The so-called “particle-wave duality” refers to the apparent contradiction that arises when we try to understand the nature of light.
Light may be understood as a wave phenomenon (i.e. energy) or as matter (i.e. a particle), depending on the experimental conditions under which we observe it.
Philosophers of science say the duality is bound up in the way we use language. And the conflict might be reconciled if we consider what language is and does.
Language, they say, not only describes but also informs our understanding of things spoken and written about. In short, our descriptions of the world around (and within) us shape our worldview.
Consider the moon, for instance. To an Apollo astronaut it might be taken as something to walk on. For an ancient Roman citizen believing in the state religion of old Rome, the moon might be seen as a somewhat mysterious place where the goddess Luna resides.
In ancient Iran, the moon was believed to be “The Great Man” who incarnates on Earth from time to time. And in the fairly recent past, the moon was whimsically said to be made of blue cheese.
In each of these cases, the words and the semantic context within which they’re placed shape the understanding of the thing described.
Although we might overcome the particle-wave duality by maintaining that it’s informed by current modes of describing and categorizing reality, this still doesn’t tell us much about the actual essence of light, energy and matter–or even if these observable phenomena have a ‘true essence.’
At some point language becomes inadequate. And many believe that sciences which use a symbol system, such as mathematics and physics, are equally as imperfect and incomplete to the task of describing reality.
Along these lines, the holistic thinker Peter Russell suggests that we should not confuse the map (i.e. scientific concepts and theories) with the thing mapped (i.e. supposed fundamental aspects of the universe).
The debate around describing and the described gets complicated, however. Some maintain that language is, in fact, adequate and is an integral part of reality. But this argument falls short when we consider how meanings have changed and continue to change throughout human history.