Most people think the world consists of various distinctions ranging from fire and water to protons and electrons. But Heinrich Päs challenges this idea, arguing that quantum physics revives the ancient idea of universal oneness that Christianity unjustly excluded from our culture.
Modern physics revives an idea that is commonly associated with Asian philosophies or religions, but understood as utterly alien to Western or scientific thought. Monism adopts that everything in the universe is part of an indivisible, seamless whole or in other words: That All is One.
In the Upanishads, for example, one of the Sanskrit texts defining the spiritual core of Hinduism, the concept of “Brahma” is defined as holding together “all beings, all gods, all worlds, all breaths, all selves,” just like “all the spokes are held together in the hub and rim of a chariot-wheel.” In a similar way the Chinese philosophy of Taoism defines the Tao as “The One” that is creating and supporting the universe, “the beginning of heaven and earth” and “the ancestor of the myriad creatures”, according to the sixth-century-BCE Chinese sage Lao-tzu. Similar ideas exist in Mahayana and Zen Buddhism, and various mystic traditions.
A closer look at history reveals though that monism is neither exclusively Asian, nor alien to the European or scientific tradition. We still can observe today that the idea of an all-encompassing unity is common across many indigenous religions in the Americas, Africa, Asia, or Oceania that often embrace a sacred or spiritual concept of nature — from the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis that represented “all that has been and is and shall be” over the American Indians of the Northeast’s Great Spirit “Manitou” that inhabits animals, plants and rocks and can manifest itself in thunder and earthquakes to the concept of “lokahi” in the traditional religion of the Hawaiian Islands that reflects a “union of opposites” and a “harmony of diverse elements,” according to Hawaiian philosopher of religion Gwen Griffith-Dickson.
At least one crucial factor for the extensive decline of monistic philosophy in Western Europe was the dominant and political role attained by monotheistic religions, chief among them Christianity.
In Europe, the 6th century BCE Greek philosopher Heraclitus recapped monism in his fragment “from all things One and from One all things”, while his contemporary Parmenides describes “The One” as an indestructible, eternal, and timeless whole. Around the same time the Pythagoreans, a close-knit group of mathematician-philosophers, taught that “the One is the principle of all things” and that “matter and all beings have come into being from it.” Many of these threads converged in the philosophy of Plato who is said to have taught monism as a secret, unwritten doctrine at his academy. Later Neoplatonists such as the third-century-CE philosopher Plotinus who described “The One” as “all things in a transcendental way”, “the source of all things” or “Being’s generator”, became champions of monistic philosophy in the Roman empire. Everything but antipodal to science, it was a blend of Platonic and Pythagorean ideas with its decisive monistic flavor that inspired Copernicus and Kepler to search for harmonies in the cosmos, and Newton to devise his law of universal gravitation.
Both Copernicus and Kepler had read Platonic philosophers since their student days. Copernicus began his book on the heliocentric model of the solar system with a quote of the alleged motto of Plato’s academy, and Kepler discovered his laws of planetary motion when he tried to employ musical intervals to describe the relations of planetary velocities, reviving an old Pythagorean motif known as “music of the spheres” that was popular also among the Renaissance Platonists in Florence around Marsilio Ficino. Around a century later, Newton was deeply fascinated by the work of his older colleague at the University of Cambridge, the Platonist Ralph Cudworth. Indeed, Newton’s notes are full of references to Plato, Pythagoras, and the music of the spheres, which he interprets as an allegory for gravity. About the various planets, elements, and phenomena that were deified in antiquity, Newton explains, “these things All are one thing, though there be many names… one and the same divinity exercising its powers in all bodies whatsoever.”
If God was everywhere, no cast of priests would be required as an intermediary for the believer to get in contact. As a consequence, monism became to be seen as a heresy.
But what happened in Europe that led this powerful philosophical tradition become all but forgotten? And why is it that we can expect a revival of monistic philosophy from modern science? At least one crucial factor for the extensive decline of monistic philosophy in Western Europe was the dominant and political role attained by monotheistic religions, chief among them Christianity.
By the end of antiquity, Platonism competed with Christianity to become the predominant worldview of the Roman empire. Christianity prevailed but inherited monistic ideas in their reincarnation as "pantheism" or "panentheism" where the universe was identified with God. These concepts have been fleshed out in the works of St. Augustine of Hippo and Dionysius The Areopagite. But Christianity didn’t draw on monism alone. “Manichaeism,” named after its Persian prophet Mani, advocates a worldview quite opposed to monism and claims that the world is caught in an epic struggle between good and evil. Through Manichaeism and similar philosophies, “dualistic” concepts such as angels and demons, God and devil, and heaven and hell received their prominent role among Christian beliefs.
In the Constantinian shift, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, and as such a matter of politics. In the centuries after, politics will influence religion, religion will shape philosophy and philosophy will harm science. After all, an all-encompassing unity as a concept for God threatens the clerical monopoly. In monotheistic religions such as Christianity, God is understood as different from the world that he governs from the outside. In fact, if God was everywhere, no cast of priests would be required as an intermediary for the believer to get in contact. As a consequence, monism became to be seen as a heresy. Wherever taken up and permitted, though, thinking of “The One” from now on becomes associated with a transcendent realm, with inwardness and escapism, mysticism, and esotericism.
Since the days of ancient Egypt or India, the fundamental oneness or true nature was envisaged as a veiled reality or goddess, but the concrete mechanism of how exactly nature could get cloaked remained a mystery.
Monistic philosophers in the Middle Ages include John Scotus Eriugena, Amalric of Bena, and Meister Eckhart, and all of them struggled to discriminate God from the natural world. In the 9th century CE, Eriugena, court grammarian of the king of West Francia and emperor of the Carolingian empire Charles the Bald, wrote about “a most general nature in which all things participate” and “which is created by the One Universal Principle”, but his book got forbidden. When Amalric of Bena taught some 300 years later that “all is one, and all that is is God”, he got condemned, his remains were exhumed from his grave to be cast into unconsecrated ground, and ten of his followers were burned at the stake in Paris. Another fifty years later Meister Eckhart, a high-ranking monk and theologian in the Order of Dominicans preached that “God . . . is One in his hidden unity” and “flows into all things.” A papal bull determined that he had been seduced by the devil.
Things changed only when the Renaissance was in full swing. Original books of antiquity that had been lost in the West but survived in Constantinople and the Islamic world were reintroduced now to Western Europe by refugees after the conquest of Bagdad and Constantinople by the Mongols and Turks and the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the Arabs. These lost and retrieved books played an important role to initiate the Renaissance and the subsequent explosion of arts and sciences, and emanated a fascination that also intrigued church officials. In the 15th century, the German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa could proclaim that “God is the one most simple Essence . . . of the whole world, or universe”, and still make a career in the catholic church, become a cardinal, and even the pope’s proxy in Rome. And in Florence, the rich banker Cosimo de’ Medici appointed the son of his physician, Marsilio Ficino, to translate all of Plato’s works and those of Plotinus into Latin. The circle of scholars around Ficino that included Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo “The Magnificent” and genius painters such as Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo had been compared to a new Platonic academy that infused Renaissance thinking with monistic philosophy. As a consequence, the concept of “Oneness" appears in the writings of Giordano Bruno, Ralph Cudworth and Spinoza, who later influenced Newton, Goethe, Romanticism and Einstein.
Yet the heyday of monism didn’t last. With the rise of fundamentalism and the Counter-Reformation, religion and politics became more oppressive and dualistic, again. In the year 1600, Giordano Bruno who wrote that “all things” are “but one” that “contains all things in itself” was burned at the stake in Rome. And while the impetus of progress moved away from Inquisition-oppressed southern Europe, even in liberal Amsterdam, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza who identified “God” and “nature” as a single, eternal, and necessarily existing substance, was subject to the harshest ban ever pronounced by his Sephardic Jewish community. Still at the dawn of the 18th century, the student Thomas Aikenhead who had proclaimed that “God, the world, and nature, are but one thing” had been hanged for blasphemy in Edinburgh. When the German poet and polymath Goethe, the philosopher Friedrich Schelling and the Romanticists revived Spinoza’s philosophy in the 19th century, it inspired scientists working on phenomena such as heat, steam, electricity, complex systems, and the origin of life such as Johann Wilhelm Ritter, who discovered UV radiation and the rechargeable battery, Hans Christian Ørsted who discovered the principle of electromagnetism, Michael Faraday, Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin or Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel who followed Spinoza in conceiving the universe as “a single substance that is God and Nature at the same time” even got himself announced as a monistic “antipope”. On the other hand, the credo of the Romanticists who stressed the priority of the creative subject over objective facts favored a development fostering alternative facts and pseudo-science that brought about an association of monism with esotericism.
And of course, apart from religion and historical developments, the philosophy of monism features the problem to explain why, if “all is one”, we experience the world as a plurality of things, or, in the words of Nicholas of Cusa, “how it is that the oneness of things, or the universe, exists in plurality and, conversely, the plurality… exists in oneness”. The monistic foundation, dubbed as “natura creans” by Eriugena or “natura naturans” by Spinoza simply isn’t the “natura creata” or “natura naturata” that we come into contact with every day. Since the days of ancient Egypt or India, the fundamental oneness or true nature was envisaged as a veiled reality or goddess, but the concrete mechanism of how exactly nature could get cloaked remained a mystery.
Enter quantum mechanics, the physics behind nuclear energy, computers, solar cells and MRI scanners. Quantum mechanics comes with two related processes that can both justify monistic philosophy and resolve its biggest problem. The first of these processes is known as entanglement, pointed out by Einstein and collaborators some 80 years ago and the topic of the 2022 physics Nobel prize. Entanglement describes how in quantum systems objects get so completely and entirely merged that it is not possible at all to say anything about the properties of their subsystems anymore. Here “subsystems” refers to the constituents a composed, total quantum system is made of, such as protons and neutrons in the electric nucleus.
The phenomenon relies on the fact that quantum objects are described by waves, and that various individual wave patterns may be combined to produce the same swell as an overall result. If we think for example of the calm, glassy surface of the ocean on a windless day, and ask ourselves how this plane may be produced by overlaying two individual wave patterns, there are countless possibilities. Superimposing two completely flat surfaces for example will again result in a completely level outcome. Another possibility is to superimpose two identical wave patterns shifted by half an oscillation cycle, so that the wave crests of the first pattern annihilate the wave troughs of the other one and vice versa. Likewise, in an entangled quantum system it makes no sense to speculate about its constituents. The parts are completely merged in the whole.
In general, entanglement arises whenever different quantum systems interact. It makes sense, thus, to think of the entire universe as an entangled quantum system. And once entanglement is applied to the universe, it realizes the first part of Heraclitus’ fragment, “from all things One”. This is, in fact, the most obvious interpretation of quantum mechanics taken serious as a theory about nature.
Entanglement’s counterpart is known as “decoherence”, a process that describes how an entangled quantum object looks like if only a part of it can be observed. As has been pointed out by the German physicist Heinz-Dieter Zeh in the 1970s, from the perspective of the observer the quantum system looks like different clusters of individual objects in parallel realities. The phenomenon is pretty well described by one of Goethe’s verses that he exchanged with his friend, the poet Friedrich Schiller: “Isis shows herself without a veil, but man has a cataract.” Or alternatively, to the projected image of an object, that we see from our specific perspective, such as the shadows of true things the prisoners experience in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. Just like Plato’s prisoners we mistake the fleeting shadows of what we see as reality, while the true reality is an all-encompassing whole.