MWP 1.3.g Dualism and Non-dualism

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Dualism and non-dualism are another pair of terms used extensively in A Theory of Moral Objectivity[1], but they will be found rather less in this book. The term ‘non-dualism’, where used, roughly corresponds to ‘Middle Way Philosophy’, whereas ‘dualism’ is a position that takes metaphysical claims to be unavoidable or even desirable. Dualism in general should not be confused with ‘a dualism’ meaning a particular example of a pair of opposed metaphysical polarities, or a false dichotomy.

There are several different uses of the term ‘dualism’ in different contexts in Western philosophy, as well as in Buddhist (and Hindu) philosophy. In Western philosophy it can refer to a belief in distinct kinds of existence for mind and body, or the existence of a good and an evil god in opposition to each other. In relation to Indian metaphysical thought, though, it refers to the belief in a metaphysical difference between absolute independent being and the denial of being. Monism instead asserts a metaphysical unity, whilst non-dualism can at least sometimes indicate a more agnostic stance towards the issue (though strangely, it is not called non-monism, which it could just as easily be called if it was consistently agnostic), and alternatively non-dualism is sometimes taken to mean the same as monism.

The difficulty with the terms dualism and non-dualism even within the field of ‘Indian’ philosophy is that they are used in differing ways. In much of such thought, the fact that dualism is a metaphysical position that is being rejected does not necessarily indicate that non-dualism will be a non-metaphysical position. The terms ‘dualism’ and ‘non-dualism’ are also regularly conflated with ‘duality’ and ‘non-duality’

In my stipulated use of these terms, however, dualism is distinguished from duality, because it does not refer to a metaphysical state of the universe, but to an attitude. Dualism assumes and supports the necessary existence of metaphysical positions and their denial, denies that there is any alternative Middle Way, and denies any distinction between denial and agnosticism. In this sense nearly all philosophies and religious beliefs that have ever existed are to some extent dualistic, though with varying degrees of entrenchment. Given that dualism is an attitude, it has a psychological as well as a philosophical aspect. It can also be associated with the dominant perspective of the left hemisphere of the brain, which seeks certainty through metaphysics and rejects the non-dualist contextual uncertainty of the right hemisphere.

Non-dualism involves a completely different way of understanding the universe, provisionally and incrementally, and in accordance with Middle Way Philosophy as I have described it so far. However, I dispute with traditional Buddhism the assumption that non-dualism requires a discontinuous absolute state such as enlightenment, where, having reached it, the world suddenly appears ‘as it really is’ – i.e. as a non-duality. This would be to completely miss the point that the Middle Way is an epistemology and an ethics, but not a metaphysics except in a critical sense. It would also throw the process of achieving non-dualism out of harmony with the supposed achievement – do we really suddenly achieve a recognition of incrementality, and reach an absolute state in order to see things as non-absolute? There is a serious incoherence in the whole idea of an enlightenment state as the key to non-dualism.

Instead, we must acknowledge that both dualism and non-dualism are implicitly part of everyone’s experience, where either can incrementally develop. At times even those who are most philosophically entrenched in dualism will make practical judgements on the basis of provisionality and incrementality. If we never did this at all, we would be unable to learn anything about our environment. On the other hand, even those committed philosophically to a non-dualist view (such as myself) have times of unawareness when we lapse into implicit dualism in practice. For example, there are moments writing this book when I fall into despair, believing that there are too many conditions working even against it being read, let alone put into practice, and other moments when I implicitly assume that it will all be accepted without me continuing to exert myself on its clarity and presentation. In those moments I either recognise success and the absolute value of the enterprise, or failure and its absolute uselessness, and lose sight of the complexity of conditions, with a much more likely relative success for the enterprise, in between.

The development of non-dualism is thus a practice rather than just a philosophy, as should already be clear. The ways in which philosophy can aid practice and practice can aid philosophy require a lot more discussion, which will be found at various points in the whole of this series. If the distinction between dualism and non-dualism is one where psychology intersects with philosophy, it is not one that can be defined either purely philosophically or purely psychologically. Dualism, on the one hand, is a psychological state that leads us to support certain philosophical beliefs, whilst on the other, it is a set of philosophical beliefs that tend to lead us into certain psychological states. It can be identified where either of these two associations occur in experience rather than by fixed criteria from either side. Non-dualism, similarly, consists of philosophical beliefs conducive to psychological integration, and also psychological states conducive to increasingly objective beliefs. Where we fail to identify a relationship between both philosophical and psychological aspects of the relationship, we should doubt our identification in any real case of a concrete person thinking dualistically or non-dualistically, regardless of the conclusiveness of general arguments. For example, if someone promotes a metaphysical view on the internet, I could dispute their view on the grounds of their philosophical assumptions, using scepticism: but this does not mean that all this person’s thinking is dualistic, and it is much harder to make judgements about a person’s psychological state using a remote medium like the internet. On the other hand, if I know someone well and have doubts about the balance of their psychological state, this does not necessarily mean that their philosophical beliefs cannot be examined for consistency in their own terms. It is only when we see metaphysical beliefs accompanied by a lack of psychological integration that we can be more fully justified in drawing conclusions about that person’s habitual dualism, or if we experience Middle Way beliefs capable of provisionality accompanied by progress towards integration that we can be justified in drawing conclusions about a predominance of non-dualism. Neither, however, gives any grounds to give up on the possibility of a person’s spiritual progress, since the most dogmatic person may still have moments of greater openness.


[1] Ellis (2001): they are most closely defined in 2.c.ii

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