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Two Truths: Contradiction in Science and Humanity

Over the course of this semester, I have noticed that many of my classes have come across similar themes despite their very different subjects. One of the most relevant themes to this class has been the idea of two truths existing simultaneously which at first glance appear incompatible. I find it striking that there are so many realms of human existence where we put our trust in contradiction. One of my favorite things is to find connections between the sciences and the humanities, and I think that the existence of two contradictory truths is quite cross-disciplinary.

One of the first things I learned in my course on Conceptual Physics is that the two theories on which we base our entire understanding of the physical world are inherently incompatible. Quantum mechanics, where we study the microscopic features of physics, is based on the theory that particles can exist in multiple locations at the same time and thus are not directly measurable. General relativity, studying only objects with measurable mass and the basis for gravitational analysis, can only function when points have distinct measurable locations. While these two theories are not used together since they study separate fields, one of the main goals of the scientific community during this century is to create a Grand Unification Theory, where a combined quantum gravity theory can be reached. Even though there is no real need to combine the two theories, since they effectively work separately in principle, there is a massive driving force to find some way of turning two into one. It seems that there is no way for physicists to accept the existence of two conflicting truths, even when it has no bearing on the actual practice of physics.

I chose to attend the most recent Café Scientifique lecture because of my passion for the debate over evolution: Inherit the Wind has so far been the only live theater performance to ever move me to tears. Most of the discussion surrounding the debate over evolution is a constant insistence that there can only be one way of thinking. The lecture took the unusual side of trying to reconcile the two and stop talking about which one is correct. One of the most interesting ideas posited was the notion of creating stories around evolution. We need to accept the usefulness of multiple stories (i.e. evolution, creationism) even if they appear to be conflicting. What is Truth to one person is not Truth to another. In a recent article from the Associated Press, a Vatican cardinal was quoted as saying that “the Vatican believe[s] there [is] a ‘wide spectrum of room’ for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator” (Vatican official). Cardinal Levada, who was speaking at the Vatican-sponsored conference on evolution as a cultural phenomenon in honor of the publication anniversary of “Origin of the Species”, rejected the statement that the Vatican believes that evolution and God are mutually exclusive and would not take a stance on the teaching of creationism in US schools, merely stating that “the Vatican listens and learns” (Vatican official). Yet we as a society cannot seem to reconcile the two; we are insisting that there only be one Truth, one story.

When Eli Clare came to speak at Bryn Mawr, he mentioned that his transition from female to male was not like crossing the length of a room, as society commonly views it. For him, it was like stepping over a crack, albeit a very important one. The distinction between genders for him is so close that it is easily breached by a single step. During his lecture, Eli Clare discussed an excerpt from Lynn Manning’s poem “The Magic Wand”. The poem reflects a number of truths existing in the same body, to the individual all harmoniously interacting. Society feels the need to select one of these truths by which to identify us. Whether it is our race, our gender, our sexuality, or a perceived disability, we are labeled with the one considered to be the most important or influential at the time.

“Quick-change artist extraordinaire,/I whip out my folded cane/and change from black man to blind man/with a flick of my wrist… From sociopathic gangbanger with death for eyes/to all-seeing soul with saintly spirit;/From rape deranged misogynist/to poor motherless child… My final form is never of my choosing;/I only wield the wand;/You are the magicians.” (The Magic Wand).

For Lynn Manning, there are two simultaneous truths: being a black man and being blind, but for society, one must always rise above the other, because we don’t know how to rationalize multiple truths in one person or because it is too complicated. I think this speaks volumes to when Ryan spoke to our class about how everyone is transgender in some respect. My favorite part of the discussion was when he said that he is trans, but not in transition, and people have a hard time accepting that. Society cannot come to terms with the idea that someone can exist mentally as a man but physically as a woman. These, to society, are two conflicting truths that must be separated or else nothing will make sense anymore. Sandy Stone also speaks of this when she discusses her frustration at the term “wrong body”. She asserts that society’s need for a connection between gender and genitalia “forecloses the possibility of a life grounded in the intertextual possibilities of the transsexual body (Stone, 334). Because we cannot reconcile ourselves to accept that someone can exist with these two truths simultaneously, those “for whom gender identity is something different from and perhaps irrelevant to physical genitalia” (Stone, 335), we must insist that there be a physical expression of gender.

Why can we not accept the existence of two seemingly incompatible truths? Is it easier for society as a whole to accept the incompatibility of physics because we don’t understand it, whereas we think we understand evolution/creationism and gender? We’re so sure that we know “how gender works” and “how evolution happened” because they are so frequently discussed, but there are few people who discuss quantum gravity on the street. For the most part, the two conflicting truths of physics are accepted because it is established that this world is still functional even though they both exist. Maybe one day it will eventually become established that more than one expression of gender can be present in the same body and that we can all embrace our multitude of truths equally.


Manning, Lynn. “The Magic Wand”.

Stone, Sandy. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” Sex/Machine: Readings
in Culture, Gender, and Technology.
Ed. Patrick Hopkins. Indiana University Press, 1998. 322-341.

“Vatican official: Atheist theories ‘absurd’”. The Associated Press. 3 March, 2009.

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009


    It’s a delight for me to see you trying to weave together the multiple outside-of/but-related-to-class locations in which we found ourselves, over the course of the past month (though I haven’t participated in your conceptual physics class, I was there for Café Scientifique and Eli Clare’s talk). And what is certainly most striking about your paper is your ability to see that, in each of these very distinct venues, we were wrestling with the same abstract quandary: how to reconcile two seemingly contradictory truths. (All that’s missing from your catalogue is the famous quote by Nils Bohr — have you learned about him in conceptual physics?–that “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”)

    Let me see if I have followed your train of thought: although quantum mechanics and general relativity are compatible (because descriptive of different levels of reality), physicists want to unify them into a single grand theory. Although creationism and evolution are compatible (because also descriptive, in Steven Jay Gould’s terms, of non-overlapping magisteria), religionists and scientists each want to destroy one another’s theories, and declare theirs alone the “truth.” Although Eli Clare is comfortable “being a man in a woman’s body,” and Lynn Manning is both black and blind, others want to reconcile these different subject positions, insisting that one must be either male or female, not both or neither; either one “disability” or “threat”–angry black man or helpless blind man–not both.

    The really big question you beg, though, is WHY we cannot reconcile ourselves to two simultaneous—and seemingly contradictory—truths; where does that impulse to simplify the complex world come from, and why do we persist in pursuing it? You ask “why we can not accept the existence of two seemingly incompatible truths,” but you don’t give an answer—and you really don’t give any reasons to believe in your final prediction, that “maybe one day we can all embrace our multitude of truths equally.” What reasons do you have for thinking this may come to pass?

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