Definitions

incorporeal being

Monism

[mon-iz-uhm, moh-niz-uhm]

Monism is the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that all reality is subsumed under the most fundamental category of being or existence.

Monism is to be distinguished from dualism, which holds that ultimately there are two kinds of substance, and from pluralism, which holds that ultimately there are many kinds of substance.

Monism characterizes pantheism, panentheism, and naturalism. The concepts of absolutism, the monad, and the "universal substrate" are closely related.

Philosophical monism

Monism is often seen as partitioned into three basic types:

  1. Substantial Monism, which holds that there is a difference in substance of individual things or beings within reality.
  2. Attributive Monism, which holds that there are different attributes to things or beings in each category within reality.
  3. Absolute Monism, which holds that reality is only one substance and only one being. (see below)

Monism is further defined according to three kinds:

  1. Idealism, phenomenalism, or mentalistic monism which holds that only mind is real.
  2. Neutral monism, which holds that both the mental and the physical can be reduced to some sort of third substance, or energy.
  3. Physicalism or materialism, which holds that only the physical is real, and that the mental can be reduced to the physical.

Certain other positions are hard to pigeonhole into the above categories, including:

  1. Functionalism, like materialism, holds that the mental can ultimately be reduced to the physical, but also holds that all critical aspects of the mind are also reducible to some substrate-neutral "functional" level. Thus something need not be made out of neurons to have mental states. This is a popular stance in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.
  2. Eliminativism, which holds that talk of the mental will eventually be proved as unscientific and completely discarded. Just as we no longer follow the ancient Greeks in saying that all matter is composed of earth, air, water, and fire, people of the future will no longer speak of "beliefs", "desires", and other mental states. A subcategory of eliminativism is the radical behaviourism of B. F. Skinner.
  3. Anomalous monism, a position proposed by Donald Davidson in the 1970s as a way to resolve the mind-body problem. It could be considered (by the above definitions) either physicalism or neutral monism. Davidson holds that there is only physical matter, but that all mental objects and events are perfectly real and are identical with (some) physical matter. But physicalism retains a certain priority, inasmuch as (1) All mental things are physical, but not all physical things are mental, and (2) (As John Haugeland puts it) Once you take away all the atoms, there's nothing left. This monism was widely considered an advance over previous identity theories of mind and body, because it does not entail that one must be able to provide an actual method for redescribing any particular kind of mental entity in purely physical terms. Indeed there may be no such method. This is a case of nonreductive physicalism, or perhaps emergent physicalism/materialism.
  4. Reflexive monism, a position developed by Max Velmans in 2000, as a method of resolving the difficulties associated with both dualist and reductionist agendas concerning consciousness, by viewing physical phenomena-as-perceived as being part of the contents of consciousness.
  5. Dialectical monism, a position which holds that reality is ultimately a unified whole, but asserting that this whole necessarily expresses itself in dualistic terms. For the dialectical monist, the essential unity is that of complementary polarities which, while opposed in the realm of experience and perception, are co-substantial in a transcendent sense.

Ancient philosophers

The following pre-Socratic philosophers described reality as being monistic:

  • Thales: Water.
  • Anaximander: Apeiron (meaning 'the undefined infinite'). Reality is some, one thing, but we cannot know what.
  • Anaximenes: Air.
  • Heraclitus: Fire (in that everything is in constant flux).
  • Parmenides: One. Reality is an unmoving perfect sphere, unchanging, undivided.

And post-Socrates:

  • Neopythagorians such as Apollonius of Tyana centered their cosmologies on the Monad or One.
  • Middle Platonism under such works as Numenius express the Universe emanating from the Monad or One.
  • Neoplatonism is Monistic. Plotinus taught that there was an ineffable transcendent God, 'The One,' of which subsequent realities were emanations. From The One emanates the Divine Mind (Nous), the Cosmic Soul (Psyche), and the World (Cosmos).

Monism, pantheism, and panentheism

Following a long and still current tradition H.P. Owen (1971: 65) claimed that

"Pantheists are ‘monists’...they believe that there is only one Being, and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it."

Although, like Spinoza, some pantheists may also be monists, and monism may even be essential to some versions of pantheism (like Spinoza's), not all pantheists are monists. Some are polytheists and some are pluralists; they believe that there are many things and kinds of things and many different kinds of value. Not all Monists are Pantheists. Exclusive Monists believe that the universe, the God of the Pantheist, simply does not exist. In addition, monists can be Deists, Pandeists, Theists or Panentheists; believing in a monotheistic God that is omnipotent and all-pervading, and both transcendent and immanent. There are monist pantheists and panentheists in Hinduism (particularly in Advaita and Vishistadvaita respectively), Judaism (monistic panentheism is especially found in Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy), in Christianity (especially among Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans) and in Islam (among the Sufis, especially the Bektashi).

Monism in religious and spiritual systems

Hinduism

Monism is found in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rigveda, which speaks of the One being-non-being that 'breathed without breath'. The first system in Hinduism that unequivocally explicated absolute monism was the non-dualist philosophy of Advaita Vedanta as expounded by Shankara. In short, Advaita declares - All is Brahman. It is part of the six Hindu systems of philosophy, based on the Upanishads, and posits that the ultimate monad is a formless, ineffable divine ground of all being.

Vishishtadvaita, qualified monism, is from the school of Ramanuja. Shuddhadvaita, in-essence monism, is the school of Vallabha. Dvaitadvaita, differential monism, is a school founded by Nimbarka. Dvaita, dualist monism, is a school founded by Madhva. All Vaishnava schools are panentheistic and view the universe as part of Krishna or Narayana, but see a plurality of souls and substances within Brahman. Monistic theism, which includes the concept of a personal God as a universal, omnipotent Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, is prevalent within many other schools of Hinduism as well.

Monistic theism is not to be confused with monotheism where God is viewed as transcendent-only. In monotheism, the notion of immanence or actual presence of God in all things is absent.

Buddhism

Buddhist philosophy, especially Madhyamaka, can be compared readily to dialectical monism, but it may be more accurate to describe it as non-dualistic. Among the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate nature of the world is described as emptiness, which is indistinguishable from material form. That appears to be a monist position, but the Madhyamaka views - including variations like Prasangika and Yogacara and the more modern shentong Tibetan position - will fail to assert in the ultimate nature any particular point of view. They instead deconstruct any assertions about ultimate existence as resulting in absurd consequences. The doctrine of emptiness is also found in earlier Theravada Buddhist literature.

In Soto Zen teaching, it is said that "All is One and All is Different." Since non-dualism does not recognize a dualism between Oneness and Difference, or even between dualism and non-dualism, it is difficult to state the meaning of this doctrine. All discussion of this teaching by Soto Zen masters falls under the Buddhist concept of skill in means, which is to say, not literally correct, but suitable for leading others to the Truth. Chinese Soto (Cao-Dong) master Tozan (Tung Shan, Dongshan) wrote the Verses of the Five Ranks (of the Ideal and the Actual), which is also important as a set of koans in the Rinzai school. Dongshan describes the Fifth Rank in part thus:

Unity Attained:
Who dares to equal him
Who falls into neither being nor non-being!

Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien's poem "The Harmony of Difference and Sameness" Sandokai is an important early expression of Zen Buddhism and is chanted in Sōtō temples to this day. Another poem of Tung-shan Liang-chieh on these and related themes, "The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness", is also chanted in Sōtō temples daily.

Other expressions of this teaching include the koan:

A disciple asked, "What is the difference between the enlightened and the unenlightened man?"

The Master replied, "The unenlightened man sees a difference, but the enlightened man does not."

and Dogen Zenji's personal koan, "Why are training and enlightenment differentiated, since the Truth is universal?" (Fukanzazengi, Instructions for Meditation)

Christianity

Christianity strongly maintains the Creator-creature distinction, and so firmly rejects metaphysical monism. Christianity maintains that God created the universe ex nihilo and not from Himself, nor within Himself, so that the Creator is not to be confused with creation, but rather transcends it (metaphysical dualism). God is transcendent. Immanence is defined as God's omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, due to God's desire for intimate contact with his own creation. Another use of the term "monism" is in Christian anthropology to refer to the innate nature of mankind as being holistic, as opposed to bipartite and tripartite views.

While the Christian view of reality is dualistic (in regard to metaphysics) in that it holds to the Creator's transcendence of creation, it firmly rejects other types of dualism (or pluralism) such as the idea that God must compete with other (equal) powers such as Satan or Evil. In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine argued, in the context of the problem of evil, that evil is not the opposite of good, but rather merely the absence of good, something that does not have existence in itself. Likewise, C. S. Lewis described evil as a "parasite" in Mere Christianity, as he viewed evil as something that cannot exist without good to provide it with existence. Lewis went on to argue against dualism from the basis of moral absolutism, and rejected the dualistic notion that God and Satan are opposites, arguing instead that God has no equal, hence no opposite. Lewis rather viewed Satan as the opposite of Michael the archangel.

Judaism

According to Chasidic Thought (particularly as propounded by Shneur Zalman of Liadi) of Chabad, God is held to be immanent within creation for two interrelated reasons.

  • Firstly, a very strong Jewish belief is that "[t]he Divine life-force which brings [the universe] into existence must constantly be present... were this life-force to forsake [the universe] for even one brief moment, it would revert to a state of utter nothingness, as before the creation..."
  • Secondly, and simultaneously, Judaism holds as axiomatic that God is an absolute unity, and that He is Perfectly Simple - thus if His sustaining power is within nature, then His essence is also within nature.

However the Vilna Gaon was very much against this philosophy, for he felt that it would lead to pantheism and heresy. According to some this is the main reason for the Gaon's ban on Chasidism.

Note that, at the same time, Jewish Thought considers God as separate from all physical, created things (transcendent) and as existing outside of time (eternal). For a discussion of the resultant paradox; see Tzimtzum.

See also Negative theology.

The later, modern Hasidic approach should be contrasted with that of the earlier scholars, more in pale with mainstream Jewish thought of the time, such as Maimonides. According to Maimonides, (see Foundations of the Law, Chapter 1), God is an incorporeal being that caused all other existence. In fact, God is defined as the necessary existent that caused all other existence. According to Maimonides, to admit corporeality to God is tantamount to admitting complexity to God, which is a contradiction to God as the First Cause and constitutes heresy. While Hasidic mystics considered the existence of the physical world a contradiction to God's simpleness, Maimonides saw no contradiction. See the Guide for the Perplexed, especially chapter I:50.

Islam

According to orthodox perspectives in Islam, the creation and the creator cannot be equal, therefore Monism has been rejected by the dogmatic elements within Islam. Islam claims that God created the universe from nothing, therefore the concept of anthropomorphism and viewing God himself as evolving or changing are forms of shirk (associating partners with God). The belief of God in Islam can be summarized by chapter 112 of the Qur'an "Say, he is God the one, God the eternal. He does not beget nor was he begotten, and there is nothing that is like him/equal to him." Muslims further assert that to say that God changes, or transforms is a contradiction, because that which is eternal cannot change for that is now a new substance that has come into existence.

Many followers of Sufism advocated monism. Most notably the 13th-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi (1207 -73) in his didactic poem Masnavi espouses monism. Rumi says Masnavi, "in the shop for Unity (wahdat); anything that you see there except the One is an idol."

Theological growth and breadth

Many forms of Hinduism (including Vedanta, Yoga, and certain schools of Shaivism), Taoism, Pantheism, Rastafari and similar systems of thought explore the mystical and spiritual elements of a monistic philosophy. With increasing awareness of these systems of thought, western spiritual and philosophical climate has seen a growing understanding of monism. Moreover, the New Thought Movement has embraced many monistic concepts for over 100 years.

Monism can be said to oppose religious philosophy altogether by claiming that the idea of spirituality contradicts the monist principle of an indistinguishable mind and body. However, one might consider monism more fundamental than any religious philosophy while taking religion and spirituality as sources of wisdom.

A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles, a spiritual self-study course published in 1975, represents a thought system of pure mentalistic monism or non-dualism.

In the Course, only God and His Creation, which is Spirit and has nothing to do with the world, are real. The physical universe is an illusion and does not exist. The Course compares the world of perception with a dream. It arises from the projection of the dreamer, i.e. the mind ("projection makes perception," T-21.in.1:1), according to its wishes (perception "is the outward picture of a wish; an image that you wanted to be true," T-24.VII.8:10). The purpose of the perceptual world is to ensure our separate, individual existence apart from God but avoid the responsibility and project the guilt onto others. As we learn to give the world another purpose and recognize our perceptual errors, we also learn to look past them or "forgive," as a way to awaken gradually from the dream and finally remember our true Identity in God.

The Course’s non-dualistic metaphysics is similar to Advaita Vedanta. What A Course in Miracles adds, is that it gives a motivation for the seeming though illusory existence of the perceptual world (for a further discussion, see Wapnick, Kenneth: The Message of A Course in Miracles, 1997, ISBN 0-933291-25-6).

Notes

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