The Yin and Yang of it all

Ever since I was a child, I have wondered why the world is so filled with opposites: day-night, up-down, in-out… And I quickly realized that one could only exist if the other did too. In fact, the absence of one is usually what defines the other. That’s okay, I suppose, because if I was told to avoid the one, it was hard not to bump into its brother on the way. But if I couldn’t have one without its particular opposite holding its hand, how then could I avoid contamination? How could I do something entirely good without at least a whiff of the bad looking over its shoulder and trying to muscle in?

I began to think the teachers in Sunday School were either terribly naïve, or pulling my leg. Maybe the inevitability of opposites was supposed to be kept a secret; maybe they, too, were affected by the pull of the devil reaching out from the pages of their sacred text; maybe there was actually a fifth column to which they had pledged covert allegiance. The thought was as exciting as it was mysterious.

Sometimes, however, it is better to keep your suspicions hidden; there are often consequences attendant upon their disclosure -long and embarrassing explanations required. And, too rigorous an application of the knowledge about the importance -no, the necessity- of the accompanying opposites is usually met with derision plus eye-rolling. Or perhaps it is just the otherwise obstreperous Weltanschauung of the people I hang around with: the guys I usually meet on Wednesday mornings at the Food Court for coffee and donuts, for example -the one that has an outdoor overflow seating area that nobody else uses this time of year…

Harold, and Jaisukh were the only ones I saw sitting at the little table tucked in the corner out of the rain one blustery morning. Harold was bundled up in a heavy brown raincoat, whereas Jai sported his usual track suit, but this time it was covered by a red, ill-fitting ski jacket, several times too large for him. They both seemed to be arguing about something, when I arrived with my steaming coffee and three small donuts on a paper plate.

“One of those for me?” Harold said, reaching for the biggest one.

Jai immediately grabbed the one that didn’t look like I’d already squeezed it.

Actually, I’d bought them for myself, but I realized that it was too late to protest. “What are you guys arguing about this time?” I asked, to take the edge off my unexpected loss.

“Well,” Harold said in donut-coated words as he slowly chewed his mouthful. “We were trying to decide if drinking something hot makes you warmer, or whether it is actually such a contrast, it makes you realize how cold you really are.”

“And…?” I had a sip of my coffee.

“And opposites simply draw attention to each other,” Jai was quick to add, glancing furtively at Harold. “They don’t necessarily cancel each other out.”

Harold hadn’t finished chewing yet, so he only rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t ‘hot’ cancel out ‘cold’?” he managed, with a few donut remnants still clinging to his teeth after a brave attempt to swallow.

Jai, his mouth still politely empty, smiled. “Depends, Har…”

“On…?”

“On what you are comparing it to when you choose the word.” He took a small sip of his coffee and put it back on the table. “If I’d just had a drink of iced water, then even a warm coffee -like this one- might seem hot to me. In that case I’d really only be commenting on the difference.”

Harold’s forehead wrinkled. He turned his head and stared at me to referee the standoff.

“I’ve also been thinking about how much opposites colour the way we think about the world,” I responded; Jai’s face looked interested, but Harold’s stayed wrinkled. “I mean almost everything has an opposite, doesn’t it? And they kind of sit on a see-saw…”

Jai smiled at this. “ Maybe like Truth and Falsehood, don’t you think?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Except whichever is which can sometimes merely depend on opinion.”

Harold shook his head. “What is true can’t be false as well.”

Jai was quiet for a moment. Then his face blossomed into a big smile. “Sometimes it can.”

“Dammit Jai, you’d say white was black if I let you…”

Jai leaned forward on the table. “I have one of those old analogue wind-up alarm clocks at home and if I don’t wind it, once every 12 hours it tells the truth; the rest of the time it lies.”

Harold licked his finger and tried for donut crumbs on my plate. “It’s not really a lie…”

“Truth needs something to compare it with -something that it isn’t.” Jai added, seeing Harold’s frustration. “Otherwise, how could anybody else know it was really true and not just something you’d made up?”

I thought about Jai’s explanation when I later came across an essay by the philosopher Mary Margaret McCabe an emerita at King’s College London. https://psyche.co/ideas/to-find-the-truth-we-must-establish-the-meaning-of-falsehood

Falsehood matters, she writes. ‘Suppose that truths are made by what’s out there… Falsehoods then are exactly not made by what’s out there. If truth is made by correspondence with what’s real, does falsehood correspond to nothing? But how could nothing make anything – including falsehoods?’ At first I thought she was just playing with words.

Then, she further compounded my confusion by saying ‘The right contrast is not between saying something true and saying something false, but between saying something true and saying nothing at all.’ Hyperbolic certainty, she calls it. ‘Hyperbolical certainty’s exponents cannot be refuted, because to refute them is to show that what they say is not true, and so it begs the question against them.’ Uhmm…

In fairness, though, she does attempt to extricate herself: ‘Truth, to provide us with an effective disposition towards it, really needs falsehood. If this is how our mistaking minds progress, we don’t accumulate truths piecemeal but we develop a mental capacity that’s truth-orientated and successful, and we develop, especially, by being wrong. For that, the noticing and acknowledging of mistakes is vital.’ She enlists the help of Plato. ‘He also understands, as a consequence, the place that falsehood occupies in the defence of truth… the understanding or knowledge we seek is founded on dialectical exchange – on the exposure of one’s views to the scrutiny of another, in showing that one view is true and another false. Knowledge is thus not a solitary business, it’s what we do together. Knowledge is fundamentally accountable.’

I don’t know, I think Jai said it more simply: Truth just needs something to compare it to; the rest is history. I remember when I left them, though, Harold was still wondering about Time and the alarm clock thing…

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