In early 1927, physicist Neils Bohr was on a skiing trip in Norway when he received a letter from his colleague, Werner Heisenberg. The contents of that note were Bohr’s introduction to what became one of the most well-known theories in quantum physics: Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle. Heisenberg’s paper was already being drafted by the time Bohr returned to his Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen, although Bohr was able to convince Heisenberg that the fundamental concept, while correct, was essentially part of a greater and somewhat abstruse underlying phenomenon.
The quantum world is, after all, a strange and uncertain place. There can be a degree of certainty about, for instance, the position an electron may hold. However, any degree of accuracy in this measurement results in a complimentary diminution of accuracy in the electron’s manifested momentum. These two features that tell us about the electron’s behavior, in other words, essentially cannot be viewed simultaneously.
The roots of this problem lay in even earlier observations, namely the famous double-slit experiment performed by Thomas Young all the way back in 1801, although in 1927—the same year that Heisenberg was going to print with his paper on the uncertainty principle—a pair of researchers at Western Electric (the predecessor of Bell Labs) named Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer were able to demonstrate that electrons possessed the same essential wave-particle duality. Light, in other words, was not the only phenomenon in our universe possessing this strange, dualistic quality.
Bohr argued that while Heisenberg was correct that our inability to observe all aspects various quantum phenomena resulted in uncertainty, this actually stemmed from complimentary aspects that these phenomena possessed. Returning to the electron from our earlier example, it can manifest both a position, and it can manifest momentum, but each quality is observable only under different circumstances (sometimes outlined as “visual” and “causal” representations). Despite the exclusivity of each of these elements to their respective observations, both aspects are nonetheless essential parts of the electron and its behavior.
Heisenberg conceded Bohr’s point:
“Bohr has brought to my attention [that] the uncertainty in our observation does not arise exclusively from the occurrence of discontinuities but is tied directly to the demand that we ascribe equal validity to the quite different experiments which show up in the [particulate] theory on one hand, and in the wave theory on the other hand.”
Hence, the principle of complementarity came to be.
One of the truly fascinating things about physics is the way that, over time, our deepening observations of reality sometimes appear contradictory, or even nonsensical. In order to wrap our minds around how light or matter could behave in such a weirdly dualistic way required a modification in our thinking about the way reality itself works. Prior to that, a similar new way of thinking about phenomena in nature helped Einstein revise our notions about some of the Newtonian standards that had held their place for more than two centuries.
The argument could be made that there are a variety of disciplines—not just physics—that may benefit from similar changes or expansions in our way of thinking. Also, it might be said that there are things we observe in physics that are analogous to concepts in unrelated disciplines, and that while no direct associations can be made between them, certain comparisons may nonetheless help us orient our thinking in new and beneficial ways.
Psychotherapist Lawrence LeShan presented a good example of this in his book How to Meditate (Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company 1974). In fact, LeShan makes a direct comparison between the concept of complementarity, as outlined above, and the ways meditation can help people understand “another view of reality.” LeShan wrote, “if we have learned one thing from modern physics, it is that there may be two viewpoints about something which are mutually contradictory and yet both viewpoints are equally ‘correct.’ In physics this is called the principle of complementarity.”
Again, it should be pointed out that comparisons between things like meditation and quantum physics are merely that: they are comparisons, not equivalencies, per se. However, LeShan hits on something very significant here, in that there is merit to the idea that there may be more than one “correct” way of seeing some things, despite any apparent contradictions between such viewpoints.
As LeShan puts it, “for the fullest understanding of some phenomena we must approach them from two different viewpoints. Each viewpoint by itself tells only half the truth.” Later in his book, LeShan spends an entire chapter discussing certain aspects of the history of physics, wherein he uses the Michaelson-Morley experiment, and the paradox that arose from it, as an example of how circumstances which forced scientists to have to think differently led to a new understanding of reality itself.
LeShan then compares the circumstances that led to this new understanding of reality to the meditative process, and how it similarly forces the practitioner to transcend normal awareness and everyday modes of thinking:
“For our purposes, the crucial aspect of this history is the fact that a paradox that could not be solved and yet had to be solved forced a new way of understanding reality into being.
“Most meditations pose an impossible paradox, They force the individual to transcend her usual everyday way of perceiving, thinking about and relating to the world and herself in order to ‘solve’ the paradox. Thus, as in the history of physics, a new way of being in, conceptualizing and relating to reality and herself is forced to emerge.”
At this point, a brief note about meditation is warranted. The usefulness of meditation as a secular practice–that is, outside of religious, spiritual or “mystical” forms–has been widely regarded for decades now (brief examples outlining this can be found here, here, and here). It is important here to place emphasis on the secular aspect of this, not so much as a means of “sanitizing” the idea of meditation for modern usage, but quite the contrary, to make its significance universal. There seems to be some empirical data, in other words, to support the idea that meditation may be beneficial; whether for use as a psychological tool for self-improvement, or as an implement for development of one’s spirituality, as it is more traditionally viewed (there are always differing opinions on such things; contrasting perspectives on the usefulness of meditation can be seen here and here).
However, to speak of this “traditional” view, it may be argued that certain stigmas appear to exist in relation to meditation, stemming from its almost exclusive relationship to spiritual practices in earlier times. This appears to be exacerbated by a generally materialist attitude in the modern West today, which may at times downplay the significance of subjects with any apparent relation to metaphysics, or which otherwise have the appearance of seeming credulous. This is echoed today in the proclamations by many science popularizers–good scientists though many of them are–that “philosophy is dead,” which in itself is, paradoxically, a fairly philosophical statement.
In short, to assert the benefits of meditation as a secular practice here is intended to broaden, rather than to restrict, its usefulness in a variety of applications and philosophies.
LeShan, a psychotherapist, argues that meditation is useful as a means by which one may relieve stress, and improve their overall quality of life through increased self-knowledge. Hence, the idea of meditation being used to discipline the mind, and thus presenting pathways to new ways of thinking, or “comprehending another view of reality,” as LeShan puts it, is not to be mistaken for some kind of New Age balderdash in its discussion here (it is fair to also note that LeShan, who as of 2019 is now 98 years old, did undertake parapsychological studies during the 1970s. He chronicled some of these investigations in his 1974 book The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist: Toward a General Theory of the Paranormal).
Some of the points LeShan addresses in comparing the different paths that may lead to changes in thinking—whether through meditation, or paradoxes in physics—have applications in other areas, too. The general complementarity “motif,” that is, the idea that multiple, mutually-contradictory but equally valid viewpoints can exist, is a concept with very positive implications, especially for things like political discourse. All too often, political arguments that arise from different ideological perspectives are labeled “wrong” by their detractors. Further, it is not uncommon for many to view such “wrong” ideas as being equivalent to evil as well, depending on one’s ideological temperament.
However, it would be hard to make the case that any person who, in the purest sense, seeks to better society—irregardless of their political leanings—truly wishes for things that are “evil” or not beneficial for everyone. It is true that some of these ideas may not be as effective as others; it is also true that some ideas, however well-intended, simply may not benefit everyone when put into practice. However, neither of these things legitimizes the idea that two different ideological perspectives must necessarily be “good” or “evil” in nature. Political parties and their actions, in other words, often represent different approaches to solving common problems, rather than being a set of opposing ideas where one is always “right” and the other is “wrong,” let alone where one is “good” and the other is “evil.” For all we know, it may even be the case that two different ideological approaches to solving problems in society may be equally flawed, despite having some useful components.
Philosophically speaking, to apply the loose concept of complementarity here we might suppose that there are some issues in modern society that are complex enough that overcoming them would require 1) a new way of thinking about the problem, and 2) an approach that takes into account more than one perspective on the issue (even if these appear to be contradictory).
It is worthy of mention here that Nietzsche made arguments very similar to this in his 1886 Beyond Good and Evil (from which part of this essay’s title is borrowed). His critique of philosophers from earlier times showed that they often rested their arguments in questionable logic by expressing concepts in simple terms of “good” and “evil.” This led to the inevitable interpretation where one argument—that which can be deemed “good”—became acceptable over the other. Nietzsche argued that past philosophers who engaged in fundamentally metaphysical moral justifications of this sort were happy to accept such things blindly, without critical assessment of whether the subjective concepts of “good” and “evil” were not, at times, merely two different approaches, with a shared basis in very similar human impulses. These elements might be viewed as two equal parts of a conceptual reality, in other words, neither of which are perceived simultaneously with ease.
Obviously, it goes without saying that there are situations where some things are, in fact, “evil.” My aim here is not to argue in terms of moral relativism, or potentially make allowances for the justification of atrocities. The intended goal here is instead to promote ways toward a broader, and perhaps a more tolerant outlook by means of a thought experiment, based on observations in the history of 20th-century physics. Tolerance, cooperation, civility, and open-mindedness are all, in their best forms, antithetical to evil.
Time has shown that new ways of thinking can be beneficial, whether they arise from challenges brought about by paradoxes in science, or merely from challenges we issue ourselves as a means of seeing past our own dogmatic attitudes. In the truest sense of complementarity, often we find a closer approximation of truth when we are able to grasp that some things are best understood dualistically; rather than in divided—or even worse—in politically tribalistic terms of “correct” and “incorrect” based solely on one’s own ideological biases. Or, to put it as Nietzsche might have argued, such things are best understood as being beyond good and evil.