Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (10/11)

By Greg Goode

Nondualism in Western Philosophy10


This is a series of pointers to how the Western approach can assist with one’s self-inquiry. It is less a historical survey, and more a collection of Western views that might serve as tools for inquiry, along with suggestions on how these tools might be used. Every week we will publish one new article on this topic in a total of eleven articles.


Test the Grip of Duality
Not all dualities are created equal. Some of these dualities have actually been proposed as the solution to other dualities8. Certain dualities exacerbate more than others the sense of alienation and being out of touch with reality. If you are interested in nondual inquiry and have a philosophical bent, you might be able to work on those first. Or you can work on the ones that seem the easiest to dispose of.


You can test the grip of these dualities. Ask yourself about each of the Big Dualities and check how you would feel if you had to live without it: Free will and determinism. Good and evil. Cause and effect. Matter and spirit. Subject and object. Free will and determinism. When you visualize going about life without this duality, which one gives you the worst sinking feeling? This is probably the one you feel most attached to. Which one seems conceptually impossible to do without? This is the one that is probably the most integral to the rest of your understanding. About which one do you say, “Yeah, and so??” This is the one you can do without most easily.

One Duality at a Time
Here are some examples of how you might proceed by tackling the dualities one-by-one.

The notion of free will/determinism often carries a charge. It often seems that human life would be anarchic or chaotic without freedom of choice. If you wish to look into the issue, you can begin with Ted Honderich’s How Free Are You: The Determinism Problem (Honderich, 1993), which shows how a just, fair, safe society is compatible with the notion that our actions are determined by causes. Closely related to this duality is the distinction between good and evil. Do they really exist? Are they absolute? Are there true resolutions to ethical conflicts? Do you feel that a path of nondual inquiry would invalidate this distinction? You might try Richard Taylor’s genial and compulsively readable Good and Evil (Taylor, 1999), which argues that the basis for morality is neither naturalistic nor supernatural, but conventional.


Another related duality is the distinction between cause and effect. Often this grabs our interest because we wish to know what is responsible for the world, and how we can act so as to remain safe. If you are interested in looking into this duality, the classic work is David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Hume, 1999), especially Sections 19 and 43. This groundbreaking work shocked eighteenth century readers by arguing that that cause and effect are nothing other than regularity of succession of ideas. A cause as a special power transmitted from one thing to another simply cannot be found.

One of the more deeply entrenched dualities is matter vs. spirit. Why do they seem so irreducibly different from each other? Why do I feel separate from the moon but not from my thoughts? No philosopher has set out to demolish this distinction in such a thoroughgoing way as George Berkeley. His simplest work is Three Dialogues Betweeen Hylas and Philonous (Berkeley, 1998).


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Notes


8. Many of these dualities have been created by philosophers themselves in their attempt to understand and explain other things. A philosopher might create a metaphysical distinction in one area in the attempt to solve a puzzle in another area.


For example, in the classical world following Plato and Aristotle, the substance/attribute distinction was thought up in order to help account for the permanence/change distinction. The puzzle was, “Does a thing perpetually change, moment-to-moment, or does it remain the same over even a short period of time?” If it never stops changing, then how can it truly be a thing in the first place? If a thing never changes at all, then even a color change would mean that the thing somehow loses its identity becomes another thing. To solve this puzzle, a new distinction (duality) was thought up. A thing has a substance (i.e., true nature) which never changes. And it has attributes (e.g., color size, shape) which can change without the thing losing its identity. This is a new distinction used to help solve the puzzle brought about by the previous distinction.


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