Complementarity and the Gospel

Tom Hardman is a patent attorney in Salt Lake City, and occasional blogger on science and religion


A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design, by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, is a fascinating meditation on the nature of reality. I found Wilczek’s discussion about complementarity to be particularly thought provoking. Complementarity is a principle of quantum theory, but Wilczek argues that “its importance, as an insight into the nature of things, goes beyond physics.”

Wilczek summarizes complementarity as follows: “No one perspective exhausts reality, and different perspectives may be valuable, yet mutually exclusive.”
For example, scientists once assumed that light was either a particle (think of an infinitesimally small billiard ball) or a wave (think of waves in the ocean). These two ways to think about light were thought to be mutually exclusive, and physicists argued about which perspective was correct. But it is now accepted that both perspectives represent a portion of the truth: light is made up of particle-like photons that are accompanied by a wave that governs the direction in which light travels. In other words, the concept of a particle and the concept of a wave offer complementary perspectives on the reality of light. This is known as wave-particle duality.

Wilczek generalizes the principle of complementarity beyond physics, arguing that “no one approach, however clever, can provide answers to all possible questions. To do full justice to reality, we must engage it from different perspectives.”

This reminds me of what Terryl Givens says about Mormonism in People of Paradox. Although Givens doesn’t specifically mention complementarity, he observes that “Mormonism … seems especially rife with paradox — or tensions that only appear to be logical contradictions.” He provides four examples: (1) authoritarianism versus individualism, (2) “epistemological certainty” versus “an eternal quest” for knowledge and perfection, (3) the “disintegration of sacred distance,” and (4) exile from versus integration within Christianity.

I believe the paradoxes Givens identifies are complementary in the way that Wilczek suggests. Several other complementary paradoxes within Mormonism come to mind as well:

Justice/Mercy: The principle of justice (people should receive what they deserve) and the principle of mercy (people should sometimes receive more than they deserve) seem contradictory, but I feel the need for a balance between the two in my efforts at parenting. When my wife and I become narrowly focused on justice — on setting rules, dispensing rewards for compliance, and enforcing consequences for violations — our home feels too cold, too corporate. Yes, the children (more or less) practice their instruments and clean their rooms, but they seem distant and detached. On the other hand, when we focus excessively on mercy — on demonstrating compassion and forgiving wrongdoing — mayhem ensues. Homework goes undone, appointments are missed, promises are broken, and contention erupts. It is only when my wife and I strive, however imperfectly, for both justice and mercy that we are able to maintain a spirit of love and closeness within our family while staying at least one step ahead of utter chaos. I like to think that our Heavenly Parents have similar feelings about the human family, and that this is at least partly why mercy cannot rob justice (Alma 42:25).

Doctrinal Purity/Openness to Truth: Church leaders such as President Hinckley have “spoken … about the importance of keeping the doctrine of the Church pure.” This suggests, as does a current youth Sunday School lesson, that we must be wary of “things that could contaminate the pure doctrines of the gospel.” I don’t dispute this, but at the same time I have received what I believe are spiritual insights and answers to prayer from a variety of non-LDS sources, including literature, movies, music, and art, as well as books about seemingly non-religious topics such as evolution, historical criticism, and even atheism. It is unlikely that I ever would have consulted such sources if I were excessively concerned about being exposed to ideas that would “contaminate” my understanding of the gospel. It seems to me that the concern about maintaining pure doctrine must be balanced with a desire for learning and an openness to truth, regardless of its source. Joseph Smith taught that “[o]ne of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may.”

Faith/Doubt: President Monson was fond of saying, “Faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other.” I understand why faith and doubt are often characterized as opposites, but doubt has complemented my faith in several ways. Most notably, doubt has helped me to eliminate erroneous (and sometimes harmful) beliefs from my faith. Doubt has also been a humbling force in my life by pushing me to acknowledge my limitations, thereby making me more open to faith. I’m not saying that people should go looking for doubt, but I also agree with Armand Mauss that “doubt is the inescapable companion of serious, reflective thought.” When doubt presents itself, we should see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth and a more mature faith.

Self-Reliance/Interdependence: The Church teaches that self-reliance is “an essential element in our spiritual as well as our temporal well-being.” Yet the scriptures characterize the baptismal covenant as expressing a willingness to “bear one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8). Those aspects of the gospel that are focused on individual behavior (e.g., personal scripture study and prayer, obeying the Word of Wisdom, obtaining an education) are good and true principles, but they represent only a part of the gospel. We are also called to “remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted” (D&C 52:40). My participation in the Church helps me to remember that the gospel is both personal and collective. Yes, we must be self-reliant, but as President Oscarson declared, “oh, how we need each other!”

Mormon scripture teaches, “The glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). Perhaps this concept can be supplemented by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s insight: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


  1. I’m reading “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking, so these comments are timely for me. I need to read a real philosophers thoughts on Hawking’s “scientific truth” of determinism and lack of free will. I think Hawking skips over the conscious choices we make as not being part of free will, but this idea of complementarity might fit in.

  2. Many Members I know would add to this list Preside/Equal Partners. For me, they see too contradictory, but it’s likely I just don’t have a better understanding on how these two things could mesh together properly.

  3. Kristin Brown says:

    As Lehi taught, …there is opposition in all things. For every doctrine taught there is an equal and opposite true doctrine. I have studied this for years and find it fascinating. Many times for me the best choice has been somewhere in the middle of any two great debates. I liked your example of Justice/Mercy in the home. It is real. It is why couples who are opposite can create a perfect setting for the next generation. It may be hard on the couple but it is worth every sacrifice. Love the reference to Terry Givens. He is great. A wonderful post. Thank you.

  4. This post is so timely as it brings to my mind so many seeming contradictions in perspective that I encounter daily in society, religion, and science, as you say. As it turns out, reality is much more complicated than I had supposed as I try to resolve these seeming incompatible perspectives. Your outstanding post is a stimulus to me to further explore and apply this important and far-reaching concept.

  5. Greg Lamb says:

    This is a great post about a profound subject. Albert Einstein said “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle”. I consider myself to be part of the second group. I’m glad that even complex mathematical and scientific ideas are made understandable to someone such as myself. There are opposing forces in the world, its good to keep them in perspective.

  6. Thank you for posting this. Such an important topic. There is a great Hope Works talk (Mormon version of TED Talks) given on this topic (“Seeing Green” by Jill Thomas; on youtube or

    Also, your words reminded me of this quote: “If we have the truth, [it] cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” (J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years by D. Michael Quinn pages 24-26)

  7. millettm — I appreciate you pointing me to that terrific talk (“Seeing Green” by Jill Thomas). What a wonderful way to illustrate the point! Many thanks!

  8. I like this and I suspect it is “true” in that some principles we talk about really are complementary, and in the pragmatic sense that it is useful.

    There are limitations to the idea of complementarity. One is that not every paradox or conflict or debate reflects complementarity. Sometimes one side or the other is simply wrong. Other times some form of synthesis is possible and/or required. Complementarity is more like a third way than an answer to all things.And all three deserve serious effort. it’s probably unwise to take any one of the three routes as an easy answer.

    Another is that complementary pairs are not valued. If mercy and justice are complementary (I think they are a good candidate) that says only that both can be observed and that pushing either one to the limit will eliminate or diffuse the other to the point of non-existence or meaninglessness. It does not say that either justice or mercy or any particular balance or compromise is right or necessary or good.

  9. I enjoy the insights this kind of expressed thought advances–it appeals to a few of my own biases (and I’ll argue they are rationally based biases). Have you read E.O. Wilson’s book, Consilience? Oversimplified, it’s Wilson’s proposition that seemingly irreconcilable fields (e.g., science and the humanities) can be united using holistic methods to create more powerful synthesis of human knowledge and understanding.

  10. christiankimball —

    “…not every paradox or conflict or debate reflects complementarity. Sometimes one side or the other is simply wrong.”

    Yes, absolutely. Excellent point. Thank you for bringing this up.

    “Other times some form of synthesis is possible and/or required.”

    Again, I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, my working assumption is that synthesis may *eventually* be possible in many (most? possibly all?) cases once sufficient knowledge is acquired. In some cases, some form of synthesis may be possible now. In other cases, we may need to wait (possibly a very long time) for greater knowledge before synthesis is possible.

    I tend to see complementarity as a function of the limited perspective we have as mortal, fallible human beings. I like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which President Uchtdorf spoke about a few years ago in a CES devotional. The apparent conflicts between valid perspectives are because we cannot comprehend the full elephant.

  11. BigSky—

    Thanks for the recommendation. That sounds fascinating; I just added it to my reading list.

  12. How about helping the poor vs self reliance.

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