The Advantages of Binary Thinking


Life is complex. Too complex, many think, to be reduced to one or even several simple explanations. Yet scientists, philosophers, and poets keep trying. (Scientists work with theories. Philosophers work with treatises. Poets work with metaphors.)

Recently, in 1975, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coined the word fractal to describe a natural phenomenon that had been observed by scientists for some time. It denoted a structure whose parts resemble the structure as a whole.

Think of a tree. Visualize it as a whole and then in parts. See the trunk, a straight line. See the branches that grow out of the trunk. Each one begins as a straight line and then branches out. Each branch is thinner than the one from which it grew. The individual parts of the tree are not identical, but they are similar.

Other fractal phenomena are snowflakes, mountain ranges, clouds, coastlines, and a few vegetables (e.g., cauliflower and broccoli).

With so many examples in nature, one might wonder whether the entire universe might have a fractal pattern. And, indeed, it does. Scientists proved it after observing the structure of the solar system – globes orbiting around and gradually moving away from a central globe.

Turning their attention inward, they discovered the structure of the atom, with a nucleus (central globe) surrounded by electrons (tiny revolving globes of energy). And when they looked inside the nucleus, they found a similar structure.

Looking outward, they learned that our solar system is not the center of the universe. It is only one of billions of similarly structured solar systems, all gradually moving away from a central globe.

It’s likely that fractal theory will unlock many of nature’s secrets as scientists continue to develop it. There may, however, be a limitation to understanding the universe that way. Because fractal theory applies to complex geometric shapes, it is in itself complex.

But there is another way of understanding the universe that is much older yet just as helpful. It is the idea of two: that the universe has, at base, a binary structure – a pattern of two things or two parts/sides of one thing.

Binary theory has the advantage of simplicity. It can be explained by Euclidean geometry. And it can be understood by almost anyone.

That may be why it has appeared repeatedly and prominently throughout history in the way scientists, philosophers, and poets have perceived the universe.

Binary structure is multitudinous. It exists in nature. It exists in the manufactured universe of human production. And it exists in conceptual realms, such as subatomic theory and mathematics.

The application of binary theory created the computer. And the computer has become, in its adolescence, an appendage and equivalent structure to our very brains.

Consider the history of human memory.

The very early expansion of human community – with our ancestors living in ever-larger groups – is said to have expanded the Neolithic memory. By tapping into our more sophisticated memories, it made it possible for us to learn more subtle and complex lessons. We could, for example, remember patterns in time and space and the behavior of plants and animals and other humans. With the ability to remember such patterns, we could make better decisions that supported our survival and evolution.

Much later, when we learned to write and read, our brains were further expanded. That gave us the ability to remember more of what we read. Then, about three thousand years ago, we invented books and then libraries. This allowed us to “outsource” some of our knowledge. And that may have made it possible for our brains to evolve in a direction we haven’t yet understood.

The advent of the computer and the Internet greatly diminished the value of the traditional library. But it opened up new possibilities for human communication.

Your son asks you, “What is clarified juice?” To answer that question twenty years ago, you would have had to spend hours in a library. Today, you can find the answer in a matter of seconds by doing a Google search. In ten years, the answer could come to you in nanoseconds because an advanced application of the Google search process had been implanted in your body as an organic microchip.

Moore’s Law tells us that the ability of computers to process information doubles every eighteen months. And, thanks to computer technology, we can expect mankind to propel not only scientific achievement but possibly our very consciousness to levels we can only imagine now.

Computer memory is binary. Computer logic is binary. Memory and logic comprise a good part of the process of human reasoning. That seems significant.

Computers are programmed with binary code – a system that uses ones and zeros.

And what are ones and zeros?

They are yeses and nos. Positives and negatives. Or – just as likely – expansions and contractions.