
I can easily imagine marketers demolishing Voluntary Poverty by saying, in effect, who needs to be poor when you can have everything you want at such low prices! In contrast, I think it took them longer to demolish Voluntary Simplicity because, during the 1980s and 1990s when simplicity became something of a trend, people were working longer hours at less satisfying jobs and questioning whether they in fact wanted to live their lives that way. Simplicity, as a means of buying and needing less, allowed for the possibility of working fewer hours. How could a company sell something that would allow a person to work fewer hours?

The book Confronting Consumption, edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, includes a chapter on the voluntary simplicity movement. Maniates, the author of that chapter, notes the popularity of the movement during the late 1990s by discussing what scholar Rich Hayes describes as the first national gathering of the voluntary simplicity movement, held in September 1998 at USC. What surprised Hayes and Maniates about the gathering (both attended it) was first of all the astonishingly huge attendance, close to 1,200 people despite limited advertising. They had expected something closer to 200 people.

What also surprised them was that Kalle Lasn, publisher of Adbusters, drew the only standing ovation of the day by speaking powerfully about both the need to simplify one’s one life and to work collectively to change the larger structures that make it difficult to simplify. Maniates had spent a number of previous pages discussing what he saw as the apolitical nature of the movement, its emphasis on personal restraint rather than on challenging structural and sustainability issues. He hadn’t realized that people involved in the movement did, in fact, see challenging the structural issues as part of what they were doing - but they couldn’t do much about the larger issues till they’d managed to free up some time and space from the work-and-spend cycle they felt caught in.

It may be worth noting that the book was published in 2002.

10/31/11, 9:50 AM said...
This post triggered a free association for me that I had to share with you. When I was in my associate's degree nursing program, I was required to take a class on "critical thinking". I nearly failed it, mostly because for me they broke the process down so far that it no longer made meaningful sense to me, and also because there was something about it that just seemed 'wrong.' Like I can't put my finger on this but it's not logical to do it this way kind of wrong.

I finally realized what it was - it was the process (for me at least) of taking someone who does NOT think in binary forms and forcing them to do so.

My *not* thinking in binary was subject for comment during my bachelor's program research/critical thinking class, mainly because what I wanted to know was who funded the research - for me that would tell me more, or at least as much, about the validity of the research than the raw statistics would. And while my approach was frowned on, it was generally agreed that funding HAS to become a recognized part of evaluating research due to the massive problems with fraud that are acknowledged to be present.

Slightly off topic, I am sad to report that, while I apparently did an OK job of teaching my children not to think in binary, I did not do a good enough job (or I didn't teach them to think critically well enough, not sure which). My middle son has gotten involved in a multilevel marketing scheme. I am not sure how to handle this. Any ideas would be appreciated. My only idea so far has been to research the company, the upper level staff, and their claims regarding the ingredients. I can only hope his innate cynicism will kick in before it's too late.

10/31/11, 10:15 AM

RainbowShadow said..., if I may interject, it probably wasn't a real critical thinking course.

The only ones comprehensive enough not to think in binary, that I know of, are Richard Paul and Linda Elder, who run the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Their model is much more substantive that what it sounds like you received, so I heavily encourage you to give them a shot, especially since they get much of their material from classical literature and philosophy, and some psychology (Richard Paul is a trained philosopher, and Linda Elder a trained psychologist).

Especially focus on intellectual standards, the "components of thought," etc.

Word of warning, though, their model takes YEARS and not months to master. It changes a person's life permanently if followed strictly enough.

10/31/11, 1:30 PM

LewisLucanBooks said...
Well, here's my story for the collection. Hope this works. This is my first venture into the world of blogs.

10/31/11, 1:41 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, fascinating. Thank you!

Ando, duly noted, and many thanks for the hymn! Lovely stuff.

Tracy, the other thing you could try is challenging the current, corrupt use of the phrase, rather the way I've done with the word "magic." Since the meanings of words are always contested and negotiated, there's some wiggle room available for that strategy.

SLClaire, of course it would be possible to manipulate any phrase; my point is that a phrase that makes people uncomfortable has certain advantages when it comes time to fight back against such manipulations.

Tinfoil, a great deal of what passes for "critical thinking" these days is nothing of the kind. A good grounding in classical logic, including a study of logical fallacies, is generally more useful.

Lewis, got it! You're in the contest.

10/31/11, 1:52 PM

John Michael Greer said...
A note to all -- I've got 46 entries in the peak oil short stories contest. That's considerably better than I expected, and by and large the quality has been very impressive. It's going to be hard to winnow it down to one book's worth of stories.

I'd like to encourage everyone who's still working on a story to post a link to it here in the next week or so; I've got a tentative acceptance from a publisher -- more on this soon -- and will begin selecting stories as soon as I get back from ASPO. (Well, to be fair, I've already chosen a few -- on first reading it was obvious that some of them were just too good not to include in the anthology.)

I'll announce this again, but if everyone who's submitted a story could please either post something here with your email and postal addresses -- don't worry, I won't put it through; I'll copy the info and delete -- that would be very helpful; those whose stories are selected are going to have a publishing contract to sign, and there'll also be editing to do. Many thanks!

10/31/11, 1:58 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

I haven't been following the occupy movement closely as I wanted to see what the general media was saying about it.

There are two main themes being reported in the media:
Violent protesters; and
Discomfort of the protesters.

It's fascinating that the media is avoiding the point of the protests. I also tend to think that the focus on the two issues above has the effect of putting pressure on the protesters via family and friends. Maybe I'm a cynic?



10/31/11, 4:23 PM

RainbowShadow said...
Greetings, me again, sorry to bother you.

I thought you might be interested in knowing that there's at least one person out there who shares your opinion that the OWS movement and the Tea Party are more similar than they think, rather than attacking either movement:

Take special note of his Venn Diagram, which is the real reason I brought this article up. He says the OWS movement is attacking big corporations, and the Tea Party's attacking big government, but the real "raccoon in the tree" is that both big institutions are in bed with each other.

Normally only fringe people like John Michael Greer are this reasonable, but this is a conservative Christian, and a Confederacy supporter no less, normally the type to go on a screaming, angry tirade about how the OWS movement is composed of lazy people who refuse to get jobs, and how of course THEY'RE childish and HE'S not, nyah nyah nyah nyah, commence tongue-sticking-out.

Maybe you're right, John Michael Greer, maybe there's hope for bridging opinions after all.

I'll see if I can find a Tea Party member to talk to that I could find common ground with as easily as I could find common ground with this guy.

10/31/11, 4:41 PM

Brother Kornhoer said...

One of my conversational points I use on people to prod their thinking on these topics is to point out that the way we live today was invented a very short time ago in human history. Nowadays, we all work for money and spend money to buy everything we need. But 75 years ago, my grandmother only participated in the money economy by selling eggs and butter on the weekend in the county seat. Otherwise, they grew their own food and made their own soap and clothes. Now, I'm not saying that 1935 in the American South was better. What I do suggest to my listeners is that our current environment is way more unnatural than we realize, and, if they look around, they can see for themselves that it's not working for most people - everyone's stressed over money, everyone's time is fully taken with work, shopping, and family obligations, many people have to carve out time for the basic exercise everyone needs, and no one has time for creativity.

Just a simple conversational point that does seem to work to get people reconsider the idea that what is now is what always was or what should be - a way to get the fish to realize it's living in a sea of water.

10/31/11, 4:49 PM

RainbowShadow said...
By the way, all, here's something anybody interested in binary thinking should be worried about:

This Texas gun safety owner refuses to sell guns to liberals, because he thinks anybody who voted for Obama cannot make rational decisions, and not to Muslims because all Muslims are engaged in a conspiracy to kill him personally. And instead of being written off as a tinfoil hat nut he's praised for that kind of language by his neighbors.

Let me paraphrase, if you didn't vote for this guy's party or follow his religion he will refuse to teach you how to not get killed.

Why do I bring this up? I bring this up because John Michael Greer can teach you all how to defend yourself from binary thinking, but at some point binary thinking is going to affect people you interact with every day, to the point where apparently some people will REFUSE TO PROVIDE YOU WITH SERVICES if you don't share his exact political opinion.

This political debate is going to personally affect your lives in potentially negative ways, not from your own binary thinking but from the binary thinking of other people, if guys like this gun safety teacher get any traction.

10/31/11, 6:31 PM

idiotgrrl said...
Blessed Samhain to everyone reading this blog. It was very enlightening to express my fears for where this descent will lead up to the shades of people born in 1911 and 1914! Let alone to THEIR parents! For my grandparents, it would be "So what else is new?"

But it was also a good time to acknowledge all the homely things my mother taught me, for which I am now grateful and trying to reclaim.

Blessed Be ...


10/31/11, 7:54 PM

Ruben said...
@ Tracy G, re: Voluntary Simplicity.

I think the voluntary part is a distraction. We don't describe ourselves as Voluntary Consumers or Voluntary Shoppers. Granted those things could be argued to be much less voluntary than choosing simplicity, but my point is, freedom of choice is assumed.

Voluntary seems to be trying to indicate a chosen path. Is it important to assert our path is chosen to separate ourselves from the run-of-the-mill poor folks? We are shabby by choice!

And then Simplicity. Except for a very few people who have a neurological disorder, I doubt many of us yearn for simplicity. We yearn for freedom from expectations, freedom from bills, freedom from work, independence from messy houses, liberation from chores. Do we say all those things because we really want more time to read books? That is a positive statement of desire--read more books. Maybe swim in the ocean every day.

Some might even disagree with a desire to be free. "After enlightenment, chop wood and haul water." So chores can be seen as a necessary part of a life well lived. Of course, that doesn't mean all the Buddhist monks are tagging their pictures in Facebook and assigning custom ringtones to each friend in their cellphone's address book. Some chores are just too much...

So maybe rather than saying we practise Voluntary Simplicity, we could say we are Buddhists, or snorkelers, or writers, or readers. Heck, just call yourself an artist.

10/31/11, 10:20 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Cherokee, I think it's a little more straightforward than that. The media is desperately trying to discourage other people from joining the protests, because -- especially but not only in America -- we're not that far from a Tahrir Square situation. It's a very common illusion that drastic political change can't happen here.

Rainbow, no need to apologize. That's interesting to hear -- but not surprising. As for the gun safety guy -- well, if he wants to lose my business and that of other people he doesn't like, he's welcome to do so, just as I don't patronize the folks who put the Jesus fish on their business ads to let other fundamentalists know that they're fundamentalists too.

Grrl, and a blessed Samhain to you as well!

11/1/11, 5:32 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Carlos (offlist), if you'd like a response, please include an email address.

11/1/11, 5:33 AM

Tracy G said...
Thanks, Ruben. Now, calling my self an artist would be a radical act indeed. And simple. I like it!

RainbowShadow's comment inevitably reminded me of the Kinky Friedman song "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service." Props to Mr. Keller, though, for his creativity in accepting so many forms of payment, including "cash, checks, credit cards, gold and silver, and used guns." I'm surprised MREs aren't on the list, although that might be negotiable.

11/1/11, 8:31 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Oh gosh, I'm late to this week's party.

Not sure what the proper greeting is--good samhain to all.

Re druidry: Am now puzzling over the idea of rituals.

Three weeks with no tv. DH taking his time about a new one. I keep mentioning how nice it is not to have one.

We call what we're doing at our house "permanent austerity," or "our permanent austerity program."

(In my life I have found that nothing is simple. On multiple levels.)

11/1/11, 9:13 AM

RainbowShadow said...
Tracy G., certainly.

Maybe I didn't express myself properly. My problem wasn't with Keller's right to refuse service, my problem was that his REASON for doing so could set a bad precedent that could affect the lives of everyone on this website, including Greer himself. And then that sort of attitude might spread to people who really DON'T have such a right to refuse service.

What would happen, for instance, if your mailman decided not to deliver your mail if you were an Archdruid instead of a "decent God-fearing Christian," because the mailman thinks druids worship The Dark Lord? Or in Tracy's case, what if your mailman was one of those idiots who thinks that artists are (insert least favorite homophobic slur here) and decides to not deliver your mail because he doesn't think you spending your time on art is "productive?"

I was more concerned about the potential ugly implications than I was about the specific case itself.

11/1/11, 9:33 AM

CE said...

Your comment regarding your son getting involved in an MLM reminded me of this great expose I ran across a few years ago. The two main problems with MLMs:

1) Exponential expansion. In order to recruit enough "downlines" to make a living, MLM sellers would eventually have to recruit every single person in the area -- and then who would buy the product? Please see

2) The second problem is that MLMs abuse personal relationships for commercial purposes.

I recommend the entire series of articles, which starts here:

11/1/11, 10:31 AM

Tracy G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

11/1/11, 11:42 AM

idiotgrrl said...
John - is this nonsense? I'm no kind of a geologist, only a bookkeeper.

Oil won't run out until 22nd century, experts say in Italy
Speculators want people to think supplies dwindling
01 September, 14:23

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(ANSA) - Trieste, September 1 - Oil is not about to run out, at least for another 130 years, experts in Italy have said.

Furthermore, new exploration and drilling methods being developed by scientists around the world will make it easier to find and exploit oil-fields, they said. The National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, which is running a two-day workshop here, thinks oil science will remain relevant for a while yet.

''A couple of years ago, it was estimated that world oil supplies would last 130 years,'' explained Italian geophysicist Aldo Vesnaver, who spends six months a year teaching Saudi researchers new extraction techniques. ''They will last longer. However, it is in speculators' interests to stoke public perception that oil is about to run out (in order to raise prices)''. The estimates are based on existing oil reserves, but multinationals are still prospecting for new oilfields, because privately produced oil supplies, not national ones, are running out, explained Vesnaver, who is presenting a new technique for measuring underground deposits thanks to micro earthquakes.

''Oil is produced using two wells, one for extraction and one for pumping high pressure water,'' he explained.

''This causes tiny fractures in the rock, which can be sounded out using highly sensitive seismographs. Studying these subterranean creaks can tell us a lot about the size of the deposit.'' The same technique can be used to measure how much gas can be pumped from a deposit. Researchers from around the world, including Brazil, France, Pakistan, Slovakia, Saudi Arabia and the United States, are attending the workshop, as well as representatives from the National Iranian South Oil Company and Saudi Aramco. Another hot topic is hydrated gas. Made essentially of frozen methane, it is capturing worldwide scientific attention, because it could be the key to an almost inexhaustible new natural gas supply.

11/1/11, 12:36 PM

Hal said...
JMG, I'm frankly disappointed in your reply to RainbowShadow. I routinely do business with people who I know have extremely differing views on religion and politics than I do. Some whose views I view as downright dangerous to the country and our future. But I still make a point to maintain a relationship with them, including business. For one thing, I think if I applied a purity test, there wouldn't be a whole lot of people to do business with around here. It's part of the territory. But what good would it do If I could? Would my aim be to hurt them? To make them weaker? Comes across as mighty tribal, and, well, binary to me.

It's as much in my interest as theirs to be part of a mutually-dependant community. I would rather patronize local businesses than national ones regardless of the positions on the issues. Sure, I know some of the national chains might have some pretty progressive positions, might contribute to environmental causes or have recycling programs, for instance. But which have more long-term sustainablilty, more resiliency?

Oh, and the fish doesn't necessarily mean fundie. It's a universal Xian symbol, and heck, I can sympathise with anything a retailer does these days to get a little margin in the market.

11/1/11, 1:16 PM

LewisLucanBooks said...
@ RainbowShadow & Tracy G - Talk about binary thinking. A lot of people in my little corner of the world won't shop in my bookstore as it (and I) are perceived as liberal. As I pointed out in a dust up on one of the local forums, a good cookbook or good gardening book is neither liberal nor conservative.

Also, my "politics" are all over the place, depending on topic. Interestingly enough, the guy I had the dust up with makes his living running gun safety classes and provides expert testimony in court cases.

Oh, well, Three months and I am out of here!

11/1/11, 2:59 PM

Randall said...
I have posted a slightly revised version of my story "Autumn Night" at Thank you, Randall S. Ellis

11/1/11, 3:51 PM

Edward said...
Thanks all!

This post and discussion has mainly focused on the macro social arena such as politics and the media. But this discussion also has given me some tools to deal with some difficult people in my life. These individuals are experts at presenting a binary choice along with a barrage of emotions in order to get what they want. I recognized this as soon as I read the post. Until now, I didn't quite understand the process. Now it's clear to me and if I watch my emotions, I'll be able to deal with the situations much better. I'm not so much intending to confute them, but it would be nice to help them see another way out of their own dilemmas and avoid getting myself dragged down in the mud.

11/1/11, 5:59 PM

Unknown said...
I read this piece this morning and then ran into this podcast that SO makes the point.

11/1/11, 6:46 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrian, "nothing is simple" makes a useful theme for meditation! Glad to hear of your steps toward a less mediated life, too.

Grrl, it's not merely nonsense, it's meretricious nonsense. It's amazing what codswallop the media will print. All the factors they've named in the article have been taken into account in peak oil analyses for years.

Hal, I prefer to do business with people who don't think that their religion justifies denying me the freedom to practice mine. The vast majority of the fundamentalist Christians with whom I've discussed the matter insist that pagan nature religions should not be protected by Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion; the excuses vary but the sentiment remains the same, and I see no point in buying goods and services from people who will donate part of my money to churches that want to take my rights away.

The great majority of Christians, by contrast, understand that their freedom of religion depends ultimately on everyone having that freedom, or simply grasp the point of the old adage "live and let live." I deal with them every day, and have no problem patronizing their businesses. In my experience, though, they don't tack the fish onto their business signs.

Randall, got it!

Edward, excellent! Yes, that's another aspect of ternary thinking; I've focused on the social and political dimension, for reasons that will doubtless be obvious, but it also has a great deal of relevance to interpersonal and personal experience as well.

Unknown, true enough. Thanks for the link!

11/1/11, 8:22 PM

John Wheeler said...
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who finish what they start

11/1/11, 10:14 PM

Jeffrey said...
I thoroughly enjoyed this thread and slowly read through all the comments. One of the early posts by Derv really struck a nerve with me.


I know that you covered this in your previous essay talking about how appealing to nonrational desires is uniquely unsuited for achieving a rational effect. But call me an elitist, I have always considered rational humanity to be a small subset of the general populace. Our efforts in the US, over the course of two hundred years of trying to create an informed, politically rational populace, have failed miserably (though you may argue thaumaturgy has much to do with that).

It's not that I don't admire the idea of everyone behaving rationally; rather, I agree that it is by far the best option if it were doable. I just think that it's wildly, wildly unrealistic to think you'd ever have more than a small minority of people actually thinking and acting rationally. These concepts are fairly deep, even if intuitively grasped, and as you've said they need to be more than simply conceived of to have an effect.

I see the knowledge I gain personally as being secondary to how to move society at large toward awareness of the entrapment of binary thinking and mass psychosis. The past posts on television only underscores this.
Like Derv I don't want to sound elitist but a huge segment of the population isn't ever going to grasp what we discuss here which means that without some attempt at "benevolent control" we are doomed. And this raises the question of to what purpose do we as individuals gain the knowledge of the mechanisms that influence society into dysfunction if we don't apply these to having a better control of the narrative.

Ultimately wont thaumaturgy inevitability be applied? Don't we have to set boundaries of consumption and population for example within a dogma of some future theology or societal taboos?

Simply because there always will be that 70% 0r greater of society that will not question authority and the status quo and who will choose to stay asleep.

Once again, what a wonderful thread and community here contributing to this most enlightening topic. Thanks to all.

11/2/11, 12:34 AM

John Wheeler said...
@grrl, JMG:
One key part of Hubbert's theory is that the peak occurs at the point when half the resource is extracted. Since it took a century and a half to get to this point, I think it is entirely reasonable to expect that 130 years from now, there will some wells somewhere pumping out a few barrels of oil a day. At that point, though, it will be so expensive that the thought of burning it will be as ridiculous as burning diamonds.

11/2/11, 2:18 AM

hawlkeye said...
Meretricious codswallop! Yaw, and I shall certainly get some mileage out of that one!

I'm only slightly less fond of the phrase found in the last sentence of the Italian article, spoken by the geo-conjurer: "almost inexhaustible". Almost elegant in its bogus binariousness.

Something that's inexhaustible is something that never runs out. And "almost" means slightly less than that, just a little bit exhaustible. Kind of like a partial pregnancy.

So when exactly does this side of never almost actually happen? Oh, never mind, have another Twinkie...

There is so much smoke billowing from these bozos, it's easy to miss all the mirrors. Some mad trickster could give all the neighbors a nudge downhill by clipping all their cable-umbilicals some dark and stormy night.

My favorite Jesus fish is the big one eating the little one. Wonderful, yet I'm guessing unintended, Darwinian irony. One antidote is to take two fish, and stick them facing one another (especially if one is the UFO fish) then they look like a pair of eyes staring back. Like God.

Just to mess up the memes a little bit...

11/2/11, 5:46 AM

Julie said...
It takes my old brain at least three readings and all week to pretty much "get" the gist of your posts. And I am always left a bit wiser. I particularly like this post and wish I could share it with those I love. Maybe someday soon I'll get to the point where I can read the comments as well but I think I detected a bit of binary thinking in them and I am trying to limit my exposure ;-))

11/2/11, 7:52 AM said...
Rainbow Shadow, I appreciate the referral, and I’ll pass it along to my son if he’s interested, but my problem with my critical thinking course was that it was nothing of the sort. It was only intended to force me into black vs. white thinking in a concrete way. I had great difficulty with it because there is ALWAYS a line of grey between black and white. And an infinite number of shadings within that grey. The course did not allow for the grey at all, let alone all the shadings within it. It was a most disappointing start to nursing school. I was thankful when it was over.
And believe me, I have a natural gift for visualizing things running their natural course to the final outcome in an instant, which since I do NOT have the gift of tact means that I tend to really p!$$ people off when they try to foist their ideas on me (especially overbearing low level managers). They don’t want to know that their logic is flawed, they don’t want to know there’s another option, they just want people to follow along.
JMG, you are so very right! My grandparents were the middle class success story – children of large families, lived through the depression, made good in the fifties. They often had cardboard covering the holes in the soles of their shoes when they were young but they always had books. That love of books and reverence for classical literature is one of the things they passed on to me. I grew up reading basically anything I could get my hands on, from pulp fiction to Aristotle. My mother was a master debater; she would make us argue a point to exhaustion and then make us argue the very point we were just defending against! I used to absolutely HATE that about her but looking back it was some of the best training in logic I could have gotten. I think these two things were what gave me the basic grounding in critical thinking – becoming an adult and a parent is what brought it to flower though.
I don’t patronize those businesses either, and for the same reasons. I am lucky though in that there *are* other places to shop that don’t necessarily involve big box stores.
CE, thank you for the links. I don’t hold out much hope at this point; his brother and sister in law as well as his wife are all completely involved and that is how he got involved. I told him it was like a religion and he actually agreed with me. And worse yet, he was OK with that! I guess he needed a community. Too bad he chose one that will only impoverish him, both spiritually and monetarily.

11/2/11, 9:33 AM

Zach said...
Here's the first part of my story attempt:

Now, I have to practice some of that "exercising the will" and get the rest of it out of my head and posted ASAP ...


11/2/11, 9:48 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

I feel for you, having to undergo such a miserable "critical thinking" experience. I too think non-linearly but got training in analytical thinking and logic when in college and then later when teaching rhetoric (and...critical thinking--different from your course :)). Now I switch back and forth as needed, which is pretty handy. It sounds like you got beneficial training from your mom.

What you "learned" doesn't seem to fit my experience as a student or teacher. In my experience, good critical thinkers are practiced at moving beyond the binary and the best can move into the realm of understanding things holistically as well as analytically--as in, I think, systems theory and analysis.

This multi-modal kind of thought, I would guess, is what a good nurse would have to do--and sounds like what you do.

Sorry to hear about your son.

11/2/11, 12:56 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

JMG, a past blog entry said that one of the indications of the catabolic process is a decline in the quality of manufactured goods accompanied by a rise in prices. You cited cast iron cookware as an example.

I confirmed this with a trip to an antique store that happened to be selling off a collection of nineteenth century cast iron skillets. I bought one for about the same price as new, and yes, it is smoother.

I ran across another example in the October issue of Consumer Reports. Pyrex cookware used to be made of borosilicate glass, the same material used for laboratory beakers. Pyrex and the equivalent Anchor Hocking product are now being made of soda lime glass. According to the article, it appears that there has been a rise in accidents where the pans and cups shatter explosively, throwing sharp shards in every direction. There are no statistics, but the article cites a senior scientific glassblower who says that borosilicate glass is safer than any other glass for hot liquids.

Changing the formulation in this way while selling the product under the same brand name strikes me as bordering on fraud.

11/2/11, 2:27 PM

dltrammel said...
Just a bit of clarification please JMG, stories in by tomorrow's post, or next week's?

I'll admit to having my submission on the back burner, my bad. Tomorrow is a no go, but I can have it finished by next week sure thing.

11/2/11, 5:33 PM

ETNAC said...
I thank you on a very nicely written article on the importance of being cognizant of the dualistic culture the West has muddled itself in.

I am a relatively new reader to your articles and have found your style and subject matter very interesting. Speaking along the same lines, have you familiar with Alfred Korzybski's works? I am studying Science and Sanity and in it the Non-Aristotelian model is very much elaborated on. The non-dual perspective the he speaks about I have found has only helped me in having more sane outlook on myself and reality.

Please keep up with the thought stimulating posts.

11/7/11, 2:33 PM

Charles Elliott/Beautyseer said...
True, binary thinking seems to paralyze us now. Why must opposites be thought to be mutually destructive rather than complementaary asspects of one wholeness? "Binary Bind":

12/17/11, 3:49 PM

--Karen H said...
John, thank you for this post and for your blog in general (I've had some time lately to read your older posts). The exercise in non-binary thinking is one that I've posed to others: "You say that you think outside of the box, and that your opponent can think only inside of his. Have you ever thought that perhaps there is no box at all?" The increasing energy put into binary thinking in the past decade and more has been increasingly distressful to me, because it seems this emphasis is what keeps us from coming to any kind of practical solution to the problems facing us. It's so refreshing to see someone who can think "between and around" ideas. :-)

7/3/12, 4:40 PM

isomorphismes said...
The more complex classifications that the reasoning mind can use, though, admit of a great deal of middle ground

Halfway in between, a bit of both, or neither/nor. All three alternatives came up in mid-20th century logics (fuzzy,, Kleene 4-valued, k_3^S).

In my opinion this is why group theory is interesting: especially post-classification of finite simple groups, maybe we now have a complete list of the ways things can be related to each other, period.

7/24/13, 11:24 PM

isomorphismes said...
Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume. Take any political debate you care to name; inevitably, there are possible choices more extreme than either of the two sides, as well as choices in the space in between, and still other choices that aren’t in the same continuum at all. Ternary thinking helps you pop out of the binary mode long enough to see this.

I could draw another parallel between this way of thinking and negotiation or bargaining advice. One of the tricks mentioned over and over again in for example is: if the conflict seems to be binary/ zero-sum (you get more = I get less), find a way to bring more terms to the table. In mathematical terms if we're arguing over how to divide a fixed pie ( then I'm looking for an orthogonal dimension to add in so hopefully the conflict will not be head-to-head.

I think you can see this in the choice of party planks ( as well, although in a 2-party system with perfect knowledge of voter preferences it becomes about choosing which combination of dimensions can be credibly brought together to create the right majorities across voting districts (president, congressional districts,etc) i.e. defining new binaries and Jenga-like fitting a platform together, whereupon you and your opposite party are going to (Binarily) box each other.

7/24/13, 11:36 PM

isomorphismes said...
the ternary way out

I can think of another way to undo the binary thinking, although maybe this falls under "Recognising binarism".

That is what I call "obverse words"--different sides of the same coin, or denoting the same thing but connoting different emotional charges on the part of the speaker. Your jingoism is my patriotism; I think you're no fun and you think I'm reckless; and so on.

7/24/13, 11:45 PM

isomorphismes said...
If you try to work with ternaries when you’ve still got a great deal of emotion and personal identity invested in binary thought patterns, for example, you’re probably going to fall into a binary between the abstract concepts of binary and ternary thinking, see ternary thinking as “food” and “nonpredator” and binary thinking as “nonfood” and “predator,” and pile on the binary reactions while convincing yourself that you’ve transcended them.

Do you think that these binary categories really result from "raw experience"--or are they verbal, symbolic; derived from the status-based overconfidence and Mandarin mis-sophistication that comes with the transition to writing culture and education via words rather than experience itself?

7/24/13, 11:56 PM

isomorphismes said...
The same logic applies to plenty of other binaries in circulation these days. Think of the number of times you’ve heard people insist that doing without some specific technology we use these days is equivalent to doing without all technology, and going back to living in caves.

Isn't this more the problem with slippery slope arguments than the problem with binary categorisation?

There's definitely a similarity in trying to oversimplify what one's rhetorical opponent is saying (in order to "win"), but I see these two as rightly distinct.

7/25/13, 12:04 AM

antivenin said...
The importance of this post should not be overlooked in my opinion.I see binary and ternary thought as modes of thought much like second and third gear are to a car. It seems to me that the predominant mode of thought used by a population directs that populations activities and therefore the probable range of outcomes of that populations thoughts and activities. Being stuck in second gear is limiting to greater speed in a car. Likewise, being stuck in binary thought mode is limiting to greater opportunities and awareness as a thinking species. The advantages of ternary thinking are mainly protective to the individual with respect to social thinking and can then lead to greater acceptance and adoption by the whole due to the demonstrated superiority of the nature of it with respect to certain more advanced and complex aspects of human social life.

7/27/14, 8:50 AM

sarah lucy said...
I see the knowledge I gain personally as being secondary to how to move society at large toward awareness of the entrapment of binary thinking and mass psychosis. The past posts on television only underscores this.
Like Derv I don't want to sound elitist but a huge segment of the population isn't ever going to grasp what we discuss here which means that without some attempt at "benevolent control" we are doomed. And this raises the question of to what purpose do we as individuals gain the knowledge of the mechanisms that influence society into dysfunction if we don't apply these to having a better control of the narrative.
does auto binary signals work

5/6/16, 12:29 PM