Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#109 Over-Simplifying Equals Dumbing Down

In The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz episode 109, let’s take a look at how the classic Aristotelian worldview — what I call “either-or thinking” — affects our lives from our culture and society on down to our personal relationships and even our own self-esteem.

Compare this overly simplistic paradigm to what quantum physics tells us about how reality actually works: a state of flux, of possibility. “Either-and,” if you will.

Listen to discover why adopting a pluralistic, liquid worldview more in line with reality can help our mental health and enhance our emotional intelligence. Once you’ve listened, let me know what you think! Be sure to leave a comment!

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #109

Hello everybody and welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m your host, Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book, The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.

I’m going to be talking to you today about a problem with the way we think, the way we see reality operating, which causes us to oversimplify and to get really, really dumb.

So let me share the history to begin with. The way that we see reality operating is in a very truncated and divided way, influenced in large part by Aristotle. So we came to know this as Aristotelian thinking. Aristotle believes that reason was humanity’s highest faculty and his theory of logic accounts for what we come to call deductive reasoning, which links our premises with our conclusions. So simply, if your premise is true and you follow the rules of logic, then the conclusion you reach must also be true. I don’t agree with that, we can move into that, but that is deductive thinking.

Now the corollary of Aristotle’s philosophy is that things either are or are not true. Notice the division. Yes or no. Two different categories. There’s no gray area, no middle ground. Aristotle had a profound influence on the philosophers who followed, especially Descartes and Newton. These ideas became part of the physical principles of Newton’s laws. And this duality that resulted from Aristotle’s theory of logic, it filters how we actually picture reality operating. It’s known simply as either or thinking. It structures our beliefs into such an oversimplified posture in which we know something only by including its opposite. That way we organize reality and it frames our thought as it takes on this undivided wholeness of reality and it fractures it into two opposing camps. So we live under this illusion of separation. In other words, either or thinking splits reality into separate compartments and we come to think of that as real.

Here’s what I mean. Look at the word hate. Hate wouldn’t have much meaning if there wasn’t a notion of love. Good wouldn’t make sense without including bad. The pairing of opposites helps us to differentiate things, but then we get lost in these things and these notions shape the mindscape of our reality. But it also entrains our thinking to look at the opposites and forget there is what’s called an included middle. That gray area in between. A place where the opposites can coexist. This dichotomy of either or thinking leads us down the path toward our compulsion toward right or wrong.

On personal levels, our identity becomes wed to what we believe to be the truth, once again rooted in the literal thought, the old classical worldview. So our thought has a need to be right. Our ego has a need to be right. And it works all the time to protect the self-constructed image of our identity. Most people protect their egos by defending their need to be right. The more rigid your thinking, the more fragile is your sense of self. Again, the more rigid your thinking, the more fragile your sense of self. Because the rigid thinking is protecting the sense of self. It also follows that the more tied we are to being right, the more fixed our beliefs and thoughts become. That’s the opposite of what we want. We can’t learn unless we challenge ourselves, unless we look at our beliefs. This absence of flexibility in our thinking suggests that we’re more interested in being right, in winning, than in learning or relating.

Horribly destructive to our relationships, isn’t it? And to our growth, or our intellectual curiosity, or our emotional curiosity. This is yet another form of thought defending its territory and doing battle against the possibility of being wrong. The paradox here is that vulnerability of thought, being comfortable with being uncertain, not knowing, or even being wrong, actually makes us powerful and strong. That’s what an opened mind is. People say they have an open mind, but rarely do they. An open mind suggests, I may be wrong. I need to rethink my position. Now once we free ourselves from the need to be right, our thinking opens up. Not being tied to defending the need to be right opens you to wonder, new inquiry, new possibilities, curiosity, and it provides an exceptional nutrient for your relationships. So what I’m proposing is that we reconsider vulnerability as we ordinarily think of it, once again.

As seen throughout many of my talks, this need to be right, the defending against the vulnerability makes us feel at risk or insecure. It’s just the opposite. You see, if I don’t need to be right, I’m not embarrassed to be wrong. That makes me powerful. That creates powerful self-worth. If I have nothing to fear with regard to what others may think, then my sense of self isn’t tied to such a silly artifact. And that in fact creates a powerful self-esteem. When you listen to interviews and the guest responds to a question and says, that’s a good question, you know what’s going on. It’s a question that they’re prepared for and they have the answer. As you’ve heard me say before, when I’m interviewed, a good question is a question that makes me stop and think and realize I don’t have an answer. I relish that. It’s a learning opportunity for me. Stop and ask yourself, in what ways your need to be right might block your ability to connect, to validate other people, or to open yourself to new learning. Try going against the grain and suspending the need to be right and see what happens.

Now let’s relate this back to quantum reality. In the quantum realm, we’ve looked at how there’s what’s called a wave-particle duality in which light can be a wave and it can be a particle. It’s not either or. The physical reality is it exists as both. So the very notion of either or becomes unsustainable. And that opens up a new vista of reality in which things are and are not at the same time. It feels confusing, but that suggests the whole realm of possibilities opens up. And this phenomenon is just as true in our everyday lives. Our desire to break things down into neat, distinct categories doesn’t help us function. In fact, this oversimplifying contributes to so many difficulties we face. We need to engage a higher level of complexity beyond either or thinking to meet the multifaceted challenges that we face. We can see how things become stuck when we’re rooted in this duality of either or. Pay close attention to the questions that are posed and you’ll notice how questions rupture and fragment wholeness. Remember reality is one inseparable whole, but either or thinking slices and dices that wholeness of reality into distinct compartments which we then think are true. For example, a twilight is a day or night. The question is a day or night provides only two choices and our mind then goes toward is only day or night. It’s really day blending into night. Do you love me or do you hate me? That might depend on the moment, although either term might be overstated.

I’d love to show you my appreciation for your subscribing to and rating this podcast by offering you a gift to one of the following. The Power of Mind, a live talk that I gave, or one of my digital eBooks, Creating Authentic Self-Esteem, Overcoming Anxiety, or Raising Resilient Children, and lastly, Cultivating Resilient Relationships. Once you have subscribed, please send an email to mel at and just let me know which gift you’d prefer. Thanks.

Do you believe in creative intelligence or in evolution? That sets up simple sided one answer. Isn’t it possible to believe in both? Does one have to preclude the other? Can you be pro-choice and still sensitive to the ethical issues of abortion? I’d like to think so. Now let’s think about this on more personal levels. If you’re a spouse, you’re a partner or another person is upset with you, they have an issue with you and they want you to acknowledge how they feel. Can you both validate how they feel and not default into saying you’re right and I’m wrong? You see, that’s where we get stuck in relationships, right or wrong versus validating each other’s feelings. In the past, many times I’ve been asked, do we discover reality or do we create reality? Either or question. Again, that question fractures reality into two separate compartments, discover, create. My answer to questions like that, when I’m asked either or questions, often I say yes, because I’ve trained my mind not to fall into either or thinking. I believe that we can discover and create at the same time. One doesn’t preclude the other.

Discover means that reality lies out there and we have simply found it, while create implies that the source comes from within, from our mind, from our consciousness. That very demarcation between in here and out there is merely the way we’ve been trained to see reality, in here and out there. There is no division. From a participatory worldview, which I explain in my book, we can appreciate these distinctions should become indistinct. Did Einstein discover the theory of relativity or did he envision it? Both. The new sciences suggest that this duality is simply our way of picturing reality, going back all the way to Aristotle. Even furthered by Newton and Descartes. We must transcend the limitations of these either or thinking patterns and begin to think and see again in wholeness. We can then reverse the fragmented thinking that ruptured wholeness and created separate compartments.

This new thinking that I’m espousing is participatory. It moves beyond the either or divide and it’s of immense help in our relationship and communication. Shifting from either or to either and or enables us to engage complexity and not oversimplify. Complexity includes opposing parts. It permits all opinions and positions to be heard and considered. It doesn’t mean we’ll be remaining mired in indecisiveness or lacking in clarity. It means we’re going to come to clarity by engaging complexity. As a culture, we’re trained to avoid complexity and to avoid confusion. We simply desire a need divided answers and solutions and quick fixes.

How’s that working out? Reality appears to be pluralistic, meaning it has innumerable qualities. It’s nuanced, textured, very subjective. Trying to extract one simple right or wrong yes or no answer from such a complex tapestry is dumb, it’s wrong minded, it’s foolish and it’s dangerous. It’s incoherent. It’s no different from trying to place a square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t fit. Just as either or thinking, for the most part, is incongruent with the participatory reality that quantum physics describes. Many years ago, I read in the Times an article that explained that if concrete is kept vibrating, it won’t set, it won’t become concrete, I guess, but retains a liquid form. The concept intrigued me. I thought it was a great metaphor for us to see about how we think. Keeping our thinking vibrating, not setting it in concrete, keeps us from falling prey to our personal beliefs and to concretizing our beliefs. To accomplish this requires just our flexibility that allows us to avoid the pitfalls of right or wrong, either or. We have to embrace confusion and complexity to increase the bandwidth of our brain power and stimulating and generating far more productivity, flexibility, and thinking.

It goes beyond oversimplification. You see, the oversimplifying makes our minds rigid and inhospitable to real, genuine thinking. It keeps us stuck in the confinement of old thought. When we embrace uncertainty and invite confusion, we keep the vibrating alive and that increases our neuroplasticity, the workout for our brain’s flexibility. Embrace and invite confusion that’s not weak, that’s generative. That opens the gateway for profound new thinking. The absence of this mental vibration gets us stuck in a virtual groove of old thought and old feelings and old experience. And that’s why we struggle with change. Thinking on the other hand enables perpetual questioning, not from a point of insecurity or doubt or overanalyzing. The goal here is to embrace this open-minded inclination to wonder to yourself. A relationship with this kind of inquiry, it opens the way for this oscillating that I’m speaking of, genuinely inquiring minds, seeking new questions rather than longing for answers. Don’t look for answers, reflect on and ask new questions. And reaching temporary and relative answers for a while is fine, a temporary resting place.

But the goal is to find a kind of an equilibrium between knowing and not knowing, confusion and clarity. An engaging paradox just stretches our mind beyond the limits of everyday logic and rationality that puts a straitjacket on our thinking. Reflect, contemplate, and look at things from multiple perspectives. That will enable your mind to become flexible and creative. That is the oscillating that keeps something from turning into concrete. It’s an ongoing state of uncertainty where we suspend our assumptions and beliefs. This is a groundswell for evolving insights because reality presents itself as an inexorable flow. We want our thinking to inexorably flow as well, embracing uncertainty to avoid a fixed state.

Well, that was a mouthful and complex and simple at the same time. If you have any questions on this topic, you can refer to my book, The Possibility Principle, which goes into great detail, or send me an email at mel at I assume for most listeners, you’re looking at and contemplating how this can affect you in your personal life, how it can assist you in your personal life. Don’t be shy. Send me an email and I’m happy to help you see this with a bit more clarity. So until next time, resist either or compartmentalized thinking. That training obscures your ability, it hinders your ability to be creative, curious, wondrous, and to keep flowing just as reality flows.

Until next time, be well, be speaking with you soon. Bye for now.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show, and it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, and that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again, and please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.

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