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  • Writer's pictureDan Thompson

Both/ And: Dealing with Duality

Dualities are ubiquitous in nature, but that doesn’t mean that they are what they seem, otherwise physicists wouldn’t be looking for a unified theory. Perhaps the most enduring dualities are the mind/body; particle/ wave; space/ time; materialist/ idealist, but there are many more, for instance; as above, so below; energy and matter; macrocosm and the microcosm; subjectivity and objectivity, but perhaps the most important is position and momentum, otherwise known as the Uncertainty Principle, or the ‘measurement problem’.

These polarized distinctions are the baseline for which to interpret our experiences—otherwise we might not have them—but they are only a means to an end; a multiplication of complication, and a multiplication of complication only results in more complication. More questions and fewer answers. The study of matter by examining its constituent parts does not get us any closer to discovering what it is other than the realization that each part is actually the same part. A gold necklace reduced to its constituent parts is a gold atom and each gold atom is a combination of neutrons, protons and electrons, and each proton is composed of tinier particles; quarks. Each quark is the same quark, each electron is the same electron. If we stopped there, we’d have a pretty good theory; John Wheeler’s single electron theory, but we don’t. We keep crushing them down to smaller and smaller bits. Bits of information. Translating matter/ energy into information, which only seems to prove the informational basis of reality. Which would be great if they actually acknowledged that that is what is happening, but they don’t. Instead, they’re still trying to establish a physical basis for reality.

In Graham Harman’s object analysis, (whom we have discussed before) the same object can be seen as either what it does (overmining) or what it is made of (undermining); the reduction of a thing to its parts. Both of these views glance over exactly those qualities that the phenomenologists considered most important and which are responsible for producing experience. Or more precisely, pointing out where the two types of phenomenology split into transcendental and hermeneutic.

Therefore Harman introduces aesthetics as a way of looking at objects that honours their individuality and sense of allure that seems to always make them deeper than simply what they are, and shallower than a reduction to their particles, which doesn’t do much for our experience of them.

There is an excess in aesthetic appreciation. What the object is, whether a sculpture, painting, piece of music or a poem, is not immediately apparent and identifiable to every observer. It must be considered over a long period of time, and often in different situations and contexts. Science and most forms of control (politics, capitalism, resource extraction) on the other hand are obsessed with identification, taxonomy and reductionism, as if we were trying to eliminate objects as fast as humanly possible (or now with the advent of AI, as fast as computationally possible) in order to do what? Destroy them? Render them impotent before our amazing feats of perception? We can see it, it is a fish. Or, I can hear it, it is a song by The Jackson Five. But what has this really done besides state the obvious, and this is supposed to be scientific? Well yes it is, but it is not impressive or helpful when deriving meaning and purpose, or even the directedness of intentionality (what a thing is about).

For Harman, the real object is never the object encountered, whether through thinking it or using it, because it is always in excess of these modes. He believes that art, and ways of thinking and talking about art (including the experience of it) gets us closer to the nature of objects than materialism or naïve realism.

Indeed, the pictures, sounds and impressions we get from the various modes of art are links to the remote, noumenal, purely mental worlds that exist outside the temporal, local and spatial. We are taken back there every time we are exposed to them through the doors and windows of the senses. The doors being the senses that we can actually walk through and experience like the haptic (touch) interactive, taste and to a lesser degree smell, which is less immediate. Smell is carried and can be sensed remotely, while sight is rather passive, we can see it as through a window, likewise sound can be carried and is sensed remotely, often coming again, through a window. We see a picture and whether it is a realistic representation or a figurative painting it evokes a thing that is not present, and therefore becomes timeless, just as a song can timelessly transport one back into the time when it was composed, as much now as it was then. The same with sculpture, reaching/ touching/ haptic, or reading, transporting one into the time in which it was written.

As a theory of aesthetics, these modes are united or ordered by beauty, which is the common cause of all senses and the stimuli that evoke and develop them out of the undifferentiated apeiron (/əˈpirɒn/; ἄπειρον), a Greek word meaning “that which is unlimited”, “boundless”, “infinite”, or “indefinite” from ἀ- a-, “without” and πεῖραρ peirar, “end, limit”, “boundary”, through the intentional act and the innate or immanent apprehension of beauty in form, and a translation of that form into matter so there is a direct resemblance of the noumenal in the phenomenal.

Aesthetically, objects and experiences contain within them both the terrible and the ecstatic. These rather arbitrary terms can be supplemented almost ad infinitum, but the juxtaposition always remains. There is a sadness as well as a joy in all things, what we will later identify as a conjunction of opposites. In terms of the NW/ WF theory, these are evoked through place and conditions of weather. We look down in the winter to survey those things on the ground, as if waiting for them to emerge, while in the longer days of summer we stare at the sky and the green of the trees as the light hits them, a joy accompanied by an innate sadness because we know it cannot last. It is difficult to remain in any one of these moments for long. Only in the present can they be fully understood or contemplated, without reference to the other. This is the epoche or the transcendental reduction. The more familiar they are, the stranger they become, like a word repeated over and over until it loses its meaning, then, when the meaning returns we suddenly get it.

Virgnia Woolf in her autobiography, Moments of Being says of her experience that, “As one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.”

The creative impulse, for Woolf, lies in the qualitative difference between the experiences that produced despair and the ones that spark satisfaction. Again, we can supplement these words ‘despair’ and ‘satisfaction’ for others, it is the distinction that matters, the one being necessary for the other to occur and to enable the transition from despair to satisfaction through the realization, or shock that Woolf describes, thus:

“I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words… From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock” (Woolf 1972).

The cotton wool is the everyday unconscious stream of events. The significance of this to phenomenology is self-evident, even if it was not known to Woolf herself, the ‘horrid labour’ that prevented her from turning her vision of the cotton wool—and the seed of truth within it—into words, a work of art; the aesthetic pole of the Theory of Everything we are trying to reach.

Through these examples the phenomenological reduction and the transcendental ego become magical, creative acts that are, like Husserl says, a rigorous science, but only after this ‘horrid labour’ is done. Agreement about the exact meaning of the terms and the order and situation in which they should be applied, is still not widely accepted and so they have been largely abandoned in favour of the hermeneutic interpretation of what we already know. The hermeneutic interpretation is the easy way out of performing the ‘horrid labour’ of putting these things into words. Where transcendental phenomenology tries to retrieve new information out of a direct experience, hermeneutics relies on preconceived notions; the experience of being with or without the awareness of the object, place or time so the only real thing is being.

It’s not one or the other, but both. There is only one phenomenology, just as there is only one Theory of Everything, we just have to agree on what is most important, which parts of experience are universal, and which are merely incidental.

That’s not to say that subjective experience is not crucial, we all must experience things for ourselves in order to reach any objective, universal conclusions, but we need a method by which we can navigate experience, the despair and satisfaction, the horror and the ecstatic, through all the incidental details, ‘the cotton wool’ of daily life to get to the thing-in-itself behind the appearances, and that thing is us. The consciousness of which we are a part. It requires an act of consciousness to receive what the things are telling us.

We only really know what an object is by forgetting that it is there, the same with a place, we have no awareness of where one starts and the other ends as in the case of a geographical region (the many ways into and out of a forest) classical vs modern life (and then modern vs post-modern), or of our modes of locomotion, walking, running, entering and exiting or of the ground we are standing on… all of these are things that we just do. That if we were to be fully conscious of them we would get hardly anywhere.

The despair and satisfaction that Woolf describes as ‘shocks’ or ‘blows’ upon coming into awareness of the world in a moment (my term, see also: ‘peeling the tangie’); are the points of convergence and departure that we receive as phenomenological raw data through the senses of an individuated unit of consciousness. We are witnesses of unprecedented change that seems to be a matter of course, unstoppable and inevitable, towards some unknown end.

These ‘shocks’ and ‘blows’ are as objective and universal as anything can be, but we do not yet know what they mean, not the government, not our parents and not our peers, therefore we must accept them and largely ignore them, lest we become paralysed, unable to reconcile the one with the other. What Woolf calls the ‘horrid labour’, because in order to do this; understand, accept and communicate, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps without any sort of explanation for these obvious and shocking inconsistencies between human (history) and nature. There is a nearly imperceptible gap between the conscious and preconscious where the thing in itself becomes clear. This is the coincidentia oppositorum, the conjunction or union of opposites that the mind, as a thing itself, can either make real or withhold as a possibility, thereby preventing it from becoming real.

Phenomenology and quantum mechanics tell us that the wonder and awe of the world—both natural and human—is as much a part of us as it is a sensation that we receive from it. We are it as it is us. We have the ability to transmute the coincidentia oppositorum of despair/ horror, satisfaction/ ecstasy into pure satisfaction, or alternately, pure despair. This is the source and cause of our despair (and also of our satisfaction); that we are the agents, not mere recipients of phenomena. The horrid labour is in fact the Great Work of the alchemists. It is a both/ and situation rather than an either/ or. Everything appears in the presence of its opposite and goes back to it. If we are at peace with the world, the world is at peace with us.

The object of physics and of the larger discipline of consciousness studies is to eliminate these dualities in search of a theory of everything. Ancient systems of belief (such as Vedanta) have been aware of this for millennia, but experimental proof had not been provided until the discovery of quantum mechanics when the search for a unified theory began in earnest. At first Albert Einstein was committed to disproving the findings of quantum physics, but finally found himself beholden to them. His next attempt was to unify relativity with quantum mechanics, but was unable to do so, but to his credit no one else has been able to either.

Some researchers have suggested that there may not be a need for a unified theory, that a physics of the very small and a physics of the very large may not reducible to each other. An ontological primitive is different though. It merely says that something must be primary. Whichever has the highest resolution, the biggest mystery, the chicken or the egg. The egg is what is mysterious. It exists in a state of potential, both/ and, like Schrodinger’s cat. The egg is consciousness. What we see on the outside is the smooth shell, the whiteness, its dimensions wrapped up inside it (multi-dimensional). Whereas the chicken is a dumb animal and incites nearly no wonder or mystery whatsoever. It is simply bred, farmed, killed and eaten, dispensing with even more of its nature and mystery. Getting rid of the diminutive Chinese bird, and replacing it with the white animal in the cage.

The point as ever, is to dispense with the duality, and if we do not, or cannot accomplish this with a unified theory, then we will settle for an ontological primitive, or a first principle.

We may therefore look at idealism and materialism, quantum and classical as two sides of the same coin, the same process, just as particle and wave, or the complementary spins of the particle itself. Down and up, right and left being parallax of right and left, or the curved arrows of a continuous cycle (ourobourus). Gauge symmetry transformation, binary charges and spins shift from one to the other instantly as if pixelated i.e. a movement in one region (pixel) transmitting an instantaneous movement in the other (see: quasicrystals, action at a distance); one goes up, while the other goes down. One goes off, while the other turns on; two sides of the same coin. That is, all particles are variations, modulations of the same particle.


two sides of the same coin (particle, spin analogy)


Double-sided arrow

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Niels Bohr coat of arms “opposites are complementary” coincidentia (conjunction) oppositorum

Fig. 5

Curved arrows making a broken (infinity) circle

Fig. 6


These symbols exemplify the three in one (Both/ and) principle of quantum physics and the scaling of quantum effects up to the psi- or synchronistic events that we see in the physical world. They don’t even have to be psi- or ‘paranormal’ at all, in fact, many of the processes, effects and events that we take for granted as ‘normal’ ‘everyday’ may in fact be the scaling up of quantum effects out of an infolded order; the extrinsic appearance of an intrinsic, subtle process.

The subject of this essay however is not to prove any of this on the basis of science, as in a unified theory but on something a lot less rigid; an ontological constant. For one, because I am not a scientist and two because the subject of an ontological constant is a lot more fascinating and accessible to the individual.

It relies on logic and direct experience rather than empirical measurements, and since I am not in a position to make these measurements, I’d rather not get into the minutiae of how these measurements and experiments work. Instead, I come to it as a natural philosopher, a renaissance person of philosophy, combining various theories into a multi-disciplinary work of art. Especially if one introduces a bit of mysticism, which is exactly what I think the early practitioners of philosophy and science were doing; Issac Newton, Rene Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz to name a few. Who in addition to being scientists, were renaissance persons versed in all manner of intellectual endeavour, including mysticism, mythology, alchemy, art etc; ideas only accessible through the process of thinking them.

By dismissing anything that seems a little too woo-woo, scientists take a lot of the possibility and adventure out of discovery that might otherwise allow them to take their research into places not immediately conceived or considered useful, but may be useful later when a more complete picture has been established. As a result, this leaves a lot of the adventure up to the non-scientists, philosophers and fiction writers who are only as limited as they allow themselves to be.

Although they may seem disconnected, the reigning hypothesis in cosmology is that the universe emerged from a singularity and as it expanded, that singularity spread out in every direction, so every point in space time is connected, or entangled with every other point. This is the generally accepted means of travel across long distances and faster than light (instantaneous) communication, or even what we will later discuss as part of the dual-slit experiment. But for now, what it has specific bearing on is Place; the integration of space and time into something that is beyond both space and time, existing as much now as it did then (in the past). So time travel need not be as impossible as the critics have claimed, because what travels is merely information which of course does not obey the same laws of physics that we do, or anything else for that matter, having no particle or field involved aside from consciousness.

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