The One and the Many (Part 2 of 2)

Picking up where we left off, the problem of the One and the Many has also been known as the struggle between realism and nominalism. Realists sees universal categories (something similiar to Plato’s forms) as truly possessing an objective existence. Nominalists, on the other hand, believe that universals are merely the titles we give groups of things by mentally abstracting the similarities between various things (like “redness” from our observation of a fire truck, an apple, the sight of blood, etc.). Usually realists are rationalists and nominalists are empiricists.

Our own living experience tells us that both universals and particulars are needed in order to make sense out of life. Examples could be endlessly multiplied, but for the sake of space one will have to do. The classic example in teaching students of logic what a deductive argument is this:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Both universal categories as well as empirical particulars are needed in order for this syllogism to make sense. When we look at the first premise we ask, What is a “man?” Socrates is an example of a man. But Socrates, understood by himself, severed from the category of “manness” does not make sense. What is this creature (another universal!) that stands before me? Without a class in which to place this creature called “Socrates,” I have no way of understanding him. Universals are needed. Yet, if I so exalt the form of man so that is refers to no individual men I lose the individuality of Socrates and destroy his personhood and uniqueness. The higher we go into the realm of categories and forms, the less and less we are speaking about actual, concrete, tangible realities (as in the case of Rusty).

The Christian Answer. So, how do we avoid these pitfalls? Though many philosophers no longer discuss these issues (explicitly, at least), their answers are assumed in all of our everyday endeavors. The Christian vision of life, as derived from the Bible, provides the answer that neither any secular philosophy nor any religious system can. Scripture presents us with a framework within both universals and their particular instantiations are kept significant and intelligible. Cornelius Van Til finds the solution in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

How is this? The Triune God is both one and many, and neither unity or plurality is more important, basic, or fundamental that the other. So the farthest thing back, the really real, God, grounds and gives worth to both unity and plurality. Van Til States:

Using the language of the One-and-Many question we contend that in God the one and many are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity in God is no more fundamental than unity. The persons of the Trinity are mutually exhaustive to one another. The Son and the Spirit are ontologically [i.e. in their very nature] on par with the Father. (The Defense of the Faith)

God, the one and many, creates a world with both general concepts (providing unity) and many specifics that participate in those concepts (providing rich diversity). So God has a idea of what characteristics according to which he will create all dogs (“dogness”) and he also creates each individual breed of dog (pugs) and each individual dog (“Winston”).

Thus, the Christian understanding of God solves, and indeed makes understandable at profound level, how it is that we can make sense of the world. Plurality is not absorbed into unity, and unity is not lost among plurality. God, the eternal One and Many created and formed the temporal one and many (the universe). This solves the “metaphysical” and “ontological” issues raised by the One/many problem. But, we also realized that this One and Many God has created, organized, and ordained everything that happens in this world (as mysterious as that may be), and provides the unity behind the plurality of the historical One and Many (the One being the ultimate goal and purpose of creation, the Many being the various “chapters” of history leading us there).

Here’s a helpful chart that makes this a bit more understandable.


Posted on August 16, 2007, in Philosophical Apologetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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