Unity: a philosophical fragment

Ignore it though you may, summative season is nigh. I am rather busy at the moment with coursework and applications, so I hope you’ll forgive me for having nothing to publish this week besides old notes and fragments saved onto my computer from long ago, and cobbled together into something resembling a proper article. Who knows? If work doesn’t relent, this article may be the first of a series: “random thoughts retrieved from the depths of my google docs.” Enjoy: 


It seems to me that most people who try thinking about the world in a systematic way govern their thoughts not only in accordance with the rules of reason, but also in accordance with the rules and principles of a kind of aesthetic prejudice. A philosophical worldview can never be just a collection of facts. Instead it must be an explanation of the relationship (or, more likely, the set of relationships) that exists between facts; and oftentimes the relational lines we use to connect facts together are selected simply by what “seems” or “feels” best to us: they are aesthetic. The prevailing prejudice among thinking people seems to be the desire for unity. In A Treatise on Human Nature, the empiricist philosopher David Hume (who, incidentally, worked himself into a serious depression because he denied the existence of metaphysical unity) asks his readers to consider the interaction between two billiard balls on a table: Ball 1 goes rolling across the surface of the table and strikes ball 2, to which ball 2 (which was previously stationary) by itself beginning to role as soon as contact was made. What we have here, Hume says, is a set of at least two distinct events: first, the rolling of ball 1, and secondly the rolling of ball 2. But what the mind does while watching this sequence of events—indeed, what it cannot avoid doing while watching it—is string these two events together and unite them as two phases of one act: a causal act. As Hume constantly reminds us, there is no inherent reason to assume that Ball 1’s movements caused Ball 2’s movements. The former might simply have preceded the latter without any interaction whatsoever, leaving them wholly disparate events. I do not agree with Hume when he says that there is, in fact, no interaction between these movements, but I do agree with him when he says that it is by a kind of prejudice (not by any empirical or logical consideration per se) that we unite these two movements in a relationship of causal unity rather than conceive them as separate. 

Causality is, perhaps, the most rudimentary movement towards unity the human mind performs. It is, in fact, a kind of pre-theoretical unity, and everyone presupposes it. But there are higher yearnings for unity in the human spirit, and we see these everywhere in science, philosophy, and religion. For religious thinkers, the world’s vast set of facts flow from the unity of the Divine Mind or Will. God has created everything and wills all things to their final end, and everything that emerges, subsists, and passes away in the world does so in the unity of Divine Providence and Omniscience, holding all reality tight within its embrace. Science too (at least in its classical form) shares this craving for unity, as it subsumes all the goings-on in the world under the aegis of the great Laws of Nature—the inflexible patterns, sub-patterns, and over-patterns by which nature’s innumerable movements are drawn up into a grand causal unity without exception. I feel confident that if there is to be any detente between the religious and scientific worldviews (a detente which, I should add, I neither wish nor hope for) it would be through the shared adoration for the principle of unity in things: from the joy that comes in taking innumerable little events and facts and making them into little steps in a Grand Plan or little parts in a Great Whole.

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