Complimentarity | Feb 1993

FMBR Editorial: Feb, 1993


William C. Gough

Much scientific evidence supports the conclusion that we live in a quantum mechanical universe. This universe functions in many ways counter-intuitive to observations via our five senses. The reason may be a central concept at the heart of quantum mechanics. Niels Bohr called this principle "complementarity." Heisenberg considered it a foundation on which to "interpret the validity of the quantum-mechanical laws." Years later, Oppenheimer wrote that complementarity has "turned out to be the clue to unraveling that whole domain of physical experience." Recent experiments (by Alan Aspect and others) have confirmed the quantum mechanical implications of this principle and are leading scientists to new attention to its philosophic implications. Perhaps complementarity will be fundamental to our understanding of human wholeness and how we relate to each other and the world.

The principle of complementarity is the assertion that, in the quantum mechanical world, there exist pairs of quantities that are complementary in the sense that they describe a whole only when taken together, but which are mutually exclusive in that they can never be measuredsimultaneously. They cannot because the act of measuring one property creates a unity containing the part being measured, the measurement, and the experimenter. This larger whole, in turn, defines a new "part" that is separate from, but coupled to, the part being measured. These two parts are necessarily mutually exclusive. No matter what we observe or how we design experiments, the act always manifests a part that is outside the experiment, yet coupled to it. In quantum mechanics, this principle leads directly to the well-known uncertainty principle that asserts there are fundamental limits on the accuracy obtainable in simultaneous measurements.


Something analogous to complementarity may act at all levels of human experience and perhaps throughout the universe. For example, when we play an instrument we are immersed in the music -- or should be. If we start focusing on the mechanics of the instrument, we quickly lose whatever musical ability we may have. The esthetic quality of the music is one part, the technique of the instrument is another. To the extent attention is focused on technique, esthetics will suffer. The highest esthetic value will be attained only if the musician can take his or her technique for granted and focus exclusively on the esthetics. By seeking to address both parts simultaneously, we cause them to be closely coupled with consequences that can be disastrous to both. The two aspects are complementary but mutually exclusive.

The universality of this phenomenon could be due to the hierarchical nature of the universe and human experience. Each level has its own complementary relations that enfold what has gone before. Much of the problem in developing a bridge between science and ancient wisdom comes from modern science not as yet fully accepting the complementary nature of our quantum reality -- the relationship between the parts and the whole -- between the physical world and a greater whole which includes the realms beyond space-time.

William C. Gough