Dualism

Completing the countercultures

Galleon Goteborg reconstruction sailing by London Bridge
Galleon courtesy George Owens

The countercultures of the 1960s-80s took attitudes to boundaries as their central themes. The monist counterculture—the 1960s youth movement—wanted to eliminate all boundaries and level all distinctions; the dualist counterculture, or religious right, wanted to make them absolute.

Meaningness suggests that oppositions between such mirror-image pairs of confused stances can be resolved by complete stances that correct their metaphysical errors. Specifically, monism and dualism share the mistaken idea that boundaries must be perfectly crisp. Participation, the complete stance regarding boundaries, recognizes that they are always both nebulous and patterned. (I’ll explain all this jargon shortly.)

Below, I apply that conceptual framework to two illustrative countercultural battlegrounds: gender and national borders. These are clear, easy, and important examples because:

  • it’s obvious that they are about boundaries
  • it’s obvious that these boundaries are both nebulous and patterned, so everyone already understands and accepts the complete stance
  • except that, even still now, ideologues sway many people by claiming otherwise
  • gender was perhaps the most important cultural issue in countercultural politics1
  • war was perhaps the most important social issue.

Hippies and Evangelicals: monist and dualist countercultures

Francis Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer, hippie guru and architect of the modern Religious Right

“The counterculture” generally refers to the youth movement of the 1960s-70s: rock and roll, anti-war protests, psychedelics, the New Left, hippies, and the sexual revolution. While puzzling out how these elements cohered—to understand the counterculture functionally and structurally—I had a peculiar realization.

A second movement shared “the” counterculture’s abstract features—its structure and function. Based in Christian Fundamentalism, it might be called “the Moral Majority,” after one of its main organizations. It too offered “a new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational system.” This was the same mode of relating to meaningness, even though its content was deliberately opposed to most of what the hippie counterculture stood for.

This page explains how these two countercultures adopted the stances of monism and dualism, respectively. This is key to understanding their workings, as detailed in later pages.

Both countercultures had broken up by 1990, but the current American culture war is fought from floating fragments of their wreckage. I believe that a better understanding of how the two countercultures related to each other, and how both relate to subsequent modes of meaningness, may help resolve unnecessary contemporary conflicts.

Monism and dualism contain each other

Yin/Yang symbol
Pathological counter-dependency

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.

Boundaries, objects, and connections

Blueberry jam in jar: how many objects?

Monism is the idea that “All is One”; dualism, that the world consists of clearly separate objects. To start, we need an understanding of what it means to be one thing, or a separate thing, in general. Then we can look at what it would mean for the entire universe to be one thing, or many separate things, and what might follow from that.

There is a jar of blueberry jam on my breakfast table. I could pick it up and toss it in the air and catch it. The lid is screwed on tight, so it will hold together. The jar won’t stick to the table or to my hand.

So, intuitively, an object is a bunch of bits that are connected together, and aren’t connected to other things. The boundary of the object is where the connections stop.

These definitions are often useful in practice. However, they also often don’t work.

Unity and diversity

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 Big Three stance combinations

Three silly stances: a hair metal trio

Complex ideologies are based on collections of simple stances: fundamental attitudes toward meaningness. Some stances (addressing different dimensions of meaningness) work together well; others clash. Most systems align with one of three common combinations.

These combinations are:

  • Dualist eternalism: everything is given a definite meaning by something separate from you. Christianity and Islam are based on this combination; God is what gives everything meaning.
  • Monist eternalism: you, God, and the universe are a single thing, which is definitely meaningful. Advaita Hinduism is monist and eternalist, as is much current pop spirituality.
  • Dualist nihilism: we are isolated individuals, wandering in a meaningless universe. Existentialism, postmodernism, and scientism tend to dualist nihilism.

Participation

This page is unfinished. It may be a mere placeholder in the book outline. Or, the text below (if any) may be a summary, or a discussion of what the page will say, or a partial or rough draft.

This page is unwritten. See the chapter introduction for some explanation. What follows is a very abstract summary of some key points.

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

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