You have to draw the line somewhere… (part 1)

I have friends who are ardently against digital recordings, feeling that analogue recordings (tapes or vinyl) reproduce sound far better than does digital recording – and I fancy they may well be right, though my own hearing is no longer sufficiently acute (or practiced) to convert me to their camp, particularly given the vast convenience of digital recordings. Some of them blame computers, which (at least so far) are resolutely digital devices, having grown up from what were initially a modest number of logical “gates” which were always either “on” or “off”. In the prehistory of computing, those were mechanical, then they became valves, then transistors, and these days are the equivalent of vast arrays of transistors all on a tiny sliver of silicon. Those friends yearn for something more analogue, which they imagine to be more like we are ourselves. Biologicals against computers…

And yet I find that it is not just the convenience of having pieces of kit which deliver yes/no answers to everything  which is “at fault” (of course those include answers which are very long strings of Y/N, binary numbers, such as 001011011001011101001000, which when long enough give an illusion of being analogue); we have developed, in our language and in particular our logic, our own binary predisposition.

It’s not the computers – it’s us.

In order to define anything, we define what it is not – a binary opposition. If you think back to your schooldays, the archetypal essay question started “compare and contrast…” It seems we rarely know what a thing IS until we can work out what it is NOT.

Western logic, at least, has the principle of the “excluded middle” – a thing is either A or not-A, there is no middle ground. OK, some Western philosophy has attempted to move beyond that – postmodern philosophy, in particular, is keen on the ideas of “excess” or “remainder” . In my eyes, it does not deal with these in a particularly comprehensible manner,  though in conscience that may merely be a reflection of my own tendencies to black and white thinking; Eastern philosophy has, perhaps, done it better (and earlier) as witness Peter Adamson’s podcast on Nagarjuna’s tetralemma. (Nagarjuna was a Buddhist philosopher of approximately the second century CE).

In brief, the tetralemma initially acknowledges that there are actually four answers to “is this X?”; “Yes”; “No”; “Neither yes nor no”; and “Both yes and no”. Nagarjuna, however, then goes on to argue strongly that, actually, none of these is the case in a plethora of instances. He would no doubt have loved the app which (to make a philosophical point) leads you to the conclusion that you don’t know what “soup” is.

In the West, however, philosophers have been arguing about when a trickle of sand onto a surface makes a “heap” or a “pile” for millennia. I’ve been present when people have argued quite loudly as to whether turquoise is blue or green – they may have been helped by Nagarjuna to come up with the answer “both and neither”. In fact, it’s a range on the spectrum of visible light between about 490 and about 520 nanometres, and you can expect arguments as to exactly where those dividing lines are… and they are arbitrary. They would be arbitrary even if the range were between (say) 505 nm and 506 nm. Nanometres are themselves arbitrary divisions.

This tendency has lead to some significant theological problems, among other things. “What is God?”, for instance, given the general impulse to apply superlatives to describing God. “God is all in all”, for instance. If there is no “not God” to contrast God against, how do we even start to conceptualise what-it-is-that-is-God? This is a particular problem for the panentheist or pantheist, for whom God is radically omnipresent, but also for anyone taking omnipresence really seriously.

In a linked example, Sam Harris here explores with a Buddhist contemplative, inter alia, the issue of how to talk of mystical and contemplative experience of God, given the dissolution of the sense of boundary between the self and other, highlighting the difference between Advaita Vedanta (which talks of union of the self with the all) and Buddhism (which talks of the self becoming nothing, and the all as being void).

(Part 2 will look at law and politics, with some further nods to religion).

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