Saturday, 8 February 2014

General Relativity versus Quantum Physics - Metaphysical Pluralism versus Monism


It seems to me that as relativity is to quantum physics, so the metaphysics of pluralism is to monism.

Sort of.


These are two different, basic ways of looking at the world. Thus relativity cannot be integrated with quantum physics, the particle theory of light cannot be integrated with the wave theory of light, and pluralist theology cannot be integrated with monist.


If Einstein was perhaps the most creatively inspired scientist who ever lived, then the fact that he regarded quantum physics (which he helped to found) as fundamentally wrong, ought to be of significance - significant in the sense that Einstein recognized that quantum physics was simply based on a fundamentally different set of assumptions - and one which he regarded as alien to his basic understanding of how things work.

General Relativity is based-in, extrapolated-from, a metaphysical world that is common sense, real world, normal logic: a world where time is linear and sequential, where you get nothing from nothing, where causality is understood like bouncing billiard balls and where all interaction is constrained by the maximum possible speed of even the tiniest and fastest billiard ball: the speed of light.

Relativity can be, and is,explained by 'thought experiments' such as 'riding on a beam of light' - apparently Einstein used these thought experiments to discover the theory. Quantum physics cannot be explained by thought experiments - and what you get from an attempted quantum thought experiment such as Schrodinger's cat is the fact that quantum physics cannot be explained by thought experiments!


Quantum physics is a world outwith common sense and human experience: where you can get something from nothing, where time may not be linear nor sequential, where there may be instantaneous interaction regardless of distance, and things can-and-cannot be simultaneously.

Ultimately, quantum physics is a world of equations - of formal models - it is not a human world, it is utterly non-commonsensical.


General relativity and quantum theory cannot both be true, because at a metaphysical level they inhabit different universes. Both could be wrong, but only one can be true - with the other an un-grounded, ad hoc set of assumptions which happen to be useful for particular tasks.


In theology somewhat likewise. Pluralism is based in common sense and everyday mechanisms of pragmatic causality; monism is based in a world of absolute theory.

This best comes out in relation to time. For pluralists, time is what it seems to be - linear and sequential; for monism, time can stop, be reversed... all sorts.

In fact, monists do not regard time as a constraint - since time is neither linear nor sequential, time can - in practice, time can be fitted-around other - more important, more fundamental - things.

Pluralism is ultimately materialist and there is one kind of stuff. Causality is direct - one thing causes another because in bangs-into the other. There can be no causality without physical interaction, which takes time - and time cannot be reversed. There is no communication which does not take time.

Monism sees all kind of interactions, and things different in kind. Monism may posit immaterial things, causality without substance - so causality may be instant over all of space: there may be action at a distance without any time elapsing. There is no before nor after - so the future may cause the past.


Pluralism and monism cannot both be true, because at a metaphysical level they inhabit different universes: either everything has one ultimate cause, or more-than-one ultimate cause.

Both could be wrong, but only one can be true - with the other an un-grounded, ad hoc set of assumptions which happen to be useful for particular tasks.


In religion, when it comes to the soul, a pluralist imagines it as a kind of stuff; a monist may regard the soul as immaterial.  Same with consciousness. Same with the Holy Ghost.

A pluralist necessarily regards God as material - because everything real is material; a monist can posit a God that is everything - all things; a God that is 'nothing' no-thing (in the sense of having no substance, material or stuff.

A pluralist supposes God to do things in broadly the same kind of way that humans do things: by one thing causing another over time, by taking pre-existing material and shaping it - all extrapolated to happen vastly accelerated and vastly larger in scope; but a monist regards God as working by entirely other means: making something from nothing, making many things happen instantly, making things happen simultaneously without any specific communication between them, whatever... 


A pluralist regards God as broadly being of the same kind as Man - as a personage - having a character: a God of passions, emotions, feelings, intentions, desires, motivations - God as linearly and continuously linked to Man and inhabiting the same reality; but a monist regards God as utterly different from Man, inhabiting a different reality, qualitatively different, utterly incomprehensible, fundamentally unknowable, unpredictable, of a nature so other-than Man that it is ridiculous, childish, blasphemous to talk of God being a person or having passions, emotions, intentions etc.

The pluralist regards God as having a morality, the monist regards God as being morality. 

And so on.


From all this it can be seen that Christians, trinitarians, have a tough job - probably an impossible job - in creating an adequate philosophy of Christianity; since necessary features and properties lie on both sides of the pluralism-monism divide; and this divide cannot be mended any more than relativity can be integrated with quantum physics.

My conclusion is that deep metaphysical coherence is unattainable in Christianity.

Christians must not get 'hung up' on philosophy.

Of course, most don't - but intellectuals, including theologians, certainly have done and continue to do.



  1. Interesting. My understanding is that in physics, the evidence and the mathematics require both general relativity and quantum theory to be true, but at the time there is no single theory that can account for both. In the same way, the evidence from Scripture and Tradition is that God is both a single Being and Three Persons. Both are necessarily true, but the two truths cannot be reconciled by human logic.

    I believe GK Chesterton once said something like this: normal people, i.e. non-intellectuals, have no problem believing in contradictory things. It is the curse of the hyper-rational, intellectual mind to notice all the contradictions and, what's more, find them problematic, having the urge to rationalize the paradox and discover the one underlying truth that explains both. This intellectual curiosity has a useful purpose, namely scientific and philosophical discovery, but the drawback is that it makes it difficult to accept basic truths about reality that are fundamentally contradictory, such as the truths of Christianity.

  2. Actually, quantum mechanics makes perfect sense:

    The world according to quantum mechanics: why the laws of physics make perfect sense after all

    Start with chapters 21-23.

    Quantum mechanics is exactly how undivided Oneness manifests a world of apparent space, time and separation.

  3. @Matthew - "quantum mechanics makes perfect sense" I'm afraid this is a case of 'speak for yourself'! To me, this book (from what I can see, and from where I stand) exactly proves my point!

    @jgress - Of course this is me riffing semi-seriously in a way only possible on a blog. Still, it is based on many decades of considering such matters.

  4. Still, it is based on many decades of considering such matters.
    It might be that you have been considering those matters through false assumptions, maybe because you do not see them at the properly abstract level or from a real intuition of being.

    Some form of spiritual common sense akin to the philosophical intuition of being is, I believe, the thing Chesterton (quoted by Jgress) was alluding to, and that enables ordinary people to be at ease with what appears to so many as paradoxical or contradictory. In the absence of such intuition, modern minds most often stumble on apparent paradoxes and contradictions, particularly in theological matters, that the Protestant always implied were averse to reason.

    Metaphysical objects can be understood only through the specific metaphysical abstraction (third degree)*. First and second degree abstractions are reserved for the physical and mathematical realms, respectively. God, on the other hand, is both beyond third degree abstraction and not abstract at all, because of his public Revelation and Incarnation, and his personal revelation through faith and grace (sacraments), so that small children and the unlearned can know him too.

    Then I would not say, like Jgress, that trying to reduce apparent paradoxes and contradictions should be a "curse of the hyper-rational, intellectual mind". On the contrary, this happens because most modern minds are not enough rational, usually for lack of basic proper metaphysical training, or for lack of orthodox faith. I hastily admit that such training, and such faith, are not easy to come by in an atheistic-nihilist world intent on destroying Catholic Christianity and its offshoot, Western civilization.

    *Abstraction, the first operation of the intellect, consists in abstracting the essence of an existing or possible thing in order to consider it through concepts and ideas, and then judge (second operation of the mind) what the thing is, or would be, in actual existence. Considering the essence of a thing is not complete if it does not terminate at actual or possible existence. Metaphysics is not true to its object (being as such) if it is not a properly existentialist philosophy.

  5. Let me put it this way.

    Quantum Mechanics is not optional. It is the nature of the universe at the smallest scales.

    Given that QM is real, we have to figure out what it means.

    What Mohrhoff has discovered and is conveying, is that, if Ultimate Reality (we can call it God if we like) wishes to manifest a universe from its own undivided being, quantum mechanics is exactly how it must do so in order to create space, time and separate objects out of a reality that is in reality timeless, without form, and whole.

    As Mohrhoff states, this bears a close resemblance to creation myths in every culture (the big bang provides the other half of the story).

  6. @MC - We don't know that QM is real, we only know that it (mostly) works. Same as with any science. QM is no more real than Newton's Laws turned out to be.

  7. Terribly difficult subject, but I find myself instructed by thinking along with you (I think this is a key strength of your prose and blogging style: it facilitates thinking alongside as you come to your conclusion); however, I remain opposed to you in final analysis.

    I am young and have no final conclusions (understatement!), but my metaphysical impulse differs from what you describe as "pluralism", but is not really "monist" in the sense that it has occurred in the history of philosophy. (Tom Torrance once remarked that monisms are really just fundamentally dualist frameworks which deny the reality of one of the dyads; hence, they radically unintelligible.)

    Under the aspect of adumbration:

    Within creation we see two real principle aspects, real aspects of the one created reality. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." With respect to creation, the Creator is God, Eternal Truth, and God Is One as the old saying goes. So, I humbly suppose two key distinctions in metaphysical language to be: 1) the real distinction between the poles of created reality and 2) the real distinction between God and what God has created.

    I think it is a paramount testament to the Power of God, that He is able to bring into existence something that is not Himself! I think this is the proper sense in which creatio ex nihilo must be advocated. The Christian answer to the "Why?" put to the act of creation is, of course, Love.

    I appreciate the material quality of your metaphysics. Due to a philosophic tendency (imported from the Greeks?) to denigrate earth/the material and in the same movement elevate heaven/the noetic, several strong currents have emerged within Christendom which do not treat matter as ultimately significant. With a "zeal not according to knowledge", some even display a nearly gnostic contempt for material reality and the body. Many people who profess Christianity think of heaven as some uber-noetic resting place for their immaterial soul, and not the Parousia of the Incarnate Christ they will enjoy (or not) with their resurrected bodies!

    It is heaven AND earth. Each is as real as it gets and each shares equally in being created by God. In attempting to speak of the relation between Creator/Creature, and the Presence of the Spirit of God within creation, I find it useful to contemplate the Orthodox ousios/energeia distinction. I am also reminded that Kierkegaard's intellectual mentor Hamann considered the creative Power of God to be the "anthropological third": a true pluralist!

    Good discussion, and I wish everyone fruitful lucubration!

  8. “More than one ultimate” is a contradiction in terms, like “square circle.” There can’t be more than one ultimate, any more than there could be a square circle. The notion is incoherent; it can’t even be wrong. Either there is one ultimate, or none. If there is no ultimate, then there is no first mover, and therefore no second or nth motion, so that, all other things whatever being contingent, nothing whatever has ever happened, or ever will. But things have happened. So, there is a first mover, who is ultimate.

    Fortunately, the existence of an ultimate first mover does not at all contradict the really actual eventuation of contingent beings, such as we and all our world. That there is only one ultimate does not mean that there is really only one thing. Thus the existence of an ultimate One who created all things does not mean that reality is not plural.

  9. @Kristor - With Monism-Pluralism we are dealing with a primary metaphysical difference - THE primary one, according to William James. What you are saying begs the metaphysical question - it is simply saying that monism is different from pluralism; that from a monist perspective pluralism is incoherent.

    The situation is asymmetrical - because a pluralist understands a monist, but a monist cannot understand a pluralist - the only way a monist could understand is (temporarily) to stop being a monist and step back to before he had decided to be a monist/ see things from a monist perspective - and recognize that monism is indeed at least one step down the line. That there is a pre-monist position.

    The difficulty/ impossibility many monists find in doing this, is presumably what WJ meant when he said he thought this was the most fundamental of intellectual divisions.

  10. There are two distinct differences of metaphysical opinion that are conflated in this thread. My comment was addressed to one, but not both.

    The first difference is between monism, a metaphysics that says there is only one entity, period full stop, and pluralism, which says there are many entities. For obvious reasons, it is extremely difficult to be a strict monist. I know of almost no thinkers who succeed at it, or even want to try. No sort of Christian metaphysics is monist, so far as I know, so there’s no point worrying about such a thing.

    When William James was writing, however, monism seemed to be a live option. There were then quite a few important Western philosophers (none of them particularly Christian) who were indeed arguing forcefully for monism. Today, not so much.

    The second difference is between theism, a metaphysics that says that there is a single eternal being who is the ultimate cause of all other things, and polytheism or atheism, which say that there is no such being. NB that when you peel away all its outer layers, paganism is usually theist: most pagan pantheons feature a Most High God, who is the source of all being, including the other gods. The reason most paganism is theist is that polytheism and atheism both (for different reasons) have the consequence that no contingent event can happen. Thus they both disagree with experience as such, and cannot therefore be true. This was the thrust of my comment.

    Fortunately for our intuitions about reality and for Christianity (which agrees with those intuitions beautifully), that there is an ultimate being at the back of all other things does not mean that there can be no other beings, with real power and real freedom. Theism does not entail monism, or determinism. So, no worries there.

    Nor for that matter does theism entail that the ultimate cause cannot play a role in his creation, cannot interact with the other beings of which he is the cause. It does not rule out his being a person, or manifesting as either an angel or a man, or suffering, or loving.

    There is in fact no contradiction between eternity and time. If there were, then there would be no time, for without an eternal possibility of time, there could be no such thing. Time supervenes logically upon eternity. The reconciliation of time and eternity must therefore be possible, no matter how difficult it might be for us (ditto, by the way, for quantum mechanics and relativity).

    For almost all Christians, probably, any part of such an intellectual reconciliation might be quite out of reach until they attain the perfect gnosis of the Beatific Vision. That’s OK; it is acceptable, nay appropriate, and indeed salutary, that we should worship a being who outpasses our comprehension. If he didn’t, why then he wouldn’t be much of a much, would he?

    Thus I have a hard time seeing the problem with theism.