can’t see the forest

Dualism and Monism (mostly Monism)

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I’ve revamped this essay, and I apologize for any inconvenience to those of you who’ve come by in the interim hoping to check it out. Please trust me that the original product . . . lacked panache. The discussion was framed in too-ambiguous terms, and was, in places, enthusiastically circular. To be searingly self-critical, reading that essay was rather like listening to a career sot casually babble himself to sleep.

And, while the perfectionist in me doesn’t like being pinned down to the finished product at any point ever, no way, no how, uh-uh, I feel that this new version is much more representative of my thought and substantially more deserving of your attention. So I’ll leave it, but with the contingency that I may make modifications to correct clumsiness as I spot it or as it is pointed out to me.

ONTOLOGY WE DEFINE as the study of existence, the examination of our conceptions of what constitutes reality. To define reality, we will use any of various terms: the world, the Universe, etc. I want to consider two ways of looking at ontology and at the issues of ontological dualism and monism:

  • Metaphysical – In this sense, we attempt to consider the nature of reality as a thing unto itself—that is, as something independent of our perception and cognition.
  • Epistemological – From this posture, we explore reality in the context of our own knowledge of it, and as inseparable from our experience.

It’s appropriate to engage in a preliminary explication of what is meant by dualism and monism. These terms can be employed in any number of ways, so it is impossible for our discussion to have any meaning unless we are explicit about what these terms mean for our purposes:

  • DualismBy far the most prevalent ontology in contemporary thought, dualism (which, it is to be noted, is really just the simplest form of a more general ontology we might call pluralism) is the position that there is more than one kind of existence or existential substance. Dualism is most frequently entangled with conceptions of mind, i.e. mind-matter or mind-body dualism. To the dualist, mind is not the same thing as matter and cannot be reduced to matter. Cartesian dualism goes so far as to say that the ‘mental’ is a different type of substance than the ‘physical,’ but that both types of substance are more or less equally real (ontologically valid). Dualism is a necessary prerequisite to most conceptions of spirituality (spirit-material dualism). That is, for one to say that one believes in spirit, one must establish that spirit is real in the same or a similar sense that the material world is real. For this reason, one can see that dualism is extremely pervasive in human thought. Consider the concept of the supernatural, for instance. This is an embodiment of dualism in that it supposes there is an existence outside of the space and the rules of natural existence. Dualism, then, is really a given for those who espouse the necessity of an Aquinian “first cause.” Here we do not consider the dualism of opposites (good/evil, light/dark) because it seems so patently obvious that it is a cognitive construct of comparison that can say nothing about the nature of existence.
  • AnaximanderMonism – Monism is the opposite view, the assertion that, by its very nature, the substance of existence is singular in quality. From this, any number of premises of varying extremity can be seen to follow—weak monism we might define as a sort of naturalism, the view that everything is a part of nature and that nothing is outside of it, while strong monism would hold that “all is one” and that there really are no fundamental material divisions, that the whole of the Universe is the only really existent, ontologically valid thing. It is this “strong monism” which I will propound and defend—the view that the Universe is really just one concrete object of tremendous, perhaps recursive complexity but with no genuine, extricable parts. To the logicians among us, that’s: ∃x(Cx & ∀y(Cyy=x)), where C denotes the property of being an object, a concrete thing[1]. Anaximander (likely the figure pictured here in Raphael’s School of Athens), a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and the teacher of Pythagoras, among others, is widely viewed as the father of monism in the Western tradition. Since virtually the whole of Western philosophical literature is in some measure descended from Aristotle’s later attempts at systematic categorization (his “causes,” etc.), one quickly finds that monism is not at all a popular view among “educated” or “traditional” philosophers. The literature is liberally sprinkled with references to monism as “indefensible garbage” or “summarily nonsensical.” And that ticks me off.

The argument I make for monism is subtle, simple, and (if only in my own present opinion) strong enough to be irrefutable.

Whereas the ontological pluralist is wont to see monism as inexcusably reductionist, the monist might respond by pointing out that dualism or any form of pluralism is artificial and presupposes far too much about the discreteness of the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, knowledge and reality. While I would describe myself ultimately as a naturalist, it is very important not to confuse monism with naturalism—for instance, the monist ontology speaks, in and of itself, absolutely nothing to the applicability of the scientific method to the perceived world. If anything, my brand of strong monism would seem to indicate that, while obviously very useful practically, science is incapable of a genuine Theory of Everything, or even of the first necessarily valid statement about reality.

To many of those who are not necessarily philosophically inclined (and indeed to many who are), this ontological debate may seem a merry-go-round ride whose only end result is dizziness. You may remember my statement in the foreword to Project -ism that these essays will be in some senses cumulative, though, and so I begin with this particular issue precisely because I perceive that ontological pluralism is a worldview fraught with hidden dangers and generative of widely divergent anomalies in human thought and behavior. That is the importance of this discussion, and of its direct relevance to all that is to follow in later writings.

Let us begin with our examination from the metaphysical angle. Then we shall proceed to an epistemological discussion, which will be more straightforward and less complex.We can distinguish between two types of monism: substance (or neutral) monism and existence monism. Substance monism is the most direct rebuttal to dualism of the mind-body or mind-matter variety.

You will recall that Cartesian dualism conceives of ‘mind’ as every inch as much a substance as ‘matter,’ and that dualists typically conceive of monism as a reduction of one into the other where no such reduction is possible. Inasmuch as there were no neuroscientists contemporary to our friend René, we can temporarily excuse his conception of mind as a thing. It’s just that we cannot excuse the bizarre continuance of this doctrine into the present.

The brain we perceive as being composed of matter. We divide it into numerous substructures, of which the neuron, or brain ‘cell,’ is the fundamental unit of action. This is not to imply that we cannot further divide neurons into constituent parts, because of course we can, but the neural model’s fundamentality follows from the convenience and the exclusionary relevance of imagining the activity of the brain in terms of neural interaction.It is to be hoped that we can agree on mind as something that is emergent of the brain. That is, we can confidently say that, in our experience, mind does not occur where there is no brain—that we cannot conceive of mind as being a product of, say, our livers as opposed to our nervous systems.

We perceive that neurons interact electrochemically through action potential. When those interactions cease to occur (brain death), we can say that mind is no longer present. We are left with the matter of the brain, which is still very much intact; but if mind is a substance, it has mysteriously vanished from the scene without affecting in any way the external and internal structure of the brain that remains behind.

This is, in fact, because mind is in no sense a concrete object (a C in our logical formula above) in the same way that the brain is a thing. Mind is an activity of the brain, and as such is a behavior of matter. Likewise, life and running are not things. It makes no sense for me to say to you: “I have some life—would you like some?” or “See, the running is all dried up. And it was so very tender and juicy this morning.” We speak of running and of life as if they were things, but anytime we employ the terms, we are really just invoking a symbolic extraction of The thing runs or The thing lives or is alive, because running and life are activities, behaviors of matter, and it is ridiculous to assert that behaviors are concrete things. Therefore, “I have a mind” is every bit as preposterous a statement as “I have some running.” It is infinitely more sensible to say “I think” and “I run.” How Descartes, the formulator of no less colossal a proposition than je pense donc je suis (“I think, so I am”), could have missed this is not something I wish to speculate, only to excuse.

encephalogram Now, let us imagine an encephalogram (brain scan) that is the product of a technology far superior to our own. Our hypothetical neurologist asks a subject to think—if such a request were necessary—and, via the interpretation of various measuring implements, a chart is produced.

The dualist will assert that, no matter its complexity, such a chart could not accurately reproduce mind. That is, under no circumstances could the neurologist read his chart and then repeat back to the subject, in exactitude, what it is that he was thinking. Next would follow an attempt to claim that, because this is the case, the mental is a substance that is not reducible to, and therefore different from, the material.

As a monist, I thoroughly agree that our neurologist cannot engage in mindreading in this way, no matter how sophisticated his equipment. But I utterly reject that this necessitates there being any such thing as mind. The reason for the ambiguity and incompatibility between mind and matter is merely that one is activity and another an objectification of which that behavior is characteristic. We can formulate ‘activity’ and ‘behavior’ linguistically as nouns, but my point is that this is symbolic extraction and that it is fallacious to suppose that this extraction renders behavior to be ontologically valid or existent.

Furthermore, we could establish that not everything the brain does is “thinking,” strictly speaking. We do not think “Beat, heart. Now, beat again. That’s it—you’ve almost got it—now—once more . . .” In regulating our heartbeat, the brain is doing something which is materially analogous to thinking, but is not the same behavior. What, then, is it that divides thought from the non-thinking activity of the matter of the brain?

The clear answer is “nothing real,” because any such division is artificial. That think is not a transitive verb is, admittedly, contributory to the confusion. When the activity of the brain causes the heart to beat, this is the behavior of one perceived material entity acting upon another. The activity of the brain which we would denote with “I think” is also a case of matter acting upon matter from our observational perspective, but we do not perceive the behavior (the ‘acting upon’) as being of one entity on another unless we resolve to substructural levels. To do this is to ‘zoom in’ too far to establish context. Neurofeedback in some sense may be the cause of a perception of I think as the thing mind: but it is clear that, in fact, no such thing as mind is ontologically valid. The difference in quality between thought and autonomic nervous activity is merely a matter of the resolution of perception, as it were.

atom outer_solar_system

One might ask if it isn’t the case that we are setting up a dualism of substance and behavior, or of matter and activity! No, that would be confusing the issues. Remember that we are discussing monism and dualism as different ways of conceiving that which is really real or existent—that which Anaximander called απείρον (apeiron, “without bounds”) and which later Greeks would refer to as το όντος ον (to ontos on, “the really real”). What we have accomplished so far, at least within the frame of reference of mind-matter, is to establish that the behavior of a thing is not a thing itself except in the abstract. Existence, then, is a far more elusive and fundamental quality than we might have supposed from common sense. This is a monist premise, not a dualist one. The notion that this constitutes a dualism of substance and behavior is a regression into the idea of behavior (think) as real object (mind), which is purely cognitive symbolism. That cognitive symbolism is necessary to our navigation of experience, but that does not mean it is at all representative of reality.

We have already covered much material that is of use to us in the epistemological episode which is to come, and it is certainly unproductive to be dedicated overmuch to some sort of crystalline distinction between perception and reality. To finish our metaphysical assay, we need to take an holistic perspective—I just mean there is no use pointing out to me that this is also a function of epistemology. I know that. We are getting to that presently.

Let us consider the structure of a main sequence star like our own Sun. Such a star, we feel comfortable in relating, is an amalgamation of metals and ultra-hot gases, a shining thing under immense gravitational pressure which consumes matter and converts it into vast quantities of energy until a point where there is no more matter to be consumed, at which point any of several extraordinary things happen.

Well, this is an adequate description for some purposes—but you will notice that we have only described the star as a whole.

We have said that the star is made of metals and of gases (not a congruent distinction necessarily, as I am aware). Each of these things is composed of atoms or of molecules of atoms, and it is the behavior of the atoms which distinguishes the one from the other. The atoms are composed of subatomic particles which can themselves be articulated at various levels of substructure.

Could we take a hydrogen atom from this star and present it to an observer far away, we feel certain that that observer could not, simply by looking at the atom, determine whether that atom came from a star, or was pulled out of a glass of water. It is just a hydrogen atom, that is all she could tell us. Similarly, we could not randomly extract a quark from the hydrogen atom (if such were possible) and ask the observer to tell us how many protons were in the source atom.

Spatially, the star is composed of a finite but changing number of atoms. So the identity of “starness,” the form of the star, is not dependent on any specific quantity of things. Likewise, within our reference frame, we cannot isolate any one quality of thing of which a star is made and derive its identity solely from the identity of that of which it was a part. The star appears to be made of gases, and of atoms, and of subatomic particles . . . under the terms of the Standard Model, anyway, the star is indeed supposed to be “made” of all of these things.

Crimson Star Earlier, we said that mind is a behavior of matter and is not a concrete object. A star also is a behavior of matter and is not a concrete object. It is a symbolic object within our cognitive framework. That is, apart from our perception and cognition, there is no extant guarantee of any kind that the star is a concrete thing or is real.

The thing of import that I mean to come round to is that no objects are concrete (things), and so no object is ontologically valid—all objects are symbolic representations of behavior sets. An object is a linguistic artifact, to express it another way. There really is no sense, then, in expecting an ontologically valid answer to the question: Of what is a star made? A star is not made of anything in the same sense that life is not a thing and mind is not a thing. A star is composed precisely of the behavior of each of its constituent parts, each of which is composed precisely of the behavior of its constituent parts. But behavior, we have said, cannot seriously be considered to be concrete and ontologically valid.

To establish a pattern of activity requires observation. Observation is not required to establish existence, since, indeed, observation does not occur outside of existence. Nothing does. (This is the meaning of Descartes’ famous statement.) That nothing occurs outside of existence is crucial to the Oneness of existence.

There is only one fundamental substance in the Universe, which is precisely that material whose behavior indicates to us that something exists. For, if existence is the integral property of the concrete (which, by definition, it is), then existence is behavior and is not a concrete object. Everything that really exists exhibits that specific behavior, and since the Universe is everything that exists, then the Universe is fundamentally composed of a single substance. The identity of that substance is and forever will be hidden from us by an ontological blind spot, because, as we have already amply demonstrated, we are incapable of distinguishing the behavior from the substance. But we do know that, where we perceive the behavior of existence, we have that substance to thank for it. Within our cognitive model of reality—which is the only aspect of reality we can seriously be said to really experience—it appears to be behavior all the way down, but it cannot really be so, because something is behaving. It is never possible to say exactly what is fundamentally behaving in isolation from the ephemeral relationships that seem to define that behavior. Ask a quantum physicist.

From this we derive the principle of substance (weak) monism—there is only one ontologically valid substance, and the behavior of that substance is existing. Any representation of anything else that we might take to be of substance is only valid as a symbolic object, not as a concrete one, and so can be reduced to behavior. That the fundamental substance exhibits the behavior of existing is all that we can know of it. The notion of identifying what is behaving is nonsensical, because that would require a perspective outside of existence. But we can know that there is a substance which is generative of the behavior of existing.
Ergo, while empirical methods are wonderful tools for exploring our cognitive models of ontology, and while they cannot be overvalued for their practical worth, it is fallacious to believe that it is possible to establish, either empirically or rationally, a Theory of Everything that can be known to be valid. It is critical to understand that this principle also quite summarily dismisses the ontological absolute validity of any and all religious and philosophical beliefs, including the text you are reading—we can say quite confidently that science, philosophy, and religion are excellent tools for exploring different aspects of our cognitive spheres, but not of anything outside of those spheres. The predictive power of empiricism comes from the fact that it is dedicated to consistency, not from the fact that it corresponds to reality in a perfect way. It doesn’t and it never can. The conflict between religion and science is that this consistency requires nearly constant revision of the cognitive model of ontology whereas religion, to be what it is, requires (at the semblance of) permanence. In either case, the state of being of the cognitive model bears no absolute relationship of any kind to the singularity that is ontologically valid, το όντος ον, because it is completely unknowable in the concrete and cannot ever be experienced, only glimpsed in any of various fragmented manifestations.

Here is a beautiful mystical expression of this metaphysical principle, taken from the wonderful Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

The paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity, is the germinal secret of the father. It can never be quite explained. Therefore, in every system of theology there is an umbilical point, an Achilles tendon which the finger of mother life has touched, and where the possibility of perfect knowledge has been impaired. The problem of the hero is to pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point; to shatter and annihilate that key knot of his limited existence.

The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned.

Finally we are getting around to the epistemological side of the issue, with which we will establish the principle of strong (existence) monism and by way of which we can proceed to the concluding remarks of our disorienting foray. Note that we have been trying to do an awkwardly precarious thing, which is to consider το όντος ον as a thing apart from our own experience of it. Now, we will take a look at the Universe and existence as it is represented within our cognition, which we call our knowledge of existence, which is what epistemology is concerned with.


Consider the number 1.

The number 1 is a symbol. It is a symbol of the whole. Any number that is greater than 1 is describing the whole of something plus some more something (e.g. 1 + 0.07 is one whole plus 0.07 wholes, 42 is 42 wholes, etc.). Similarly, any number that is smaller than 1 is describing a part of something.

Next, consider this construction: The Universe is the only thing that exists. If a thing really is (that is, is a concrete object), it must be the Universe.

This is, in succinct lozenge form, my strong monism. We have already established that any object within the Universe is by definition a symbolic object, because it can be reduced to observed behavior of constituent parts the totality of which we then objectify through cognition. So, if, in response to the above construction, you feel inclined to reply: “Well, I exist, and I am only a part of the Universe,” you might benefit from these words of the comparative religion and Eastern philosophy expert Alan Watts, to which I referred in a recent post:

I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really an hallucination. What we really are is, first of all, the whole of our body. And although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. Obviously a body requires air, and the air must be within a certain temperature range. The body also requires certain kinds of nutrition. So in order to occur the body must be on a mild and nutritive planet with just enough oxygen in the atmosphere spinning regularly around in a harmonious and rhythmical way near a certain kind of warm star.
That arrangement is just as essential to the existence of my body as my heart, my lungs, and my brain. So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way getting around to the realization that you are the entire universe. However we do not normally feel that way because we have constructed in thought an abstract idea of our self.

If one considers this to be head shop mysticism, one does not understand the depth of what is being asserted.

The curious property being described by Watts is not derivative of the quality of self, it is derivative of the unreality of objects—or, more accurately, of the fact that objects are purely symbolic (abstract ideas, in his words) and are not concrete (unless they are the Universe, of which, by definition, there is only:


If we are describing a whole in terms of its parts, we find, as we discussed copiously above, that what we are really describing is only objectified behavior. A star is a symbolic (cognitive) objectification of the star-like behavior of its constituent atoms, and each atom is the objectification of the atomic behavior of its constituent particles. And if any whole thing is behavior, and if, as we established, behavior cannot be composed of material, but is the activity of something across what we perceive to be time, then we cannot but infer that the Universe, as the whole of everything that exists, is an objectification of behavior as well, of the behavior existing or being.

But this cannot be the case! Some thing has to behave, because behavior/activity does not arise from nothing (this is not the same as saying, n.b., that behavior must have a cause. It is roughly the same as noting that, while a verb doesn’t have to be transitive, it does need at least an implied subject). There is only one thing which exists concretely, then, and it must not have any real parts, because, if it did, then it would be only an objectification! That one thing is the Universe, which is an indivisible singularity of terrible complexity, in the same way that the symbol for the whole, 1, represents the singularity of terrible complexity (the total of infinite sums and the product of infinite factors).


How is this related to epistemology? The point is, rather, how the ontologically valid, the really real, is not translatable to knowledge and is only expressible in terms of fictions of varying breadth and consistency. It is exactly because of its Oneness that it is not translatable into knowledge, since all knowledge consists of comparison, and is only in any sense real within the sphere of the cognitive anyway, as are all the dimensions we attribute to it, such as space and time.

In the brilliant, inexorable Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein tells us these things (among a great many others, including, in my opinion, numerous unreasonable—but within their framework brilliantly useful—suppositions):

1 The world is all that is the case.

2 What is the case—a fact—is the existence of states of affairs.

3 A logical picture of facts is a thought (der Gedanke).

If we take #1 to be a description of το όντος ον, we are immediately moved to suggest that it would be more accurate to say that the world is the only thing that is the case, following the premises we have stacked up thusfar.

But if we take #1 to be a description of the cognitive sphere, the internal model of το όντος ον, then we can understand that #3 is not suggestive of the relationship between thought and reality, but between the cognitive product of a particular thought I think and the totality of thoughts that potentially can constitute I think. This is a matter of perspective. Mind is an activity, so one’s thoughts do not really exist “in totality,” only symbolically, but in the action of thinking, the sensation is that one is scanning something. One wonders if this is not also true of the “action” of “experiencing.”

In truth, we never speak about nor do we even experience anything that is outside of our cognitive models, with one exception. We appear to be constantly scanning the Universe, the one whole and the one existing thing, including that aspect of its complexity we call our selves, for data, which we input and process. The data comes from the observation of fluctuations in the complexity of the One, not from the real existence and interaction of real parts. We can misinterpret the data, and we can thereby derive secondary data that is incorrect. But if we correct this data, we are wrong to suppose that our model is any closer to reality—our model has simply become more consistent with itself. It is the same as to suppose that a supercomputer’s model of, say, an atmosphere will suddenly become that atmosphere if it reaches a sufficient level of accuracy, which is nonsense, because, to establish accuracy, there must be an external object of comparison—let alone because computers do not transmute into planets.

It is only through the realization of the singularity of substance and identity of το όντος ον, the Universe, the world, all that is the case, the real—only through this that we can fully appreciate the mystery of our actions and interactions. We mistake the increase in consistency of cognitive models for progress in “getting at” reality when, in fact, reality is not something that one moves towards or away from and certainly is not something that one understands.Dualism, as with any type of ontological pluralism, I have always maintained to be first and foremost a psychological security blanket. It gives false credentials to the superbly ridiculous notion of the supernatural, and confuses the natural for the understandable, and allows some to claim that only they know “reality” because only their relationship with the “supernatural” validates their particular brand of fiction far above mine or yours—thus, while you and I can never know “reality” through our empiricism, the zealot knows reality through some hallowed tome of fiction. Or while the scientist knows “reality” because he has experimentally verified a hypothesis without ever leaving the safety of his own cognitive model (because he cannot), no belief that you or I could have which is not experimentally verifiable could ever be as valid as his proven hypothesis. The implication is that “truth” and “falsity” represent accordance with reality. They do not. They only represent consistency or lack thereof within the cognitive scaffolding. I view ontological pluralism as the most dangerous and—sadly—by far the most ubiquitous of all intellectual treachery, and it is employed as such by scientists and religious fanatics alike. It is employed by absolutely everyone who does not know better. The Universe is clearly One Thing of countless articulations, a house we can never view from the outside and whose every room we can never possibly explore—not least because we clearly do not exist except as objectified articulations of complexity, and because the rooms are imaginary subdivisions anyway.


3 Responses

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  1. orangeguru said, on 9/29/07 at 3:49 am

    Excellent essay! Thanks …

  2. Curtis said, on 9/29/07 at 7:50 am

    Thank you for reading. Not crystal-clear, maybe, but . . .sincere.

  3. […] Dualism and Monism (ontology) […]

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