A Definition of Monism

Metaphysical monism is an ancient problem which still continues to this day, at least for some. A definition of monism can be framed quite succinctly; monism states that there is just one kind of thing that exists in the universe, everything is thus reducible to this one thing.

The earliest form of this problem was in ancient Greece. The Greeks had a scientific belief that the world was made up of earth, fire, air and water. What they attempted to understand was whether these four constituents of the universe were ultimate, or was there something more fundamental that underpinned or gave rise to them. They were asking, “Is the world made up of earth, fire, air and water or is the world made up of just one thing that can appear as earth, fire, air and water.”

From our modern post scientific perspective such a view can seem rather primitive. We know for example that the four primitive substances of the ancient Greeks are all reducible to molecules and atoms. We can continue the reduction to protons and neutrons and still further to quarks, or at least to quarks and electrons. The problem has been solved then, or at least the problem as the Greeks saw it has been solved. The debate concerning monism is still alive for some, though in a different format.

It was Descartes who postulated that the universe was made up of two different types of thing. He suggested that there are material things and mental things. The problem with a dualist account of the existence of things within the universe is this: How can two different entities with nothing in common interact? If they are distinct then they cannot share the same attributes and cannot therefore mix. If they cannot mix then one cannot be aware of the other. This is indeed a very serious problem for any dualistic account of nature.

Monism resolves the problem, in effect, by ignoring it. Monism claims that there is only one thing that exists in the universe and that thing is usually considered to be matter. There are other forms of monism but material monism is usually the default monism. By considering that only matter can exist, the monist is making the claim that all other phenomena are reducible to matter. Mind then, becomes nothing more than arrangements of matter with the mental being dependent on the material.

I shall be looking at the nature of monism and its consequences for our views of existence in more detail over the next series of posts.