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What Kind of Monist Are You?

At the recent INTA Congress, entrepreneur and INTA executive Board member Russell Brumfield entertained us with his own version of what the world must be like in order to be at all. Russell, who at one time was a caterer, was explaining the nature of thought, or energy:

We’re all the same stuff. We’re all made of chicken. We call it atoms, but it’s chicken. And the point is, you can make any kind of chicken. You can make chicken fricassee and chicken fettuccini, but you know, it’s just chicken. And if you realize that, it’s God’s joke, because you know, all atoms are chicken, and it’s up to us to make the right dinner.

This is a marvelous illustration of qualitative monism. If you believe that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe, that it’s all chicken, you are a qualitative monist. If you believe that there are two kinds of stuff, you are a qualitative dualist. Nobody seriously believes that there are more than two kinds of stuff in the universe. Discussions about the nature of stuff come under the heading of metaphysics, and metaphysics is one of the main branches of philosophy.

Qualitative monists pretty much fall into two categories: those who believe that all is mental/spiritual, and those who believe that all is material. Qualitative dualists believe that both mind and matter (material stuff) exist in their own right and are equally real. Most New Thoughters believe that all is mental/spiritual, which makes them qualitative monists. By contrast, traditional Christianity is dualistic. (Please note that we are not talking here about belief in both God and the devil, which would make you an ethical dualist.)

However, there is another type of monism: quantitative monism. This refers to the quantity of what is real: is there a vast number of chickens waiting to be made into an infinite variety of dishes, or is the universe one giant chicken? Materialists are invariably quantitative pluralists; they believe that the world is made up of a vast number of lifeless, mechanical chickens. Idealists, those who believe that all is mental/spiritual, can be quantitative monists who believe in one giant chicken (are you a leg or a wing?), or they can be quantitative pluralists, who believe in a vast number of chickens waiting to be made into a great variety of dishes through the power of our free will combined with the Ultimate Chicken (God’s) perfect possibilities offered to us new every moment. We are all chicken, but we are not all one single chicken.

As Russell would be the first to tell you, chicken is obviously just a metaphor, an analogy that is much easier for us to wrap our minds around than the intricacies of quantum physics translated into philosophical language. If we try to explain that God is everywhere present and available with those perfect possibilities by describing them as butter inserted into each bite of chicken with a hypodermic needle, the metaphor starts to ravel at the edges and become inadequate. If we try to explain that all these chickens are interconnected, it gets downright silly. So, many idealistic philosophers cut to the chase: we are all mental/spiritual in nature, but there are many minds, not just one.

Many, perhaps most people in New Thought almost from its earliest days have been quantitative monists; they believe in one giant chicken. Unfortunately, this violates common sense. There are two kinds of common sense: hard-core and soft-core. Soft-core common sense refers to the things that "everybody knows." "Everybody knew" that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it, until new scientific findings set things straight. Hard-core common sense refers to beliefs that appear in every time and culture, things that nobody can deny without self-contradiction. Philosopher David Griffin illustrates this with the example of a person who is a solipsist: he believes that he is the only one out there, that there is no one/nothing else. Probably nobody is nutty enough to believe that seriously, but if he did, and he then says it aloud, or writes it in some form, his behavior—speaking or writing—contradicts his beliefs, because it implies that there is someone there to hear what he says or to read what he writes (not to mention the existence of a pen and paper or computer to write with). Similarly, even New Thoughters who sincerely believe that we are all one, or God is all there is, invariably contradict themselves in their writing or speaking a few minutes later by implying that they do have free will independently of God’s will, and that although they may never be separated from God, they are not God, except in a metaphorical sense: we are God in the sense that little Johnny Jones is Jones because his father is Mr. Jones.

Monism just means oneness; and oneness, unity, does not have to mean identity, or sameness. The United States of America is one nation made up of many states, "e pluribus unum." We maintain our identity as separate states, and we are united by one constitution, one rule of law.

Later in his talk, Russell switched his metaphor from chicken to a more broadly useful one: water. He talked about streams of water, water as rain, water as snow, water stored in clouds, rivers and lakes and oceans, an abundance of water. If all is mental/spiritual in nature, thoughts, like water, can take many forms and be shaped by us in various ways to meet our needs. We can even store water so that we need never run dry. And there is nothing evil about the basic building blocks of the universe; evil is only our misuse of them by not accepting God’s perfect possibilities to the fullest extent. We do overcome evil with good thoughts, followed up by appropriate actions in line with those good thoughts. Thoughts—even those solidified into the physical world—are real, not illusory; but God is everywhere present to help us improve on them in innumerable ways.