When it’s a question of either/or, the answer often is "and."
A perfect example is the dual nature of light. While the arguments go back to at least ancient Greece, we can look to somewhat more modern times to see how our understanding of light changes over time.
At the beginning of the 11th century, in what is now Iraq, the Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham wrote a comprehensive book on optics in which he contended that rays of light are composed of little particles. For those who were inclined to ponder on such things, that was the prevailing view for the next 400 years, until René (“I think, therefore I am”) Descartes came along and proposed a wave theory of light.
Sir Isaac Newton argued for the particle theory while some of his contemporaries, like Christiaan Huygens, preferred the wave theory.
Finally, with the advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, Zen physicists like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, deBroglie, Dirac, and of course Albert Einstein, attempted to reconcile competing descriptions of reality, conflating the very large and the very small, the very fast and the very slow. Alas, Einstein wrote: It seems as though we must sometimes use the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either.
We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately, neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.
We saw a similar thing with nature versus nurture. On the one side, you had people who argued that we are determined primarily by our genetics, believing that our traits, our personality, our characteristics and our potential are hereditary.
As the passengers on the airplane in the movie exchanged information and begin to realize their predicament, there was total silence...
The contrasting view is that we are blank slates; we learn what we are taught and achieve according to our opportunities. Today, most people, I think, accept that how we turn out is a combination of the two factors and forces. We know that an acorn will never grow into a rose bush, but with proper light and water it can become a mighty oak.
A similar reconciliation of opposing theories occurred recently in the science of memory and our understanding of how memories are formed.
On the one hand, scientists talked about the importance of “an excitatory process” whereby certain neurons in the brain would get sufficiently excited to the point where “an event” would make such a strong impression that the person was sure to remember what they saw, heard, felt, thought and experienced.
Upon reading it, the first thing that came to mind was the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs,” so I did a quick search to try and learn the origin of that saying. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find it.
More recently and on the other side of the coin, investigators considered the role of “inhibitory neurons,” whose function is to inhibit interruptions and background noise so that we can focus on the one thing to remember. In a study published this past week, researchers now say it’s not one or the other; both excitatory and inhibitory processes are necessary for long-term memories to form.
Once again, “both” supplants “one or the other.”
This isn’t just something we see with scientific theories; in our personal lives we place all sorts of artificial limitations on ourselves by framing things as either/or and convincing ourselves it’s one or the other.
We think we have to choose between being careful or having a good time, between eating something that tastes good or something that’s nutritious; we have to choose between science or religion, function or fashion, the environment or the economy, sensible gun laws or the Second Amendment, patriotism or protest, wearing a mask or choosing freedom.
Every one of these are false dichotomies.
We are multidimensional beings, with many different interests, skills, talents and pleasures, and yet too often we convince ourselves that we must choose one thing or the other, that we’re only allowed to be a partial version of ourselves rather than experiencing the joy of fullness and embracing the totality of ourselves.
With this in mind, I urge you to look for opportunities for “and” in your life, especially in times of transition. It’s likely to lead you to a place where you find that you can do and be more than you previously thought possible.
Rather than talk about how contagious the virus is, consider for a moment how contagious a smile is, and how infectious emotions can be, positive or negative.
In the name of Babe Ruth and Johnny Carson, Walt Disney, and Yosemite National Park...vote.
Ron Colone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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