The human brain seems to mostly operate using a default binary operational system. Our experience of the world often seems to come to us in the form of either/or choices between two mutually exclusive options. This expresses itself in what philosophers call dichotomies. It appears that this binary approach to thinking and decision making is inbuilt but also reinforced by cultural and historical factors. Whilst there are clear practical advantages to reducing every choice to black or white options, there is a danger that it creates reductive, shallow, misleading and potentially confrontational attitudes. TOK at its best challenges this dualistic approach and through embracing open-endedness and fuzzy logic encourages people to think in more subtle, measured and sophisticated ways.

There may be some very good reasons as to why our brains tend to operate largely using this binary system. For a start it makes decision making much easier and time efficient. Just imagine if one naturally assessed all possible options before making any kind of decision. We would be forever dithering between a seemingly infinite range of options and would probably be in a state of semi-permanent procrastination. This is a familiar feeling for many of us as we constantly try to whittle down the multitude of options we are bombarded with whenever we wish to purchase anything.

In Western culture this dualistic approach has been dominant for millenia and most probably owes its significant influence to the pervasive presence of Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s dualism may have lost ground to a more monistic and materialist take on the world, but there is no doubt that it has left its mark on many aspects of Western thinking. Aristotle’s categorization of the natural world has a clear practical purpose but tends to highlight the separateness of things rather than what they have in common. It puts everything in boxes and encourages the view that what belongs to one box doesn’t have any connection with whatever belongs to other boxes. Thinking outside the box is therefore not enough, thinking that breaks down the box is what is required.

This feeling should also be familiar in the area of education where dichotomies of choice seem almost the norm. Questions in many subjects are often set up as if assuming that any answer given must be A or B, or maybe even a balance between the two. If learning and knowledge are generally assessed using this black or white system, it would be natural to tend to see what can be known as choosing between two often mutually exclusive alternatives. This is driven it seems by a need to quantify all aspects of learning and to give some value to one answer over another. Whilst it works well in terms of producing clearly manageable results, it tends to make learning target driven and less open-ended than it might or ought to be.

Taking a step or two back from the whole system however yields some interesting insights. There is no doubt that dichotomies pervade much of human thinking and that they have their place. One could make a very long list of such either/or views (good/evil, right/wrong, true/false, knowledge/belief, fact/value, subject/object, rationalism/empiricism…). Black or white thinking seems to dominate and, I would argue, leads to an impoverished experience of the world and a mindset which does not easily accept the possibility of multiple true answers. This in turns can lead to favour exclusive rather than inclusive attitudes and to nurturing closed-mindedness rather than open-mindedness.

Black or white, may be perfectly acceptable options when choosing how to have your coffee, but when it pervades a whole way of life and learning it can have misleading if not damaging implications. The role of TOK is to break down this binary monopoly, so to speak, and open our eyes to a more graduated, subtle and multifaceted concept of knowledge and truth. Teaching our students to spot binary thinking and to challenge it is not easily achieved, but I would argue, once it becomes of habit it will make them better thinkers and therefore better learners.