The same, but different

Blending science and philosophy, the noted French theoretical physicist Roland Omnès (1999) published a remarkably accessible guide to the conceptual framework of quantum mechanics. Omnès offered a concise history of the journey from classical physics to quantum mechanics, covering several concepts that are central to understanding the paradoxes and conundrums that face scientists trying to describe their evolving understanding of our universe. One in particular, complementarity, fascinates me.

Famously described by Niels Bohr in a lecture given in Como in 1927, the complementarity principle essentially states that an object can be described in two completely different ways with the same language, but not at the same time. Omnès offered the example of an atomic particle which can be described in terms of either its position or momentum at a single point in time, but not both. Not being a theoretical physicist (or even much of a philosopher), I think of the complementarity principle in terms of describing art. I can use the language of the material or I can use the language of the ethereal, but I cannot use the same to describe both aspects simultaneously.

The idea is on my mind as I once again grapple with the signs and symptoms of depression, the loss of interest in activities that normally captivate me, the creeping sense of hopelessness and monotony, the heaviness that makes even simple tasks seem difficult. Social distancing and temporary (but still seemingly interminable) quarantine have taken away the new routines and habits I had formed as part of my recovery from both the major depressive episode and the heavy doses of psychiatric medication. My mind feels so much clearer. The fog of the antidepressants has lifted. However, I recognize depression entering my daily routine. It’s forcing me to be more aware of the varying degrees and manifestations of my depression. A major depressive episode of the kind that I experienced starting in August and September 2018, feels like a flash flood. The emotional onslaught is overwhelming and paralyzing. That is a different experience of depression, for me, than the situational type I find myself in now. My daily life is dramatically different from what I want it to be. I want to be outside. I want to be interacting (in person) with those from whom I distanced myself when I withdrew as a result of my depression. Instead, I find myself sad, frustrated, lonely, and stuck. There is so much uncertainty in the world–from work and the economy to my children’s schooling and having dinner with my friends–that I feel like I cannot move forward, I can only hope to not slide backwards. It’s like I am proving that I can tread water, but with no idea of when the whistle will blow, signaling that the test is over.

And that brings me back to this idea of the complementarity principle. There is no language that encapsulates the whole of what I am feeling at the moment. Describing my emotions in terms of depression doesn’t provide sufficient distinction between what I am experiencing now and the period from which I have recently emerged. However, the language of depression offers the best words that I have. It’s like I can explain the road I have just been down with major depression with the same language I use to talk about my current feelings, but not at the same time.

Omnès, R. (1999). Understanding quantum mechanics. Princeton University Press.

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