Monism is the idea that “All is One.” Dualism is the idea that the world consists of clearly separate objects. These ideas may seem abstract, and irrelevant to your life. However, they are central to many religious, political, and philosophical systems. Therefore, it’s important to understand why both are wrong, how they are harmful, why they are attractive, and a better alternative.
Monism and dualism are, at root, ideas about boundaries, objects, and connections. Are all things One, without boundaries? Or many separated objects? Is everything totally connected? Or is every object a clearly distinct individual?
I will begin by answering “no!” to all those questions. Realizing that the everyday world doesn’t work in either a monist or a dualist way undercuts the intuitions that make these ideas seem reasonable.
Then I will look at first monism, and then dualism, in detail. Finally, I’ll describe participation, the complete stance I recommend as a third alternative. The rest of this page summarizes these three stances.
The boundary that people care about most is the boundary between the self and the world. Denying and fixating that are the most significant applications of monism and dualism.
If All is One, then there is no boundary, and you are really the entire universe. Typically, monists say that the universe is equivalent to God, so you are actually also God. As you realize everything is totally connected, you develop the ability to affect anything you want.
This is the ultimate fantasy of power and invulnerability. However, convincing yourself that you are All-powerful, when you aren’t, does not make your life go well.
When the fantasy collides with reality, monists retreat into a make-believe magical world. Monism produces dreamy spaciness, refusal to make any clear distinctions, refusal to judge. This leads to drifting through life, expecting other people to clean up your messes, contributing nothing except spiritual clichés mouthed at unwanted times.
As a social ideology, monism tends toward totalitarian denial of individuality.
The nebulosity of the self/other boundary means that we cannot even control our selves. What we call “self” constantly gets bits of “other” blended into it. That’s what perception does, what communication does, what interacting with the material world does.
The fantasy of dualism is that a clear separation between you and others frees you from their contaminating influence, and from responsibility to the world.
Dualism, by blinding you to connections, makes it easy to evade ethical responsibility for consequences. Psychologically, it produces alienation from the natural world, from other people, and from the sacred. As a social ideology, dualism tends toward denial of collective responsibility.
Participation is the stance that revels in the extraordinary variability of the world, that loves and engages with specifics and individuals; and also appreciates the porous self/other boundary, works skillfully with diverse connections, and accepts responsibility for whatever you encounter.