The wave-particle duality refers to a contradiction that arises when we try to understand the nature of light.
Light can be either a wave (energy) or particle (matter), depending on the way we observe and interpret it. Some even try to combine the concepts of energy and matter to say that light is a “wavicle.”¹
Albert Einstein had this to say:
It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.²
Philosophers of science believe the duality is created by the way we use language. And the apparent conflict might be reconciled if we consider what language is and does.
Language, they say, not only describes but also influences our understanding of things spoken and written about. So with a kind of circularity, the way we describe our world in turns shapes our worldview.
Consider the moon, for instance. To an Apollo astronaut it is something to travel to, orbit and possibly walk on. For an ancient Roman, the moon might be seen as a somewhat mysterious place where the goddess Luna resides or as an aspect of the pagan goddesses Diana or Juno.
In ancient Iran, the moon was believed to be “The Great Man” who periodically incarnates on Earth. And in the recent past, the moon was whimsically said to be made of blue cheese.
In each of these examples, the words and the semantic context within which the occur shape the understanding of the thing described. We have to keep this is mind not only when studying myth and religion but in any aspect of life—ancient or modern. Culture isn’t just created. It also creates.³
We can overcome the wave-particle duality by realizing that it is informed by the way we categorize reality, but this might be a hollow victory because it doesn’t tell us much about the actual essence of light, energy or matter—or even if these phenomena have a true ‘essence.’
At some point language becomes inadequate. And many believe that sciences, which also use symbol systems like mathematics and physics, are equally as imperfect to the task of describing reality.
From this, the holistic thinker Peter Russell argues that we should not confuse the proverbial map (scientific concepts and theories) with the thing mapped (alleged fundamental aspects of creation).
The debate about describing vs the described can get pretty complicated. Some maintain that language is, in fact, adequate and an integral part of reality. Others say this argument falls short when we consider how meanings have changed throughout history.
Is truth always relative or is there something absolute, essential or permanent in our world? These basic questions may seem abstruse. But the way we unconsciously answer them in our daily assumption/decision making process no doubt informs many aspects of life.
So I think it’s better to be aware of our uncertainties and biases. Question everything. That way we don’t put the world – and other people – in an artificially small box. When people try to do that, what we’re really seeing is a picture of their provincial outlook.
² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave%E2%80%93particle_duality Follow this link for a good, brief history » https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave%E2%80%93particle_duality#Brief_history_of_wave_and_particle_viewpoints
³ That’s why many poststructural social thinkers argue that power is creative, not just repressive.
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