The smallest unit of information is the “bit,” which is the computer geek’s short-hand for “binary digit” (actually, using “binary digit” in ordinary conversation might qualify you as a geek).

Binary means “based on two.” You might therefore think that 2 is the exemplary bit. However, 2 is a single digit, so it is not necessarily based on two. The idea of binary is meant to capture a contrast between two things. Interestingly, the exemplary bit is not 2 but 1. What makes 1 binary is that it is not 0. So, when the number 0 lurks in the background as an alternative to 1, then the presence of 1 suddenly carries information, because it tells you at least one thing, namely that it is not 0. Without this contrast, 1 is just 1, and as such cannot convey anything.

This may all sound abstract, but it is actually quite sensible. Imagine that you want to write something down. You have two kinds of paper before you: one stack of sheets is black and another is white. You also have two kinds of pens at your disposal: one uses black ink and the other uses white ink (Is there such a thing a white ink? If not, just switch the ink to paint). Which would you choose? Obviously, you have some leeway. There is no reason, for instance, why you should privilege black ink on white paper, since you could just as easily achieve everything that this conventional pair accomplishes by using white ink on black paper.

You would not, however, use black on black or white on white. Why is that?

To extract the philosophical lesson from this scenario, assume that the white and black tones match perfectly, that ink on a paper would not leave any relief, and so on. The point I want to make would still apply even with the nitpicking (reliefs, for instance, are a species of difference), but I want to get to the point without such tedious detours. The take-away message is that, without some contrast, the sheet can convey no information. You might reply that the mere choice of, say, a white sheet, can be significant. That is true. But, again, if it conveys the least bit of information, it is in virtue of being white and not black.

Here’s another variation on the same idea. When the high-ranking mystics at the Vatican get together to elect a new Catholic Pope, they isolate themselves in some room. No one really knows what goes on in there, but at any rate, when they have chosen the person, they signal their decision to the outside world by lighting a fireplace, which in turn lets smoke come out through a chimney (I am not making this up). Journalists have their television cameras aimed at the chimney and thus immediately get the message: a new Pope has been chosen. Now, what if, instead of lighting a fire, the Catholic figures instead extinguished a fire that was already burning steadily. Clearly, the difference between lit/unlit would achieve the same effect.

Conveying “that” someone has been chosen is a simple message, whereas conveying “who” had been chosen would take a more complex code. Morse code, for instance, would be more than enough to accomplish this task, since it could use smoke/smokeless sequences to convey everything that the regular alphabet can. However, for any of this to even take place, you have to have a binary system that has a minimum contrast.

The most prevalent ethical convictions are like a white color that has never been contrasted with a non-white one, or a stream of smoke that has never been interrupted. Despite (or because of) their prevalence, those beliefs are rarely juxtaposed with something genuinely different. Let me therefore propose the following. Consider this statement:

One person’s need is a demand on another person’s energy/life.

Seen from a certain perspective, this statement conveys a great deal of information. It contains many letters, for instance, and moreover strings those letters in a specific combination. In this sense, the statement is distinguished from all the other statements that are unlike it. However, all of this grammatical information is a means to an end, namely the conveyance of a single idea. The idea is that one person’s need is a demand on another person’s energy/life. What would be the contrast of this idea? Presumably, it would be this:

One person’s need is not a demand on another person’s energy/life.

All I have added here is the word “not.” This linguistic marker of negation makes the newest statement say the opposite of what the previous one said. Contrasting the two statements thus yields a binary opposition, which we could now convey with “1” or “0.” Indeed, one could generate the same opposing ideas, for example, by asking the following question:

Is one person’s need a demand on another person’s energy/life?

Some questions can be formulated in an open-ended fashion, but this question has been whittled in a way lets it admit two clear answers: yes or no. Because of this, it could be answered by choosing a white or black sheet of paper, starting or interrupting a chain of chimney smoke, and so on.

None of this stuff about information constitutes ethical deliberation. However, the geeky lesson is that, if the opposite side is ever to get a hearing, it must first be acknowledged that there is an opposite side. Without that, one is left with an un-contrasted belief—like a white noise that one has heard from birth without interruption, and thus, never noticed.

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