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Binary and quantum thinking.

Column: Chapters| Alan Macfarlane.








MY WHOLE EDUCATION, both that in the formal setting of schools and universities, and in the more important informal setting of being brought up in a British family, has made me a binary thinker. What I mean is that I look at the world through a system of paired oppositions, a digital yes/no, on/off system of thought. These oppositions occur in every aspect of my life.

‘I’ am complete and do not overlap with any others except, vary partially, through love and friendship. I am alone and self-sufficient, ‘Others’ are totally distinct.

In terms of identity, I think of Myself/Others as opposed and totally different. ‘I’ am complete and do not overlap with any others except, vary partially, through love and friendship. I am alone and self-sufficient, ‘Others’ are totally distinct. The same is true of gender identity. I am distinctly male and nothing about me overlaps with females. I am British, different from any other ‘race’.

In terms of religion, I was brought up as a Christian, which contains numerous binary ideas. There are the Saved (of which I am fortunately one) and the Rest – the Damned. There is God and there is Satan. There is Good and there is Evil. There is Heaven and there is Hell. There is Sin and there is Salvation.

The same is the case with what we learn of the world. There is Truth and there is Falsehood. There are accurate statements and there are lies. There are beautiful things and there are ugly things. There are provable ‘facts’ and unprovable assertions. There are logical propositions and there are illogical arguments.

The same is the case in the way the world is arranged. There is Humankind created in God’s image, and there are, entirely separate, the animals and plants over which humans have dominion. Culture, which only humans have, is opposed to Nature.

In terms of metaphysics, there is this material world and there is another, largely unknowable, super-material or supernatural world which, as I grew up, became increasingly distant until it almost vanished.

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I could go on with an almost endless set of assumed and unexamined binaries: left and right, black and white, hot and cold. They stretched even down to political parties – conservative and radical, Conservative and Labour. My daily life at Cambridge was lived partly in opposition to Oxford, as my life throughout school had been between opposition teams or individual players, between our house and others, our school and others. Even law, which was based on confrontational oppositions of crime and non-crime, prosecutor and prosecuted, and also economics, based on a competitive and a confrontational market model, enshrined these binaries. It was from birth a confrontational and opposed world which I inhabited where each element gained its meaning from its exact opposite.

These oppositions are so deeply inside me that I could not see them. They derive, of course, from three thousand years of the history of my western civilization. As I learnt about Greek philosophy and literature and as I studied Roman thought, binary logic was at the root of the system. They were reinforced by the monotheistic religions, whose one God, whether Jehovah, the Christian God, or Allah was the One and only true deity – the rest being false. So, the heavy influence of Christianity on my language, culture and all my institutions, and even of Arabic thought as it became influential during the medieval period, pushed me in this direction.

These early foundations were laid and then built on by the developments of the last thousand years. The Renaissance did not challenge this binary thinking and the Scientific Revolution, with its emphasis on the pursuit of hidden laws and Truth, and its increasing separation of the material from the spiritual worlds increased the binaries even further. The Protestant Reformation of northern Europe was strongly based on binaries – the oppositions between Saved and Damned, this World and the Next, Protestants against Catholics. The thought of Francis Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume and most western philosophers through to the nineteenth century assumed a binary world. So, did the emerging philosophies of the social sciences from the Enlightenment through to the founders of modern western sociology in the later nineteenth century.

Then in the twentieth century this binary thought became the basis for the great breakthroughs in technology, a digital world of on/off, yes/no, and the culmination of Newtonian physics in Einstein’s theories. The computing revolution surrounds us with a binary cloud.

It is not easy to know when and why I came to question this whole world view. As a child, I had known that things were not so water-tight, that animals could speak, and that there were invisible forces all around me. Yet this was systematically expunged through my education. I was to put away such ‘childish’ thoughts, even though I kept it alive as much as I could right to the end of my undergraduate days by readings children’s stories, myths and legends and a good deal of poetry. Poetry was a particularly strong element in this non-binary thinking, particularly the blurring of boundaries in the English Romantic poets, as well as those after them such as Tennyson, Hopkins and Yeats.

A part of me which was unsatisfied with binary thought began to come alive again when I spent a year in Nepal among people who lived in a non-binary world.

A part of me which was unsatisfied with binary thought began to come alive again when I spent a year in Nepal among people who lived in a non-binary world. A Gurung village in 1968 in the Himalayas was filled with both material and immaterial life, wish godlings, ghosts, witches, hidden forces and powers. There was no real division between Heaven and Hell, or this world and the next. There was no monotheism. To my amazement you could simultaneously believe in, and do the rituals, related to Hindu, Buddhist Shamanic and Ancestral entities. There was no legal, economic or political system based on competitive oppositions. Everyone seemed to feel part of others. A child was part of his or her parents, a villager was part of a village. The boundaries between people, animals and spirits were absent.

I never analysed this at the time, but re-visiting the village almost every year from 1986 for sixteen years, and thus participating in a non-binary world, was a constant shock. It was such a huge contrast to my life when I returned to England.

The Gurungs were just a small, marginal, remote and perhaps vanishing world. They were similar to many others which were not based on binary logic about which as I read and taught across Australia, New Guinea, South America or Africa. Yet but all of these were relics, survivals, vanishing worlds. They were based on philosophies which would be extinguished by the superior logic and technology of the West. So, I could keep my Gurung experience in a different mental compartment. It was a curiosity but did not challenge my assumptions or paradigm.

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-do, ken-do, su-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

In fact, our whole binary classification system, embedded in historical and sociological training, with its oppositions of Community and Association, Status and Contract, Feudal and Capitalist, Rural and Urban, Family and non-family, Mechanical and Organic solidarity and much more has to be abandoned when faced with Japanese reality. I found Japan to be as non-binary as the tribal worlds which I had read about or experienced. Even Japanese politics, law and economy could not be understood within western binary categories.

Again, this experience from half a dozen visits and deep conversations with very close Japanese friends gave me a sense of something non-binary. Yet I could again pigeon-hole Japan as an odd exception, an outlier, almost another planet as some observers from the West had described it. My world was not shaken by it. When you entered Japan’s looking glass reversals and impossible hybrids, like Alice, you suspended disbelief and learnt to think in its ways as much as you could. Yet, when you left the magic and, like Alice, returned to your normal, logical, binary life, as if nothing had happened.

Thus, I was long prepared by smaller encounters for what I would finally discover in a way that has changed my life. This change occurred when I started to visit China seriously from 2002. China cannot be pigeon-holed or put on one side as a peripheral curiosity. It contains a fifth of the world’s population If you take the Sinosphere, that is the heavily-influenced cultures around it, including Vietnam, Burma, Tibet, Korea and Japan, it encompasses between a quarter and a third of the world’s population. It has the deepest continuous history of any civilization on earth. Any lingering belief that you can ignore it because it of its isolation, poverty and fragmentation has disappeared as it re-emerges as the largest, most important, and most advanced civilization on earth. It returns to the position it held for all but two hundred years of the last two thousand years.

I’D BEEN WORKING  in China for fifteen years, with yearly visits and deep conversations with my Chinese friends and doctoral students, before, when I started to write my book Understanding the Chinese; A Personal A-Z (2020) in November 2018, it finally dawned on me why China was both so difficult to understand, yet, in another way easy to do so when you stopped trying to fit it into western categories. As I was forced to make explicit in writing, my half-found thoughts and disconnected ideas of the previous years since our first visit in 1996, I suddenly saw what was so obvious that it was hitherto invisible.

China is not based on binary logic. It is, like Japan, based on Both/And. This was staring me in the face in Confucian thought, which stresses relationships and not individual entities. It is at the centre of Daoist thought, which merges the natural and the cultural and dates back to ancient shamanic ideas symbolised in the idea of yin/yang. This pair is not opposed, but the two are complementary. Each one also contains the other, and they are constantly fluctuating and changing into each other.

Another example, of which I have only recently begun to realize the importance, is that Chinese writing bridges two of the senses which western alphabetic writing and other forms of art separate. The ancient Chinese half picture-writing pictographs or logographs simultaneously bring information to the eye, like painting, and to the ear, like alphabetic writing. Leonardo realized this division in his famous remark pointing out that painting is dumb, and writing is blind. This is not the case in China. Categories are blurred in the very basic operation of ‘reading’ and indeed speaking where there are other overlaps with which I am not familiar, for example in Chinese there are no separate words for blue and green.

It became apparent also as I began to understand a little more about the Chinese variant of Buddhism, known as Chan Buddhism. When it was exported from the monastery we visited several times in southern China, and with whose re-founder, a remarkable nun called Master Yang-Li, this form of Buddhism was origin of the largest of the Chan or Zen sects, Soto Zen, in Japan. There, where it has been more analysed, it is famously non-binary. The constant paradoxes and mental puzzles in Zen are designed to break down binary, strictly logical, thought. All strong divisions – Truth and Falsehood, Reality and Non-Reality, Material and Spiritual, this life and the next, are wiped away. When this nun, along with two other leading Buddhist abbots independently told me that I am in fact Chinese and a Rinpoche, or re-incarnation of the Buddha, I am tempted to half-believe this and to feel that I had received a new enlightenment. I become both dead and alive for ever, like Schrödinger’s cat.

As I finally grasped the fact that my binary thought system was only one way of approaching the world, I discovered two further things. One was that, even within the West, I was brought up in an extreme, Protestant, form of binary thinking. The acquaintance I had with Catholic civilization through visits to the Continent, through teaching Mediterranean anthropology, through studying some of the French structuralist thinkers and examining the history of Europe, suggested that much European thought is halfway between my very extreme binary thinking, and Asian non-binary thinking. I discovered that many in France, Italy, Span and even the East of Europe, do not have the strong oppositions I have been brought up in. They live in a world of saints, miracles, magic, the intertwining of forces of a kind which my ancestors in England and Scotland swept away as superstitious nonsense and dangerous, Papist, nonsense at that. The Catholic communion is a symbol of this – the wine being changed to blood, the bread to flesh.

The final thought I have had for the moment, though I feel this is a seam that will bring new discoveries, was the realization that my discovery was very similar to the discovery of an alternative philosophy from the 1920s, a radical departure in thinking about how our universe is constructed and the deepest laws of physics. This is the quantum revolution, most easily put into one sentence by the story of Schrodinger’s imagined cat, both alive and dead at the same time. The basis of this revolution was the discovery that while Newtonian-Einstein binary theories work well to describe the macro, large-scale, world, when we come down to the sub-atomic level, they do not work. Strange things happen here, so that particles seem to simultaneously pass through a measuring device both to the left1and to the right. This cannot be accounted for by Newtonian physics.  When applied to the idea of a computer, replacing binary switches with a quantum, light-based, version, it produces machines, just announced in China, trillions of times faster than any current computer.

This led to the famous controversies between Einstein and his adversaries. The apparently irreconcilable was partially overcome when Paul Dirac, whose radio I have, united relativity and quantum theory in one equation. This equation was soon discovered to have predicted the existence of most the matter in the universe, dark energy. That unification symbolizes for me what I am currently attempting to do. I cannot abandon the binary logic upon which almost all of what my civilization has achieved, and all I have learnt, has been based. Yet I can also recognize that perhaps three quarters of the world, for we have to include India, South America, much of Africa and most of Europe here, does not think like me. They think in a quantum way.

So, my job as a historian and social anthropologist is not to force one world view onto another. I am not a monotheistic missionary of the kind who for several centuries at the height of the western imperial expansion tried to do this across the world. Nor am I like their successors, the evangelical economists and politicians of certain aggressive western societies who are still trying to do this.

My job is to try to stand above both binary and quantum world views and to note that each works in its own way and explains certain things. Even here I have to drop my tendency to think in a binary way and to think that I am Right and they are Wrong. This is not easy to do.

When I took this approach in a milder form in my advice to my grand-daughter fifteen years ago, the distinguished Professor of English Literature at Oxford University in his review said that teaching Lily this cultural relativism was pernicious. I should have told her instead that if she met anyone coming up with such views, she should kick them violently in a place where it would hurt them most. This is a form of argument which does not seems to me to represent the best of the Oxford spirit of tolerant reasoning, yet it shows the emotional reaction of binary thinkers to any suggestion that their entrenched views can be challenged.

Fortunately, Lily seems to have followed me, rather than my distinguished colleague. As an artist who loved her first visit to China, she seems to live in a world of Both/And, yin and yang, which is the only one I believe can save us from future destruction.

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly is here and his Enchantment and Modernity will be published in 2021.

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