Comments on ““Ultimate”: use carefully”


Had a similar thought recently

Over here:

For some reason, everybody thinks that it’s very important to get metaphysics straight, to know for certain whether mind or matter or life or god or whatever is the ultimate foundation of reality. On my better days I know this is a dumb question, dumb because unanswerable, and the question itself is just a reflection of the limited metaphors we use to construct our models of the universe. Perhaps the real foundation of the universe is status, and the real reason we are so eager to fight for our particular metaphysics is so that the intellectual tribe we identify with (eg, physicists, anthropologists, theologians…) can thump its chest and declare itself more important than the rest.

Metaphysics and power

Yes, I liked that post of yours. High weirdness by internet.

You might like Robert Ellis’ web site; his central thesis is a more thorough-going rejection of all metaphysics than practically anyone else’s. (Caution: he uses “objectivity” in a non-standard way.) His work is closer to mine, at least in form, than anything else.

I think you are right that at least part of the reason “everyone” thinks it’s very important to get the metaphysics straight is that it is a route to prestige and power.

I’ve started a metablog series on monism. As part of that I will point out that monism, in every case I have studied apart from the current “pop spirituality” manifestation, has been a tool of an imperial state against the priesthood. The logic of monism inevitably points to totalitarianism. This should give contemporary monists pause.


Monism considered harmful

Interesting – I had never thought of “monism” with a particularly negative valence, I guess because it is usually opposed with dualism which seems wronger. (well, almost never). Will be looking forward to you expanding on this.

Your page on monism seems to conflate metaphysical monism (“all is one”) with ecumenical monism (“all religions are the same”). These seem like pretty different things to me, although perhaps the underlying psychology is the same. Plenty of religious monists seem to spend their energy warring with other monists of a different flavor.

Monism and religious warfare

Funny, I was composing a page in my head while hiking yesterday, and gave it the title “X considered harmful” (where X was another metaphysical bad idea). I thought probably no one would get the joke, but since you’ve beaten me to it, obviously at least one reader will…

I think monism and dualism are equally wrong (or, rather, I can’t see how to compare their wrongness). Plenty wrong, anyhow!

“Monism” is used for quite a number of different claims of unity. I do think the underlying logic and emotional appeal is the same for many/most/all of them. Part of the evidence for that is that they appear to co-occur historically.

Monism is an imperial strategy. Historically, it first appeared in the ancient world as a tool of the first great empires, who rolled up a bunch of polytheistic tribes, and needed a way to stop the priests of the many tribes from quarreling. The line that “all gods are really just aspects of the same characteristic-free Absolute Divinity” was a clever (and successful) way of doing that.

Emperors don’t care which god is the One God (so they are happy for the One God to be devoid of specifics). Advocates for particular One Gods later adopted monism as a weapon against other gods. There the line is “All gods are really One—so your god is perfectly valid—but actually your god is just an aspect of our One God.”

Hindu Advaita Vedanta, invented by Adi Shankara around 800, is the best example. He developed it as a weapon against Buddhism, and it is still used that way right now. You can easily find internet forums in which Hindus loudly insist that Buddhism says exactly the same thing as Hinduism, because all religions are one, and all Gods are aspects of Brahman, and so the Buddhist God is the same as Brahman. They seem undeterred by the insistence of Buddhists that there is no Buddhist God, and counter-insist that Buddhists don’t understand Buddhism.

So, yes, monists agree that “all Gods are One God, namely our God, and your religion is the same as ours, except that you are confused about it.” And naturally that leads to a degree of conflict.

Hard and soft monism?

I remember one of Marvin Minsky’s talks where he singled out “all is one” as a “mind-destroying idea”.

It seems to me that while there is the imperial sort of monism, there is also the more squishy sort of monism of New Agers, but also of William Blake, Bahá’ís, and others. Maybe there are historical connections but the spirit seems different. I suppose you could criticize the latter sort for being insipid and vague, but they don’t really seem to be out conquer anybody. I have a soft spot for Bahá’í since there was a beautiful temple near where I grew up in Chicago, not to mention that they seem to be underdogs.

Not sure why I am defending monism, unless it’s residues of my lackadiasical Jewish education where we learned that “God is One” was the Best Idea Evar. Now I’m even recalling long-forgotten songs we had to sing about it, stuck in the backroom of memory along with sitcom themes.

Monism and tolerance

I am with Marvin on this one!

There are many good people with excellent intentions who propagate monism. And doubtless some strains are more or less imperial than others. (I know almost nothing about Bahá’í.)

Part of the appeal of monism is that it seems to teach tolerance. Religious rivalry is a horrible thing, responsible for millions of death. If all religions are one, we can all just get along, right?

The problem is that monism teaches not actual tolerance, but intolerance of difference. If you say “actually, in Buddhism, we don’t believe in any eternal ordering principle”, that is unacceptable, because in the One Religion (that all religions are just versions of) there is definitely an eternal ordering principle; it is just called by different names in different faiths. If you say “I have no problem with your believing in that—but Buddhism is different”, you are accused of being aggressive, because you seem to think your religion is better, and that is (after all) what causes religious hatred, isn’t it?

There’s a fine essay about this by Stephen Prothero, who also wrote a book about it, called God Is Not One.

I don’t know what was taught in Chicago in the 1970s… it may have been influenced by German Romantic Idealism… but traditionally, Judaism was (of course) monotheistic, not monist. It thought that the differences between gods were extremely important. They were not One at all. There was Yahweh, who was the right god, and all other gods were evil and/or non-existent. As you probably know, the Hebrews were originally polytheists, but the priests of Yahweh managed to grab enough power at one point to ban the worship of all the other gods (thereby putting competing priests out of business). Whereas monism is associated with secular power against priestly power, monothesism is the expression of priestly power over secular authority.

Anyway, I’ve just posted a piece unpacking the complex of monist ideas. You can see which of them (if any) you subscribe to…

Monism != monotheism

I suppose I was conflating monism and monotheism; probably not a good idea.

No, Reform Judaism in the seventies was not particularly monistic. Of course since then Kabbalah, which is more-or-less a form of mystical monism, has become a big trendy deal. Jews have their own particular history with regards to enlightenment rationality and romatic reactions to it, but the underlying issues probably aren’t that different from anyone else.

I find ideas at this level of abstraction too elusive to really “subscribe” to, but I enjoy playing with them, and seeing if I can make sense of them. Eg with monism, I sort of believe that there is, in fact, one unifying underlying reality, if only by definition. So maybe that makes me a monist of some flavor or another. What the flavor is, however, is up in the air.

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You are reading a metablog post, dated November 5, 2010.

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