Monism and dualism are opposites. But because each is obviously wrong, each turns into the other when cornered. A devious trick!
Monism is the stance that fixates sameness and connections, and denies differences and boundaries. Dualism is just the other way around: it denies sameness and connections, and fixates differences and boundaries.
Both these confused stances sometimes show themselves to be obviously wrong. The complete stance of participation recognizes that samenesses and differences, boundaries and connections, are all real, but also always somewhat nebulous: ambiguous and fluid. This is obviously accurate, but usually less convenient. Monism and dualism are simpler, and deliver particular emotional payoffs—some of the time.
The monism within dualism
All boundaries are somewhat vague. This is true of physical boundaries, and of abstract category boundaries. Sometimes you cannot say on which side of the boundary something falls—not for lack of knowledge, but because there is no right or wrong answer. This is intolerable for dualism.
Confronted with this nebulosity, dualism tries to harden the boundary by putting everything clearly on one side or the other. How? What defines a boundary? Everything inside the boundary is one way, and everything outside is the other way. Dualism exaggerates the commonality of everything inside, and the commonality of everything outside. It forces a choice onto items near the boundary, which must conform to one criterion or the other.
Dualism thereby imposes an impression of homogeneity. Everything inside is, ideally, exactly the same, and perfectly connected to everything else within. Everything outside is also exactly the same. So, on either side of the boundary, dualism turns into monism!
This dynamic is closely related to essentialism, which is a typical strategy for justifying the equivalence of the apparently dissimilar. “These two might look different,” essentialism says, “but they are essentially the same.” The “essence” is an invisible, magic, indwelling property that dualism claims explains the commonality, but that cannot be detected by any ordinary means.
Particularly harmful examples of monism-within-dualism are found in ideologies governing social groups. (Religions, political orientations, and ethnicities are typical examples.) The group presses its members all to be the same; to be our kind of person. Everyone outside is treated as interchangeably the wrong kind. The ideology has no room for anyone near the border. It does not accept that people on either side vary among themselves. The amount of pressure for conformity, and for rejection of outsiders, is a measure of how pathologically dualistic the group’s functioning is.
The dualism within monism
Confronted with patterns of distinction, monism attempts to force universal homogeneity. Sameness is good; difference is bad. Pointing to unity is holy; pointing to distinctions is materialistic selfishness.
Everything and everyone is included within the One. The One is All. Anything that appears not to be included must be assimilated. Anything that cannot get fitted into the One is wrong and must be destroyed.
To see that everything is totally connected is enlightenment. To misunderstand things as separate is the root of all evil.
There must be no differences in value; everything and everyone is equal. Nothing is better than anything else. You must accept this. Claims of inequalities are discrimination; prejudice; intolerance. We must not allow intolerance; that is absolutely unacceptable. Intolerant people are ignorant and inferior.
In sum: when monism encounters a difference it cannot ignore, it turns into dualism—often a particularly absolutist and pathological dualism.
Some “spiritual” ideologies are the clearest examples of monism. They can be highly intolerant of anyone recognizing distinctions they deny, or rejecting imaginary connections they fixate. They may denounce non-believers as “scientistic materialists,” for example. As everyone knows, scientistic materialism is responsible for war, capitalist exploitation, the ecological rape of the planet, chemtrails, and vaccine-induced autism. None of those awful things would be allowed if everyone realized everything was connected.
Monist religions are exceptionally evangelical, pursuing an embrace, extend, extinguish strategy. Perennialism is the claim that all religions are essentially the same. Specifically, they are essentially the same as monism. We should accept and include all religions, as different paths to the same Truth. Christianity, for example. Essentially, the message of Christianity is that you should emulate Jesus. Jesus is essentially God, who is essentially The One that is All. You emulate by realizing your essential sameness. So, really, the aim of Christianity is to discover that you are God, who is The Entire Universe.
This is a dire distortion of Christianity, which is a dualistic religion. None of Christianity—sin, salvation, the afterlife—makes any sense if you are “really” God. Nevertheless, many supposed Christians have converted to monism without noticing, and are unable to see any difference between the two. Monism, extolling tolerance, begins by saying that Christianity is totally true, but it eventually explains that old fashioned Christians are doing it wrong, because the “real” Christianity is actually monism. Christianity is only true insofar as it is monism.
Monism uses the same embrace-extend-extinguish strategy against Buddhism. Centuries ago, monist proponents of Hinduism “benevolently included” Buddhism as a “totally valid branch” of the greatly diverse tree of Hinduism. Then they insisted that everything about it was not quite right and must, step by step, be replaced with Hinduism. This was part of the reason Buddhism went extinct in India. In the past few decades, “spiritual but not religious” monism has infected modern Buddhism and mostly eaten it from within. It will be interesting to see how long Islam—perhaps the most dualistic of all religions—can withstand this virulent pathogen.
Egalitarian political ideologies also can fall into the intolerant monism that is dualistic in its approach to opponents. This is the pattern of “political correctness,” which says that everyone must be included, all beliefs must be accepted, and everyone is perfectly equal. Except for people who are not politically correct. They must be cast out. Their beliefs are unacceptable and must be silenced. They are ethically inferior; that’s their essential and permanent nature, and no amount of repentance and purification can redeem them.
The boundary between sameness and difference is nebulous yet patterned
Monism and dualism are mirror-image attempts to separate sameness and difference.
This is typical of confused stances, which come in pairs of apparent opposites. Each pair shares an underlying, unrecognized mistaken metaphysical assumption. The confused opposition can be resolved by making the assumption explicit, understanding why it is wrong, and replacing it.
The metaphysical assumption shared by monism and dualism is that boundaries must be perfectly solid, objective, eternal, clear, and definite. Monism recognizes, accurately, that there are no completely hard boundaries—but then wrongly denies that there are any differences at all. Dualism recognizes, accurately, that distinctions are important—but then wrongly fixates them.
All boundaries are somewhat nebulous; yet the patterning of the world implies that boundaries are everywhere.
There is never a perfectly definite fact-of-the-matter as to whether two things are the same or distinct. Any two things are somewhat different and somewhat similar; somewhat separated and somewhat connected. Understanding and acting on this is the complete stance, participation. It is “complete” in recognizing both sameness and difference, separation and connection.
I have used the yin/yang symbol, at the top of this page, to illustrate the pathological hard distinction between monism and dualism—the two colors in the figure. Each teardrop shape contains within it a distinct circle of the other color, which I am using to symbolize the inclusion of the opposite stance within each.
I know little about the Taoist philosophy in which the yin-yang symbol originated. I gather, though, that its metaphysics may approximate “participation.” In that case, the hard edges between black and white in the figure are misleading. As a symbol of participation, it would be more accurate if they shaded into each other. And not just gray between black and white. It would be more accurate, too, if the two halves of the diagram each showed contrasting but harmonious patterns of diverse colors.
Perhaps the ancient Chinese sages would like to commission me to redesign their sacred symbol? I haz mad graphic design skillz, and my rates can be quite reasonable on major jobs.
The Guru Papers presents an outstanding analysis of the pathologies of monism, its denial of differences, and its trick of turning into dualism when that fails. I have posted my notes on it here. The most relevant part starts with the note for page 303.
Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity explores the pervasive nebulosity of all categories, and analyzes the pathologies of dualism and its fixation of boundaries. The book develops methods for working effectively with ambiguities of sameness and difference, avoiding both monism and dualism.
Both these books are particularly concerned with pathologies of monism and dualism in political and religious groups.
In “Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity” I wrote about a monist aspect of “Consensus Buddhism” (the white American Buddhist mainstream). The Consensus claims to include everyone, while deliberately excluding most Buddhists. This is a case of “dualism within monism” particularly close to home for me.