A greylag goose in flight

The Anserines

Thin end of the wedge

Particles, Waves, Parts and People

By James

What is the fundamental building block of reality? Is it particles, little discrete units of matter that move around like the balls on a pool table? Or is it waves, vague, undulating phenomena that flow like the surface of a lake? Any quantum physicist will tell you: it is both, and it is neither.

If you shine light at two thin slits, you might expect that the resulting image on the wall behind will be of two columns of light. When this experiment was actually performed in 1801 by Thomas Young, the result was a rich pattern of brighter and darker patches, as though the light were composed not of individual fragments of light but moved like a wave. However, 100 years later, when studying the radiation of light from hot “black bodies”, Max Planck found his results suggested that light were formed of individual particles that we now call “photons”. These two models of reality are clearly contradictory, but are equally borne out by the evidence.

Scientists call this phenomenon “wave-particle duality”, and many natural phenomena sometimes behave like particles and sometimes like waves. It is not the case that the phenomena change from being particles into waves, and vice-versa. Rather, it seems to be that both models are equally true. Alternatively, one could say that both models are equally false.

What are the component parts of a system? Are we parts of a single person, fragments of one complete psyche? Or are we people in our own right, each capable and deserving of our own autonomy and desire? Here’s what I say: we are both, and we are neither.

The thing is, all of these models — waves, particles, parts and people — are built upon our observations of the reality we inhabit. We look at the balls on a pool table, moving around and colliding with one another, and say “as above, so below” and form a theory of particles. We look at the autonomous individuals in our lives, friends and family and acquaintances and say “as without, so within” and form a theory of personhood.

But the thing is, that kind of thinking is circular. The behaviour of pool balls is an emergent consequence of the fact that they are built out of phenomena both particle- and wave-like, just as the behaviour of people is an emergent consequence of part- and person-like structures in their minds. What does it even mean to be a person inside someone’s head, when our very idea of personhood is so inexorably linked to the autonomy of the body? What does it mean to be a fundamental particle, when our very idea of particleness is so linked to our observations of pool balls and specks of dust and grains of rice?

Personhood and partness are models for what we are. Both can be used for good, as well as misused for ill. I could use the part model to deny the autonomy of one of my headmates, or I could use it to acknowledge our inherent kinship. I could use the person model to disown responsibility for what another of us has done, or I could use it to respect and uphold our individual autonomy. A model is a tool, and a tool is only as good as the task to which it is put.

Richard Feynman said that “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”1. I think that if you think you understand multiplicity, you don’t understand multiplicity. I think that we are much more complex and confusing and beautiful than any model — be it parts- or person-based — can ever truly capture.

I am a person. I am a part. I am a person and a part. I am neither a person nor a part. I am both a person and a part and neither a person nor a part, I am neither both a person and a part nor neither a person nor a part, forever and ever and ever and ever amen.


He may not have said those exact words, but it illustrates my point so I’ll treat the quote as is.

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