I’ve previously related the story of the Buddhist who approaches a hot dog vendor and asks that he “make me one with everything.” One runs across the platitude that “all is one” quite often in pop-culture metaphysical conversations. It seems to be invoked most often during an uncomfortable moment requiring discernment; that is, when one is faced with the reality that differing viewpoints are actually incompatible.
It is also used as what I will call here a “mystifier” – the purpose is to evoke some mistaken idea of some deep, ancient, probably Asian, mystical knowledge. It is used in conversation pretentiously, enabling the user to pretend to some sort of enlightenment.
That the concept is mistaken can be seen, at least in regard to Taoism, by the following passage:
The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three bigot the ten thousand things.
According to this text, at some point there was only one; but one begot two, and two begot three – now there are ten thousand things. (The phrase “10,000 things” means “lots and lots”.) These things flow from the same source, but have individual existence. This passage might seem to presage the concept of the big bang – not, of course, from the standpoint of mathematics and physics, but conceptually. However, we must be careful not to read too much into things, since this passage could also seem compatible with the Christian idea of the Trinity.
Let’s look a little harder into the idea that “all is one,” keeping in mind our previous premise: We know things only by comparison to other things – nothing exists except if something which is not-it also exists. Well, then if everything were one, we wouldn’t be able to know it, since there would be nothing else to which to compare it. In some sense, if everything were one, then everything would be nothing, and we would fall into the trap of nihilism. Instead, let’s propose that, although everything is not one, everything is interconnected.
As discussed elsewhere, the categories that we make which delineate the boundaries between things are fairly arbitrary. It is by bounding reality into smaller subsets of reality that we are able to manage the complexities of the universe and achieve some measure of scientific success. For example, we can understand something of the human body by seeing it as a system, separate from its environment. This allows us to deal with the intricacies of the body without having to deal with, for example, questions of interstellar gases (except as they may relate to the body).
The concept of diving the universe into systems has been useful for much longer than the concept of “system” itself has been identified. A campfire is a system which exists in an environment with which it interacts (e.g., it needs wood and oxygen to continue to exist). Learning how to manage such a system was an important stepping stone in the history of humanity. But the campfire is not really separate from the rest of the world. It is a cog in a much bigger wheel.
Likewise, it is sometimes useful to consider ourselves as separate from the universe, but we must be careful not to loose sight of the fact that we are simply defining ourselves as a system for short-term analysis purposes (e.g., medical, psychological, financial, or otherwise).
People will sometimes refer to the “interdependent web of existence,” the idea being to remind us that we are inexorably connected to the whole of the universe. However, we are not the universe itself; we are not the world, sorry. Ideas like this are just versions of the solipsism language-game. We are a part of the universe just as our hands are a part of us. We are comfortable identifying our right hand and our left hand as separate entities, but if we burn either one of them we are apt to say “I burned myself.” Our hands are separate, yet part of us, as we ourselves are separately identifiable, but still connected to the rest of the universe.
So, the universe is an interconnected web of things which we can arbitrarily identify as separate for convenience sake. We (people) are connected to it – it makes no sense to imagine ourselves as separate from it. But, just as we can appreciate the uniqueness of a flower without attributing grandiose metaphysical significance to it, we can appreciate each other as individual manifestations of the universe without objective importance. This leads us to the question of what is the essence of being human, which we will have to deal with at another time.
Hot dog image from A Cut Above Cafe. "We are the world" image from Connect.citizen.co.za.