Yin and Yang

In my second post I raised the topic of mind versus brain. There is (or, perhaps more accurately, may be) a duality. I mentioned that there are two basic schools of thought: one holding that mind emerges from brain and the other holding that they are distinct, that mind is – somehow – not physical. For now the duality of the brain/mind question is open.

But there is definitely a duality in the two schools: the two opposing points of view. In this post I want to focus on the idea of duality and the idea of ideas in opposition. This post is about Yin and Yang.

The interlocking ideas behind Yin & Yang are core aspects of how I see life. It is visible everywhere around us and seems to represent a fundamental aspect of the universe. Pairs of things in opposition seem to be everywhere!

It’s very easy to begin listing such opposing pairs:

  • Up «–» Down
  • Right «–» Left
  • Right «–» Wrong
  • East «–» West
  • Cold «–» Hot
  • Light «–» Dark
  • Light «–» Heavy
  • Positive «–» Negative
  • Male «–» Female
  • In «–» Out
  • Death «–» Birth

The trick is stopping once you start; the list is endless!

The symbol, foremost, represents opposites. In its simplest form, one side is white, the other black. The two sides mirror each other perfectly: they are equals of opposing color and aspect. But there is more to the symbol than just the idea of paired opposites. It also represents two other important things about duality.

First, the division between the two sides is a curve, not a straight line. They blend into each other. The line between two opposites is rarely simple or straight. The curved line is a way of symbolizing the shades of gray between the white and the black.

Second, each side has a small part of the other within itself. The white side has a black dot; the black side has a white dot. Rarely–if ever–do we find a pure example of one side or the other. Life generally is not absolute in any of its aspects.

The symbol has a couple other interesting features. It is a circle, the never-ending line, the repeating cycle.  It also has a sense of being dynamic; it almost seems to spin on its own. Both ideas, of repeating cycles and that things are dynamic, are also core aspects of the universe.

Quite a lot wrapped up in such a simple symbol!

Pairs & Cups

Some opposing pairs are distinct opposites, but others are more like a cup that is full or empty. The first kind consists of a thing and its true opposite; for example, matter and anti-matter, female and male, north and south. ‘Cup pairs’ consist of a thing and the lack of that thing; for example, hot and cold, light and dark, heavy and light. Cold is the absence of hot, dark is the absence of light, light is the absence of heavy (weight).

Appropriately, the duality between true pairs and cup pairs is sometimes fuzzy, exactly as the symbol suggests. Left can be viewed as the absence of right (if left and right are your only choices). Likewise, east is the absence of west, and the same with north/south and up/down. But if all directions are on the table, east is not the absence of north, up or any other direction.  It does remain the opposite of west.

And God help you if you ever suggest Woman is the lack of Man.


A common trait of cup pairs is that «zero» (the complete absence) is at one extreme. For example, you can assign numbers to light values, but dark is zero (zero light). Both weight and temperature have a zero at one end of the scale (zero weight, zero temperature).

On the other hand, «zero» is between opposing pairs. Between positive and negative is zero charge. Between left and right is standing still or going straight (zero in terms of going left or right). Between female and male, is neuter, which is zero in terms of sex.

This idea of ‘the zero between opposites’ is important and is the subject of the next post: Vector Thinking.

Beyond Pairs

Despite the ubiquity of Yin/Yang pairs, not everything comes in pairs. Taking it up a notch, many things come in threes.

Three points define a plane and a circle on a plane. Three legs makes for a stable platform (think tripod or footstool). Some major religions have three gods (Christian: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Hindu: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva). We have three key branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial). Three is the smallest number of votes with no risk of a tie.

On a more esoteric (but deeply fundamental) plane, there are three families of matter (fermions), and both protons and neutrons consist of three quarks (and quarks come in three “colors”).

Once you go beyond three, it gets complicated. Four, for example, is just two twos, although squareness (four sides) is a basic concept found in many places. Pentagons (star fish) and hexagons (honey comb) also pop up in nature as do other numbers, but that is all food for later.

For now, think about the pairs you encounter. (Are they opposing pairs or cup pairs?) You might be surprised how many you find!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

7 responses to “Yin and Yang

  • Lisa

    Male is not the opposite of female, more variation on a theme. OK, it’s a cup set, people are definately fuzzy.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Totally! An individual’s quotient of “male” and “female” varies, so individuals are fuzzy, and every individual is different, so the whole space of “male/female” is hugely fuzzy!!

      Note that we need the ideas of “female” and “male” to define the space. Think of them like the North and South Poles. They are invisible, single points in space. No person can stand on the actual North or South Pole. Every individual stands somewhere north and south of the poles.

      Same with male and female. They are just concepts that define two (“opposite”) directions that allow people to plot a position on a landscape. And for some, that position can shift.

      Totally fuzzy. Life is like moldy cheese: fuzzy!

      • wakemenow

        My first thought was similar to Lisa’s, but Smythe’s elaboration satisfied me.

        Thanks for inviting me to read this post, btw. 🙂 The very concept of yin and yang first really began to stick for me when considering the genders, and for all the reasons posted above. The “fuzziness” creates a grey gulf, a spectrum rather, that has to be taken into consideration when trying to delineate along gender lines. Each gender, male and female, contains bits of the other, all coming together to form one dynamic whole human race; with no two individuals made up of the same stuff in the same exact way (identical twins may share genetics, but no two of us share exact life experiences, influences, or choices), hence each individual’s inherent uniqueness. Yin Yang is a truly radical notion when we really stop and ponder it. This is the stuff that makes life so incredibly awesome awe-inspiring and deep.

        Thanks for posting on this topic, Smythe! 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ve got a post idea in the pipeline about gender. The short quick version is that I see the genders like two circles of a Venn diagram where the circles very nearly overlap. There are tiny crescents on either side exclusive to male or female, but the vast part of the territory is shared. It’s merely that the centers aren’t exactly the same.

      • wakemenow

        Yes, that makes sense. I’ll be interested to read what you come up with on the topic.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve put the post up today (a counter-balance and contrast to Star Trek Saturday yesterday):

        Venus & Mars

        This one’s been simmering in the pipeline for a while; it just took a little urging to get it done!

  • Venus & Mars « Logos con carne

    […] while back I wrote about Yin & Yang and how some opposites are truly opposing (positive and negative) while other seeming opposites are […]

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