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Nobel-Winning Physicist Frank Wilczek on Complementarity as the Quantum of Life and Why Reality Is Woven of Opposing Truths

“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”

Nobel-Winning Physicist Frank Wilczek on Complementarity as the Quantum of Life and Why Reality Is Woven of Opposing Truths

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut lamented in his terrific lecture on storytelling. But one of life’s greatest confusions stems from our tendency to divide the world into such polarities in the first place — something Susan Sontag considered an immensely limiting impulse. When confronted with the world’s complexity, we default into navigating it by creating artificial binaries, perceiving contradiction where they might in fact only be complementarity. Cheryl Strayed captured this perfectly: “Two things can be true at once — even opposing truths.” Then there is, always, Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design (public library), Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek considers this paradoxical notion of complementarity not only as raw material for the philosophical and the poetic but as one of the four cornerstones of modern physics, alongside relativity, symmetry, and invariance.

Art by Salvador Dalí for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Complementarity — the idea that two different ways of regarding reality can both be true, but not at the same time, so in order to describe reality we must choose between the two because the internal validity and coherence of one would interfere with that of the other — is a centerpiece of quantum theory. Wilczek points to one familiar example — the fact that light is neither inherently a particle nor inherently a wave, but can be either depending on how we measure it.

True knowledge, Wilczek intimates, progresses not toward simplifying our answers but toward improving our questioning mechanisms to better address complexity — Newton fancied the idea that light was a particle but was also curious about alternatives; a century and a half later, Maxwell ushered in electromagnetism and rendered wave theory victorious; when quantum mechanics came into bloom three generations later, scientists pointed to the photon, an elementary particle, as the ultimate quantum of light. Wilczek writes:

Particle and wave offer complementary perspectives on the reality of light. Newton’s practice of keeping many alternatives in play, while refusing to put forward any one Hypothesis exclusively, anticipates modern complementarity.

Newton at work by William Blake (1795-1805)
Newton at work by William Blake (1795-1805)

But between Newton and modernity stood the Romantic era, in which artists rebelled against scientific reductionism and what they perceived to be its assault on complementarity. Wilczek points to one particularly resplendent example involving Newton himself:

William Blake protested against reductionism’s blinkered vision. In this depiction of Isaac Newton at work, Blake’s conflicted feelings for his subject are on display. His Newton is a figure of extraordinary concentration and purpose, not to mention superhuman anatomy. On the other hand, he is shown looking down, lost in abstractions having literally turned his back on the strange, colorful landscape. Yet Blake admitted (as did Keats) that mathematical order governs the world. In Blake’s complex mythology Urizen, depicted here, is a dualistic Father figure, who both brings life and constrains it. One can hardly fail to notice a certain resemblance to the preceding drawing. Is Newton Urizen’s interpreter, or his incarnation?

The Ancient of Days, William Blake's depiction of Urizen (1794)
The Ancient of Days, William Blake’s depiction of Urizen (1794)

Indeed, although rooted in physics, complementarity’s central proposition extends into the metaphysical — a dimension that goes all the way back to quantum theory pioneer Niels Bohr, who originated the complementarity principle. Wilczek writes:

[Bohr] was fond of a concept he called “deep truth.” It exemplifies Ludwig Wittgenstein’s proposal that all of philosophy can, and probably should, be conveyed in the form of jokes. According to Bohr, ordinary propositions are exhausted by their literal meaning, and ordinarily the opposite of a truth is a falsehood. Deep propositions, however, have meaning that goes beneath their surface. You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.

Bohr was so enchanted by complementarity and its manifestations beyond science that he became fascinated with the unified duality of yin-yang in the Eastern philosophy — so fascinated that he placed the yin-yang symbol in the middle of the coat of arms he designed for himself, under the banner Contraria sunt complementa [Opposites Are Complementary].

Niels Bohr's coat of arms
Niels Bohr’s coat of arms

Wilczek writes:

From his immersion in the quantum world, where contradiction and truth are near neighbors, Niels Bohr drew the lesson of complementarity: No one perspective exhausts reality, and different perspectives may be valuable, yet mutually exclusive. The yin-yang sign is an appropriate symbol for complementarity, and was adopted as such by Niels Bohr. Its two aspects are equal, but different; each contains, and is contained within, the other. Perhaps not coincidentally, Niels Bohr was very happily married. Once recognized, complementarity is a wisdom we rediscover, and confirm, both in the physical world and beyond.

(Although Wilczek’s remark about marriage is a facetious wink, the poet Mary Oliver has written beautifully about the vitalizing role of complementarity in love.)

Wilczek synthesizes the larger truth to which complementarity speaks:

To address different questions, we must process information in different ways. In important examples, those methods of processing prove to be mutually incompatible. Thus no one approach, however clever, can provide answers to all possible questions. To do full justice to reality, we must engage it from different perspectives. That is the philosophical principle of complementarity. It is a lesson in humility that quantum theory forces to our attention… Complementarity is both a feature of physical reality and a lesson in wisdom.

Complement the wholly magnificent A Beautiful Question with Simone Weil on how quantum theory changed science and society and Alice in Quantumland — an allegory of quantum mechanics inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic — then treat yourself to Wilczek’s enchanting On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

You have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules. But they may be mutually incompatible — and to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.


Trailblazing Philosopher Susanne Langer on How Our Questions Shape Our Answers and Direct Our Orientation of Mind

“The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given.”

Trailblazing Philosopher Susanne Langer on How Our Questions Shape Our Answers and Direct Our Orientation of Mind

“To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking,” John Dewey wrote in his increasingly timely 1910 meditation on how to cultivate reflective curiosity in an age of instant opinions. But the mechanisms by which we seek to resolve our doubt too often curtail our inquiry rather than protracting it — unsettled by uncertainty, we rush to answers that contract our questions rather than expanding our curiosity. Krista Tippett, one of the great question-expanders of our time, captures this beautifully: “Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet.”

No one has addressed this osmotic relationship between question and answer more incisively than Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985) — one of modernity’s first women philosophers, whose work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of art has influenced generations of thinkers.

Susanne Langer

Langer writes in her magnificent 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (public library):

The “technique,” or treatment, of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. We may be right or we may be wrong. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or “unsympathetic.” For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. “Then how did the world become as it is?” If now we answer: “It has not ‘become’ at all,” he will be really disturbed. This “answer” clearly repudiates the very framework of his thinking, the orientation of his mind, the basic assumptions he has always entertained as commonsense notions about things in general. Everything has become what it is; everything has a cause; every change must be to some end; the world is a thing, and must have been made by some agency, out of some original stuff, for some reason.

In a sentiment which Hannah Arendt, another female trailblazer of intellectual life, would echo a generation later in her invigorating treatise on the life of the mind and the crucial distinction between thinking and knowing, Langer considers this tendency to reject the question with a non-answer:

These are natural ways of thinking. Such implicit “ways” are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his “Weltanschauung,” his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot.

But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of his questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.

Many decades later, Philosophy in a New Key remains an intellectually electrifying and abidingly rewarding read. Complement it with John Dewey on how we think, René Descartes’s twelve timeless tenets of critical thinking, and Simone Weil on the purest and most fertile form of thought.


David Whyte on Vulnerability, Presence, and How We Enlarge Ourselves by Surrendering to the Uncontrollable

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Vulnerability is a guardian of integrity,” artist and unheralded philosopher Anne Truitt wrote as she contemplated what sustains the creative spirit. Social scientist Brené Brown conveyed the same sentiment somewhat differently in considering what resilient people have in common: “If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.” However we may formulate it, the equation holds true — uncomfortably, devastatingly, often intolerably true. Although we may intellectually recognize how essential vulnerability is to our aliveness and every significant expression of it, we remain astonishingly averse to being vulnerable, expending tremendous resources on constructing elaborate and ultimately illusory defenses against this basic condition of being alive.

Why we do that and how we can transcend it is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a portion of his endlessly insightful Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), which also gave us Whyte’s wisdom on aloneness, the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, and anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means.

In his recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Whyte reads his meditation on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

In his beautiful poem “Sweet Darkness,” found in his collection The House of Belonging (public library) — which also gave us “The Journey” — Whyte unravels another aspect of our deepest vulnerability:


When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

In his altogether spectacular conversation with Tippett — my favorite from the show’s fifteen-year archive — Whyte, who grew up bewitched by poetry but became a marine zoologist and naturalist before returning to his first love, reflects on the multiple dimensions of vulnerability, including our dance with control and surrender:

I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention. And in Galapagos, I began to realize that, because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour watching animals and birds and landscapes … my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself. [As] you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence. And I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you; that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.

But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.

Complement Whyte’s Consolations, one of the best books of 2015, with Seth Godin’s marvelous children’s book for grownups, V is for Vulnerable, and Dani Shapiro on the creative rewards of being vulnerable.

Subscribe to On Being, one of these favorite podcasts for a fuller life, here.

Portrait of Whyte by Nicol Ragland Photography


Plato’s Two Charioteers: Free Will, Moral Agency, and How to Negotiate Our Capacities for Good and Evil

“Freedom isn’t the absence of control; rather, control is the essence of freedom.”

Plato’s Two Charioteers: Free Will, Moral Agency, and How to Negotiate Our Capacities for Good and Evil

“If I conclude that there is no free will,” astrophysicist Janna Levin observed in her spectacular conversation with Krista Tippett, “it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.” This seemingly paradoxical proposition counters the temptation to view free will as a purgatory between ultimate resignation and ultimate responsibility, and instead captures one of the most vital and vitalizing truths of the human experience — that our locus of agency, the very seedbed of our personhood, resides not in absolute freedom but in the very necessity for exercising choice.

That’s what philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein metabolizes in a portion of her thoroughly excellent Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (public library) — an insightful, inventively argued case for how, nearly two and a half millennia later, the Ancient Greek philosopher’s perennial ideas about morality, happiness, democracy, and science can help us navigate modern life.


Goldstein, who grew up enamored with science fiction, weaves into her philosophical inquiry fictionalized dialogues in which Plato converses with contemporary people he encounters in various contexts — from a cable news interview to a 92Y panel — exploring ideas based on his actual ancient dialogues. In one of these exchanges, her personified Plato considers free will, moral agency, and the perennial tug-of-war between our capacities for good and evil:

The free person has a severely restricted range of choices… I will make my statement sound even more paradoxical. The free person’s choices are completely determined.

Goldstein’s Plato cushions the paradox with what is at once a caveat and a central truth, based on the charioteer metaphor from his Phaedrus dialogue:

The person’s own better nature … is determining that person’s choices. Imagine a two-horsed charioteer, with one course unruly and unable to stay the course, and the other horse knowing his way even without the whip or goad. The charioteer is only to control the bad horse so that the better horse may lead him in order to be free. Freedom isn’t the absence of control; rather, control is the essence of freedom.

Complement Plato at the Googleplex with Goldstein on how Einstein and Gödel changed our experience of time and what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Hannah Arendt on what free will really means and young Sylvia Plath on how we can know whether it exists.


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