Unity in Being

Many mystics, both Eastern and otherwise, have reported finding a fundamental connection between things at the deepest levels of reality. While we ordinarily experience the world as composed of separate and distinct objects, like chairs and tables and laptops, many mystics say that the experience of separateness and distinctness isn't found in their mystical explorations of reality. Depending on how far they take the claim, it may be said either that all things are connected, or that all things are one.

The problem is that it is very hard to simply take their word for it. After all, we don't take our dreams as reliable reflections of reality, so why should we assume that the experiences of mystics are? What are we to do when we encounter two mystics, one of whom tells us that all things are one, and the other tells us no such thing? The mere word of a person, no matter how sincere they may be, cannot be enough to accept what they say about such things. 

That does not necessarily mean there is no way to believe such things reasonably. Indeed, I think that there is good reason to agree with the weaker "connection" claim insofar as our conscious identities go, but the reasons I have for that are entirely philosophical rather than mystical. The claim I will make here is this: if god exists, you, I, and god cannot be cleanly separated off from one another as individually distinct things, but are in some sense all “one,” or are at least part of something greater.

The argument why is about as cool as philosophical arguments get and begins in an unlikely place: with beavers. Constructed from wood, mud, and stones, beavers build dams across water ways to protect themselves from predators and provide places to store food. Though dams take an enormous amount of time and energy to construct, their survival payoff is sufficiently large that evolution has encoded beavers with something of a dam-building genetic imperative: to be a beaver is to be irresistibly drawn to dam flowing water ways. It comes part and parcel with beaverhood. 

Given the role of the dam in promoting beaver survival, and given the fact that it is the genes of the beaver that compel them to build them, it seems fair to regard dams as really extensions of the beavers themselves. That is, the dams are just as much a part of what they are as their wood-gnawing teeth, paddle-like tails, and heat-insulating fur.

Many other examples of this sort of thing exist in nature (the technical term biologists have for it is extended phenotypes). For example, the bird's nest, the termite's mound, and the spider's web all seem to be excellent candidates for things that, though separate from the bodies of the organisms that produce them, seem best regarded as a part of what they are. 

Philosophically speaking, it turns out that we human beings are not so different when it comes to our identities, for who we are can extend over things that are physically external to and separate from us. 

Consider someone who has lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. Though the change may make them feel as though an important part of themselves went gone missing, the good news is that they can use a prosthetic leg to functionally compensate for their loss. Indeed, they may become so dependent upon using a prosthetic leg, and so effective at using one, that after a while they feel as though it has become a genuine part of them. And what is the meaningful difference here, anyway? The fact that the new leg is made from metal and plastic rather than from flesh and bone hardly seems to matter from the point of view of their identity.

Alternatively, consider memory. Most people would say that their ability to remember information is a part of who they are. At a neurological level, of course, memories are just pieces of information stored in brain states. To be able to remember what your middle name is, or what your birthday is, is to have information concerning that accessibly stored somewhere in your head.

Yet we can easily imagine someone who, having sustained a severe brain injury, now has a very hard time remembering things at a day to day level. With their ability to remember degraded, something that was formerly an integral part of themselves has become diminished. Yet memory can be functionally compensated for by external means as well. They might start carrying around a pen and notepad, for example, and write down anything they need to recall as soon as they learn of it. They might then check the notepad throughout the day to see if there is anything they need to remember.

By functionally replacing the memorization formerly handled by their brain, and by becoming so effective using it that it becomes essentially second nature to them, it seems as though the notepad and pen become a genuine part of them. After all, what relevant difference could there be between information stored neurologically and information stored on paper? While the notepad isn't physically located inside their body as their brain is, that doesn't seem to matter. For all intents and purposes, they have replaced part of their biological memory with something nonbiological, just as one can replace a biological leg with a prosthetic leg. 

While replacing limbs and memory with nonbiological objects doesn’t happen all too often, nearly everyone will be familiar with the way that physical objects can become a part of their lives. We use watches to help us tell the time, cars to get us where we want to go, internet search engines to give us information, cell phones to communicate with other people regardless of location, calendars to remember events, and GPS navigation systems to help us find our way. All of these enhance our natural functional capabilities, and to the extent that we do value and rely upon them, we may say that these things are a part of who we are.

The moral of the story here is that identity is a rather amoeba-like thing, and that it can extend over things in our environment. If you accept that, the next step in the argument is straightforward: it needn't just be the most important nonconscious external objects of our lives that our identities are extended over, but other people too. Strange as that might sound, it follows from the critical importance of other people to us and the lack of any meaningful distinction between conscious and nonconscious things when it comes to what can be included within identity.

The most obvious example would be the case of two inseparable lovers. Given the role they play in the realization of one another’s happiness and emotional fulfillment, shouldn't we think of them as a genuine part of one another, and in more ways than simply the poetic? After all, they get much more out of having each other in their lives than they do from having cell phones or watches. And what could it matter for the thing that we are that our identities could include other people? If cell phones and computers can be an authentic part of us, other people can be too.

While extensions of identity over others is probably easiest to accept in the case of romantic relationships, the same goes in principle for non-romantic human relationships as well: if we non-romantically depend upon others just as we depend upon various objects like cell phones and computers, then to the extent that we do, we may regard them as a part of ourselves.

I recognize that this may not be the easiest thought in the world for many people to accept. Most of us—especially those of us in the West—are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as rather like Newtonian atoms bouncing around in the void: there’s you over there and there’s me over here, and while we might occasionally interact and bounce off of one another, there is always something that is exactly you and always something that is exactly me. Setting aside the prevalence of that view, my suggestion is that it is far from right, and that the more we think about it, the more we will see that things are more uncertain and hazy than our naive modelling of ourselves would lead us to expect.

Here, then, is the claim: from a sufficiently close point of philosophical inspection, we “bleed” into one another, just as the colors on a painting can bleed into one another along their mutual edges. This doesn’t mean that individual people don’t exist, any more than the merging of colors on a painting means that distinct colors don’t exist. The idea of individuality is a useful one, and it is important not to get carried away with monistic philosophies of being that proclaim that everything is “one” without qualification. 

Still, if the issue is looked at closely enough, I should philosophically see that I am strictly incapable of telling myself absolutely and perfectly apart from you, or you apart from me, and that for some people in our lives the extent of that blurriness is much larger.

This brings us to god. If it’s true that we cannot cleanly separate ourselves off from one another, but in some sense extend over one another, I can’t really imagine this being any less the case for god in relation to us. Why? Well, simply because of the intensity of the love that god could be expected to divinely hold for us (and all that conceptually goes along with that, like empathy and compassion). Moreover, to the extent that god plays an important psychological, intellectual, and emotional role within our lives, we may regard him as a genuine part of us, too.

This might sound like wishy-washy philosophical warm fuzzies or "woo" (as the pejorative term goes), but there is a serious philosophical point that emerges from these considerations that is hard to escape: if god does indeed exist, we are a part of god, and god is (or can be) a part of us, just as we are all a part of one another. Moreover, quite apart from whether god exists or not, this line of reasoning holds irrespectively for us. 

Far from every truth the world has to offer is beautiful, but this one most certainly is.