Big Questions often resolve themselves into two camps, such as between rationalism and empiricism. This happens when some sticking point is reached that cannot be resolved.

Why is it so common for the emergence of two camps to occur, rather than three or more? I have some explanations.

  • I, or my education, have filtered out cases which are not dualistic and the assumption is wrong
  • Ockham's razor calls for a minimum of competing explanations, and any more is due to an imprecise definition of the problem, i.e. there is more than one "sticking point" at play when a multitude of explanations are offered and one "sticking point" should be accorded only two alternative explanations
  • This is a cultural inheritance of western thought
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    +1 Nice. I suspect it has to do with true and false being a pair. But, one the other hand, you can find an a-priori argument for the world being either classical or quantum-mechanical and not anything else. (See this (PDF), section 2.) But, I guess that's typical of that situation. In other cases it might be due to the positions developing over time. (Position, then some time later counterposition, and then even more later third position. But, by that time, everybody is already focused on the first dichotomy.) Interesting question. :) – user3164 Apr 30 '14 at 19:37
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    By the way, I think 'dualism' is a misnomer for that what you seem to observe: two camps. (Come to think of it, you could also explain is political-theoretically: for the same reason that, say, the US has two major parties. But philosophy isn't exactly like democracy. Hopefully.) Perhaps change 'dualism' into 'dichotomy'? – user3164 Apr 30 '14 at 19:41
  • Also, it appears that a position like compatibilism, simply isn't very well known compared to free will (plus non-determinism) and determinism (plus no free will). It doesn't quite stick. Why? Well maybe that would be an answer to your question. – user3164 Apr 30 '14 at 19:52
  • Compatibilism is an interesting concept which attempts to reconcile maybe the biggest question of all. I would say that while binary distinctions are legion, attempts to bridge them are perhaps almost as legion. But as long as there are open problems, I think thesis-antithesis pairs will outnumber syntheses. – Jack C Apr 30 '14 at 20:02
  • See Structuralism for a set of theories according to which binary oppositions are a fundamental way to organize of human society, culture and language. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 30 '14 at 20:03

I'm positive that culture plays some influence, but it's wrong to ascribe dualism to Western thought, since Eastern philosophies from Taoism to Zoroastrianism also are filled with dualistic thinking.

Intuitively, I think the likely answer is that dualism is easy. No one perspective is likely to perfectly capture anything of sufficient complexity, and the most natural move is to create a new one through opposition. Once two opposing sides have gained solidity, it's easier for each to recruit new partisans than for a wholly new perspective to emerge (especially since, as is the case in the two-party system of American politics, it may suit the interests of the two main sides to occasionally collude to make sure their opposition remains the chief frame of the debate).

With that said, there remain plenty of perspectives that traffic in higher numbers, such as the four Western elements or the five elements of Eastern thought. Personally, I've spent many years exploring the philosophical insights that come from viewing things from three contrasting perspectives rather than two (and I'm quite sure I'm neither the first nor the last to do so).

  • What/who is the third? – Asphir Dom May 1 '14 at 12:20
  • @AsphirDom The framework I use is the universal, the personal and the communal (God, self and society). – Chris Sunami May 1 '14 at 12:57
  • Seems reasonable. – Asphir Dom May 1 '14 at 13:05
  • "...it may suit the interests of the two main sides to occasionally collude to make sure their opposition remains the chief frame of the debate" -- indeed. Well put. – senderle May 3 '14 at 20:42

Big questions often result in various camps: the pro's the con's and the somewhereinbetween's. But thinking in shades of Grey is difficult, so men tend to simplify it to black and white, those who are for and those who are against something, and just ignore the rest.

The world is too complicated for the human mind to fully understand, so simplification is necessary to do even the most minor things (try drinking your coffee by willfully stimulating the muscles in your arm). The brain is built to categorize things, so when it encounters something new, it asks: which basket do I put you in? In the simplest form there is a pro and a con basket ("good for me" vs "not good for me"). Only if that is not sufficient anymore, a third basked is created for a different perspective. But once too many categories have to be opened, the brain tends to surrender. At this point it requires will to open yet another category or think in a different way.

  • Last sentence is most important in post and in life. – Asphir Dom May 1 '14 at 12:19

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