All Things Are Not One: Some Insights from Buddhism and Empiricism

We often read or are told that all life and all things, including all people, are one. It’s a nice, comforting, New-Agey idea … but it’s simply not true.

Nothing in this world is simple. Whatever exists in this universe is complex and has internal differentiation, involving numerous differences and relations. Each thing is ‘a multum in parvo plurally related,’ to borrow a phrase from William James. ‘Things are with one another in many ways,’ wrote James, ‘but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything.’

Not only that, whatever exists does, however, do so in situations. Those situations are themselves complex and are also in complex relationship to other complex situations, and all these complex situations exist in the one space-time, belong to the one order of being, and exist under certain invariably complex conditions. For example, a table consists of wood, nails, glue, etc, not to mention the carpenter with his tools who ‘made’ the table. The table sits on the floor of the room. The floor is supported by the foundations of the building, and so on. Yes, whatever exists does so in situations which are in complex relationship to other situations.

In realist philosophy this state of affairs is known as ‘situationality.’ Yes, everything that exists has some relation with some other thing that exists, but it is not true to say that everything is related to everything else nor is everything one in some overall monistic sense, and nothing in quantum physics proves otherwise. Co-existing situations often comprise or constitute a system, and some systems are very much connected to other such situations. However, while some situations have connections with other systems, not all systems are connected to all other systems. We know all this to be the case.

Traditional Buddhism, for the most part, is empirical and realist in its overall thrust and content (even though you will find in many places a considerable amount of superadded superstitious nonsense). A cardinal, perhaps the core, teaching of Buddhism---arguably the only thing that holds all Buddhist teachings together---is this: all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. This is known as the teaching or principle of interdependent relations.

Perhaps even more importantly, this teaching more accurately states that things arise dependent on conditions and cease when those same conditions cease. Buddhism sees causation as a complex phenomenon going far beyond mere constant conjunction in the nature of some ‘regularity’ theory. The emphasis is on causal connections, or the relationship, between two events that are separated in space-time. (Note. At the sub-atomic level phenomena such as quantum entanglement show that connections can at times survive even physical separation, but it remains the fact that those connections exist under certain conditions even if we don’t fully understand the nature, extent and scope of those conditions.)

Causation is never a simple thing. Invariably, multiple factors are necessary to produce any given effect. In light of this complexity and plurality, it is never as simple as selecting one such factor from a set of jointly and severally sufficient conditions and taking that factor to be the cause of the particular effect, for we are dealing with a complex system whose parts, as previously mentioned, are at least to some extent interdependent.

Buddhism goes further and seeks to distinguish causes and conditions In that regard, the English word ‘conditionality’ encapsulates essence of the Buddha’s teaching of ‘dependent arising’. Now, conditionality and causality are not the exact same thing. Conditionality is a much broader concept of causality. When we speak of the ‘cause’ of some event we are referring to something that is directly and immediately responsible for the occurrence of the event, whereas the word ‘condition’ is wide enough to embrace supporting and contributing factors as well. Buddha Shakyamuni is reported to have said on many occasions, ‘This being, that becomes.’ In other words, the most general quality or a thing is that it is the condition for another. More fully, the Buddha would say, ‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.’

This conditionality---that is, all things are ‘conditioned things’---was said by the Buddha to be universal, underlying all of reality, irrespective and quite independently of anyone noticing it.

Now, there is a sense in which all life is one. I am not advocating monism or pantheism. When I say that life is one, I am trying to say a couple of things. First, a single logic can be said to apply to all things and how they are related. Secondly, all things exist in the same order or level of reality, and on the same ‘plane’ of observability. If these two things were not the case, it would be impossible for us to be attentive to, and otherwise aware of, what happens from one moment to the next, let alone speak meaningfully about things. Just think about that for a few seconds, and it should be obvious to you that such is indeed the case. Call it the ‘interconnectedness of all life’ or, if you like, ‘InterBeing.’ The latter wonderful term comes from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I love that word ‘InterBeing.’

The bottom line is this. Although all things are not one, there nevertheless is only one life manifesting itself in all things and as all things. And if that be the case, we owe each other certain ethical duties. Those ethical duties (for example, the golden rule) do not depend for their existence on any religion---not even Buddhism, for which I have the greatest respect. They flow naturally and inevitably from the very nature of existence itself.