I’m a Dualist–Except When I’m Not

After finishing my “Athens or Jerusalem” post, I still wasn’t satisfied that I’d conveyed what I intended to.  I felt I was leaving stuff out, or not nuancing it, despite the fact that the post in question ran to nearly 2500 words!  This post is a slight tangent from that one, but I hope that it will be a little clearer in getting across my frame of mind in regard to the earlier one.

As I’ve discussed at greater length here, I have, by temperament, by inclination, and by deep gut feeling been strongly Platonist all my life.  I didn’t have the language to express that concept until I got to college, and didn’t think about it in regard to my worldview until much later.  It also wasn’t until later that I realized that my mathematical intuitions further coincided with my longstanding perspective in this area.  To make this more concrete in speaking of myself, it would be easiest to say that I have always strongly favored the abstract and universal over the concrete and particular.

Much of this is probably somatic.  I have, on a couple of occasions, taken the Baron-Cohen Autism Spectrum Quotient test online.  This is the standard test for diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome.  The threshold at which there is considered to be a high likelihood of Asperger’s is 32–if I recall correctly, I got 28 on one try and maybe 26 or 27 on another.  That seems intuitively correct–on the fringes of borderline autism, but not quite into it.  I had an friend once who was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and though his eccentricities were much greater than mine, and his functionality was marginal whereas I get by fine, there were scary similarities.  I don’t doubt that there is some of the Aspy wiring in my brain.

Asperger’s individuals typically find things and ideas more interesting that people, emotions, and relationships.  This is very much a description of me when I was growing up.  It still rings true in many ways.

In short, like it or not, I am a dualist.That my temperament disposes me to this outlook–which was the point of the psychological stuff–doesn’t mean I disagree with it on an intellectual level, because I do find a certain dualism intellectually appealing and likely.  I don’t think one can draw sharp lines between one’s predispositions and the way one evaluates them.  In other words, while the fact that I’m a dualist on a gut, pre-rational level doesn’t make dualism true, it does give me strong reason to look into it, and having done so, I’m more or less on board.

There are different flavors of dualism, and the one that most often springs to mind is moral or ethical dualism:  good vs. evil.  What I’m discussing here is metaphysical dualism.  In short, I’m interested in the concept that the cosmos is divided into two different modes, or realities, or levels.  Daoism is a form of metaphysical dualism–the well known yin (associated with the feminine, the passive, the cool, the dark) and yang (masculine, active, warm, light) being the two characteristics or qualities of which everything is  held to be composed.

What I’m discussing here is the classic Western dualism of Plato, the distinction between the material–matter and energy, the constituents of the visible universe–and spirit or mind–the realm of the soul and in Plato’s scheme, of the Forms or Ideas.

Despite my dualism, I am–irony not lost on me!–a bit ambivalent about it, or at least I have been, at different times in my life.  It would be a bit of an oversimplification, but one might argue, to return to the Athens vs. Jerusalem post, that the Semites were relatively  monistic in thought–not drawing a strong distinction between matter and spirit–whereas the Greeks, at least from the Classical Era onward, were always inclined towards dualism.

Two objections spring to mind–in Homeric times (8th Century BC or so), based on the evidence of the Odyssey, it is arguable that there was a view more in line with the Semitic view, where the dead are not really spirits, but sort of “leftover” bits of life-force which become solid when tasting the blood of animal sacrifice.  Thus, there is a more monistic outlook, arguably.  Second, the Greeks are often described as having a more holistic view than moderns–for example, the word for “good” and “beautiful” (kalós) are the same, etc.

I think one can think holistically while still being a dualist–seeing the big picture doesn’t mean you don’t realize it’s divided into two principles.  As to the earlier Greek view, it seems that there were significant shifts in perspective among the Greeks between the age of Homer and the beginnings of Greek philosophy in the 6th century BC.  How this may (or may not) have been influenced by the dualism of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia is unclear; but at least from Pythagoras onward, the Greeks seem to have had a strong dualistic strain in their thoughts.  Even Epicurus, who argued that everything is just an interaction of atoms, and thus posited what seemed to be fairly monistic, allowed that the gods did exist, but in a realm totally unconnected to ours.  Whether this was a sop to conventional piety (remember, “Epicurean” in the ancient world was a synonym for “atheist”) or his actual belief can’t be known; but it is still a sort of dualism, even if mitigated.

Semitic religions in general, on the other hand, seem to tend much more towards monism.  There is not any clear separation between the material world and the spiritual in most Semitic mythologies.  The world of the living isn’t distinguished much from the world of the dead, either.    In many cases, there isn’t much of an afterlife at all–the Biblical Sheol, as originally conceived, being an example of this.  There also is no clearly developed philosophical system, at least in the documents we have, in the Semitic religions.  Of course a philosophy that has no philosophy is a philosophy nonetheless; and a philosophy can be monistic; but it seems to me that if you compare the Ancient Semitic outlook with that of the Greeks, the Hindus, even the later Romans or Egyptians, there is a singular lack of interest in metaphysics or speculation.  This, to me, would seem to be the logical result of a monistic worldview.  If the universe is more or less “one story”, what need to elaborate?

Anyway, to return to the point, it is arguable that Christianity, as a syncretism of the Judaic/Semitic and the Hellenic, has an inherent tension between the monistic and the dualistic.  Which is itself a sort of dualism.

This, I think, is what I was stumblingly getting at in my earlier post.  I feel a natural affinity for the Hellenic part of my religious heritage, and an aversion to the Semitic part, in terms of the worldviews and philosophical views.  Once more, I’m not denigrating or rejecting the Jewish heritage of Christianity.  Judaism went on to develop a worldview that mitigated much of the Old Testament nastiness, and that, while more monistic than Christianity or Greek thought, is still a humane and legitimate religion.  My issue is that the two strands as taken into Christianity don’t always seem to mesh well.  I imagine everyone will tend more towards one strand than the other, human temperaments being different, as they are.  The question is how to integrate these two strands–or if not integrate, at least call a truce.

That is what I want to talk about next.

Part of the series Dualism.

Posted on 12/07/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, Plato, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. That “Old Testament nastiness” was precisely where Jesus located himself, and the tradition he mined for that “mitigation” you refer to…

    One story: of people interpreting/seeing God in the light of a somewhat savage way of life, surrounded with greedy, hostile civilizations much like their own, domesticating their insights to transform them into a state religion — then wrestling for centuries with the contradictions between that religion and a dysfunctional location in which only continual divine intervention could have preserved their state, and that only if they’d been superhumanly faithful… Then, when the King they’ve fervently hoped for arrives, he turns out to be a mensch, not a Maccabee.

    The Greeks never came near that kind of irony! Never understood it, even when they started worshipping what they understood of it.

    A guy who’d made a deep, long-term study of the psalms once remarked — that the ancient Hebrew word best-corresponding to ‘true’ is not a property of sentences, but a personal quality — that it means something like ‘dependable,’ ‘faithful’, ‘trustworthy.’

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