One or Many

September 4, 2007

In the Intro. to Philosophy class I’m teaching, we’ve been covering the pre-Socratics.  Starting with Thales and moving on up to Democritus, these ancient people were fascinated by the fabric of being.  Many of them were quite clear that all things were made of some specific substance or other:  for Thales all things could be reduced to water, for Anaximenes it was air, Pythagoras saw numbers in everything, and for Heraclitus, perhaps fire was the base of all.

Others doubted this oneness.  Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus thought the universe to be far more fractured in essence, and more process-oriented.

Last Thursday I polled the class to find out how many of them were modern-day monists and how many accepted the other side of the debate, that being is in no sense unified in one reductive substance.  30% monists, 70% pluralists.  The pluralists cited mythic “science” as the reason for their notion that our being is made of discrete and differentiated motes.  The few monists foresaw Aristotle (he’s next week) and named the necessity of some sort of unifying first cause that was also the stuff of existence.

How about you?  Do you think the universe is made up of one thing or many?  Why?

9 Responses to “One or Many”

  1. I think my answer to your question is simply, “yes, it is made up of one thing or many.” Why not?


  2. Well, on the one hand, you could make the argument that everything is one in that everything hold chemical and electrical potential. But on the other, separation of consciousness and identity would argue for the many.

  3. Charles Says:

    The universe results from a self differentiated singularity. The single manifests as plural but is essentially single.

  4. Matt Says:

    what he said. If the One God is that in which we live and move and have our being, then I guess it’s one. Does that make me weak on Trinitarian theology?

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Milton and RogueHistorian want their cake and eat it too! I’m probably with them on this, at least experientially. We live as if the universe is plural because our experience is plural. But maybe we pray and ponder in singleness (or not?!)

    Matt and Charles (at least I suspect Charles) take the oneness to be God, or at minimum, something capable of self-manifestation. I think you’re safe, Matt, on your Trinitarian theology, which while having implications for metaphysics, is not essentially a metaphysical issue.

    You know my favorite monistic joke?
    Q: What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?
    A: Make me one with everything. 🙂

  6. Charles Says:

    Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of physics and cosmology.

    There is a theory that the four fundamental forces of nature, gravity, electromagnatism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force, were once a single “super force” within the singularity that created the “big bang.” It is believed by some that at the first of the “bang”, gravity split off from the other three and that, for a short period, the resulting combination of forces allowed the universe to expand at a rate greater than the speed of light. (Einstein would be skeptical because he was sure that nothing could exceed the speed of light.) The rapid expansion resulted in the separation of the three remaining forces into the individual state in which we now can know them.

  7. sheepdays Says:

    Thanks, Charles. I’m sorry I mistook your original meaning. I love hearing these speculative and deeply philosophical edges of physics.

  8. Charles Says:

    No apology necessary. I find it satisfying…even comforting that the language can be applied either way.

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