October 26

2 comments

How to unlock Both/And Thinking: it’s not Either/Or

Most of life is best approached from both/and thinking. Let me give you an example of what that can look like:  

Imagine there’s a mug in front of you. The mug is ¼ full of tea. Is that little or is it much?

I will give you a moment to consider that question.

Bingo! The correct answer is: “both.”

If you drink it, it’s little.
If you spill it over your white shirt, it’s a lot.

Depending on how you look at it, the quarter mug of tea is either little or a lot.

And on that note, let's move on to another confusing topic: 

What quantum mechanics has to do with anything

In a way, it reminds me of the wave-particular duality in quantum mechanics.

Waves and particles are very different. Particles are finite things (like a marble) whereas waves are spread out (like an ocean wave or a sound wave). To repeat: they are very different.


And, well, as Paul M. Sutter, an astrophysicist at the Ohio State University, describes in this entertaining video: 

“You and me… have both particle and wave properties… depending on the situation, which is very very weird indeed.”

Paul M. Sutter

Yepp! Is that enough to warrant an existential crisis?

Sutter concludes in an article: “When it comes to things like photons and electrons, the answer to the question ‘Do they behave like waves or particles?’ is … yes.”

That’s not only both/and thinking, it’s also a good way to resolve your impending existential crisis. The answer is “yes.” Just roll with that (which is also a great way to put your newfound wave properties to good use…)

Why do we need both/and thinking?

Let’s stick with the wave-particle duality for a moment. In his 1938 book, The Evolution of Physics, Albert Einstein wrote:

“It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”

Albert Einstein

Einstein wasn’t talking about life in general… but he might as well have.

Our culture teaches us to think in opposites: good/bad, hot/cold, light/dark, etc. If we approach life from that perspective, we engage in either/or thinking. Something is either good or it’s bad. It’s either light in the room or it’s dark. You either win or you lose.

But life is not a Hollywood movie that lacks complexity. Very few things in life are either good or bad. As I’ve written before, Life is 50 Shades of Grey, not Lord of the Rings.

Life is full of ambiguity, polarities, and apparent contradictions. In fact, humans are basically just contradictions on two (or fewer) legs. That’s why we need both/and-thinking to get through life.

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When making sense of the world we live in sometimes we must use one theory, sometimes another, sometimes either. Our pictures of reality contradict each other but if we put them together, they are more accurate.

Conclusion

As the founder of Integral Theory, Ken Wilber, put it in an apt description of both/and thinking: 

“When the opposites are realized to be one, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies become lovers. We... then... make friends with all of our universe, and not just one half of it.” (@TheKenWilber)

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Coincidentally, scientists at EPFL have managed to take the first-ever snapshot of light behaving both as a wave and as a particle.  

Both/and indeed.

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  • Visualizing your thoughtful example & question, I smiled, remembering the puzzled cat of Shrödinger, just before I reached your section about quantum mechanics! I love the flow of your writing, as much as those visionary words you brought to us from Einstein: One more lesson of Humility!

    I can’t get enough of the luscious meanings of Both/And Thinking! A few weeks ago, I had the chance to be introduced to a psychopathology course, as I was confused by typologies and I wanted to stop seeing disorders everywhere. What can I say? My confusion grew, but it’s different! I understood that our psyche is incredibly complex and changing, classifications are meant to “reduce complexity” while in practice, everything is in a spectrum, not in boxes (they are not Shrödinger’s though :))!

    Thanks for your agreeable yet deep piece, Bere!

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Khalil! I love that you brought up Schrödinger’s cat and your insight that in practice, things are in a spectrum, not in a box.

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