The One and the Many (Part 1 of 2)

All throughout the history of philosophy, especially in the early philosophers before Socrates (called “pre-socratics”), a debate over the ultimate nature of reality has gone on. The debate is over what can be said to be the skeleton key that unlocks the treasure chest of knowledge. Is the key the notion of unity or plurality? Many of the pre-socratics favored unity (the One over the Many). Different answers were proposed as to what provided that ultimate unity, Thales believed all was water, Heraclitus believed all was fire, while others came up with there own theories.

Others, like the atomists, held that the key to understanding reality was plurality. They denied that anything (other than the human mind) brought unity to the world. An example of this would be the ancient philosopher Democritus, who believed that everything was made up of atoms (what he thought of atoms is slightly different from what we know of them today). According to Democritus, everything we see around of is the result of these atoms (which are always in motion) banging around and becoming latched on to each other in various ways.

In historic Christianity, not only are rationalism and irrationalism avoided but also the war between monists (those who favors unity, or the “One”) and pluralists (those that favor plurality, or the “Many”), as well as the battle between epistemological rationalism and empiricism (the question what is the ultimate source of knowledge, abstract concepts or data gained by the 5 senses), is dissolved. Rationalists, such as Plato, have asserted that that which is the “most real thing” is the world of ideas. This world of ideas, or “forms,” as he called them, where more real than the physical objects we encounter everyday. This, Plato believed, was because the forms provided physical matter with the concepts or patterns after which they were to be made. For instance, a round object is the combination of base matter (wood, steel, clay, etc.) participating is the form of “roundness.” Therefore, according to Plato’s line of thought, the form of “roundness” is more important, more real, and more fundamental than the matter than round object is made from. Plato was wrestling with the One/Many problem, but favored unity over plurality.

Though few went as far as Plato in denouncing all physical knowledge as mere opinion, other rationalists, such as Descartes, believed that only ideas, or “pure reason” could furnish one with absolutely certain knowledge. Others denied the existence of such “forms”, such as Aristotle, John Locke, and David Hume, believe that the only true reality is the world of particulars, sensible objects. If something is not susceptible to observation or experience by the five senses then it simply cannot be an object of knowledge. (Note: Aristotle is the exception here, he didn’t deny the existence of “forms”, but did deny that they existed in another realm, apart from matter.)

Thus rationalists exalt generalities, categories, and abstracts over concrete realities. Empiricists exalt the sensible over and above the general, abstract, etc. But a danger lies on either side of this bridge. When one emphasizes the abstract categories of understanding over and above particulars the particular lose their individuality and uniqueness.

Let’s see how this works out in everyday life. if I wanted to know, say, my nephew’s dog, Rusty, what do I really need to know in order to really know him? According to those who emphasize unity, “forms” or abstract concepts, what I really need to know about Rusty is the “dogness” that he “participates” in. Why? Because how can we know Rusty the canine, without knowing the thing that he is (a “dog, an abstract concept). According to those who emphasize diversity and plurality, what I really need to know about Rusty are the features of his face, his weight, the shape of his legs, etc (i.e the particulars of this particular dog).

The problem with the first approach (placing all the weight in Unity) is that the further I abstract into Rusty into “Jack Russell Terrier” and further more to “dogness,”the further away I move from Rusty. In fact, if i abstract somuch that I’m thinking about the thing that unifies all breeds of dog, then I’m left with nothing, because there’s always going to be qualities that apply to a couple of breeds and not to others. Once I’m down to the lowest common denominator, I’m left with nothing distinctive to dogs. This approach doesn’t work.

The problem with the second approach (reducing Rusty down to particulars) is where do I stop? After all, Rusty is made up of ears, eyes, paws, fur, legs, a tail, colors, smells, etc. Do I really know Rusty is I “know” these aspects of him? But, these aspects of him are further broken up into smaller parts, like cells, atoms, protons, and neutrons, etc. The snag is that if I’m focusing all my energies to knowing these things, I miss Rusty. Rusty is the total combination of all these things and cannot be reduced to the parts he’s made up of.

Here’s an example of how one comes down on this issue plays out in real life. In political theory favoring the One leads to totalitarianism, where the goals of the state supersede the “rights” of the individual. According to Rousas John Rushdoony:

If the many, or plurality, best describes ultimate reality, then the unit cannot gain priority over the many; then the state, church, or society are subordinate to the will of the citizen, the believer, and the man in particular. If the one is ultimate, then individuals are sacrificed to the group. If the many be ultimate, the unity is sacrificed to the will of many, and anarchy prevails. (The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy. Fairfax: Thoburn Press, 1971, Pg. 2.)

Next we’ll look at the Christian response to this problem and see whether the Bible has anything to say about this (Hint: it does 🙂 )


Posted on August 14, 2007, in Philosophical Apologetics, Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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