One of the most meaningful words I learnt from an old journalist mentor was to realise that what matters is not what is said in the news, but what is not said. Media is [about] manipulation — the official or business media wants to direct your attention to what the pusher wants. What matters is to think through what is not said. There is misinformation, disinformation, mal-information and null information, all of which are very rich in information.
In a chess game, my opponent offers me an unprotected pawn. The child in me wants to take that free gift, but the adult in me hesitates — is this a trap? And looking further into the moves, I realise that it is indeed a trap — I could end up losing a rook or even the game. Positive information therefore needs to be taken with its negative side. And peering into the negative information reveals an Aladdin’s Cave of wonders, things and ideas not explored because most of us are oblivious to the open secrets around us. The one who finds the uncommon out of the common becomes either a genius, a billionaire or bankrupt.
Our thought formation, not just education but how we were brought up by parents or non-parents, is shaped by opposites. Those who believe in God believe in certainty — there is a God who made the world perfect and we should seek perfection. Those who do not believe in God have only uncertainty — man needs to reduce uncertainty by acquiring new and more information. Most of us are in purgatory — the area between heaven and hell. We sometimes believe, and often do not.
The history of human thinking is fascinating because man became different from animals by being able to use not just language but also symbols to represent and then to calculate and project. Mathematics started as simple arithmetic: 1+2=3. An asset is a positive number, but a debt or liability is a negative number — what you owe. So, what is in between positive and negative numbers?
You may be surprised that zero was discovered by the Sumerians 5,000 years ago, the Mayans independently around 4BC, the Indians around the 4th century AD and the Arabs and Chinese around the 8th century. Algebra and algorithms are named after the wondrous Arab mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c.750-850AD), then living in Baghdad. Algebra literally means al-jabr or the “reunion of the parts”, that is, positive plus negative of the name number equals zero.
We tend to equate science with mathematics, but physics and philosophy are often qualitative, rather than quantitative. Is a number or digit discrete or part of a continuous flow? The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli puts it beautifully on how we look at the sea from high up. It looks flat and blue, but when we descend to, say, 100ft, we see the moving waves, and when we swim at sea level, we see the froth and the colour changes.
Perspective depends on your position — the closer we move to something, the more detail we get, but at the same time, we lose perspective and context. Specialists therefore know more and more about less and less, but lose sight of how their fields are inter-related and interactive. Economists tried to be scientific by making economics more quantitative, forgetting that their origin was political economy, where politics often matters more than economic logic.
Western science made its pivotal advance over the rest of the world when it separated mind from matter. Minds think, but matter does not. So natural sciences started working on the physics of nature, while psychologists and philosophers work on the thinking of the mind. When a problem is too complex, you have to break it into simpler parts to study it. But you must never forget to put it back together again (a unification). That itself is a cyclical phase — integration and disintegration as consequential cycles.
But the East always thought in cosmic terms that, perhaps, integration and disintegration (what I call condivergence) happen at the same time — there is no false binary between opposites, good or bad, black or white, but billions of shades of grey. But when such thinking is fuzzy-wuzzy and has little predictive power, Western science became hegemonic because its theories and technologies gave it an edge over everyone else.
As the rest started learning science from the West, the game changed. Just as disorder comes from order, so has segregation led to integration. Globalisation came from the unipolar order, because it benefited the incumbent leader to have everyone obey rules set by him. The American political scientist Mancur Olson called this the “stationary bandit” condition after he observed that the Chinese Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang preserved order in his domain during the lawless 1920s in China, because it was not just for the public good, but in his own interests.
The America First doctrine pushed by US President Donald Trump repudiates the multilateral world order that America had championed since World War II because it is perceived by his mainly White supporters that America should look after its own interests first, rather than those of the rest of the world. As an extension of the Milton Friedman doctrine that self-interest will create public interest, this is not wholly wrong. But if the rest of the world believes that America First means no longer looking after global interests, then every man for himself ends up with fragmentation rather than integration.
This explains the current rhetoric of “de-globalisation” and “de-coupling”. But what is happening with convergence is that everyone is looking for new alignments — there is simultaneous “de-globalisation” with localisation, what is termed “glocalisation”, implementing locally what you cannot achieve globally.
Pure opposites are the beliefs of the religious and extreme ideologues because it serves their interests to master the masses. Moderates believe in different shades of grey and, therefore, areas of compromise. Indeed, Eastern beliefs centre around the interaction between opposites that create new forms. Life is all about competition AND cooperation at the same time, pushing innovation and change. Thus, pure forms are only the extremes in a range of possibilities. Politics is therefore seeking the realm of the possible among many choices.
But the extreme right is rattling sabres at the others, calling them evil. We see not the Clash of Civilisations, but the Splash of Civilisations, because civilisations are like water, splashing waves against each other that form new patterns.
Science has shown that no single snowflake is alike, which means that ice can form snowflakes, water and then steam under different temperatures. Water, even broken down to its basic elements of H2O, changes form with energy and time. The West is converging with the Rest, even as it struggles within itself. We have much more drama to unfold in the coming days.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective