monism n : the doctrine that reality consists of a single basic substance or element
EtymologyThe word was coined by German philosopher Baron Christian von Wolff and first used in English in 1862, from Modern Latin monismus, from Greek monos alone.
The doctrine of the oneness and unity of reality
Monism is the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that all reality (including God) 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 some non-Christian concepts of an immanent God. The concepts of absolutism, the monad, and the "Universal substrate" are closely related.
The origins of the term and understanding for the term Monad historically have their roots in the Hellenic philosophical teachings of Pythagoras. Monad derives from the Greek word μόνος or Monos meaning single and without division.
Monism is often seen as partitioned into three basic types:
- Substantial Monism, (One thing) which holds that there is one substance.
- Attributive Monism, (One category) which holds that while there is only one kind of thing, there are many different individual things or beings in this category.
- Absolute Monism, which holds that there is only one substance and only one being. Absolute Monism, therefore can only be of the idealistic type. (see below)
Monism is further defined according to three kinds:
- Idealism, phenomenalism, or mentalistic monism which holds that only mind is real.
- Neutral monism, which holds that both the mental and the physical can be reduced to some sort of third substance, or energy.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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 radical behaviourism, a view held by B. F. Skinner.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 philosophersThe following pre-Socratic philosophers described reality as being monistic:
- 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 panentheismFollowing 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. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 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 polytheists 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
HinduismMonism 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 clearly, unequivocally explicated absolute monism was that of Advaita (or nondualist) Vedanta (see Advaita Vedanta) as expounded by Adi Shankaracharya. 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 called Brahman. Such monistic thought also extends to other Hindu systems like Yoga and non-dualist Tantra for example in Kashmir Shaivism.
Another type of monism, qualified monism, and from the school of Ramanuja or Vishishtadvaita, admits that the universe is part of God, or Narayana, a type of either pantheism or panentheism, but sees a plurality of souls and substances within this supreme Being. This type of monism, monistic theism, which includes the concept of a personal God as a universal, omnipotent Supreme Being who is both Immanent and Transcendent, is prevalent in Hinduism. (Monistic theism is not to be confused with absolute monotheism where God is viewed as transcendent only. In absolute monotheism, the notion of Immanence divinity (essence of God) present in all things is absent.)
BuddhismBuddhist 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.
Christianitysee also Christian anthropology 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 both transcendent, and immanent. Immanence is possible due to the Christian doctrines of God's omnipotentence, omnipresence and omniscience, and 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.
Valentinianism was a religious doctrine named after the Gnostic theologian Valentinius who lived in the 2nd century. While Gnostic traditions are typically regarded as dualistic, "a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic" (Schoedel, William, "Gnostic Monism and the Gospel of Truth" in Bentley Layton (ed.) The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol.1: The School of Valentinus, E.J. Brill, Leiden.).
Valentinian sources regularly proclaim God (which is more akin to an indescribable Neoplatonist monad than the typical Orthodox Christian conception of a transcendent entity nevertheless possessed of a recognisable persona) to permeate all, and that the material universe is founded on error, as is our perception of it.
Materiality is occasionally described by the Valentinians as being exterior to the monad, and yet there are also passages that describe our experience in ignorance and in this world as a bad dream. And so variant interpretations are possible. Non-monistic as well as quasi-monistic interpretations are also suggested. The concept of 'monad' may itself simply refer to the simplicity or unitary nature of the invisible hidden God. Similarly, the term 'monad' may simply indicate the uniqueness of the spiritual principle. The depiction of differing states of knowledge or awareness in spatial terms is typical of Gnostic metaphor, especially within the Valentinian tradition.
JudaismAccording 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..." http://www.chabad.org/library/archive/LibraryArchive2.asp?AID=7988.
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.
Theological growth and breadthMany 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 MiraclesA 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).
OthersSeveral modern religious movements, for example the organizations within the New Thought Movement (of which Unity Church is numerically the largest), may be said to have a particularly mentalistic monism orientation. The theology of Christian Science is explicitly mentalistic monism: it teaches that all that exists is God and God's ideas; that the world as it appears to the senses is a distortion of the underlying spiritual reality.
Historically, monism has been promoted in spiritual terms on several occasions, notably by Ernst Haeckel. To the dismay of some modern observers, Haeckel's various ideas often had components of social Darwinism and scientific racism.
Paul Carus called himself "an atheist who loves God", and advocated "henotheism", which is often seen as monist or pantheist in nature.
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