A List of Fundamental Dualities Important to Understanding Human Nature and the Universe
The natural universe, and the tools we use to describe it, can often be expressed as dualities (an abstraction of a single concept).
Clarification: This page is about dualities as a broad concept (on and off, negative and positive, beautiful and ugly, idealist and realist, empiricism and rationalism, etc). This page is not specifically about fundamental dualities in mathematics (which is a thing) or one area of academics. Instead these are simply the underlying dualities of life, physical or conceptual, whether they are related to the maths or sciences, or be strictly metaphysical.
TIP: If we consider there to be “four fundamental principles of human understanding“: physical (empirical, what is), logical (reason, logic-and-ethics in-thought), ethical (morals-and-ethics in-action), and metaphysical (pure metaphysic morals, or pure philosophy, what should be), then this list is a list of key dualities in each sphere.
TIP: See virtue theory for more fundamentals.
The Nature of Duality and Abstraction
Before we get to a list of dualities, let’s quickly discuss the nature of dualities.
Each duality is an abstraction of a single concept, some can be further abstracted and divided, while some can’t, and many are not mutually exclusive concepts, while a few are.
In binary things must be on or off, but in quantum computing, they can be both on and off for example.
Often we can, and sometimes must, “cross forks” (temper one side of a duality with another).
Also, some concepts are gradient spheres of possibilities (like good and evil), while others are more “black and white” (like a light switch), and some just oscillate back and forth (like “near” electromagnetic fields).
Lastly, we can say things generally seek balance and have paradoxical effects.
NOTE: Any concept (thesis) by its nature can be said to have an antithesis. For example, the concept of “positive” has the antithesis “negative”, and the concept of “liberty” has the antithesis “authority” (where the “left-right” “liberty paradigm” liberty (left) vs. authority (right) can be abstracted from the singular concept of liberty to create a “Third Way”, a balance, a synthesis that itself exists as a range of possibilities). This is notably what it says in the Tao and is also Hegel’s Dialectics, but it doesn’t matter if a pauper or the Queen of England says it, it is empirically true and provable (in many cases), and can be generally shown to be as constant as electricity and magnetism or mass and energy. For discussing the fundamental dualities of the universe, no concept is more important than the concept that “From beauty arises ugly” and from that duality arises a range of probabilities in the middle ground (which themselves then repeat the process of abstraction).What is the Hegelian Dialectic? We take a thesis, abstract an antithesis, and then we have a synthesis. Its so simple and useable, one might even call it fundamental.
CONSIDER: Reflection works based on probability, that is basic physics. A given photon reflects off a reflective surface, or it doesn’t. There is no way to tell if a given photon will bounce off a surface that reflects photons 50% of the time. However, if we shoot countless photons off that surface we are ensured that [a number approaching] 50% will bounce off. That is how the physical universe works. From the laws of the physical universe, we can glean the properties of non-empirical concepts (what Plato called “forms”) that don’t exist as purely physical things (like liberty or liberalism). In this way, although no data is as sure as the empirical, we can begin to know things about the logical, ethical, and metaphysic.
List of Dualities in Human Nature and the Physical and Conceptual Universe
- Binary – On and Off: Binary computing is either 1 or 0. Either on or off. All code can be reduced to binary. In quantum computing, things can be on and off (in a state of superposition) until they need to be either on or off.
- Something and Nothing: In the universe as we currently understand it, there is true empty space (a theoretical vacuum, or nothing) and then there is everything else that is not empty space (something).
- Singularity and Abstraction: An idea or object is either a singularity (like the start of the big bang) or an abstraction (like everything that comes after the big bang). In Taoism, the singularity is “the Tao” while everything arising from this is an abstraction. In a more everyday example, beauty creates ugliness, both being abstractions of physical aesthetics.
- Truth and Un-Truth: Truth exists independent of our ability to prove it, everything is either true or not true. Epistemology is the study of “what we can know and how we can know it”.
- Fact and Myth: A fact is, in the strictest sense, something that is undoubtedly true, a myth is something that is commonly believed to be true, but is not truth.
- Knowledge and Belief: Knowledge is something objective we know with certainty, belief is something subjective we know with certainty.
- Known-Truth and Lies: Known-Truth as an amalgam of knowledge and truth, is a statement that is necessarily the case (or believed to be the case with all justification and reason employed). Lies are statements that are known not to be the case but are spoken despite their known falsity.
- Fact and Opinion: Opinion is our impression of something, our beliefs based on our impressions, a fact is a statement based on empirical evidence, reason, and logic.
- Lies and BS: Lies are statements known not to be the case and spoken regardless. BS is rhetoric with the sole purpose of influence and thus can be the truth, lies, or half-truths.
- The Four Forces – Unified Field Theory and Gravitational Force (Energy and Gravity): The four forces might be considered a quadrality on one level. However, since we have a unified electroweak theory which combines electromagnetism, strong force, and weak force at the start of the big bang, we can call this a duality. We have an electromagnetic weak and strong force and a gravitational force. So energy and gravity are the duality.
- Fermions and Bosons: Fermions (like quarks and electrons) are particles that make up matter, Bosons (like photons and gluons) are “the force carrier” particles that are responsible for the interactions between fermions. See the standard model.
- Electro-Magnetism: The four forces are important, but the most interesting and tangible is electromagnetism; this is a combination of electricity and magnetism. Both electricity and magnetism have the duality of attraction and repulsion.
- Strong Force and Weak Force: Strong force glues atomic particles together; weak force causes radioactive decay to unglue the composite particles.
- Attraction and Repulsion: Be it magnets or “birds of a feather” or “opposites”, things attract and repel based on their properties. In an electron, for example, attraction and repulsion is governed by charge (spin). See the Pauli exclusion principle for instances where the forks of quantum particles can and can’t cross.
- Mass and Energy: We can describe the measurable properties of any physical system as mass or energy. These properties can be conserved as each other, but not converted. See Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence.
- Negative and Positive: In mathematics we have negative and positive integers, if we add another axis to a 2 point chart we can add multiple iterations of this.
- Determinism and Non-Determinism: Determinism describes something that is not random, indeterministic means truly random. This can refer to computing devices or even free-will.
- Chaos and Order: Chaos describes something without a deterministic pattern, order describes an ordered set with some level of determinism.
- Fractal and Whole: We can have something that is in-between a whole (like a fractal or fraction) or something that is itself whole like a whole number.
- Rough and Smooth: In geometry, something can be a simple smooth shape or a rough complex shape.
- Malleable and Un-Malleable: A substance or concept can be rigid or plastic. Bendable or unbendable, breakable or unbreakable, changeable or not. See neuroplasticity.
- Finite and Infinite: Things can be finite or infinite, sometimes things are infinite but are bound by limits.
- Mind and Body: Mind refers to the mind, emotion, and spirituality; body refers to the physical world and the energy that powers it. A metaphor for this is the classical elements for energy and willpower (fire), physical body and sensation (earth), intellect and reason (air), and emotion and spirit (water). See the classical elements.
- Collectivism and Individualism: Collectivism favors the collective and collective rights, and individualism supports individuals and individual rights. See collectivism vs. individualism.
- Idealism and Realism: Realism accepts things as they are; idealism focuses on a perception of perfection in seeing things as they should be. See idealism vs. realism, and Aristotle Vs. Plato (Hume’s Fork and left-right, and conservative vs. liberal all relate to this concept, as do collectivism and individualism).
- The Left and Right: Whether we are talking about the political left and right, left brain and right brain, or any other left, right analogy we are speaking metaphorically about the range of concepts which perhaps can be summed up by a number of paradigms including liberty vs. authority, social equality vs. social hierarchy, and empathy-sensation vs. logic-reason.
- Liberal and Conservative: Speaking of politics, the basic duality in political ideology is liberal and conservative. Liberal means (very roughly) progress and individual liberty at the expense of order; Conservative means order and tradition at the expense of individual liberty. This duality arises from the weakening of the church and strengthening of knowledge in the 1600’s (see the Age of Enlightenment and Birth of Liberalism). See the invention of the printing press and liberal vs. conservative.
- Progressive and Conservative: Conservative means several things. In this instance progressive means “wanting to move forward” (in any direction); conservative means “wanting things to stay the way they are, or wanting to go back to the way things were.” A progressive social conservative may long for a past day that was less inclusive, but this radical conservatism is only progressive in the loosest of senses. Typically progressive means “left” and conservative means “right” when not used in specific context. See conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive.
- Tangible and Intangible: Tangible things are things we can know for sure and experience directly; intangible things like ideas are things we can’t.
- Subjective and Objective: Subjective describes ideas based one emotion, tastes, or opinions; objective describes ideas based on quantifiable facts.
- Rationalism and Empiricism: We can know things in our head “knowledge of non-worldly ideas” or we can know things from sensing the world around us “knowledge of worldly facts.” Some say that only those things which we can sense are valid; some think we can use “pure reason.” It is accepted both should be used to find deeper truths. See Kant and Hume’s Fork.
- Reason and Empathy (Sense and Sensibility): We can approach the world and ideas using reason and logic, or we can use our empathy.
- Essentialism and Existentialism: Essentialism is the idea that everything has an essence; Existentialism is the idea that it doesn’t. See Essentialism vs. Existentialism.
- In-group and Out-group: We can consider those in our circle such as our family, friends, race, religion, or whatever and whichever sphere we extend to those we relate to as our in-group. Those outside our circle or those who we don’t directly relate to are our out-group.
- Analysis and Synthesis: Analysis is the process of deduction in which complex concepts are reduced into smaller chunks. Synthesis is a process of induction during which truth is gleaned by looking closely at concepts and putting together ideas. When we apply this to philosophy, we can consider analytic propositions as statements that are true by virtue of their meaning, and synthetic propositions as statements that are true by their relation to the world. This concept devised by Kant in his critique of Hume. Hume comes up a lot since his philosophy is based largely on dualities.
- Deduction and Induction: Deductive reasoning is the analytical process of taking a complex concept or system and reducing it to smaller parts for study (top down). Inductive reasoning is the opposite, starting with the simple and working back up to the complex (bottom up).
- Pleasure and Pain: Pleasure is seeking out those things that relieve pain and make us happy; pain is the physical or emotional sensation of nagging discomfort.
- Good and Evil: Good and evil are complex concepts, but generally, good heals and helps and evil hurts and destroys. Typically good seeks pleasure for others (not selfish) and evil seeks pleasure for the self (selfish). See the duality of good and evil.
- Good and Bad: Good is something that has ethical, and moral intentions, and ideally consequences; bad is that which doesn’t meet these criteria. Bad is different from evil, as evil denotes a pure malicious intent while bad can just be a symptom of amorality or mistake.
- Excess and Deficiency: Excess is having more of something than is needed; deficiency is having less than is needed.
- Wealth and Poverty: Wealth is having an excess of capital and resources; poverty is not having enough.
- Liberty and Authority: Liberty is the freedom to do what one wills; authority is the social contract (entered into willingly or not) that governs the behavior of people and groups.
- Anarchy and Authority: Anarchy is a society without order; authority denotes rule-sets that in the best light protect those who enter into a social contract and consent to be governed. See our left-right compass.
- Virtue and Vice: Vice is a deficiency or excess of an important quality, virtue is a balance of that quality in its highest form. See Aristotle’s virtue.
- Moral and Immoral: Moral is an action that causes happiness and is virtuous, immoral is that which is not, amoral is a disregard for morality.
- Just and Unjust: Justice is doing on to others what a moral person would have done onto them, injustice is a lack of reward matching feat or crime matching punishment.
- Ethical and Unethical: Ethics are rulesets one adheres to that they would consider just, moral, and fair; unethical is not following these rulesets.
- Ethics and Aesthetics: We can use our lower animal instincts and seek power, money, and sensual pleasure (Aesthetics). Or, we can use a more altruistic moral compass to guide us through life. We are naturally torn between these desires, and only through experience can we gain the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual wisdom we need to temper them, employ our willpower, and avoid potential pitfalls.
- Happiness and Unhappiness: Happiness is a positive emotional state, unhappiness is a negative emotional state. See the meaning of life is happiness (according to many philosophers).
- Higher Order and Lower Order: Higher order refers to actions and ideas that are moral, justice, virtuous, and enlightened, Lower order refers to actions and ideas that are amoral, unjust, non-virtuous, and unenlightened. This concept is analogous to comparing our basic survival instincts and desires to our most ethical and spiritual higher selves.
- War and Peace: War is a state of conflict; peace is a state of non-conflict.
- Male and Female: The basic duality in living organisms with a reproductive organism, often used as a basic analogy for left and right.
- Living and Dead: Living is something that has sentience, an ability to be self-aware, or consumes energy; dead is something that doesn’t have these properties.
- Organic and In-Organic: Organic things are made from naturally occurring elements; inorganic are things made from synthetic or non-living compounds.
- Animate and Inanimate: Animate objects are living; and inanimate objects aren’t.
- Communist and Capitalist Economic Systems: Capitalism is a system of commerce based on free-trade; Communism is a system of commerce based on the distribution of goods and services. See America is a capitalist country.
- Pretentious and Humble: Humility is doing things with grace, acting like a stranger in a strange land when dealing with others; pretentious is believing yourself above others.
- Relief and Tension: Tension is a state of physical or emotional anticipation, relief is a lack of tension.
- Honorable and Dishonorable: That which is honorable is that which is respected (ideally something that would be timeless respected, but also includes things that are respected in a specific place in space and time), typically meaning upholding and adhering to a given code of ethics. Dishonorable is not adhering to the code. This rule is broken when what is moral and ethical goes against the code, in this case going against the grain is the honorable thing. So we can say, “following the highest order code of ethics which one can perceive regardless of public opinion.”
- Enlightened and Unenlightened: Enlightenment refers to the wisdom of the mind, body, soul, family, and community. This intelligence and wisdom is in every aspect of ourselves, in our ability to shape the world around us, and in our ability to interact with and influence others. Many would consider the path of enlightenment as the ultimate point of life. It is a broad category the encapsulates most, if not all, the positive concepts above and leads to our happiness and the happiness of others.
Below is an excerpt from the Tao which discusses how all concepts are abstractions from a singularity, thus beauty creates ugly, good creates evil, etc. The Tao was written about 400BC just before the time of Aristotle, but of course, on the other side of the world in China.
The Tao Chapter II – On Abstraction (source)
“When people see some things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see some things as good,
evil is created.
The corporeal and incorporeal produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
The Sage lives openly with apparent duality
and paradoxical unity.
Therefore she acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying a word.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
and acts without any expectations.
When her work is done, she takes no credit.
That is why it will last forever.”