By Jim Pemberton
In this series I am discussing a few key philosophical categories. Last time, I discussed epistemology. At the end of that discussion I brought up the idea that God is of a different stuff than the created world.
The philosophical idea of different stuff is often called substance. Substance is that of which things are made. I’m not talking about the periodic table elements… per se. All of the elements that we are familiar with are of the same substance: matter. Inasmuch as matter can be converted to energy, energy is of the same substance as matter. But we have to ask ourselves if this is the only kind of substance that exists.
There are at least two different schools of thought throughout history regarding substance. The first is monism. This comes from the Greek word for “one”. That means that monists believe there is only one substance… ever. Monists are most often materialists who believe that this one substance is physical matter. An example of materialism today is naturalism. An example of non-material monists today would be people who like to speculate that we are more than a figurative “brain in a vat” and this world is only just an illusion1. Mostly, non-materialist monists like this end up living their lives practically as materialists.
But there are views in contrast to monism. These are typically metaphysical dualists or pluralists. That is to say that there is more than one kind of substance that makes up all of reality. For the purpose of discussion, I’ll lump all of these together into one category. So we have two broad categories: monism and metaphysicalism.
One important thing I want to note here is that there is no such thing as a Christian monist. This should be obvious, but it will become clear that lacking clarity on this has troubled Christians since the beginning and has provided the soil in which God’s revelation has been made known to us. The next article will discuss this in more detail.
Monists and non-monists alike all have to answer the epistemological question. They have to have a good reason why they know what they assert to be true. So if a monist asserts that the only substance is what the physical world is made of, then they have to answer the question how they know that there is no other substance. Likewise, metaphysical dualists or pluralists, like Christians, need to answer the question of how we know that there is some other substance besides what we experience in this world.
That answer requires an understanding of revelation. I’ll talk about that in the next article in this series.
1 It must be understood that the “brain-in-the-vat” school of thought is not necessarily monistic, but I would say that some speculations in this school of thought involve non-material monism.