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Binary and Manichaean Thinking

Digital technology — computer circuitry – works with a series of switches that turn circuit flow off or circuit flow on, 0 for off and 1 for on. Computers are built on a lot of 0s and 1s, binary numbers – human inventions. Formal debates involve binary thinking: a proposition, complex or simple, is accepted or rejected, yes or no, zero or one. But we are not limited to a binary response. We have maybe yes, maybe no, and the agnostic I don't know.

"Manichaean," is an adjective that refers to binary thought: the reduction of ideas as opposites. It's generally overly-simplistic. (Manichaeism is named after the Iranian prophet Mani, who held to a dualistic cosmology describing a struggle between the spiritual world of light and the evil material world of darkness.)

An example of Manichaean thinking applied to politics is the division of economic systems between the me of capitalism and the we of socialism. This is not serious thought among economists, but we have a few who think of an economic system as either capitalist or socialist – as if they had never heard of what economists call a "mixed economy." (Adam Smith, of course, was not binary regarding individualism and collectivism. He saw free market economics as serving both individual and collective interests.)

Manichaean thinking also appears among at least a few Christians. Occasionally, if we watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network, we might be told of the righteousness of Jehovah God on one side and the immorality of those who willfully His laws.

The Manichaean thinker believes he is choosing between good and evil. Others might see themselves surrounded by a world of imperfection and forced to choose as best they can with limited information.


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