Previously I introduced the idea of a worldview and some tests that we can apply to help us examine a worldview's strengths and weaknesses. Worldviews are important, since they are the filters we use to understand reality. In the attached picture, we have a set of concentric circles which helps us to understand the impact of our beliefs on our lives. Reality (or Truth) is at the center. Our worldview Beliefs about Reality are next. Our Values are based on our Beliefs and then our Actions flow from our Values. What we believe about the nature of Truth directly impacts our daily lives.
The first major worldview that we'll tackle is pantheistic monism. This is represented by the belief systems of Hinduism, Buddhism, the New Age Movement, and eastern mystical religions in general. Pantheists believe that all of reality is God or Divine (mind and/or spirit), but is not personal. Monism is the belief that there is ultimately only one undifferentiated reality which, in this case, is God. A common mantra is "God is all and all is God." Thus we are all God, but we just don't realize it, and must become enlightened or educated to that fact. Everything that appears to be distinct (not one) and material is illusory or deceptive. Ultimate reality is purely spiritual in nature, and is neither material nor physical. It should be noted, however, that some versions of this worldview see the universe as real, but emanating from (or out of) God. In other words, the physical universe is also God. This worldview generally believes in the law of karma, or "you reap what you sow," because of your choices and actions in life, both now and in the past. Reincarnation is based on your karmic debt from past lives and is a return to a state of unenlightenment. According to pantheistic monism, there are many paths to enlightenment.
So how does pantheism fair when put to the test?
- Pantheistic monism shares a belief in an ultimate reality that is spiritual in nature. Throughout history, people have felt a strong yearning for spiritual meaning and purpose.
- The desire to view everything as a consistent, unified whole is commendable. Thus this worldview tends to be very tolerant of different ideas and paths to enlightenment.
- Justice, as formulated in terms of karma, meets the need of people to see goodness win over evil in the end.
- It is a laudible goal to free ourselves from attachment to material things, since things are ultimately perishable. We should focus more on the things that really matter in life such as relationships, learning, and legacy.
- It is fundamentally inconsistent, in that it claims distinctions without allowing for distinctions. The concept of a distinct human self (atman) is logically in conflict with the idea of an undifferentiated oneness. How can one's self be reunited with God when one is already God? The states of illusion vs. reality comprise two things or concepts, but that conflicts with the belief that there are no real distinctions.
- There are distinctions between different selves (say Ghandi vs. Bin Laden) and between those who are enlightened and those who are not, distinctions that are in conflict with its basic premise. People are reincarnated on the basis of differences that monism denies. Together they are logically incoherent.
- How do persons arise from an impersonal spiritual reality? If personhood is also just illusion, then who is being deceived? Pantheistic monism has no rational basis for explaining the human conscious experience, including mind, will, and emotion.
- Our personal experience of a tangible reality flies in the face of the these claims. How can science be done in a world that is fundamentally illusory (maya)? We know from experience that real evil exists, yet doesn't this worldview imply that evil is also illusory?
- Reincarnation-based philosophies tend to be practically unworkable, oppressive to lower casts and the poor, and result in fatalism. Since people, including children, are suffering because of things that they did in their past lives, then why should anyone act to help them? This is no different than trying to help a convicted child molester escape from prison because you feel sorry for him being locked up! Since they are getting their just punishment, why should they be shown compassion? Also reincarnated people have no recollection of their past lives, so they are being punished in this life in a way that they don't understand for things they don't recall doing. Why should a new person be punished for the actions of the old? Couldn't it be argued that victims of violent crimes must have had it coming because of something they did in this life or a past one?
- It seems like an endless regression of past lives is required ... and yet it must have required an initial self to start. Where did this initial karmic debt come from? It is also pretty fatalistic as well, since your lot in live is already determined by your past. Its view of cyclic history for the universe also conflicts with our current understanding of the physical universe, which shows that matter, energy, space, and time had a singular beginning about 13.7 billion years ago.
- Finally, a philosophy who's greatest hope is to lose a person's complete personal identity hardly offers hope and purpose in this life or after death.
In conclusion, pantheistic monism fails several of the worldview tests: coherence, explanatory power and scope, correspondence to reality, livability, and existentialism. This more than offsets the positives of unity, justice, and spiritual reality. This belief system is neither rational nor does it correspond well to our personal experience. This is not to say that there aren't people who do good things, live moral lives, and are basically happy. But one has to question "Why?", since their actions appear to be in conflict with the core values derived from their worldview tenents.
I've just barely skimmed the surface of this topic. See Ken Samples' book, A World of Difference, for a comprehensive treatment. He also has a podcast where he summarizes this: Pantheistic Monism: an Eastern Mystical Worldview