— From The Kybalion by The Three Initiates
There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.
— Niels Bohr
I have mentioned the alchemical notion of the “Marriage of Opposites” several times (here and here). When opposites marry, what happens as a result? Do they cancel one another out, leaving just a boring average as result? Do they explode in a fiery conflagration, like matter and anti-matter releasing energy? Or do they create a new thing, something that is greater than the sum of their parts?
If opposites annihilate each other, what is the result, emptiness or a void? It is often said that nature abhors a vacuum (“horror vacui”), but I think it is far more true that the mind does. In dualistic thinking, everything that is not one thing must be its opposite. Not good is bad, not happy is sad, not black is white.
In classical logic, the Law of the Excluded Middle says that for any proposition “p”, either it is true or its negation “not p” is true. Thus, “p or not p” is necessarily true, a tautology. Similarly, their combination “p and not p”, cannot ever be true, and so is necessarily false. If one can assume “not p” and derive a contradiction, then “p” must be true (reductio ad absurdum).
In intuitionistic logic, one cannot deduce “p” simply from the falsity of “not p” (that is, “not not p”), one must actually prove that “p” is true. So “p or not p” may still be uncertain, if we don’t know how to prove “p”. However, “p and not p” is still false, based on the falsity of “not p”.
In the viewpoint of Dialetheism, it is offered that there are truths whose opposites are also true, called “true contradictions”. Dialetheisms cannot exist in formal logics because if “p and not p” is true, then you can deduce anything you want and your logic breaks down. Nonetheless, much thought through the years has been dedicated to dialetheisms and their ilk. Please see the recent work by philosopher Graham Priest.
When one considers something and its opposite at the same time, how can you reach an agreement between them? In magnetism, opposite charges attract and like charges repel. All too often, opposite viewpoints vigorously repel each other instead of reaching a happy medium. Each viewpoint considers the other “false” and so they push away at each other, instead of meeting halfway in compromise.
If there is empirical evidence supporting one viewpoint and not the other, and both parties can agree to it, then problem solved. But if viewpoints are more like ideologies, and one side shows evidence that the other side dismisses, what then? Are we only left to agree to disagree? That doesn’t seem like a long term solution.
In this blog I have insinuated but not stated explicitly that a marriage of opposites can often be achieved by combining it with another pair of opposites. Rather than meeting in the middle to a void or an annihilation, one can reach the other side by “going around” the danger, by way of intermediates. Much like Winter reaches Summer by passing through Spring and Summer reaches Winter via Fall, this type of structure is found everywhere in human thinking.
In fact, many systems of pluralistic philosophies are built on fourfolds instead of dualities. For example, see the work of Richard McKeon, specifically this paper.