Dichotomy and Paradox

Dichotomy: a partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets) that are: jointly exhaustive: everything must belong to one part or the other, and. mutually exclusive: nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts. (Wikipedia, “Dichotomy“)

Dichotomies are constantly infiltrating, or insinuating themselves, into the human thought processes, and especially those of Late Modern Man, but became especially exaggerated with the subject-object metaphysical dualism of Rene Descartes — what is called “the mind-body problem”. Dualism is just another name for dichotomy and dichotomisation. Pursue this “line of thought” long enough and in finally ends in a very unpleasant place — predicament and dilemma. When Jean Gebser speaks of “the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in deficient mode”, and identifies dualism as a chief symptom of this deficiency, it is dichotomisation he is speaking of.

Contemporary language, logic, and literature is full of such dichotomies: private-public, left-right, good-evil, right-wrong, subject-object, spirit-matter, culture-nature, male-female, past-future, true-false, sinner-saint, thesis-antithesis, and so on and so forth.  In effect, common sense, conventional logic, and the received wisdom have all been corrupted by dichotomising habits of thought. So, it comes as a surprise, too, when Iain McGilchrist refers to the “dichotomy” of the brain’s modes of attention when, in fact, all his evidence suggests otherwise.

Dichotomy means, essentially, Being and Life divided against itself in self-contradiction and so in mutually exclusive terms. The ancient doctrine that taught this was called “Manichaeanism” and even early Christianity condemned it as a heresy. Being was not divided against itself in that way. Paradoxical, yes, but not dichotomous. The chief example of the paradoxical mode of thinking was the famous principle: “nothing comes from nothing; God created the world from nothing”. The first part of the paradox, nihil ex nihilo fit,  was supplied by the Greek philosopher Parmenides (the foe of Heraclitus). The second part of the paradox, Deus creator ex nihilo, was supplemented by Christianity (and by John, who recognised the Heraclitean Logos as this Deus in the famous preamble to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Logos….”). Nihil ex nihilo fit follows from the testimony of the senses and from the observations of “natural reason”. The second, Deus creator ex nihilo, follows from an intuitive aperception that nature (or physis) cannot engender itself, therefore it must have a “supernatural” origin, or a “primum mobile” (first cause). The “supernatural” cause is the Word, “fiat lux!” — “Let there be light!”. This is the seed, an intention, planted in the womb of the Void or Great Nothingness that summons forth existence (Greek sema, or “sign” even in the sense of “word”, and semen, or seed are pretty much identical in meaning).

So, the original act of creation was really an act of coitus, the wedding day of the natural and the supernatural. And whether you interpret the act of coitus as a rape or an act of love and marriage is, I suppose, a mood. In Greek cosmology it began as a rape. In Christian cosmology, it was an act of love between God and the Void. In that sense, the cosmos is a marriage, grounded in love — the first hieros gamos. This mutual love of God and the Void is mirrored in the image of Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride, and in William Blake, this is “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell“. These, of course, correspond to the anima and animus principles, or to the yin and yang principles.

The point is, though, that if you see this union of the natural and supernatural (which was only re-presented again as the body-mind dualism of Descartes) as a rape — an act of violence and violation — you will interpret the world dichotomously (man against nature) whereas if you perceive this union of the natural and supernatural as a marriage, an act of love, you will see it rather as a paradox. The marriage ritual amongst human beings is, in a sense, the re-enactment of the first marriage — the hieros gamos. So, you can appreciate from this why the Church, for such a long time, had a horror of divorce. In effect, divorce is dichotomisation, and dichotomisation is disintegration.

You can appreciate that in any true marriage, the “two shall become one flesh” but yet remain two — free to be themselves as well. Marriage is the enactment of the paradox, but divorce is the dichotomisation of the marriage. No marriage can survive dualism. In a way of speaking, the Logos is the wedding vow.

In those terms, it strikes me as odd that McGilchrist would insist on brain “dichotomy”, as he states in his lengthy interview “Divided Brain, Divided World” with Jonathan Rowson of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) as follows,

“The division of  the cerebral hemispheres falls into this last category, a ‘dichotomy’ which it would be profoundly irrational to ignore just because we don’t like dichotomies. Evolution has taken care to preserve, and even to intensify, the division of  the brain, this organ whose whole purpose is to connect.  So let’s not say we are doing the dichotomising when we take a look at why that should be. Every intelligent person should want to know why this is the case.  As I have often said, the distinction is not absolute, there is overlap, and, above all, we need both hemispheres, not just one.  At the end of  the day, though, there are undoubtedly differences, and in my view they desperately need to be understood.  The last thing we should do is ignore them simply because this dichotomy doesn’t fit the view of  the world we already happen to have.” (p. 29)

Again, whether you interpret the dichotomy as really a paradox, or the paradox as being a dichotomy seems to be associated with the mode of attention you bring to the issue. If power and utilitarian interests inform the mode of attention (which McGilchrist states are the predilection of the left-hemisphere) you’re likely to conclude that the origin of things begins in dichotomy and in an aggression — in an act of violence or violation, subordination and conquest. But, if you bring the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere to the issue, you don’t see this dichotomy. You see a paradox. In equivalent terms, you will see either a rape or a marriage, or a competition or a cooperation.

So, in McGilchrist’s own terms, whether you perceive a dichotomy (a competition) or a paradox (a cooperation) is a matter of which mode of attention you bring to the issue. Obviously dichotomy and paradox are two interpretations of the same process– the duality of the appearances (many languages still preserve the masculine and feminine forms of words as implicit recognition of this cosmic hieros gamos). The distinction is subtle and nuanced, but it has enormous implications. There’s the famous “Butterfly Effect” for you.

Of course, the paradox is that McGilchrist is correct, in one way. The brain is dichotomous. It is obviously divided (and perhaps more than it should be), and it is divided for good reason, as he makes plain in The Master and his Emissary. There is a chasm, an abyss, between the hemispheres of the brain with the apparent purpose of optimumly differentiating their purposes and functions, and consciousness can, ideally anyway, resort to the one or the other through the bridge formed over the abyss by the corpus callosum (even if it looks like a tenuous swinging or hanging bridge). It’s actually quite remarkable how the structure of the brain reflects the myths, legends, parables, narratives about the abyss or chasm, the bridge, the crossing-over, transition, doorways, gatekeepers and so on and so forth, almost as if it were the brain describing itself in these parables and narratives — Nietzsche’s bridge to the Dionysian consciousness of the transhuman, for example — the place “beyond good and evil”; the place beyond the dichotomy (and which is, I think, that state that don Juan also called “the place of no pity”).

The Hermetic Philosophers, of course, preserved the paradox against dichotomisation even as the religious were getting confused about this in the “occult” principles of coincidentia oppositorum and coniunctio oppositorum — the identity of the contradictions, the coincidence or conjoining of the opposites, just as Goethe has his Mephistopheles describe himself in Faust as “part of the power that would ever evil do, but always does the good”.

Dichotomy says: “nirvana and samsara are not the same”. Paradox replies: “nirvana and samsara are the same”. Dichotomy says: “Hades and Dionysus are different”. Paradox (Heraclitus) replies: “Hades and Dionysus are the same”. Dichotomy says: “Heaven and Hell are opposites”, while Paradox insists: “as above, so below”. They are both right, in a way. It depends how you look at it. But in the end, paradox wins. It is simply more integral, more holistic, more inclusive, truer to the greater reality of things.

Dichotomy: I was introduced to dichotomy by my logic instructor in university in the form of the “ears of the wolf dilemma”, which I’ve had occasion to mention earlier. My logic instructor was a clever guy (he actually went on later to write a book about “angels”). The ears of the wolf dilemma or predicament goes like this: you are grasping with each hand the ears of a ravenous wolf. If you release your left hand to try to escape, you free the wolf’s head to bit you. If you release your right hand, the same. But you can’t keep holding onto the ears of the wolf forever. What do you do? There’s really only one thing you can do to try to escape the predicament — grab both ears firmly, execute a somersault over the back of the wolf, and run like hell. Only later did I recognise that “somersault” as Gebser’s “leap”, as Rosenstock-Huessy’s “outrunning the modern era”, or as don Juan’s “somersault into the unknown”. This “somersault” is what we call “transcendence”. Dichotomy does serve a useful purpose, as is implied in Heraclitus’s maxim that “war is the father of all things”, which basically means “dichotomy”, and it is implied in Blake’s maxim that “without contraries there is no progression”.  “Darkness is your candle” says Rumi.

In other words, there are times when we must act as if the paradox were a dichotomy (knowing well that it is not) which we call “competition” and other times when we have to restore the paradox against dichotomisation which we call “cooperation”. Such is the tempo of existence. And for such purposes of competition and cooperation, or war and peace, the brain seems to be divided. But the brain’s very asymmetry, as described by McGilchrist himself, suggests that the “higher truth” of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention always prevails, and it does not perceive Being and Life as dichotomous at all, but as a unity.



7 responses to “Dichotomy and Paradox”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    Never drowned in the ever-expanding sea of god words expressed through the diversity of the human receptive faculty. The dance of opposites and dual entities never stop. It is the divine scheme to see who keeps the balance. Nothingness or the word and even our inclination toward the word never erases the concept of nothingness from the realm of concepts It is a world of concepts even the phenomenon of godness can not be understood outside the realm of concepts. He is the energy behind the existence of everything and we do not know what is energy except through its effects and we are his effect. If only we trust.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    I forgot to mention that Ibn Arabi talked about the whole universe as the product of the act of coitus.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Yes he did and only google Ibn Arabi and the universe as an act of coitus you will find plenty.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I’ve finally started reading Ibn Arabi. There’s a website


      I started reading one of his discourses on “the Perfect Man”, and I’m very surprised at how similar to William Blake he sounds, for this “Perfect Man” is Blake’s “Albion”, only, ibn Arabi describes it in Islamic terms, while Blake describes it in Christian terms. But then, as ibn Arabi put it, “‘the colour of the water is the colour of the receptacle” — that’s a very wise saying.

      What impresses me is his discourse of the human as the confluence or “isthmus” of “the two worlds”, which has some obvious bearing on McGilchrist’s teaching on the divided brain, for the brain is an organ of perception, and by virtue of its division, perceives two distinct worlds (actually one world in its two aspects). Blake also saw the two worlds and their confluence in terms of eternity in time and the infinite within the finite. Ibn Arabi puts it this way, the attunement of the human to the Divine on the one hand, and the Cosmos on the other. And in those terms, the human is a coincidentia oppositorum (or confluence), simultaneously everything and nothing (Lordship and servanthood in ibn Arabi’s terms). In fact the “servant” would seem to be a clear equivalence to what McGilchrist calls “the emissary”.

      Quite interesting!

  4. abdulmonem says :

    I am glad you have started with this global human being and start interweaving his ideas with those of your favorites. I like only to quote,one of his saying, Witnessing can not take place except in matter, witnessing god divested of matter is impossible. That is why McGilchrist and the like see god in his creation,specially in the human,his image, despite the creation of the cosmos is more significant than the creation of the human.

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