Seeing in Black and White

Knowledge Opinion

How many times do we hear that something is “Black and White?” It may be true occasionally, but most often that something is shades of gray.

The physical universe is full of shades. Planets orbit in a habitable zone, physical states like solids and liquids can be difficult to define, and all kinds of weirdness emerges at the molecular level. And it’s even confusing where normal behavior yields to that quantum nonsense.

Human Characteristics

Human characteristics are no different. Eyes aren’t blue, they’re some shade of blue, skin isn’t black or white, it’s even just some shade of brown, it’s some shade of the color wheel. Essentially every human trait is variable. Intelligence is a great example. Although there will be differences in populations, those differences pale to the differences within a population. Is someone “smart?” Not only does it come in degrees but it comes in flavors. IQ tests measure a small subset of a certain type of intelligence–I’ll call it logical intelligence–an important, but not exclusive measure. Someone who has average logical intelligence may have above-average social intelligence and enjoy a much more fulfilling life.

How about “Happiness?” Or “Love?”

Some people are naturally more positive. They can get beat down, of course, but tend to bounce back to some set level. Love is almost comical in how its frequently labeled as all or nothing. Reality shows that not only does it come in degrees, but they can be fleeting and variable with time. Even the most healthy relationships will have these ups and down. Wise partners don’t dwell on them.

Sexual desire is another great example. It varies in both direction and intensity. Dr. Kinsey did experimentation to quantify same or opposite sex preference (direction), and others have shown that libido (intensity of desire) varies dramatically in individuals. A small percentage of the population has no drive and a small percentage has dysfunctionally strong desire–they are more likely to be rapists.

Everywhere we look we find this. In animals too. Take curiosity. Look at a group of squirrels and you’ll frequently find one out on its own looking around, checking things out, sniffing, observing. Parents with multiple children see it by observing how their kids differ in traits. My own family is no different.

Seeing things in black and white will nearly always be less accurate, and as I’ve covered, embracing unreliable knowledge has consequences: it encourages poor and/or uncompassionate choices. Ask African Albinos. Religious belief that their bones/blood/body has magical characteristics has gotten many of them murdered.

“The more you see the world in black and white, the less accurate is your picture”

Moral Absolutes

The question of where morals come from is an interesting but not the subject here.

A great example of something that may seem black and white is killing. We all powerfully embrace the basic tenet that it’s wrong to kill someone. Yet we necessarily send soldiers to kill, or we execute killers through government, or defend our homes. Most of society is OK with these things.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you come back early from work and hear screaming from your daughter’s room. You grab a gun, run over, burst through the door and find a masked figure raping her with knife in hand. He looks up surprised then comes at you with the knife. What do you do? I’d bet 80 plus percent of us would shoot.

Killing Animals

How about applying it to animals? We even have laws about how you can treat your pets. What if your pet is a field mouse? Or a worm? Or an ant? Would those laws apply?

Shades. Life is full of shades.

But what’s the difference between a pet snake and a wild snake? You could argure that a big difference is that once it’s in your care, you have an obligation. That’s true but what about the turkey you’re raising for thanksgiving dinner?

There are other exceptions, of course, where issues that we think are black and white are nothing of the sort. Do you really want to understand them? Are you willing to change your mind?

Look up morality issues and you’ll find lots of examples. Nearly every other issue we face is the same way. There are nuances–part of why it’s so critical to get all sides. Not to say that all sides will carry much weight, but you don’t know that until finding out.

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