Duality is a contrast between two ideas, or two aspects of something. Typically, they are presented as opposites. The opposite of up is down. Hot and cold. Working hard and slacking off.
In this post I’d like to take a look at what drives this in the world. Let’s start simple, try to grow that idea out until we can use it to understand anything, no matter how big or complicated, and then bring it back to how we can work with these things as real, limited human beings. A key takeaway is that our perceptions of the world are as driven by our mental limitations as they are by reality.
Relationships and Comparisons
An item by itself though, it would be hard to say whether it is heavy, or up, or cold. The next thing to see is that these are always a relationship between things. A rock is heavy when compared to a paperclip, but is light when compared to a mountain. Alan Watts put this well, describing the movement of a single finger:
Because the world is so rich and full, there is always some sort of backdrop to compare against; items don’t exist in a vacuum, and so a things heaviness can always be seen relative to the items nearby, for example.
Remember the backdrop, because it is key and often ignored: in order to see the figure on the chalkboard, you have to have a chalkboard for the figure to stand out against!
See-saws make a good analogy, or useful myth, for how we can see parts of the world; in order for something to go up, the other most go down. Because of this dual relationship in the world, in order for something to become hot it has to stop being cold, and so on. To increase on one side of the dual trade-off is to decrease on the other.
A see-saw shows a comparison, or a trade-off process for two things. It is a dilemma, or a situation where a choice has to be made from two alternatives. The word “dilemma” originally comes from Greek, meaning two premises.
In order for one child to be high up, the other has to be low to the ground; remember, the relationship is fundamental. This can work for anything, including for moral virtue.
As with high/low and hot/cold, the we know who is a saint is by comparison to the sinners around them. Once seen, the thing that is difficult to un-see is how this means that these descriptions such as sinner and fool — will be with us forever. So long as we have multiple people on earth to compare against one another, the categories will always exist it is likely impossible to eliminate sin or ignorance, because it is relationally defined.
If we can put two people on a see-saw we can most certainly get more on. Here we can see comparisons between three people. Each time one moves it affects the other two. And of course they can’t all be up at the same time.
Just as a see-saw is a dilemma (choice between two alternatives) – a three-saw then we might call a trilemma, or a choice between three alternatives.
Tri-lemmas are numerous, because human brains like to boil down complex domains to a small handful (like 3) factors to try to manage, because there’s too much reality to manage at every moment.
A funny thing that you notice is that in three dimensions, they tend to be drawn as overlapping circles that show you which combinations are possible, or they tend to be drawn like a triangle, which gives you the visual flavor of the actual three-saw from the playground. This indicates that if you are going to be close to two of the poles, you are necessarily going to be far away from the other pole.
Measurement & Manipulation
You may have noticed in these simple examples that it’s usually something measurable that we’re talking about, like location, temperature, or budget. Whenever you have something measurable, you can find something high on the measure, something else low on the measure, and find yourself a new duality. We could for example measure time, and readily get to “fast” vs. “slow”.
But in the case of saints vs. sinners, or sages vs. fools, we are dealing with internal qualifications and nothing measurable. The measurability of something is worth keeping in mind, because it ties directly to our ability to manipulate something. When a quantity is measurable, we can intervene, and then measure whether our intervention changed the measurement. Temperature is measurable with a thermometer, so we can keep adding ice cubes, keep taking readings, and know whether we’re making something colder.
“Quality” is my favorite abstract, unmeasurable feature. It has a certain ineffable aspect to it which is sublime. Quality is so specific that you know when its present or missing, and yet if you really want to tie your brain into a pretzel, try defining it sometime, people have written entire books about it. Any internal state of being: love, trust, suspicion, empathy – and you’re firmly in unmeasurable territory.
Is Everything Connected?
Suppose we connected three children on a three-saw, or three elements of a project at work with cost, time, and scope. Is that all there is? Not by a long-shot. If connecting three things is a trilemma, we can easily think about n-lemmas as being the connection of n things.
What if we blew out n to be…well this is going to sound a little bit crazy, but…everything in the entire universe? Well then you would get a single n-lemma that would act to describe the entire universe, which is a concept that has existed since ancient times in the form of Indra’s Net.
This concept is intended to show the inter-connectedness of the universe. Of course not everything is directly connected to everything else. What you read and think about right now does not directly change what someone else chooses for lunch today on the other side of the planet. But we know from thought experiments like the butterfly effect that there are connections between things, and complex chains of causality.
Many of the elements in Indra’s net simply cannot be measured. As it is infinite, not only is quality in there, but quality of every element in the universe is in there too. As well as physical quantities on distant stars, and aspects of the universe we haven’t even discovered yet.
This brings me to one full conception of the universe: it is an n-lemma where n is infinite, predominantly existing of unmeasurable things which nonetheless do change all the time, as surely as up is up and down is down.
Our Limited Brains Need to Reel This Back In
A tri-lemma then, like “cost, schedule, and scope” is an attempt to cut down the full reality of Indra’s Net into something much more simple and manageable. We seek to find the dualistic connections that are easiest to observe, easiest to change ourselves, and the most relevant to some outcome that we want (a successful project). They are a form of focused attention, which willfully excludes marginally relevant factors to allow the limited human mind to focus.
Tradeoffs and choices are so pervasive in life that even here we find another: of course we could take into account more information about the universe, but that has a cost to manage and understand. And at some point it becomes overwhelming and not manageable. And so we see that the choice of what to draw into our consideration for a tradeoff – is itself a tradeoff of time to gather information, and ability to understand it all.