Saturday, 10 February 2018

Dualism and Duality

A coin spins on a wooden table
Is the coin heads, or tails?
These might seem to you to be two words that mean the same thing, subtly different terms, or completely distinct concepts, depending on your background. In one set of definitions, they mean the same thing – that things can be divided into two, or sometimes more, categories. Self and not-self is a duality that is important in some Buddhist traditions, while we might see theism and non-theism as a duality in modern liberal Quakerism. In philosophy, dualism refers generally to any division into two, but most often (as in Cartesian dualism) the division of mind and body, or material and immaterial. In religion, we speak of dualistic religions as those that posit a pair of oppositional fundamental forces, generally – but not always – good and evil, or a pair of oppositional divinities, or a divinity and an opposing non-divine force. In mathematics, and most especially with one famous example in physics, duality can refer to two distinct systems or representations that are nonetheless equivalent, or represent the same thing; we'll return to that key example later.
The importance of duality in some traditions of Buddhism lies in the idea of non-duality, of somehow coming to apprehend that dualities do not have fundamental reality. One aspect of enlightenment is held to be the sight, or direct apprehension – not simply intellectual knowledge – that self and not-self is an artificial division created by our minds, and that there is no true division between the two. A classic Zen text, the Sandōkai, illustrates a tension between duality and non-duality, that the division between self and not-self is meaningful, and yet artificial, arguing by implication that the true view of reality is to see both the duality and the non-duality as real – that self is in not-self, and not-self in self, and yet they are meaningful concepts. This is illustrated with the Taijitu, or “Tai Chi symbol”, most commonly known as the yin-yang (☯ - or see the larger image below), a symbol most associated with Taoism, but meaningful in many eastern traditions.
Taijitu (aka yin-yang)
The taijitu
It is this idea of the dual and non-dual in tension that has drawn my mind recently. It came to me at a time of relaxation, as I had been continuing to read God, Words and Us, the published output of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group's “theology think tank”. A major topic there is in breaking away from a dualistic view of liberal Quaker faith, away from the idea of oppositional, or even dichotomous, “theism and non-theism” – a matter I have written about recently. As I was quite relaxed and aware at the time, my mind ran along a few other tracks at the same time, and I suddenly came to a new way of seeing the situation (new to me, at least – I make no claim of complete novelty).
Let's try an easy metaphor, first. Consider a coin; if you have one on your person, take it out and have a look. There is a different picture on each side, usually called “heads” and “tails”, or more technically the “obverse” and “reverse”. You flip a coin, and it lands with one or the other upwards. Try as you might, you can't see both sides clearly at the same time. Yet a coin that has landed “heads” still has the “tails” side, and vice versa. The coin is only “heads” or “tails” based on its position in relation to other objects – including the observer. This is even the root of a common idiom in English – they are “two sides of the same coin”. Different faces, or facets, or a indivisible whole.
For a deeper, if more difficult to grasp analogy, I return to physics. Recall that I mentioned, at the start of this post, that in physics, stemming from mathematics, duality takes on a meaning that has some parallels with the case of the coin, or with the dualism/non-dualism of the Sandōkai. Two systems or descriptions that describe the same phenomenon. The example in physics that will be familiar, after a fashion, to most people is the idea of wave–particle duality. Certain objects in physics – or, you might say, in the physical world – have both wave and particle properties. The way this is often explained in schools is that they “sometimes behave as waves, and sometimes behave as particles”, when in fact they actually behave as both, all the time. They are both waves, and particles, or alternatively you might say that they are neither. Yet both the wave description and the particle description are vital in understanding their behaviour in different circumstances.
A diagram of the classic double-slit experiment
The classic double-slit experiment
Take as an example a classic experimental result in quantum mechanics; if you are not familiar with it, that's okay – though I would encourage anyone with the slightest inclination to learn more about it, as it is quite fascinating. The seeming-contradiction should be understandable in any case. It's not hard to imagine a whole swarm of particles behaving as a wave – after all, what is water? But interference of individual particles in the double-slit experiment (see diagram) shows that an electron passes through the diffraction slits and strikes the back wall of the apparatus, yet the probability distribution describing where it is likely to hit shows the interference pattern you would expect of a wave. Despite being a single particle, it behaves enough like a wave that it somehow simultaneously passes through two openings, and interferes with itself – yet it remains a particle enough that it strikes a single point on the detector at the back of the apparatus. It is not flitting back and forth between being a wave and being a particle, but rather it is a quantum object, both a wave and a particle, and arguably neither.
From this mathematical use, I will continue to use the term “dualism” for its usual meanings – a division into two classes (i.e. a dichotomy), or a system of oppositional forces or entities, and so on. I will use “duality” for the sense seen in physics, where a system can be described in two ways, but it is still one system. The descriptions are more useful or relevant in different situations (or perhaps to different people, which is an element of the situation), but both of them remain descriptions of the same system – even if they seem to be contradictory. This is the duality of Zen non-duality as seen in the Sandōkai, the tension of things being separate-yet-not-separate.
So it is, I have come to see, with the Divine. Not that the Divine is both a wave and a particle, but that it partakes of many natures at once, with none of those natures fully describing it. Yet to apprehend it as best we can, we must hold those conceptions, those ideas and natures, in tension, and not close our minds to any of them.
Quakers who like to consider theology have held one position in line with this for some time – that they see God as both immanent and transcendent. Across the huge range of conceptions found among liberal Quakers, there are many apparent dichotomies represented; theist/non-theist is actually just a handy way of lumping several together, and not all who might be considered theists hold to all of the characteristics of theism – while not all who call themselves non-theist, nor those who might be analytically considered such, reject all of the characteristics of theism. So we have many dichotomies even within that classification scheme, where the Divine might be considered personal (having personality, desires, opinions etc.) or not, omnipotent or not, willing and able to act in the world directly or not. Cutting across that scheme, we have dichotomies (or things split into more than two classes) that occur in both camps, such as being the ultimate creator or not, while within either “camp” we can find dichotomies that apply largely with the group. These include, for instance, the idea of substitutionary atonement, or more fundamentally the nature and divinity of Christ; similarly, the degree of materialism of non-theists – some being highly supernaturalist but not identifying the supernatural force with any theistic characteristics, and others being strictly materialist (in the philosophical sense), rejecting supernaturalism.
All of these classifications, even where they naturally present multiple classes or exist on a continuum, can be arbitrarily defined in terms of dichotomies – not something I recommend doing in most cases, as it simplifies complexity when we should want to understand complexity. In the sense of the argument I am making here, however, it is important because the point I am making is equally valid wherever you draw the line to create the dichotomy. Of course, there is the definite dichotomy as to whether you consider the Divine, whatever you call it, to have some objective reality – as a personal, omnipotent God, or as an impersonal divine force or divine essence within each of us – or to be entirely a construct of the human mind. Lastly there is the question of whether you subscribe to Cartesian dualism, the separation of mind (perhaps soul) and body, or a materialistic monism (note that this is not the same thing as the supernaturalist/“strict materialist” distinction, as supernaturalism does not require non-materialist understandings of that supernatural element).
Thus we have a huge collection of dualistic descriptions. We tend to think of them as dualistic, because logically Cartesian dualism excludes the corresponding monism, supernaturalism excludes strict materialism, the Divine as having independent, real existence versus being a human construct, Christ as divine and the son of God excludes Christ as just a man, or Christ as dubiously historical. I feel a growing conviction that proper apprehension of the Divine will require us to somehow see these as dualities instead. Those who are most logical and analytical, as I tend to be myself, will struggle with this. How can something be red and blue? How can it be straight and curved? Simultaneous immanence and transcendence is also a contradiction, long embraced in Christian theology by the multiple nature of God – while the Father is transcendent, the Spirit and/or the Son are immanent, with this being a fundamental purpose and result of the incarnation; the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), self-identified as Christians though that identification is contested by much of the Christian community, holds that all of creation is filled with a divine immanence that they term the Light of Christ (a term also used by Quakers with not entirely incompatible meaning). Self and not-self is an obvious logical dichotomy, but several traditions of Buddhism hold, as mentioned earlier, that enlightenment involves seeing past that dichotomy to the unity of self and not-self.
One could approach it in the sense of the unity of opposites; that no member of a dichotomy has meaning without its complement. Without darkness, light has no meaning. Without the possibility of being hot, coldness is unthinkable. This extends to cognitive dissonance, or even antinomy, in the thinking of Kant. We are considering things which extend beyond not just our actual experience, but our possible experience. I agree with Kant that, in this situation, the characteristics of reason that we learn from the world-as-experienced cannot be maintained. As we explore these concepts and ideas, that describe things that go beyond the tangible, we will find contradictions. That is no reason to suppose we have taken a wrong turning. Contradiction is, arguably, to be expected in this scenario.
(One quick aside for those who hold to the relatively extreme non-theism espoused by David Boulton. It may seem fundamentally even more impossible to consider the Divine to have multiple, seemingly contradictory characteristics when you consider that it does not exist outside of human thought. However, existing only within human thought is a kind of existence in itself – and that thing that exists in human thought is thought to exist independently, as well as only within human thought. That is your duality; as shall shortly become clear, I hope, there is nothing wrong with only holding as much of the duality as you can find capability for, but it should be approached ambitiously.)
The classic duck/rabbit optical illusion.
Is it a duck, or a rabbit?
Then the goal should be to reach a comprehension, an apprehension of the Divine in which the God of Abraham created the world, and mankind, and incarnated as His own Son and died for our sins, and was resurrected – and yet the world came into being through a series of natural steps of billions of years, life evolved through natural selection, the underlying principles of the world are essentially random, and there is no God. Where the Divine is something inherent in ourselves and where it is a reflection of an external divinity that is present to teach and guide us. Where spoken prayer has external effects, and where it is only a tool for the discipline and direction of the mind. Where we have an eternal soul, and where when we die, we die utterly.
Perhaps this is impossible for a person to do, to truly comprehend and accept. I certainly can't claim that I do, even if I feel this clear leading towards it. Perhaps it is possible, but only through an enlightenment process that would move us beyond the human. But as Quakers, as a Religious Society of Friends, we do not have to rely each of us upon ourselves. My own understanding of the Light is that, when we worship together, the Divine that exists in each of us, independently, becomes connected and we have a gestalt divinity, a shared Light, that exceeds the sum of the individuals'; I know that others, with quite different conceptions of the Divine (including fairly traditional Christian understandings), have ways of seeing collective worship that are not terribly far from that. Perhaps, then, it will do that we seek to allow that gestalt to see these dualities, this unity of contradictions.
As a worshipping community, as a Religious Society, we can collectively hold this contradiction; seeking to hold it as individuals would certainly be good, but we will run up against limitations. Our collective spirituality, however, need not be concerned with these limitations. The leap of understanding that we need as individuals is simply to understand the idea that contradiction need not mean exclusion, that our collective cooperation and seeking for Truth need not require agreement. The concept of duality of apparently contradictory ideas, the idea of Kantian antinomy as no intellectual flaw, might be a way to help us do this.
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