Deepak Chopra: Can Reality Set Us Free? The Puzzle of Complementarity (Part 2)

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By Deepak Chopra, M.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D.

Click here for Part 1.

The most fascinating extension of complementarity has to do with complex systems. To a physicist, explaining how a pair of electrons behave together in outer space poses a major challenge; explaining how billions of neurons behave together in the brain defies not just the world’s largest computer but possibly any computer one can conceive of. Yet complex systems, including all life forms, stars, galaxies, and the post-Big Bang cosmos, are perfect examples of how looking at the whole can help explain the parts and vice versa.

Systems science has validated the adage about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Studying the materials that the great cathedral of Notre Dame is made of – stone, metals, stained glass, etc. – can give hints about the building and the historical times when it was constructed, but by no means is the great cathedral just the sum of these parts. It was created by conscious beings and reveals a living presence that dead physical objects cannot account for.

No matter how closely one examines the visible parts, there remains the riddle of how complexity arises, what holds it together, and why structures take the shape they do. In complex systems, the whole transcends its discrete parts even when some aspects of organization are hidden, unlike the architects of Notre Dame, who could unfold their blueprints in plain sight.

Another way to express this is by saying that like a cathedral, no complex system can be achieved by a series of simple operations. Carpentry and masonry are basic processes that go into making any building, but there is an infinite variety of buildings, and they depend upon a conception of the whole before you go to work. Reductionism in science is the methodology of exploring the Universe one brick and plank at a time, in discrete units. This cannot be the total story. To believe that reductionism is all we need misses the whole point.

In fact, when a physicist examines any complementary pairs, he notices that they appear to be paradoxical, since no aspect can apply under exactly the same conditions.  One construct of the pair excludes the other. Today science has reached the same levels of the paradoxical that ancient seers and sages knew from personal experience.  What is more paradoxical than human nature, since we are the most violent and at the same time the most compassionate of living things?

The dichotomy between what science studies (so-called objective reality) and what humans experience (anchored in subjective reality) is not fundamental – it merges into the complementary nature of existence. What we’ve called super complementarity embraces the subject and the object. The process of observing them makes both work together, even while each excludes the other. Science works from models out of a desire for closure, and excluding unwanted contradictions, as reductionism does, seems to offer it. But Nature doesn’t. Return to Notre Dame for a moment. How many ways can you observe it?

  • You can see it as a colossal solid mass casting a shadow and blocking out whatever stands behind it.
  • You can see it as a building with no particular significance except to provide shelter.
  • You can see it religiously as a church, or historically as an example of high Gothic architecture.

But these perspectives are only the beginning. Monet saw cathedrals as shimmering creations of light and color, with no solidity at all. The deeply religious see them as symbols of the marriage between Christ and his worshipers. Medieval pilgrims saw them as repositories of miracles, a space inhabited by God. There is no single way to view Notre Dame, and the versatility of our minds, which can choose any perspective and invent new ones, isn’t accidental. It mirrors Nature’s versatility in devising a wholeness open to every possible angle of observation.

This says that complementarity rules. There is no fruitful way to use the terms “whole” and “part” without seeing that what matters is how they relate, not what they appear to be. In complex systems, no relationship exists in the first place without a mind to create the relationship. You can build a house from field stones gathered after plowing an acre of hard New England ground. Without the concept of “house,” however, the stones aren’t building blocks.

Each concept erects a boundary around itself. (As a test, think of how many ways you can use an ordinary red brick. If you stay within the normal boundary, you might use a brick to build a wall or as a doorstop or as a weight to press dried flowers. But you can also grind the brick into a powder to tint red paint – suddenly it has lost one boundary and entered another.) Once placed inside a boundary, a thing can be understood, but since every boundary is a mental construct, the only way to reach complete understanding is either: A. Look at every possible boundary or B. Erase all the boundaries. The second path is much more fruitful. It opens you to the wonder of Notre Dame, not by adding up every narrow angle that it can be looked at from, but by envisioning the whole.

The beauty of the human mind – again mirroring Nature itself – is that it can grasp wholeness. We stand in awe before the Grand Canyon, not needing a swarm of geologists to pick away at the rocks as a means of getting there. Geology provides data; only a view of the whole provides awe. There is a profound mystery in how the mind resolves the paradoxical divisions in Nature. We’ll explore this uncanny ability in the next post. It will take us to the very heart of reality and the role that consciousness plays in turning a jumble of raw data into the richness of the world we live in.

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Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

 Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

Photo credit: Flickr