Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Quote: On profound truths

"The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."
- Niels Bohr

I do not find this quote self-explanatory. What did he mean by that? And nowhere on the internet does there seem to be any information on the context of the quote. All I know is that the quote is unsourced, but a variant appeared in a book by Niels Bohr's son. Internet, you have failed me!

At first, I thought the quote was criticizing "profound" truths. How true can it be, if its opposite is equally true? Perhaps we've been tricked by the profundity or cleverness in how it was stated. I find it is useful, whenever I come across an obvious truism, to consider the truism's opposite. If you find two truisms that are nearly opposite of each other, that's an indication that neither of the truths give the complete picture.

Examples? It's hard to think up examples on the spot, but take a look at a few posters from Despair.com. It just goes to show that even cynical ideas can be made to sound profound. Of course, the opposite of a profound idealistic truth is not always a profound cynical truth, sometimes it's another profound idealistic truth. Like mercy and justice or something.

But anyways, the evidence is not backing me up on my interpretation here. I suspect that Niels Bohr was actually thinking of wave-particle duality or "complementarity", whatever that means. That is just too bad because I don't think wave-particle duality is nearly as profound as popular science makes it out to be. So... light sometimes acts like a particle and sometimes acts like a wave. Pretty cool, yes, but did you know that the earth sometimes looks flat, and sometimes looks like a pale blue dot? Neither particle nor wave, neither flat-earth nor blue dot gives you the complete picture, and that's that.


Linda said...


I hesitate to post this comment, as I know you probably will blow me out of the water with logic and reasoning, but here we go... ;-)

How about if you don't think of it in terms of true and false but two opposite ends of the spectrum that are both equally true.

Now... tap into your inner Asian (I know you're in there ;-)) and think of yin and yang. Black and white are opposites--one is absence of all color and the other is presence of all color. Both are absolutes and both are true, but they are also opposites.

I dunno... it makes sense to me.

And how did you get this comment box on here? I see you still have a Blogger address. hmm... you'll have to let me in on your secret.

miller said...

It is a new Blogger option. Check Blogger Buzz for instructions how to have embedded comments.

Black and white are both true, but they're not true in the same location. I mean, without worrying about the details, you never have any single thing that is absolute black and absolute white simultaneously.

I think the flat-earth vs pale blue dot analogy is a good one. They are two opposite ends of the spectrum, and in a sense they are both true. To an ant, the Earth is flat. To the distant extraterrestrial, Earth is a pale blue dot. They are both very useful approximations, and perhaps great sources of inspiration. But if we really want to get down to what is really true (in the reductionist sense), you have to describe the Earth as an oblate spheroid...

miller said...

Additional comment:
It may seem like "oblate spheroid" is a rather uglier description than Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot". But if you think about it, "pale blue dot" is contained within the "oblate spheroid" concept.

If we're going to go with the black and white analogy, I would say that both black and white are contained within the single concept of light. Or, if we want to go mystical, we could say the yin and yang are both contained within the single concept of the Dao. :)

Linda said...

hmm... good thoughts.

Thanks for your help on the Blogger comments. :-) It works!! Yay!

Hugo said...

The first thing I'd like to point out is that "truth" and "facts" should be two different concepts. Truth is much broader, and should include things that are not reductionistic facts. (Borg suggests we've become "fact fundamentalists" in the modern age, by equating the two.)

I'll have to collect some nice examples of non-factual "
"truths" in order to have a better conversation about this, but a really silly and weak little example of two truths that are opposites:

absence makes the heart grow fonder


out of sight, out of mind

Both of these could be considered "truths", but also opposites. You could point out that the contexts differ, but that, to me, is the nature of "truths". They are human constructs and intuitions of how things typically are. So if you dig further for the facts underlying the truths, or the fuller context to resolve this supposed conflict of truths, you may succeed.

But in the sphere of human meaning and intuition, they're still opposite, and both are still "true"...

That's my two cents'

miller said...

I accept the existence of such opposite "truths" but I don't think they should be called truths, except maybe colloquially. I think that road only leads to confusion about the facts.

I mean, it's my definition of "truth" against Borg's, and it's hard to say that Borg's mental dictionary is any more authoritative. And I really don't see how it makes us "fact fundamentalists" just because we use different words.

Hugo said...

Recalling the chapter in which Borg suggested that, I don't think he was too negative about the definition. It was more about how we view things differently as "moderns", making it harder to appreciate the stories of the Bible for example. (This was a book that introduced some of the depth behind the Bible by bringing in historical context and Bible scholarship.)

He mentioned elsewehere that there was a Native American that started his (camp-fire?) stories with the phrase: "I don't know if it really happened, but I know it to be true". He's basically advocating a post-critical naiveté (his words) in order to more fully appreciate the stories.

For a bad example, instead of arguing whether Genesis 1 is factually true or not (after all we know it isn't), it is more interesting to look at what the chapter meant to the tribe. (That isn't a good example, because it doesn't reflect a profound truth, rather just a tribe whose theism / "tribal identity" managed to transcend the "if we lose a war, our god is inferior, and our tribal identity deserves to be swallowed by another" - At the time it was written, they were in exile in Babylon, iirc.)

Anyway, hope that clarifies. Borg (or Crossan?) is pretty good at tearing apart any idea of criticism being particularly negative: e.g. criticism of the Jews, criticism of the Pharisees, etc etc. They argue for compassion towards all. Hence my serious doubt that Borg meant "fact fundamentalist" in a negative way - recapping, he's just sketching out that the pre-moderns, who wrote the Bible and had their "truths" encapsulated in it, weren't.

miller said...

Hmmm... yes. So perhaps this is a good way to interpret Niels Bohr's quote. I guess he's just using the pre-modern definition of truth (which I still dislike btw).

As for "fact fundamentalist", I think that's a very poor choice of words. If I'm going to criticize Dawkins for using the worst phrases, I'm going to have to criticize Borg for this one too.

Hugo said...

I think I mentioned elsewhere: I don't think he meant it in a derogatory fashion, rather just sketching out what "truth" has become in a modern era. He was talking about ways of reading a pre-modern text, so it kinda makes sense that to get at its "value" (should you want to), requires considering the pre-modern approach to "truth". (Or post-modern? He talks about a post-critical naiveté - and does certainly say it is much better than a pre-critical naiveté, which is what Biblical literalists typically use to read the Bible.)

miller said...

Well, Dawkins didn't mean "delusion" in a derogatory fashion, but it's still derogatory, isn't it?

Hugo said...

True. Makes me wonder about taking any quote out of the context of the book it is in. Dawkins has a harder time with it being the title of the book, but I'm effectively quote-mining Borg here. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Here is what I consider a Profound Truth.

"Assertiveness is a great quality to have."

The opposite is "Assertiveness is a horrible quality"

Now consider an example a man who beats his wife. They both go to psychiatrists. Each get one statement, and both are true.

miller said...

very interesting!