Problem of the One and Many for Materialism and Ancient Philosophers


We have already mentioned materialism. Materialism says that the world at its most basic level consists of matter and motion and energy. Any other layers consist of complex arrangements and interactions of matter.

This view has great difficulties. As we indicated earlier, it un- dermines the significance of persons. According to materialism, persons are merely complex interactions of material particles. This view tends to evaporate the significance of ethics. For example, let us suppose that Carol is a materialist. She may want to be kind to other people. But what does Carol say if she meets Joe, who tells her that he wants to dominate or crush other people in order to ful- fill the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest? Is morality just a matter of subjective preference, such that Carol prefers one kind of behavior and Joe another?

Modern materialism usually goes together with a materialis- tic version of biological evolution, which says that evolution is a purposeless process. There is no God to create human beings all at once, and neither is there a God who might work gradually to bring humans into existence from animal ancestors. The process of evolution has no human meaning to it unless we create one in our imaginations. Against this background, Joe may concede that evolution has produced feelings of kindness in Carol, but he may also argue that it has made him what he is. Evolution justifies his actions no more and no less than it justifies Carol’s. So it is difficult to see how Carol can justify any real moral standards, as opposed to merely preferences that are actually morally neutral expres- sions of our hormones and our neurons.

Materialism has further difficulties with respect to understand- ing the ideas of mind and consciousness. Materialism says that neurons and chemical interactions in our bodies thoroughly control human behavior. Consciousness is either an illusion or an extra, unsought expression of what the underlying neurons are doing— what the matter is doing. Purposeless evolution cares only for sur- vival and, therefore, for advantageous functioning of neurons. It cares nothing about consciousness as an extra layer.

We do find, however, that we can think about what we are going to do. And this element of thinking about is difficult to correlate with survival. Our neurons have to react to our situation in order for us to survive. But consciousness could be thinking about the moon or about mathematical abstractions at the same time that the neurons are reacting to a prowling lion. There is no guarantee that any causal correlation would exist between consciousness and the lion. In fact, there cannot be a causal correlation, because the causes all operate at the level of neurons. According to strict ma- terialism, consciousness is either an outright illusion or an extra layer that causes nothing. Without a causal correlation, there is no reason to suspect that consciousness has any connection with truth. Consequently, we have no reason to suspect that material- ism as a belief is true.

The One and the Many

Materialism also has a difficulty with the classical problem of the one and the many. This problem besets many philosophies. What is the problem? The world contains both unity (the one) and diversity (the many). It contains many human beings and one humanity. It contains many dogs and one species, the dog species. Why? And what is the ultimate relation between the two, between unity and diversity? The problem of the one and the many raises the ques- tion, Which is prior, the one or the many, unity or diversity? At the most fundamental level, is the world one thing or many things? And how does the one relate to the many?

Modern materialism pictures the universe as composed of many bits of matter. So it appears at first that its fundamental starting point is with the many, that is, the many bits. At the same time, the many bits fall into regular classes. All electrons are alike, and all protons are alike. The likeness is an expression of unity. Where does the unity come from? Why are all electrons alike?

Modern materialism would at this point appeal to elementary particle physics. A physicist might say that all electrons are alike because they all obey the same physical laws. If so, it sounds as though the physical laws, which express unity, are prior to the diversity of distinct electrons. So how do the many electrons come into being through one set of physical laws? How do the many come from the one?

A physicist might say that the physical laws in their inner meaning already provide for the possibility of many electrons. But that is not a complete explanation. Mere possibility is not the same as actuality. Equations do not, in and of themselves, produce mat- ter. So how do the many bits of matter come to exist?

If we can somehow overcome this problem, other forms of the problem of one and many still confront us. The physical laws de- pend for their expression on mathematics, which depends on the concept of many that is involved in numbers. Where do numbers come from? What is the relation of one and many in numbers? And why does the world of matter, which is conceptually distinct from the world of numbers, agree with the world of numbers? Here we have another kind of diversity—the diversity expressed in the distinction between two “worlds”: the “world” of number and the “world” of matter. We also have unity, namely, the coherence be- tween the two. Why?

A materialist could trace our knowledge of numbers back to our experience with distinct apples and oranges. But this distinct- ness in the apples is an instance of many, based on the many bits of matter in the apples. We are back to matter. The diversity in matter derives from the diversity in the laws, and the diversity in laws derives from the diversity in numbers, and the diversity in numbers derives from the diversity in matter. We are just going in a circle. At this level, materialism really offers no ultimate ex- planation of either unity or diversity, nor an explanation for why there is matter, with unity and diversity, and why there are laws, with their unity and diversity.


We can see the basic problems of philosophy in even simpler form if we consider an early case of Greek philosophy. The ancient Greek philosopher Thales is supposed to have said that “all is water.” This proposal has difficulties similar to those we have al- ready seen in modern materialism. (In fact, Thales offers us an ancient version of materialism.) Thales’s view has difficulties both in accounting for persons and in accounting for one and many. The difficulty with persons is the usual one. How did persons arise, and how can they be significant if everything started with water? Without a personal God or gods to bring about the existence of human persons, how do we understand the uniqueness of persons? How can we have morality if we start with a materialist basis? And how can Thales know that all is water if he and everything else reduces to water?

The problem of the one and the many also besets Thales’s the- sis. The thesis sounds as if it starts from “water” as the one initial “thing.” But how, if this thing is genuinely one, can it ever differ- entiate? How can we get many distinct things of many different types? If all is water, it seems we must conclude that all remains water, and then we are saying that “water is water.” We have an “explanation” that does not explain.

Or suppose we start with many rather than with one. It is possi- ble to interpret Thales’s cryptic saying as meaning that we should start with thoughts about the diversity of “all” things. All things, as we observe them in their diversity, somehow have water as an underlying unity. But what is this unity that unites all the diver- sity? It must be a unity that is somehow already in each thing, so it is not “water” in the literal sense of the term. What we seem to be saying is that “all is all.” Again, we have to ask whether we are really explaining anything.


According to Plato, another Greek philosopher, form and matter constitute the most basic structure of the world. The forms are eter- nal abstract objects of thought. The idea of the good is supposed to be the most fundamental, while other ideas include beauty, justice, piety, and virtue. These ideas or “forms” are imperfectly expressed in instances of beauty or justice on earth. For example, the eternal, abstract idea of a horse is expressed in particular horses that we observe. The expressions on earth are differentiated because they all have matter in them. The form, such as the form of a horse, provides for ultimate unity, while the matter, which is shaped by the form, results in the plurality of many horses.

Like the two philosophies that we have just considered, Plato’s approach has trouble accounting for persons. The universe starts off purely with impersonal things—the forms are immaterial, ab- stracts, and therefore impersonal. In addition, matter is material and impersonal. So personal significance evaporates. Plato thought that every human soul had eternal preexistence. In some ways this is like making the soul itself divine or godlike. But each soul is supposed to find its meaning and satisfaction in knowledge and contemplation of the forms, which are impersonal. What is per- sonal is really swallowed up in a impersonal world.

Plato also had a problem with one and many. Each form, like the form of a horse, is one in relation to its many material embodi- ments, the particular horses. But why do the many differ from one another if they are all the products of one form? Difference can only be construed as an imperfection. But where does imperfection come from? And how does the matter, which is conceived as eternally existing, relate to the forms?

Plato offered a mythological story about a demiurge, a godlike figure (a kind of finite god) who made individual things by copying the forms. But where did the demiurge come from, and why was his work imperfect? It is unclear whether Plato intended his story to be taken as an actual description or as a kind of myth to express something beyond expression. Taken either way, it leaves the ques- tion of one and many without an ultimate explanation, because the demiurge needs explaining: he is a being who apparently is distinct from both matter and the forms, and yet has significant relations to both. His existence and his relationships already presuppose unity and diversity, rather than explaining them.2


If we see the deficiencies of philosophies that take matter or form or some impersonal stuff (water?) as fundamental, we can consider whether personalist starting points do better. Greek polytheism is one such example. The ancient Greeks believed in many gods: Zeus, king of the gods and god of weather; Aphrodite, goddess of love; Ares, god of war; Poseidon, god of the sea; and others. Accord- ing to this view, the gods are personal. That helps to impart some significance to human persons. But if there are many gods, human persons find themselves with divided allegiances, torn in several directions by conflicting agenda from the different gods. Moreover, none of the gods is ultimate, and they practice immoralities that make them unworthy of moral allegiance.

In addition, the problem of the one and the many is really not solved. The gods are many, but what unites them? Fate is an underlying impersonal force that outstrips them all. It brings in a certain unity. But what is the relation between fate and the gods? And since fate is impersonal, it undermines personal significance.

If non-Christian philosophies and worldviews do not have satis- fying answers, what is the Christian way? We now turn to consider the positive instruction from the Bible about the nature of things.”

(Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy)


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