On its basic level, the universe is one thing: Unity. It is itself, the undivided whole. Identity. A rose is a rose is a rose. The gestalt of it is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. As the Buddhist said to the hotdog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”
But beyond the warm fuzzy feeling that this realization provides us, it is of little analytical use to us as we try to fathom the facets and labyrinths of local galaxies and of quarks. We chop up the unity into bite-sized chunks. A certain feeling of fulfillment accrues to us as we begin to understand our environment. Thus we pick it apart into its constituent components in the hope that we will, at some point, be able to put it back together and regain that small bit of kerf we lost in this reductionistic process. We take the watch apart to see what makes it tick then hope to make it tick again.
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While I was taking a photography course, I took a picture of a man in silhouette, climbing a ladder, framed inside a building under construction. It was a rather mundane picture but it had this graphic impact and I wanted to figure out why. Finally, I realized that it was the black silhouette against a stark white background. It was the highest contrast area in the picture, and although it was way off-center, and small in the frame, it easily became the subject of the photo. This got me to thinking about the subject-background relationship. Things stand out from their background only by virtue of this contrast. The more the contrast, the more they stand out. This notion can easily be extended to more abstract contrasts such as masculine-feminine, young-old, slow-fast, soft-hard.
Whatever concept we might consider, or whatever attribute we might assign to anything, it immediately conjures up its opposite or conjugate attribute to serve as a background. Further, each thing and its opposite conjures a continuum which unifies them. The universe as a whole, by virtue of the things within it, expands to encompass the extremes of all these continuums. As they say about Calcutta, anything you say about it is true. This is said in the sense that it is so diverse that it encompasses the extremes of all dualities.
The universe plays host to the random, chaotic, indeterminate and meaningless processes as well as the ordered, self-organizing dissipative systems, and the entropy-defying process of life itself.
Yet there are many more impossibilities, which are illogical and false.
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Perception and, I think, thought itself, works by comparison; by analogy; no thought without its context, no object without its surrounding equivocal space. As we take and break up the world into bite-sized pieces in order to fit them into our perception of reality, the attributes we assign to these pieces form dualities with the pieces we leave behind. Extracting something from the whole conjures a contrast, which allows us to perceive that small bite-sized piece of the puzzle, and, if we are attentive, it also allows us to see that background from which it was extracted. That which can not be compared, can not be perceived.
This is duality.
Yin-Yang is the quintessential expression of the idea of duality. Each half has within it the seed of the other.
Shakespeare was big into it with, “To be or not to be.”
The Zen koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping" embodies this notion. And, in the Christian faith, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when Eve eats from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; this is duality. No heaven without hell, no God without the devil. We can only know pleasure in comparison with suffering. When we divide the world up into good and bad we are, at first, tempted to try to discard the bad part. But then, we are left with the nagging feeling that we may need to come to grips with that part, abhorrent as it is, if we ever wish to reconstruct the whole to its original ignominious grandeur and imperfect perfection. If you discard a single piece of the puzzle, you will never get a complete picture. In the final analysis, we can not discard the bad. Chaos and destruction always accompany renewal and creation.
The entire Platonic realm of mathematics is contingent upon the duality of equality and inequality. Outside of duality, the distinction between the finite and the infinite disappears.
Duality is in Newton’s law, for
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