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The One-Dimensional Paradox

Chris Lucas

"Multi-dimensional language is made into one-dimensional language, in which different and conflicting meanings no longer interpenetrate but are kept apart; the explosive historical dimension of meaning is silenced."

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 1964

"The programme of research and action proposed by the systemic approach have a chance to be implemented if science is guided by goals of enlightenment instead by appetites of accumulation and power acquisition, as it is, for the most part today."

Anatol Rapoport, The Systemic Approach to Environmental Sociology, 1996


Are you gay ?

Whatever the answer may be, this illustrates a major problem in our thinking. The question asked is just a single dimensional measure of a person, one aspect out of all the possible categories that can link or divide us. I deliberately picked one that often creates heated emotions to illustrate the point. I could instead have asked about religion, politics, colour, nationality, sex, animal rights, freedom. Being less provocative I could have queried your height, job, hobby, education, age, wealth, happiness or health. More difficult questions may have related to your pain threshold, sense of smell, memory, genetic makeup and so on.

Variety and Uniqueness

Let us suppose that we allow only 3 possible opinions on each of these subjects (generalizing, we could call them For, Against, Abstain), just how many combinations of viewpoint are there using just those 20 aspects mentioned ? Some 3 billion plus ! In other words, it is highly improbable that any two random members of the world's current population will share all 20 opinions... If we actually take account of all the possible subjects that we can use to classify humans (thousands), then no two people in the history of the species have ever fully agreed !

Given this variety (and it is this that gives the human race its unique ability to explore new areas, by creating new combinations), it seems to be paradoxical that we create the sort of Us versus Them divisions that permeate our society. Wherever we look, groups of people force themselves onto opposite sides of self-created barriers, establishing conflict between themselves and neighbours. To help investigate why, let us compare the opposing groups, and quantify the issues that separate and join them.

Difference and Similarity

First, the differences. Well, only one aspect separates all members of group A from all members of group B - the issue of disagreement. How about the agreements ? Well, all members are human, so have all the physical attributes of humanity in common. They share approximately 99.9% of their genes with any random member of the opposing 'force', and we have some 50,000 or so of these. Then we can add shared cultural background, language, laws, educational knowledge - again thousands of aspects to agree here. But are these agreements stronger within our group than across the boundaries ? Not generally. We have, on average, about as many differences between two random members of our own group, as we do between members of opposing ones ! Usually, perhaps in every case, the agreements far outweigh the disagreements.

Allowing then that the disagreement is about a minor part of our natures, can we assume that its importance is proportionate ? Sadly, we cannot. The escalation of trivial difference to be the only issue of importance in life, is so common as to bring into disrepute any claim to rational behaviour in the human race. The irrational behaviour of people trying to resolve such minor differences leads to such 'solutions' as genocide, homicide, bombings and equally destructive acts.

Dimensional Judgements

If we were to suggest to anyone that they should hurt someone they love, they would call the idea crazy. Suggesting that they hurt themselves would get a similar reaction. Yet by basing their acts upon such one-dimensional simplifications of a multi-dimensional reality they adopt precisely this crazy behaviour, totally blind to what is being lost. As the popular saying puts it:
"Cutting off your nose to spite your face.".

If this is the tragic result, then why do we persist in making judgements based on a single value rather than on the totality of values ? Is it that we can't detect the similarities at all, only seeing differences ? Oddly, the opposite is true. We can pick out (at least visually) a picture that we have seen before, out of thousands that we have never seen. Yet given two very similar pictures we cannot easily identify the differences between them, we have to concentrate. This conscious mismatching behaviour contrasts strangely with our unconscious matching ability, and this is again paradoxical since both are based upon the exact same database. How do we explain this ?

Serial versus Parallel Mind

Perhaps it has something to do with our reliance upon a serial, conscious, mode of decision. The database can be accessed in two alternative ways, either serially (bit by bit, as computers do) or in parallel (as cameras do). Given limited time, the only way we can operate serially is to simplify, neglecting the common aspects and concentrating on the obvious differences between the options. This, no doubt, was a good evolutionary tactic for distinguishing between predator and prey, by ignoring the landscape common to both. But we must say that it now serves us ill, in an era of necessary social co-operation and relative safety, where differences need to be tolerated (division of labour) and similarities (common purposes) have raised us above purely animal needs. Fighting over the last sweetie and breaking a thousand dollar vase in the process is not an action based on intelligence, yet similar behaviours are evident throughout all our societies.

Can we revert to an alternative, parallel mode of thought? Not without a considerable change of emphasis. The serial mode is so ingrained in our thinking and education that we need to relearn the ability to see holistically, to avoid automatic reduction. That it is possible to do this is evident from the ability of artists to recreate the whole (at least in the representational style - now lost to photography), but it is not so easy to do. We must work at it, getting into the habit of ignoring difference and noticing similarity, overcoming the tendency of the brain to ignore constant stimulus and only notice differences. For example we could compare two flowers and see the commonality in shape or number of petals whilst ignoring colour or size differences, or perhaps more relevantly we can compare ourselves with other people, seeing not their 'faults' but their commonality to ourselves. Try it.

Value Reprogramming

But what good will this do ? Well, it will help reprogram our value system for a start. Our neural weights, on which we make decisions, are based upon historically estimated importance or usefulness. Even the extent of the brain area devoted a subject depends upon how much that subject is invoked (e.g. in mapping from senses to cortex). Whatever issues we consider interesting come to dominate our thought patterns, increasing their weighting and becoming harder to ignore. At the same time any previously emphasised issues are weakened and become less dominant in the whole. Our serial thoughts (and parallel emotions) are thus biased by our educational base, our relative values. By changing our perception of things we can alter our entire view of life, and if done well we can obtain a new parallel balance, where trivial differences maintain only trivial importances.

Environmental Context

The importance of context is an aspect of our world that is stressed in complexity thinking, decisions are not isolated value judgements but depend upon external factors. In many cases we make assumptions about this external world that are invalid, we assign default constants or expectations to variables, in order to simplify the decision. This generalisation from the past freezes our ability to deal with the real changing world, and such prejudices (since this is literally what they are) are even entombed in the language we use (e.g. call a fireman ! and a woman turns up...).

Developing contextual thought, the ability to take account of all levels of reality at once (multidimensional decision making), is an essential skill for a complex world. Balancing what we already have (and that is very considerable - compare yourself to a starving refugee) against what we can lose by stupid actions (your life, universe, everything), can put into the proper perspective any assumed 'reward' derived from only one dimension. Every such gain, in co-evolutionary systems, can trigger counterbalancing reactions from the other, ignored, dimensions and failure to take these into account can so easily lead to social and economic disaster...


Training ourselves in this thought mode needs the cultivation of awareness. This is the ability to put our conscious stream of thought in context within the wider viewpoint of our overall personality and environment. We are able then to see ourselves as if from the outside, in a more objective light where the overall consequences of our actions become clearer. In this way we can maintain a better balance in our attitude to others. Techniques to achieve this detachment are more common in the East than in the West, and we must be clear that it is decidedly not the same as, so called, 'scientific objectivity'. That mode of thought deliberately ignores all other aspects of the world in order to concentrate on just one - just the sort of problem we wish to overcome !

"There is absolutely nothing whatever in which we cannot and must not point to contradictions or opposite attributes; and the abstraction made by understanding therefore means a forcible insistence on a single aspect, and a real effort to obscure and remove all consciousness of the other attribute which is involved."

G.W.F. Hegel, The Doctrine of Being, 1830, A, (b)

Instead we need to ask ourselves both what we have omitted to take into account and what we have incorporated as assumptions. In the first case we may find that what has been ignored is actually relevant to the overall success or failure of the decision (e.g. ignoring the views of other interested parties, i.e. selfish thought, will almost certainly invalidate any action, as they will react to prevent success !). In the second case we look to identifying biases, assumptions of normality which don't apply to our specific decision (e.g. another drink won't kill some stage it will !). It is surprising how hard it is to even detect these omissions and biases. Try that too.

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Page Version 4.83 July 2006 (paper V1.1 July 1999 original April 1999)