What is it Like to Think in Black and White?
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What is it Like to Think in Black and White? • Posted: Oct 07, 2016 10:51:14Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Irrefutably, the world looks different in black and white. When I began making photographs, black and white was the norm. One learned to translate as one might translate between French and English. Ranges of color that I could plainly see with my eyes became ranges of dark to light within my photographs. Contrasts in texture overwrote color harmonies. Lines and contours overwrote embarrassed blushes and the ruddiness of skin tone. But like within any photograph, four dimensions, including time and motion, were reduced to two.

If you speak more than one language, translation becomes second nature. And so it is working primarily in black and white. But in both instances, there is not always direct equivalence. Sometimes a whole story is needed to translate a few pithy lines from one language into another. And sometimes, as when color is the whole story, there is no similarly impactful equivalence in black and white. But, it is also true that some stories are more clearly told in black and white, in poetry as opposed to prose, in an equation, or in a song.

Problems in translation between languages is one thing, but what happens when a person does not speak more than one language? And what happens when a person is colorblind, or can’t read, is deaf, totally blind, or does not know mathematics? Is their thinking different from those who do see color, can read, who do understand math, who do speak more than one language?

Interestingly, the linguist Benjamin Whorf hypothesized long ago that people who speak different languages may not actually think using similar or equivalent logic. That part of his hypothesis has not proven to be true, but different languages do divide up the world of experience into remarkably different categories of reference and understanding. For instance, Inuits have many more categories of understanding they use to speak about snow and ice than speakers of English. They make distinctions non-Inuits just do not make or readily understand. But the logic they use regarding things like before and after, causal and non-causal, true and false, connected and not connected are basically the same as our own, as they are for all humans. Perceptions and understandings of time may be the primary exception.

There are significant differences in the way people think about time. It is also true those differences can and do cause both interpersonal and intercultural frictions. For instance, most cultures view the future as something stretched out before them. A few cultures understand the future as something washing over us from behind, eventually coming into view as the present that confronts us. Both may view the future as largely undetermined, open to influence by imagination, choice, hard work, perseverance, and/or luck. But by contrast, Russian culture has a tradition of regarding the future as largely predetermined or fixed by what has gone before, by history. And some cultures even more rigorously regard the future as immutably fixed by prophecy and/or curse. It is not hard to envision difficulties in cooperating on projects for the future with a nation, culture, or person that considers overwhelming portions of the future to be inevitable and immutable.

On an interpersonal level, individuals may annoyingly view time in different ways too. Some view time as an extrinsically imposed constraint, something outside of what they are doing, like a deadline. Others view time as something intrinsic to what they are doing, like brewing a cup of tea or playing a piece of music on the piano. Friction can occur when those two views collide: “What are you doing, hon?” “Making tea.” “You know we don’t have time for that. We need to leave now.” “Just as soon as my tea is ready, luv.” “Hmm. We are going to be late.” “Yes, dear. Perhaps we are.”

While human minds equally allow for truth and falsehood, causal and non-causal, connected and not, we often have differing views as to what constitutes valid and convincing proof of such things. Some may accept one instance as proof for all instances. Others will insist that isn’t good enough and require a statistically significant sample. Still others maintain that faith, hope, denial, or wishing it were so is proof enough. Magical thinkers consider proximity in time and space to be sufficient evidence of connection and even causation. Others don’t buy that at all, emphatically stating coincidence is not causation, nor is it clear evidence of connection.

The point is, as noted in the previous post, it behooves us all to develop a theory of mind that allows for quite complex individual and cultural differences. We see what we see and understand it the way we do, colored or black and white, mutable or immutable, inspiring and energizing or fearsome and depressing, animated by spirits and magical connections beyond our control, or largely understandable and within our power to control. However, the way others see and understand things may, at times, be just as or even more compelling and useful than the way we see and understand things. May we all somehow, sooner than later, find a way to harmonize our various views of things so that it becomes more important for us all to work together for mutual benefit than to crush each other, along with our sometimes disturbingly different ways of thinking. Democracy, diplomacy, an impartial judiciary, and fair, as opposed to unregulated, markets provide a way to do that. War, intimidation, withdrawal, and the death penalty do not.

My advice is to not give up on learning, stay engaged, and peaceably argue for a view of things that allows for a future we can all enjoy together.

Monday, October 20th, 2014
Big Sandy