I vaguely remember as a child that one of the ways to learn new words and get some understanding of their meaning was to learn pairs of words that were opposites. White and black, day and night, left and right, and endless pairs were presented. But in making learning easier for children, this model of how words work makes learning harder for adults.
There are ideas that people insist on seeing as opposites – more of one dictates less of the other. They can be far from opposite but it is difficult for people to abandon this relationship. It seems that a mechanism we have for words is making our understanding of reality more difficult. An example is economy and environment. The notion that what is good for the environment has to be bad for the economy and vice versa is not strictly true because there are actions that are good for both and actions that are bad for both, as well as the actions that favour only one. We do not seem to look for the win-win actions and even distrust people who do try.
Another pair is nurture against nature or environment against genetics. These are very simply not opposites, really, they are not even a little bit so. Almost every feature of our bodies is under the overlapping control of our genetics and our environment. They are interwoven factors. And, it is not just our current environment but our environmental history and also that of our parents and sometimes our grandparents that is mixed in with our genetics.
In thinking about our thoughts and actions, opposites just keep being used. We are given a picture of our heads as venues for various parts of our minds to engage in wars and wrestling matches. We can start with an old one: mind versus brain or non-material mental versus material neural dualism. This opposition is almost dead but its ghost walks still. Some people divide themselves at the neck and ask whether the brain controls the body or does the body control the brain – and they appear to actually want a clear-cut answer. There is the opposition we inherited from Freud: a thought process that is conscious and one that is unconscious presented as two opposed minds (or three in the original theory). This separation is still with us, although it has been made more reasonable in the form of system1 and system2 thinking. System2 uses working memory and is therefore registered in consciousness. It is slow, takes effort, is limited in scope and is sequential. System1 does not use working memory and therefore does not register in consciousness. It is fast, automatic, can handle many inputs and is not sequential. These are not separate minds but interlocking processes. We use them both all the time and not in opposition. But they are often presented as opposites.
Recently, there has been added a notion that the hemispheres of the brain can act separately and in opposition. This is nonsense – the two hemispheres complement each other and cooperate in their actions. But people seem to love the idea of one dominating the other and so it does not disappear.
It would be easier to think about many things without the tyranny of some aspects of language, like opposites, that we learn as very young children and have to live with for the rest of our lives. The important danger is not when we name the two ends of a spectrum, but when we name two states as mutually exclusive, they had better actually be so or we will have problems. It is fine to label a spectrum from left-handed to right-handed but if they were opposites then all the levels of ambidextrous handedness would be a problem. The current problem with the rights of LBGT would be less if the difference between women and men was viewed as a complex of a few spectra rather than a single pair of opposites.
Neuroscience and psychology need to avoid repeatedly falling into opposite-traps. It still has too many confusions, errors, things to be discovered, dots to be connected and old baggage to be discarded.
Thanks Judith for the use of your image