Do Opposites Attract?


Or do they repel each other? When we talk about ourselves as human beings, the most complex creatures we know of, the simple answer is yes and no – which, unfortunately, is no answer at all. Everyone knows that “alikes” attract. Research over decades shows that people who share common traits of many kinds form close relationships, whether familial, collegial, friendly, or marital. Further, no two people can be more alike than identical twins, who share the same DNA; most pairs seem to remain the best of friends for life, and some have led eerily similar lives even if they were separated at birth. Yet everyone knows at least one pair of friends or a couple who seems incompatible on the surface, but who are extremely close to each other, perhaps even staying deeply in love for a lifetime. Can we extend this idea beyond ourselves to other animals, or even to all of nature itself – the limitless domain of science?

The concept of polarity is about as universal a concept that there is. Its use and understanding are essential in both the sciences and the humanities. Every language has simple words for expressing affirmation and denial, i.e. “yes” and “no” and their endless equivalents. In the sciences, there are polarities in electricity, magnets, molecules, cells, etc. – not to mention how polar properties may interact in every animate and inanimate object and substance. Finally, how can we forget the dualism inherent in all sexual species, especially ourselves? How different and alike are women and men? In previous eras, few people would have even thought of such a question because gender roles in traditional cultures are rigidly defined. In today’s world, however, the answers are many and varied.

In the infinite domain of nature, polarities are ubiquitous in every way. They begin with the structure of atoms – each contains at least one positively-charged proton and at least one negatively-charged electron. When the sum of protons and electrons is odd, the atom is a charged particle or ion. Every electromagnetic interaction – the strongest of the four fundamental physical interactions or forces – is mediated by this basic dynamic of nature. Without the electromagnetic force, there would be no molecules, no substance, no light, no electricity, or anything that makes our world possible.

Now let’s get back down to earth and consider polarity in human affairs. Having mentioned sexuality, what about human societies? It’s common knowledge that social roles are organized by sex to some degree, starting with the family. While these roles were more clearly defined in the past, they have become increasingly blurred in the past few decades, especially in the workplace in most countries. Some like to think of society as economically polarized, i.e. into the “haves and have-nots.” In politics, issues often polarize leaders and their followers into two opposing camps, as we have seen many times in America, most dramatically in the Civil War era and now during the Trump presidency. In international relations, political and economic tensions have led to extreme polarizations that grew into two tragic world wars and many subsequent deadly armed conflicts.

While the concept and uses of dialectical reasoning have been debated for centuries, going back as far as Plato’s famous philosophical dialogues, the method fits here. The best-known, but often misunderstood dialectic, is the so-called Hegelian in which every initial idea (thesis) gives rise to a competing idea (antithesis), which in turn leads to a melding or compromise of ideas (synthesis). Every synthesis leads to another antithesis, then another synthesis, and so on indefinitely. Philosophers, however, do not agree on either the origin or validity of this conceptual triad. The fact, however, that dialectical reasoning has been debated for decades, even before Hegel’s time two centuries ago, is testimony to its intrinsic power – making that fact alone a form of validation.

Take any proposition you like; say, “The earth is the center of the universe”, which people believed for centuries. Galileo’s observations through his telescope led to an opposite proposition – the sun is the center of it all. Three centuries later, Hubble’s telescope led to the discovery of galaxies and the proposition that our solar system is only a speck in a far vaster cosmos than anyone had imagined. Today we have a new cosmic synthesis that, in turn, has led to numerous competing propositions (theses in Hegelian terminology) regarding black holes, dark matter, dark energy, etc. Who knows what new synthesis may come from these?

Thomas S. Kuhn’s influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), argues that scientific knowledge has advanced in a non-linear series of major paradigm shifts or revolutions in thought; the shifts mentioned in the previous paragraph are primary examples. The most recent and perhaps important shift was the replacement of Newton’s mechanical “clockwork” universe with Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics. In the biological sciences, it was the discovery of DNA as proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution, thereby unlocking the secret of life.

While it remains a strictly theoretical frontier now, there is in the works a possible synthesis of human biology and quantum physics. In the latter field, it has long been recognized that any explanation of the micro universe cannot be separated from the observer, so understanding consciousness may be the synthesis that science has been looking for in the quest to solve the mysteries of the cosmos – at both the inner and outer extremities of the “known” universe.

The ultimate poles of existence are perhaps unreachable. There’s no evidence that we’ll ever find an outer edge of existence as long as astronomers continue to discover more distant galaxies and even clusters of galaxies. At the other extreme, there’s no evidence that quantum physicists will ever isolate the smallest subatomic particle. Can these unimaginably disparate domains be connected? As long as opposites attract, I see no reason why not.

Well, that covers just about everything that exists; some say that God is in the details.

Categories: In Too Deep