The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a dichotomy as “a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.”
If we were playing chess, for example, you would either be black or white. If you were black, then I would be white, and vice versa. There is no ambiguity about it. The simplicity of it appeals to our minds because it provides a neat and tidy solution to a dilemma.
Many people like to make statements and arguments that present a dichotomy, then proceed to demolish the other position, thereby leaving their chosen position the only logical choice to make.
Reality, however, is not quite so neat and tidy. If one digs deeper, one can find alternatives other than the arguments presented. Hollywood director, Ridley Scott, once said, “Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”
Heroes and Villains
I believe we acquired this black-and-white thinking from the stories of our childhood where characters are neatly divided into heroes and villains – Prince Charming vs. the Witch-Queen, or the X-Men vs. the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or Dora vs. Swiper, or Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort and so on.
Look at Filipino soap operas which usually features a rich and bitchy amo (master or mistress) vs. the poor, downtrodden servant or employee.
These stories have conditioned our minds to think that people are either good or evil. Some Catholic bishops have used this in their Team Patay – Team Buhay campaign, cleanly (and unfairly, if I may add) dividing political candidates solely based on their position in the RH Bill.
These are false dichotomies and we must be wary about them. Learn to look for alternatives. Life is usually not just about two choices but many more. Just because a person has made bad decisions in the past does not mean he is a bad person. But we are often so comfortable with black and white thinking or we are simply too lazy or judgmental and we rarely think outside the box anymore.
Pascal’s Wager (And What’s Wrong With It)
French Mathematician and Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, made a statement known as Pascal’s Wager which goes like this: Either God exists or he doesn’t. If God actually exists, then believers have infinitely more to gain (eternal life) and nonbelievers have infinitely more to lose (eternal punishment). However, if God does not exist, both believers and nonbelievers will have lost only something finite (some temporary pleasure or gain in this life). Since there is greater gain in believing in God, it makes more sense to believe in Him than not to.
Many people still use this kind of thinking to justify belief in God. But let me show you why this is a false dichotomy and why the choice may not be as simple as you think.
First, it assumes the word “God” refers to the Christian definition of God (as Pascal was reportedly a Christian). But what if in reality, “God” is not the Christian God at all and the Muslims happen to be right, or the Deists, or Hindus, or Pantheists, or Zoroasters, or the ancient Greeks? Then you would still go to whatever “hell” this god has decided because you placed your bet on the wrong one.
Second, it assumes that the afterlife refers to a Christian view of the afterlife (heaven or hell). But what if it were the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and Nirvana? What if the ancient Chinese have it right and that you would bring your riches with you? They make and burn model houses and paper money so that the one who died would have these comforts in heaven. Or what if there were no afterlife at all and this life we have is our only shot?
The appeal of a dichotomy is that it makes thinking easier because you only have to analyze between two alternatives, but it is often not a reflection of reality.
Worry and Faith
I saw a Facebook meme going around a few of my friends’ walls which says, “There isn’t enough room in your mind for worry and faith. You must decide which one will live there.”
Sounds like a perfectly good quote to “like”. But I replied on one wall and said, “Reason, please show both of them out the door.”
Life offers so much more than two choices, and for that I am glad.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.
Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may either email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t treat him for lunch.