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Friday, May 20, 2011


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Yes, the problem with monism is that, because there is only one substance, there is no substantial difference between a person and a tomato. One of the most famous monists was Ernst Haeckel. I think TH Huxley was a monist too. Monism is very useful for some people because they can oscillate between being an atheist and being a theist. They can plausibly deny one or the other when it suits them. Monism used to be hot stuff. It was (is?) the religion of science. Ernst Mach joined Haeckel's monist church. He even wrote in some embarassing stuff about the god "monos" in his history of mechanics. The most extensive resource on monism as the religion of science would be the Monist Quarterly Journal. Lots of fascinating (pathological?) philosophic material. There are compendiums of it on www.archive.org.

I guess moslems are attracted to monism because it's a way to outdo christians. We really, really, really believe in one God! We so really believe it, that we don't believe in you! Or tomatoes!

I hope you are not referring to The Monist: http://themonist.org/

Yes, that's it. Starring Paul Carus.

For whatever it is worth, I agree with both your correction and your precision. As for the correction: of course it is a bit of an overstatement to say, as I did, that “Only those among [us] who think that the many extended changing beings surrounding us are genuinely real could object.” Let me say, in my defense, that I was trying to use an evidently false overstatement to express an understatement.

As for the precision: I fully agree that “no one who holds that the plural world is a created world can maintain that the members of the plural world are independently real.” Being distinct from, i.e., not identical with, is not at all the same as being independent of. If, then, I were to hold that there is a creator upon which “the many extended changing beings surrounding us” depend for their very existence, I would also have to say with you, “So if ‘genuinely real’ means ‘independently real,’ then I would deny that ‘the many extended changing beings surrounding us’ are genuinely real.”

As things are, I do not at present hold either that there is or that there is not a creator upon which all else depends. At least somewhat in line with the conception of knowledge evident in your March 20, 2011, post, “Knowledge as Absolute Impossibility of Mistake,” I have to say I do not know. Actually, I have to go a bit further and say that at present I believe neither that there is such a creator nor that there is not such a creator. I have no belief either way.

On the other hand, I hope that there is and I fear that there isn't.


It’s important to recognize, as I’m sure you do, the difference between the absolute monism of Nasr, at least when you clear away the clutter, and a monism of kind. The latter, though not the former, admits the existence of a genuine plurality of things, but holds them to be homogeneous in nature, i.e., of the same kind. It is the latter which Thales, on the one hand, and Democritus and those more recent thinkers for whom science is their “religion,” on the other, adhered to.

The pertinent point about Nasr is not that he is a Muslim, but that he is a Sufi in, broadly speaking, the tradition of one Ibn Arabi. Much of Islamic thought, though by no means all, is opposed to Sufism and very much opposed to the “theomonism” of Ibn Arabi tradition. Prominent among those opponents was Ibn al-Wahhab, the founder of "Wahhabism," the conservative and literalist doctrine to an extreme version of which bin Laden adhered.


I didn't think we were disagreeing. I just wanted to make clear that something could be genuinely real without being independently real.

You make a good distinction between two senses of 'monism.' In one sense monism is the view that there is exactly one kind of substances, material substances say. In the other sense monism is the view that there is exactly one substance. I suspect Ethan is conflating these two senses.

Sufism as I understand it is the mystical branch of Islam. So there is a sense in which every Sufi is a Muslim, not that you denied that above.

Dr. Homayra Ziad explains:


The concepts of Wahdat al-wujud and Wahdat ash-shuhud are primarily connected with two great shuyukh, Shaykh Ibn `Arabi (q, d. 1240) and Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (q, d. 1624). The two concepts are usually translated as Oneness of Being (Wahdat al-wujud) and Oneness of Perception (Wahdat ash-shuhud). However, the phrase Wahdat al-wujud is not found in the works of Sayyidina Ibn `Arabi (q), and was formulated, based on Sayyidina Ibn `Arabi’s ideas, by later interpreters of his work.

Both Sayyidina Ibn `Arabi (q) and Imam Sirhindi (q) understood God as Pure Being. There is only One Being and that is God. However, they differed on how the being of the phenomenal world (like human beings) related to God.

Here is how they differ: Oneness of Being (Wahdat al-wujud) states that Being is the sole reality and everything that we see around us is an expression or articulation of Being. For example, we cannot say “The flower exists.” The flower cannot be the subject of the sentence. Rather, Being is expressed as a flower. Being is the subject. The metaphor that is often used to visualize this is waves on an ocean, that is, just as waves are an articulation of the ocean, the phenomenal world (including us) are articulations of Being. Another metaphor that is often used is different letters on a page written with ink – the ink is the same, but expressed in different forms. Thus objective reality can be expressed as “All is God.”

However, in a religious tradition like ours that makes a clear distinction between Creator and created things, how does the Oneness of Being preserve the transcendence of God? Imam Ahmad Sirhindi (q) was afraid that the idea of Oneness of Being may lead human beings into the trap of identifying themselves with God. Oneness of Perception strives to avoid this trap: instead of seeing the phenomenal world as modifications of Being (waves on the sea), Imam Sirhindi (q) said that the world is an articulation of the concept of non-Being, with the reflection of Being upon it. We are all shadows of Being, and shadows cannot be identical with the source of the shadow. We have no essential reality of our own. Our being is not the same as the Being of God – for only God really exists, while our existence is imaginary.

The metaphor that is often used to visualize this idea is the phenomenal world as an image in a mirror, reflecting God’s real Being. Therefore, objective reality is not “All is God” but “All is from God”. Seeing God in all things goes back to the viewer and does not offer a final explanation of the nature of reality. That is, the Oneness of Being is subjective: the existence of creation and Creator only appear to be united in the experience of the seeker. This experience he calls Wahdat ash-shuhud, or Oneness of Perception.

Many later scholars attempted to integrate, or minimize the difference between, both of these approaches. For example the great Delhi scholar Shah Waliallah (d. 1762) held that the difference between these approaches is a matter of semantics, and that Oneness of Perception merely strives to place greater emphasis on the line between Creator and created.

While the idea of God as Being is not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an, there are many Qur’anic verses that imply God as the ground of all Being. Some of these are:

وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِ

{We created the human being and know what his soul murmurs to him. We are closer to him than his jugular vein.} (Surah Qaf, 50:16)

كُلُّ مَنْ عَلَيْهَا فَانٍ وَيَبْقَى وَجْهُ رَبِّكَ ذُو الْجَلَالِ وَالْإِكْرَامِ

{Everything on earth perishes; all that remains is the Face of your Lord, full of majesty, bestowing honor.} (Surat ar-Rahman, 55:26-27)

وَلِلّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّواْ فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللّهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

{The East and the West belong to God: wherever you turn, there is His Face. God is all pervading and all knowing.} (Surat al-Baqara, 2:115)

وَهُوَ مَعَكُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ

{He is with you wherever you are.} (Surat al-Hadid, 57:4)

In the Qur’an, God is not one existent among other existents, rather He is the only Reality (al-Haqq being one of the Most Beautiful Names of God). In fact, Sayyidina `Ibn Arabi (q) makes an explicit connection between Wujud (Being) and the Name al-Haqq, positing the former as another name for the latter.

It is interesting that Wahhabis and those who support Wahdat al-wujud and related approaches both have a radical conception of tawhid. Wahhabis claim that they are trying to protect God’s Oneness and so they are quick to label many practices and ideas as promoting shirk. They believe that Oneness of Being is a foreign idea that was imported into Islam through pre-Islamic Greek and Hindu traditions, that it will lead to a blurring of boundaries between God and God’s creation, and that proponents of this idea will begin breaking the rules of religious law, worshipping God’s creation alongside God.

Ironically, Wahdat al-wujud is in and of itself the highest expression of tawhid: the being of all things is in fact endowed from the Being of God, (without in any way limiting God’s Existence or constricting it) and God is All-Encompassing. However, Sufi shuyukh also believe that these philosophies are not meant for lay-people, and that there is in fact a great danger that lay-people will not understand its ramifications. Therefore discussions about philosophies of Being are only meant for those who have already reached a high level of faith, worship and spirituality, and who will not make the mistake of confusing God with God’s creation in matters of law and worship.


Richard -- actually, no I'm not aware of this distinction. Where does "monism of kind" come from and why is it supposed to be the monism of the monistic scientists as opposed to the other monism? One of the idols of the monist religion of science is Spinoza. Spinoza believed there is only one substance. Also, I don't like this term "absolute monism". Why do I need it? Why not just say "monism"?

Bill -- if someone believes in many substances, they are not a monist. Where does this notion of "one kind of (many) substances" come from? Are the scientific monists (Haeckel's disciples) supposed to be this kind of monist? I don't think so. Monists do not believe in substantial differences. All differences are accidental. They don't believe in types or kinds either. To a monist, the difference between iron and copper is accidental. It's an difference in arragement of particles. There's no substantial difference; there's no "ironness" or "copperness". Humans and monkeys are not substantially different. Monists of the Haeckel tradition deny there is any substantial difference between dead and living things. This is the view I see promoted by many scientists, science fanboys, "scientific" monists, etc.


You are failing to see that 'monism' can be used in two ways. I explained it above: "In one sense monism is the view that there is exactly one kind of substances, material substances say. In the other sense monism is the view that there is exactly one substance."

>> Oneness of Being (Wahdat al-wujud) states that Being is the sole reality and everything that we see around us is an expression or articulation of Being. For example, we cannot say “The flower exists.” The flower cannot be the subject of the sentence. Rather, Being is expressed as a flower. Being is the subject.<<

The problem with this is that if Being is the sole reality, then everything else is unreal.

BV says "You are failing to see that 'monism' can be used in two ways."

Yes, I am failing to see that "monism" can be used (or is used) in the former sense that you describe. Also I'm failing to see that the former sense is the sense of monism implied by Haeckel, Carus, the Monist Journal, and monism as the "religion of science."

Monism, Catholic Encyclopedia

In current [1900] philosophical literature, whenever no special qualification is added, Monism generally means the modified materialistic monism of Haeckel. Modern materialistic Monism in Germany begins with Feuerbach, a disciple of Hegel. Feuerbach was followed by Vogt and Moleschott. To these succeeded Haeckel, who combines Darwinian evolution with a materialistic interpretation of Spinoza and Bruno... Haeckel is honorary president of the Monistenbund... The society is openly anti-Christian, and makes active warfare against the Catholic Church.

The group of writers in America who, under the editorship of Dr. Paul Carus, have been identified with the "Monist" (Chicago, monthly, first number, Jan., 1891) are not, apparently, actuated by the same animosity against Christianity. Nevertheless, they hold Haeckel's fundamental tenet that Monism as a system of philosophy transcends Christianity as a form of belief, and is the only rational synthesis of science and religion.

[According to Carus] Monism is not the doctrine that one substance alone, whether it be mind or matter, exists: such a theory, says Dr. Carus, is best designated as Henism. True Monism "bears in mind that our words are abstracts representing parts or features of the One and All, and not separate existences"

I think that Carus's journal was "actuated" by the same kind of animosity toward Christianity, but the tone and manner is different from, say, Haeckel's Riddle. Does Carus's "True Monism" admit a plurality of substances of the same kind? "Bruce" and "tomato" are features of the One and All, and not seperate existences... so, no, they are not different substances.

Ethan - While it might well be true that the form of monism most frequently encountered is materialistic monism, we should not forget that there are also forms of idealistic monism, as well as neutral monism which denies the substantiality of both matter and mind.

Bob -- yes, and monists sometimes oscillate between the two positions of idealistic monism and materialistic monism. I think Huxley did that. Haeckel's strategy was to deny and affirm both. To say, for example, that spirit is material and matter is spiritual, that atoms have souls, etc. The denial of substance altogether is not uncommon, perhaps due to the dislike of Jesuit-sounding scholastic terminology (Haeckel hated Jesuits.) Sometimes, when I read writings of the scientific monists, I get the impression that they are dispensing with "substance" as a discredited bit of philosophic gibberish left over from the Middle Ages.

I still don't know about the monism wherein there are many substances of exactly one kind.

Ethan - I don't doubt that many who identify themselves as monists oscillate in the way you describe. But consistent neutral monists can oscillate in a very similar fashion, though without attributing substance to the nodes of their oscillating. I don't think there is anything obviously mistaken or incoherent in the notion that a single substance has both mental and material aspects which correlate perfectly. I know of at least one theoretical physicist who thinks that causal relations between physical entities are the "external" correlates of the "internal" experience of an unknown "something".

Regarding "monism wherein there are many substances of exactly one kind," I think a plausible candidate would be the view that each person is a substance in its own right.

bob koepp said: Regarding "monism wherein there are many substances of exactly one kind," I think a plausible candidate would be the view that each person is a substance in its own right.

To this must be added "and there are no other kind of substances but persons." Is the word "monism" commonly used to describe this? Anyway, in comment No.1 I said that the monistic religion of science, the monism of Haeckel, his followers and the Monist Journal is like the monism of Nasr. It is also like your "neutral monism". It is not, however, like the other sense of monism that Hennessey and Bill described.

Primer of Philosophy, Paul Carus

Pages 3-4...

Monism is a unitary conception of the world. The world must be conceived as one inseperable and indivisible entirety.

Monism stands upon the principle that all the different truths are but different aspects of one and the same truth... there is but one truth, and that truth is eternal.

The term Monism is often used in the sense of "one-substance" theory, that either mind alone, or matter alone, exists. These views, generally called "materialism" and "idealism"... are pseudo-monisms, and would be better called "henism"... The word "henism" is derived from eis enos, denoting the singular number. "Monism" is derived from monos, meaning alone or one in the sense of unique... [materialism or idealism] attempts to explain the world from one single concept, deriving therefrom all natural phenomena. Monism does not attept to subsume all phenomena under one category, but remains conscious of the truth that spirit and matter, soul and body, God and the world, are different. Yet although they may be different, they are not seperate entities, but abstract ideas denoting certain features of reality.

The monistic idea of a unitary conception of the world has been constantly corroborated by the progress of science... we cannot even conceive of any future progress of science or philosophy that would be of a different nature.

Page 19...

True Monism does not forget that spirit and matter, soul and body, God and the world are abstracts and not things in themselves. True monism is not reached by wiping out all distinctions but by recognizing their oneness.

The monistic view is equally opposed to idealism... and to materialism...

'Bruce is bruce' and 'a tomato is a tomato' are different aspects of the same truth. Bruce and a tomato are different abstractions, but not seperate entities. They are one. We must recognize their oneness. Isn't this like Nasr's monism?

Ethan - Carus is not the final arbiter about how the term 'monism' is or can be used. 'Neutral monism' was introduced into the philosophical lexicon specifically to present an alternative to both the other two prominent monisms, i.e., idealism and materialism (hence 'neutral'), and to dualism (hence 'monism'). What's of philosophical interest here is the content of the ideas, not their labels.

bob -- this thread is about as much fun as going to the dentist. I didn't say Carus was the "final arbiter about how the term monism can be used." I said that the monism of Haeckel and his followers is like Nasr's. I gave some quotes from Carus to illustrate this. If people want to use "monism" to mean a small toad that adorns their nose, they can, but that wouldn't be the monism of Haeckel and his followers.

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