Binary Blues: a philosopher's response

Opinion: Emeritus Professor Robert Nola discusses binary thinking, Descartes, myths and Mātauranga Māori.

French philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes (1596-1650). Image: iStock

I wish to make some comments on issues raised by Professor Dame Anne Salmond in the first part of the recent article ‘Iwi vs Kiwi: Beyond the binary’ viz., binary thinking, the philosopher Descartes’ binaryism, mythical frameworks and a whakapapa explanation of the world.

Binary. This has become a buzz word with pejorative connotations. Classical logic is said to be binary in that it involves two truth values {true, false}. Ugh, horrors, some might say! Is thinking irrevocably binary?

Exactly one hundred and one years ago the Polish logical Jan Łukasiewicz published a paper on a non-binary three-valued logic (represented as {true, false, other}). Later he published on multi-valued logics for any finite number n. From his work there grew in the 20th century the large field of non-binary logics and even fuzzy set theory.

New Zealanders made a contribution to this. Our most important logician you have never heard of, Arthur Prior, gave a radio talk in 1957 on multi-valued logics. If you did not tune in there is a voice only YouTube version.

New Zealand’s second most important logician you have never heard of, the late Richard Routley (/Sylvan), told me many years ago that Buddhist logic could have employed a five-valued logic {true, false, both, neither, other}.

Now that we have a better understanding of standard and non-standard systems of logic, we do not need last century’s binary-phobia.

Descartes. René Descartes (1596-1650) comes in for criticism for holding his own version of binaryism: ‘when the first Europeans stepped ashore in Aotearoa, they brought their own mythic framings with them. One of these was Cartesian dualism’. This is the view that there are two distinct substances in the universe, material and mental; humans are a union of these.

I doubt any of the first Europeans who stepped ashore here had even heard of Descartes let alone his dualism. If they were dualists it was due to Christianity which, like most religions, postulates a realm of earthly material existence in contrast to a separate realm of the spirit to be encountered after death.

Even though he argued for a version of dualism, Descartes did not always accept the Christian formulation and arguments for it. So, he provided his own (which we need not go into).

The argument ‘Cogito ergo Sum’ was advanced by St Augustine about one thousand years before Descartes revived it. Dualistic ontologies are even older, especially in religions. Also, there is talk of Cartesian logic. But this does not exist. Descartes was not an innovative logician and simply employed the forms of reasoning available in his day.

Mythical frameworks. It is good to have exposed the mythic frameworks we dearly cling to and live by. Salmond does an interesting job on some alleged myths such as binaryism, Cartesian dualism and the Great Chain of Being enchaining us (not discussed here). But is talk of mythic frameworks no more than a fancy way of making the binary claim that some of our beliefs are false?

What are the consequences of these myths for environmentalism? There is no contradiction between binaryism and/or the Cartesian dualist framework about mind and body and a deep green environmentalism. Nor is there a contradiction between a strong environmentalism and atheism combined with a monistic materialism about ourselves and our world. In fact, atheists see themselves as simply one bit of the entire naturalistic cosmos.

What about the Biblical myth that Salmond mentions, viz., God gave Adam dominion over the earth and all its creatures? Many Christians are embarrassed by this and adopt some non-dominational stance. Of course, one cannot add this doctrine to atheism!

What is a mythical framework? Are there any non-mythical frameworks? Or are they all mythical? Salmond lets one alleged myth off the hook.

Whakapapa as an explanatory programme. Salmond appears to support a “cosmic whakapapa explanation”. What is this? Eminent Māori scholar Charles Royal thinks of it as a research method:

By what process or processes is Mātauranga Māori created? What is the nature of that process? Our interim response to these questions is to posit whakapapa, or genealogy, as a research methodology. In the course of our research we have discovered that whakapapa was used traditionally to generate explanations for many things in the phenomenal world. Hence, one can find in the 19th century manuscripts … a vast array of whakapapa for such things as flora and fauna, for water, for sunshine, for human beings and for a vast array of naturally occurring phenomena. The tantalising proposition is therefore posed. Can everything in the world be accounted for by whakapapa? Can whakapapa generate relevant, pertinent and useful explanations for all things?

Here whakapapa concerns not only genealogical relations between humans but also a genealogical account of all naturally occurring phenomena – even the very process of the creation of Mātauranga Māori itself.

This would be a very ambitious explanatory programme if it were to attempt to explain everything. In doing this, the whakapapa theory would be a rival to other well-established theories. Take the suggested case of sunshine. Do we not already have an explanation of this, viz., what causes it, what it is (a stream of photons?) and how it plays various functional roles throughout the solar system (enabling us to see with our evolved eyes which detect photons, etc.)?

This programme is inconsistent with the theory of evolution. The relationships of descent for members of a species required by Darwinian evolution are not the same as kin relations between humans. And this becomes more obviously so when one considers the alleged relations between humans and other non-human items such as rivers or volcanoes (which are supposed to be ancestors). More broadly the relations of species and genera of Linnaean taxonomy are declared to be more of the unacceptable binaryism. A non-binary stance here would be to adopt a fuzz set approach to taxonomy.

Salmond tells us: ‘According to the whakapapa taught in the whare wānanga (schools of ancestral learning), a first burst of energy in the cosmos generated thought, memory and desire; followed by knowledge; and aeons of nothingness and darkness’.

Here thought, desire and knowledge are disembodied since no mention is made of any person who has these mental states. They would have to float freely in Cartesian mental stuff. We leave it to the extreme Cartesian dualist to explain how the “mind”, or “soul” or “thinking thing” can contain such independent items. However, if they do exist there cannot be nothingness – unless of course these items go out of existence.

Finally, we can ask if appeal to non-human ancestors makes us better guardians of our environment. Perhaps some need such a mythical (or legal) crutch. But there is no inconsistency between monistic materialism and committed environmentalism. The fog created by opposition to binaryism and Cartesian dualism is not needed to espouse ecological causes.

Emeritus Professor Robert Nola is from Philosophy in the School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.