One of the most convincing aspects of the mystic illumination is the apparent revelation of the oneness of all things, giving rise to pantheism in religion and to monism in philosophy. — Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, “Unity and Plurality”
Thus Bertrand Russell begins a chapter on Unity and Plurality in which he explores the metaphysical or mystical concept of “oneness”.
The words “unity” and “oneness” are much-used in both religion (or mysticism) and philosophy, but are also prominent in science. As Baha’is believe in the unity of God and the oneness of mankind, physicists seek a “grand unified theory”, a principle of everything, as they seek the origins of the Universe we inhabit. It would be easy to argue that these two related terms do not mean the same thing within these disciplines. Easy, but possibly inaccurate.
Russell comments that:
An elaborate logic, beginning with Parmenides, and culminating in Hegel and his followers, has been gradually developed, to prove that the universe is one indivisible Whole, and that what seem to be its parts, if considered as substantial and self-existing, are mere illusion. The conception of a Reality quite other than the world of appearance, a reality one, indivisible, and unchanging, was introduced into Western philosophy by Parmenides, not, nominally at least, for mystical or religious reasons, but on the basis of a logical argument as to the impossibility of not‑being…. (ibid.)
The first sentence of that comment seems to me self-evident and leads, inexorably, to a place where several blind men sit arguing the reality of an elephant. To suppose that any part of the Universe is self‑existing is to suppose that one can have a trunk or a leg or an ear without the rest of a living elephant being present. It seems to me that the semantical tangle occurs around the word “illusion”.
I am told that my name, “maya”, means “illusion.” But when I research the word in Sanskrit, I find it to be far more nuanced that that simple English word implies. It refers to the creative power through which God (the first Cause) created Life, the Universe, and Everything. The illusory quality of this (like the illusory quality of the independence of an elephant’s trunk) is relative. The trunk seems to have a mind of its own, but it doesn’t; the elephant’s massive brain is driving its movements, in addition to the movements of the rest of the elephant. Our galaxy seems to be doing its own thing off in its splendid little corner of the cosmos, independently of other galaxies, but “seems” is the operative term. Its independence is limited and relative. It is responding to the larger movements of the rest of the Universe—the Milky Way is not not dancing alone.
Krishna’s warning about mistaking His “divine maya” as the substance of reality has to do with mistaking the external manifestation of a thing as its ultimate reality. In practical terms, it’s like assuming the candy shell on the outside of the M&M is the substance of the candy. To bring this point home in as visceral a way as possible, imagine that a candy-seeking mammal—assuming the exterior of his M&Ms to be their ultimate reality—licks off the shell and tosses the creamy chocolate interiors into the trash.
Humans make this mistake in much more significant ways all the time. We chronically judge books by their covers or human beings (including ourselves) by our external appearances or lowest commonalities. We assign worth to people based on how physically pretty or sexually attractive they are, how much wealth they command, how well they dress or on credentials that proclaim them to be well-versed in certain disciplines.
Russell notes that:
Belief in a reality quite different from what appears to the senses arises with irresistible force in certain moods, which are the source of most mysticism, and of most metaphysics. While such a mood is dominant, the need of logic is not felt, and accordingly the more thoroughgoing mystics do not employ logic, but appeal directly to the immediate deliverance of their insight. But such fully developed mysticism is rare in the West. (ibid.)
I guess so, because in writing that paragraph above about the movement of our galaxy, I employed reason to explore the intuition that the galaxy—which seems to be a self-contained whirligig floating in the emptiness of space—is a separate, independent, self-existing entity. Reason, by walking into the room with the blind dudes and the elephant and circumambulating them, reaches a different conclusion: that the seemingly diverse bits of elephantine splendor are part of one indivisible Whole. Ditto, the galaxy.
My question is, why do we attach such dogmatic zero sum score‑keeping to the concept of unity and plurality? Why is this even a binary question: Is the Universe / God / mankind one OR is it a collection of federated parts / aspects / units?
If that’s the question, then it seems to me the answer is “Yes, it is.”
Krishna is quoted in the Bhagavad Gita as saying that:
“Others follow the path of jnana, spiritual wisdom. They see that where there is One, that One is me; where there are many, all are me; they see my face everywhere.” — Bhagavad Gita 9:15, Easwaran translation)
The Gita describes the mystical Moment in which Arjuna intuits (or sees through jnana) that “within the body of the God of gods, Arjuna saw all the manifold forms of the universe united as one” (ibid 11:13)
This Moment—which is expressed in a rapturous metaphor—leads the Avatar’s cousin to exclaim: “You are the Lord of all creation, and the cosmos is your body.” (ibid 11:16)
To a Baha’i, this oneness is a given, but it should not cause the believer to become “malicious” (a word that Russell borrows from philosopher George Santayana) of the “divine maya” or the physical cosmos that results from it. Nor, I should add, is there reason for the believer to be malicious of the study of that physical reality; in a word, science.
Krishna speaks of a God that pervades and upholds Its creation. Likewise, the Torah asserts that:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their sound has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. — Psalm 19:1-4
The Baha’i sacred texts echo this:
“Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth is a direct evidence of the revelation within it of the attributes and names of God, inasmuch as within every atom are enshrined the signs that bear eloquent testimony to the revelation of that Most Great Light. Methinks, but for the potency of that revelation, no being could ever exist. How resplendent the luminaries of knowledge that shine in an atom, and how vast the oceans of wisdom that surge within a drop! To a supreme degree is this true of man, who, among all created things, hath been invested with the robe of such gifts, and hath been singled out for the glory of such distinction. For in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed.” — Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh
It is not surprising that the impulse to acquire knowledge about our universe and ourselves has been felt so strongly in the religious community or that religious sacred texts propose a rigorous detachment. We should, Krishna says, approach this knowledge with neither “attachment or aversion.” To this, Bahaullah adds:
“He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth” — idid.
By now it is no surprise that Russell concurs. He writes, thusly, of the “defects which are inherent in anything malicious.”
“The logic which thus arises is not quite disinterested or candid, and is inspired by a certain hatred of the daily world to which it is to be applied. Such an attitude naturally does not tend to the best results. Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him; and to read the book of Nature with a conviction that it is all illusion is just as unlikely to lead to understanding. If our logic is to find the common world intelligible, it must not be hostile, but must be inspired by a genuine acceptance …” — Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays
Russell is speaking specifically of the hostility that “metaphysicians” and mystics show toward reason, logic, and the sciences, but his wisdom applies to any subject—whether from the lips of a religious Prophet or an atheist philosopher.
Next time: Russell on Time