Obsession with duality

    In the west we like to think in terms of dualities. Well known examples from diverse fields ranging from philosophy to physics included the physical/metaphysical duality in philosophy, the mind/brain duality in psychology, the genes/environment duality in biology, the enthalpy/entropy duality in chemistry, and the particle/wave duality in physics. We have our founding father of western philosophy, Plato, to thank for this obsession with dualistic thinking. He started it all by dividing the world into two realms - the ideal world of perfect forms on the one hand and the manifest world of imperfect matter on the other. Eastern philosophy, by contrast, emphasizes the unity of all things. I am not here to argue the superiority of one philosophy over the other. That would be to be to succumb to dualistic thinking again. Instead, I simply wish to invite the reader to explore options that arise when one moves from thinking in terms of "either/or" and considers the possibility of "and/both".

The Man vs Nature Model

    What do I mean by moving from "either/or" thinking to "and/both" thinking? Let's take as our model a very familiar example that has already been nicely resolved. I am thinking of the dichotomy between man and nature. Before the time of Darwin, and for many still today, there was or is a hard and fast separation between the two. Of course, most of us by now accept the fact that man is indeed a part of nature. Man does have unique qualities that set us apart from the rest of nature, but at the same time we are very much a part of nature. So it is not that the distinction between man and nature is invalid. It is a useful distinction. It is just that this dualistic picture is not the whole picture. To see the whole picture, one must look deeper and see the underlying connection. In this case the connection is that man emerged from nature. Man is both separate and not separate from nature, depending on how you slice the tree. Only by suspending dualistic thinking can one shift to a perspective that allows one to see this deeper, nested hierarchical relationship. The world is not flat. Man is a subset of nature. We evolved from it and are contained within it. What about other familiar dichotomies? Is it possible to see them also from a nested hierarchical perspective?

The Black and White Extreme

    Let's take the most extreme example I can think of - black verses white. Aren't these two mutually exclusive and as different as different can be? At one time, I certainly thought so. Then one day my college art professor suggested to his painting class that we should consider black not just as the absence of light, but as a color in and of itself. We were used to using black to shade and moderate other colors to simulate various intensities of light and depth. Seeing black as a color in its own right presented a new challenge as well as new a opportunity. Black acquired a new relationship to white. The old perspective was that black was the absence of all color and that white was the embodiment of all colors. Now we had a new perspective of black as being not only the opposite of white but also one of the colors contained in white - both separate from and contained within. More options in art, allows for more creativity. Where else can we apply this creativity?

Science vs Religion Revisited

    I do not intend to review all the dualities we take for granted, but I do wish to examine a few that are particularly relevant to science. A favorite and perennial topic I have noticed on this site and elsewhere is the relationship between science and religion. Are these two irreconcilable opposites? Perhaps on one level they are, just like black and white. I am not arguing against that perspective. I think it is an important and useful distinction to make, just like the distinction between man and nature. The question is, whether it is also possible to see another perspective in which there is a nested hierarchical relationship between the two? If so, which is the more fundamental and which is the one that emerged or evolved from the first? I suggest we consider science as a subset of religion. You need not agree, but I think it can be an enlightening exercise.

    If religion is a belief system as well as a moral code of conduct, then science certainly qualifies. There are certain core beliefs on which science is founded and the code of conduct has a name. We call the "moral code" the scientific method, and the core belief is that truth is not arbitrary nor invented by man, but only to be discovered through the study of nature herself. Implied is the additional belief that there is order in nature and that her behavior is determined by certain universal laws of behavior, which we like to call the laws of physics.

    I once considered myself to be an atheist and in the way most people think, I guess I still am. I didn't see how talk of God could have any useful role to play in any serious conversation. My perspective changed when I heard a very simple definition of God that I could whole heartily embrace. It came from a woman named Byron Katie (yes Katie is her last name). I am not sure how to categorize this remarkable woman, but a good approximation would be to call her a philosophical counselor who helps people see their way through difficult life situations. Her book is called, Loving What Is and in this book she speaks of God to those who believe in God. For the rest of us, she explains that, by God, she simply means "the universe". When you insist that things be different than they are, she says, you are picking a fight with God. In science we would say one is arguing with nature. Guess who wins in the end.

    So I propose that we can think of science as our religion and The Universe as our god. Is this just a gimmick to help us talk to our religious friends? Well that might be one useful outcome. More important, in my mind, is that it shifts our focus away from that unproductive debate over the existence of God to a more fruitful question of, what is the nature of God. From this perspective, science is in a wonderful position to answer that question. After all, when the geologist reads the sediment layers of ancient cliffs, when the marine biologist listens to what the coral has to tell us, when the physicist seeks understanding from high energy collisions of subatomic particles, we have devotees (some might say priests, but I don't want to swell any heads) who are communicating directly with the source. Science is an iterative process of asking God a question and listening for the answer.

Dualities in Physics

    I have a particular interest in physics because I see physics as the study of how nature works on the most fundamental level. How can a change in philosophical perspective help us get past the limits of dualistic thinking here? There are two dualities in physics I would like to take a closer look at - the wave/particle duality and the time/space duality. In each case, I would like to entertain the possibility that one of the pair is more fundamental than the other and that the latter is emergent from the former. Which would we choose for each role and how might that open more doors to understanding?

Particles As Waves

    Let's start with the particle/wave duality, made famous by Niels Bohr and his principle of complementarity. I am not suggesting that the principle of complementarity is wrong. Like Einstein, I am just suggesting that Bohr's perspective might not represent the complete picture. I have always felt that Louis de Broglie, the man who conceived the idea of matter waves, and David Bohm, who like de Broglie wanted to give the wave a more fundamental role, were treated badly by the science establishment at the time and by many historians of science since. I am happy to see a more sympathetic treatment by some more recent authors on the subject.

    So which should we say is more fundamental, the wave or the particle and how would that change our thinking? I propose the wave is more fundamental. We know conventional waves result from a synchronized pattern of events. For example, in a stadium wave, sports fans stand up and sit down in turn. The result is the appearance of wave of activity sweeping across the stadium. So the question in my mind is, on the most fundamental level, is the world made up of things (particles) or waves (synchronized events)? The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed that we can "never step in the same river twice". The thing we call a river is in actuality a steady stream of changing water molecules. Likewise all objects, even fundamental ones in my opinion, in order to persist in time, must engage in a steady stream of interactions with their surrounding thereby defining their continued existence. That is, what we call objects or particles are just the waves of information that define them.

    How could this perspective help further progress in theoretical physics? Philosophy is no substitute for science, but it can be an ally. There is the old joke about the man looking for his lost keys under a particular lamp post, not because that is where he dropped them, but because, as he explains to the inquisitive bystander, that is where the light is better. Well I believe the proper philosophical perspective can provide some additional light and suggest additional places to look for our lost keys. For example, I see string theory as wedded to the idea of a fundamental "thing", the string. For a long time, this was the only "lamp post" where the majority of research was being conducted in the pursuit of unifying general relativity with quantum mechanics. A more recent, alternative theory, called loop quantum gravity, by contrast, emphasizes the role of events and networks of events. Depending on the timing and sequence of events and their connections to other events, all other "things" emerge, including particles. I am not saying string theory is necessarily wrong and loop quantum gravity is right. I do think loop quantum gravity shows great promise and more closely fits the nested hierarchical structure that seems to be ubiquitous in nature. It deserves our serious attention.

Time For Space

    Let me end with a look at time and space. Einstein famously showed with his Theory of Special Relativity that both time and space are relative and change according to the frame of reference of the observer. These ideas were further developed into the idea of a unified space-time stage on which the events of our universe take place. Within this perspective, time came to be seen as a kind of fourth dimension and it was said that all events take place in this four dimensional arena. An equivalence between time and distance was thus established. What was missing, in my opinion, was the question of whether one was more fundamental than the other. It is true that time can be converted to distance by using the speed of light the converter, but was time the fourth dimension or was it really the first dimension? I suggest that time is the first dimension and that the other three are emergent from it.

    Again, my justification is more philosophical than scientific, but I believe it can shed light. Space requires time, but time does not require space. Space is a persistent property and persistence requires time. Persistence does not mean unchanging. Einstein showed with his Theory of General Relativity that gravity can be seen as space being warped by mass. As the distribution of mass changes, so does the geometry of space. This lead to the prediction of gravity waves. The fact that space can change with time just further confirms, in my opinion, that time is the independent variable and space the dependent variable.

    How might this nested hierarchical perspective play out in current research in fundamental physics? The holy grail of unifying general relativity with quantum physics has been going on for decades. Einstein formulated his General Relativity equations based on four dimensional space-time. The equations are very complicated. A great deal of effort was made by individuals such as John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt in the 1960's to quantize Einstein's equations but the problems proved to be intractable. It wasn't until Abhay Ashtekar reformulated Einstein's equations in 1986, separating time from the 3 dimensions of space that a breakthrough was made possible. Carlo Rovelli and Lee Smolin found that Ashtekar's reformulated equations were easier to quantize and thus was born a new possible route to unifying gravity with quantum mechanics, called loop quantum gravity. According to loop quantum gravity, not only can space change shape with time but it can be created and destroyed. Space emerges and vanishes according to a dynamic networks of loops. These loops do not represent actual physical entities but are abstract mathematical constructs representing events and relationships between events. I am very excited by the prospects of loop quantum gravity and I believe this path would not have opened up had Ashtekar not re-evaluated the time-space equivalence duality that dominated the thinking at the time.

Dialogue on Duality

    I will leave it to the reader to explore the other dualities cited in my opening paragraph to see if they too could fit the pattern of an emergent nested hierarchy. What other dualities could we look at? Do all dualities necessarily consist of a fundamental partner and an emergent one? What other relationships might they have? Your comments are welcome.

Recommended reading: Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Once Before Time, The Quantum Ten, Thirty Years that Shook Physics, Ken Wilber, Byron Katie, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lila, God's Debris