Duality and Divinity

FireTagcommunity of christ, eternity, Holy Ghost, LDS, Mormon, ordinances, plan of salvation, religion, science, theology 23 Comments

In both theology and religion, there is a concept called “dualism”, which — to avoid confusion later — I’ll note now has nothing much to do with “duality” as understood within modern physics.  The former concept involves the notion that there are two aspects of reality which may either be diametrically opposed, mutually inconsistent, balanced or unbalanced, or even complementary — but always conceptually separable such that they refer to two different things.

Good or evil.  Material or immaterial.  Mind or matter.  Spiritual or physical. Even male or female. As this article from the Jewish Virtual Library describes, many of these “dualism” classifications have been used as the bases of philosophy and religions since primitive times. They seem to constantly reemerge after being subordinated to religious and philosophical principles of “monism” (oneness or wholeness).

Duality instead has nothing to do with two different aspects of reality.  In contrast, it focuses on recognizing that a single, inseparable “monist” reality does almost always have two (or more) entirely separable “dual” descriptions.  It is the descriptions of reality that are dual — like two languages used to describe the same concept — and not the reality itself.

In a way, duality was the key to the anomaly that sparked the entire quantum revolution in physics at the beginning of the 1900′s.  Light had been understood as electromagnetic waves since the work of James Maxwell, published in 1864.  The existence of such waves was a mathematically required consequence of the basic laws of electricity and magnetism that had been easily verified in the laboratory.

But as the 20th Century dawned, observations about light were beginning to pile up that could not be explained by any wave model.  Instead, depending only on the question an experiment tested, light seemed to betray either wave-like or particle-like behavior. Look for wave properties, and the experiment would find them; look for particle properties, and the experiment would find them instead. Even notions of everyday common sense would break down to maintain the insistence on light being both wave and particle.

Worse, when the wave experiments grew sophisticated enough to be applied to good-old-rock-solid matter, matter showed exactly the same stubborn insistence on being both particle and wave-like, too.  Everything in the material world turned out to exhibit the properties of these seemingly contradictory physical models.  Reality could not be so neatly compartmentalized according to the mental constructs humanity had available.

For a time, there was even a trendy word to describe things — “wavacle” — until people realized that giving something a new name didn’t mean we understood it any better.  Quantum mechanics, the science that developed out of these early shocks to our conceptual system, has only one reality.  But it can be described in at least two mathematical languages: the mathematical language of waves, and the mathematical language of “matrices”.

The languages were proven to be translatable from one to another before 1930, and so they must always make exactly the same predictions.  But the value in the notion of duality is that — just as some things are easy to say in German that are extraordinarily difficult to say in Japanese, and vice versa — the difficulty in making predictions in one description is easy for some situations, yet impossibly hard in the other description.  And in some other situation, the utility of the two descriptions is completely reversed.  Scientists needed two conceptually different languages to describe this one reality in which we live.

New examples of duality showed up with increasing frequency as people began to appreciate the explanatory power of the approach.  Some of the dualities that have been recognized are even more bizarre than the wave-particle duality.

Many of today’s best candidate theories for “quantum gravity” that would unite relativity and quantum mechanics into a “theory of everything” are collectively known as “string theory”.  They often have a property called “T-duality”.  In particular, T-dual theories predict that a universe, such as ours appears to be – of vast extent and expanding in size – is absolutely indistinguishable from an infinitesimally small universe which is shrinking toward nothingness. The laws of physics would dictate that exactly the same electrical and gravitational signals would enter our brains in either case.

If these string theories are correct, large and small are alternative languages to describe the same reality.  In fact, for all we can tell, we could all be living in an ultramicroscopic reality right now, with our brains arbitrarily choosing to interpret things so that the universe appears infinite in extent.

Then there’s the “holographic principle”. This idea seems to suggest that there are deep connections between modern information theory — the science that underlies telecommunications, including the internet — and the structure of spacetime itself. In addition to the way we describe reality, there appears to be an entirely equivalent way to describe it using one less spatial dimension. There are even reports that an unexpected effect predicted by the second description has been seen in equipment accidentally optimized for its detection.

So duality is not going away from physics anytime soon, regardless of what the philosophers and theologians have to say about monism versus dualism. Might it be fruitful for the theologians to consider what the concept of duality has to add to their debate?

In a way, duality as the existence of multiple descriptions of a single reality, Jesus Christ – “fully man, yet fully God” — is almost too obvious within Christian history. Indeed, the connection between the Father and the Son, with the Holy Ghost thrown in as a third description for good measure, is another application ripe for exploration.

However, what I’d like to explore in this and future posts is the question of whether and where we can replace the notion of dualism between the physical and spiritual in Restoration theology with the notion of duality, so that we can begin to conceptualize the physical and spiritual realms not as separate arenas of reality, but as two translatable descriptions of a single all-encompassing reality.

If the physical and spiritual are governed by principles of duality, not dualism, then things we do on earth may not just affect what happens in heaven, they may actually be the things that happen in heaven, and vice versa.

For example, in LDS theology, certain significant acts are directly sealed — made spiritually real and binding — through covenants marked by rites, while in CofChrist theology, ordinances are viewed as helps in the physical realm for spiritual purposes. But what if reality is put together to be more than these options? What if every moment of life is inherently sealed into the spiritual realm? If every relationship we enhance here is enhanced there. If every relationship we marginalize here is automatically diminished there as surely as gravity drags us toward the earth?

And what, from the other perspective, if the spiritual is acting as well in an ever present way, to seal the purposes of God into the physical realm?

Comments 23

  1. Firetag,

    Very interesting post and you hit things like T-Duality directly on the head. 🙂

    “If the physical and spiritual are governed by principles of duality, not dualism, then things we do on earth may not just affect what happens in heaven, they may actually be the things that happen in heaven, and vice versa.”

    Now there is a deep thought worth pondering!

  2. I loved this. Very interesting. It just goes to show how our intuitions about identity and logic don’t really hold up on a fundamental level (fundamental being even the little bits of stuff our brains are made up of!). According to intuitive logic, Jesus cannot be both fully God and fully man. This entails some kind of logical contradiction. One of Maxwell’s paradoxes for sure. God cannot be both fully merciful and fully just. God knows what we will do yet we have free will.

    And yet as I said, even the little bits of stuff our bodies are made up of show us that something can be both a wave and a particle depending on what you’re testing for? I have known about wave/particle duality for quite some time, but never applied it in this way to theological matters.

  3. Firetag, this is an incredibly awesome post, articulating something that I have been trying to figure out how to articulate well for a while. Can I have your permission to quote from this article in a book I’m writing?

    Thank you.

  4. Skeptic Theist:

    Certainly. Feel free to cite this or anything from my own blog, and if you e-mail me there about your book topic, I might even have some other sources to help you.

    I’m just trying to sort out all of these things, too, so discussion is always helpful to me.

  5. @Firetag
    A few thoughts:
    1. Seriously, you need some citations. I know it’s just a blog post, but I would really have liked to see some citations, or links to papers, regarding some of your points.
    2. Awesome ideas! I really like it. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    Re Syphax:
    Hmmm, God cannot be perfectly merciful and just because of the way we have defined those words. Those words are not a description of a physical object, but rather a concept. In contrast, “wave” and “particle” are words corresponding to physical objects. Similarly, with Jesus, the words “man” and even “God” do not correspond with physical objects otherwise Jesus could most certainly not be both man and God. Rather, those words describe properties, or concepts (well “God” is a bit ambiguous but…). Firetag is talking about dual natures not merely competing and seemingly contradictory adjectives.

  6. JMB:

    I thought my audience would prefer a more “popular” approach, so I specifically tried to avoid getting into the physics literature, particularly since many of these ideas are decades old, and Restoration theologians aren’t looking much at implications of modern physics. (Is the fight over evolution over yet?) Thanks for the feedback. I’ll add a couple of books and articles in a later comment for those who want to be led into the literature — but gently.

    Re your comments to Syphax:

    Maybe you’re right, but this particular rabbit hole has already led me to some pretty strange places. I’m doing a lot of rethinking about things I used to think were mere metaphor. If there are ways to unify spiritual and physical in the way that space and time or electricity and magnetism can be unified, the distinction between object and concept may turn out to need some reworking itself. (Certainly only by someone more clever than I am.)

  7. I really liked this post as well, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where you think you can apply duality to restoration theology in future posts. I feel like this post was cool, but that it’s really just a big teaser for what you’ve got in mind next..

  8. It’s not a tease, Martin, but this topic isn’t going to be an unbroken series of posts. Science touches Restoration Theology in a lot of ways, and there are a lot of ongoing events that involve living our theology as well as studying it and discussing it. So I do tend to take the scenic route to get places.

  9. I promised JMB some links above. The most entertaining way to learn about the physics is a Public Broadcasting System NOVA program called “The Elegant Universe”. It’s a 3-hour program narrated by Brian Greene, who wrote the book on which the NOVA documentary is based. I do not recall where in the documentary the various notions of “duality” are discussed, but in the book the material is covered in Chapter 10.

    I think the deep connections between information and spacetime expressed, for example, in something called the black hole information paradox and in the holographic principle may turn out to be key to model the ideas of physical, spiritual, and INTELLIGENCE in Restoration theology. A good up-to-date introduction to the information-spacetime connections is at:


    The article is non-mathematical, but does contain links to the relevant technical literature at arXiv.org for any masochists among you.

    With the arXiv, all things are possible. 😀

  10. I’d like to play devil’s advocate. I love playing devil’s advocate! Can I take this notion of duality and apply it to any seemingly contradictory scenario? What criteria must be used to keep duality from becoming absurd? Can I be a moral yet unmoral person depending on my chosen perspective (or language of description)? Can I be faithful, yet unfaithful? Can I believe in the God of Abraham and the Flying Spaghetti Monster and reconcile those seemingly contrary beliefs by calling it duality?

    In science there are very strict rules for observation and description of physical properties. In religion, everyone has their own rules or dogma and everyone claims objective truth which cannot be observed or described by science. Unless there are strict criterion for observation and description that apply to both the physical and the spiritual realms , the use of duality to reconcile them seems arbitrary.

  11. Stan:

    No you cannot. Discovering dualities is like discovering any other law in physics. It’s an idea to hypothesize, work out the consequences leading toward predictions, and then see if there are phenomena that are observable. There is an art to knowing where to look (e.g., you often start with looking for “postdictions”, or trying tools that have worked in other fields), but it’s the results of looking that make it science. The artistry can lead to a beautiful sculpture, or a bunch of pebbles all over the floor.

    My “artistic” impulse toward investigating these type of solutions is that a God who uses duality inside this realm, just might be likely to use it between this realm and others.

    The more one studies theology with a scientific background, the more one realizes how much ancient scientific theories are still embedded in today’s theology. “Modern theology” seems largely an oxymoron.

  12. Firetag, I went to your blog and cant see any way to email you there, so I’m leaving a message in your “about” section with my yahoo email there.


  13. Interesting stuff. There is no ‘dualism’ between the spiritual and physical in ‘restoration theology’, however. They are both a part of physical reality. The spiritual is ‘matter, only more refined.’ I suppose that few individuals, if any, have any idea what that might mean, and it seems to me that you may be on to something in the vicinity.

    Most of the other metaphysical dualities, oppositions, or differences approaching opposition, are necessary, I think: light and dark, health and sickness, life and death, etc. The BoM claims that without these oppositions there ‘is no existence.’ That is the real consequence of monism – being subsumed in Oneness obliterates identity.

  14. I’d thought of reality as having many, many levels, with rituals sewing them all together. But duality provides an alternative explanation.

    What got me thinking was sin. In some ways there are no wrong decisions, no sins, only lessons learned. In other ways, sin is tangible, a perceivable blot that is literally washed away. I had always looked at that and concluded that sin was one thing on one level of reality, something else on another. Duality would put only one layer to it, and say sin was both.

    I like that, it fits well with your earlier comments about how who we are now creates who we were before this life, rather than submerging it.

  15. Skeptic Theist:

    I got your message when I woke up this morning. Thanks.

    In WordPress, making a comment on any thread generally lets a site administrator see the e-mail address of the commenter. I;m not an administrator here, but the admins here have your e-mail, too.

  16. Thomas Parkin:

    The nice thing about dual descriptions is that one can appreciate both the idea of “matter, only more refined” and the idea that “all things are spiritual”.


    Nothing prevents descriptions that are dual from ALSO being embedded in larger mathematical structures. For example, the holographic principle relating information within a volume to an encoding on its surface can still, according to string theory, be part of a coherent space of many more dimensions. I wonder a lot what the combined physical/spiritual may be embedded in. Do angels not get bored because there are realms they experience as vaguely as we experience theirs?

    With all eternity, I’d hate to run out of new wonders to experience, in some form or other; God and/or evolution made me that way. I’m grateful He didn’t save Hinself the annoyance. 😀

  17. Firetag, before I switched to applied economics, I was an applied physics major. It seems necessary that things that are dual should be embedded in larger structures — it is the search for such structures that leads to efforts at unified field theories and such. 😉

  18. Nah, I went from tangible math to theoretical graphs 🙂

    Now I’m a lawyer, going from math used to illustrate logic to logic used to illustrate arguments.

    But I’ve been thinking on this topic, think I’ll blog on it Thursday when my weekly posting time comes up.

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  20. Just some thoughts: Thomas Parkin – ‘Matter more refined’could mean something at a vibration rate we are not able to measure, and therefore behave in ways we cannot imagine, have it’s own laws even, that our vib rate can neither phase with [touch?] or perceive in the same space . In other words it may not even seem like “matter” in the sense we know it.

    Firetag – I have to wonder if boredom will be any more of an aspect of our future existence than, say.. death. Boredom is a very low frequency, as measured by L Ron Hubbard’s research 🙂 I think there will simply be no need for boredom, as it functions in this life [as a motivator of sorts]. I feel we will have absolutely no problem doing simply nothing for as long as we like. After all if eternity is …eternity, what’s the hurry? Also boredom implies a sort of latent state of unhappiness or restlessness that is revealed in the absence of sufficient distraction. Oh, I probably took you too seriously :[

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