Dialectics 101

A Basic Overview of Dialectics and Dialectical Monism for General Readers

Naturyl

Introduction

Dialectics is the study of change. It is a way of thinking that tries to explain how change works, and why. Dialectics has been around for thousands of years, but it isn't very well known in most of the Western world. There are reasons for this, which we will explore later in this article. But first, let's find out more about what dialectics is.

The Study of Change

Why study change? The answer is simple. Dialectics believes that change is all there is. Everything is change. A popular statement reflecting this viewpoint is "change is the only constant." Most people believe this to be true and insightful when they hear it, without realizing that most of Western culture is based on the opposite viewpoint, that things are somehow static, fixed, permanent, and eternal. But this opposing viewpoint doesn't contradict dialectics, as we will discover. Instead, it affirms dialectics by being the antithesis of the dialectical viewpoint itself. But before that can make any sense, we have to find out about an important concept known as the unity of opposites.

The Unity of Opposites

The Unity of Opposites is the idea that things that seem to be opposed are actually united in a deeper sense. The best way to understand this idea is to use real-world examples. The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who was the father of dialectical thought in the West, used the example of a bow. The bowstring and the wooden part of the bow move in opposite directions, but they are both necessary parts of the whole. Without either of them, there is no bow. The existence of the bow itself depends on the opposition of the bow string and the wooden backbone. When these two aspects of the bow are drawn in opposite directions, the bow becomes capable of its function. This is the unity of opposites.

The Tao Te Ching, an important book written in China at about the same time Heraclitus was teaching in Greece, gives many more examples of the unity of opposites. Taoism, the school of philosophy started by this book, is an early example of dialectical thought in the Eastern world. But Taoism and the ideas of Heraclitus won't make sense until we understand what they are based on, which is a philosophical idea called monism.

Monism

Monism is the idea that everything in the world is made from a single undivided "substance." It doesn't matter what the substance is, the important thing is that it is a single substance that everything comes from, rather than two or more substances. This may seem like a strange thing to worry about, but it's really very important, because much of Western culture is based on the idea that there are two basic substances in the world, usually called "mind" and "body" or "spirit" and "matter." This view is called dualism, and it is the basis of most of the things modern Westerners believe.

But monism, which has always been much more popular in the Eastern world, says that there really aren't two substances, even though it might seem that way. Everything comes from and is always a part of a single undivided reality, which could be called Tao, Void, God, Nothingness, or any number of things. Some of these names for the "one substance" may seem to contradict each other, but they really don't. They are just different names for the same thing, or the same "nothing." But that is a very complicated matter, and before we can make sense of it, we need to understand where dialectics fits into the picture.

Dialectical Monism

Dialectical Monism is the basic metaphysical position of dialectics itself. Metaphysics is the part of philosophy that is concerned with questions like "is there really only one kind of thing in the world, or are there two or more?" Even though dialectics talks about everything having two "sides," it uses the idea of the Unity of Opposites to show that they are "two sides of the same coin." So, as we discovered in the previous section on Monism, there is really only one "substance" which the whole world is made from, but that substance always takes the form of complementary opposites.

This can be a very confusing idea for some people, because it's hard to understand how everything could be one undivided reality and also be composed of opposites at the same time. But the answer is a simple one, once we know where to look for it. To understand why the single "substance" of the world always appears as opposing things interacting with each other, it's necessary to understand the nature of consciousness.

The sub-sections are going to get a bit longer now, because the remaining material might be trickier for some readers. But we will try to keep it as straightforward as we can, considering the subject matter.

The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness is the self-aware state of the human brain. The brain is a small part of the world which has become so complex in its structure that it has achieved the ability to be aware of itself and the rest of the world. The result of this ability is the set of thinking processes known as the mind.

Ideas such as dialectics are concepts. In order to create concepts, the mind has to distinguish one thing from another thing. It isn't possible to have a thought without making a distinction. This is why even though the world is really a single undivided substance, it always appears to us as a collection of things interacting with each other. In order to have thoughts, the mind creates things in the conceptual sense by making distinctions within the undivided whole.

However, this doesn't mean that things aren't "real." It just means that they are segments of the whole which are defined by the human mind's ability to infer relationships. In other words, they don't exist independently of other things. Things are like waves on the ocean. No waves exist apart from the ocean itself, and the ocean "is" the waves in a very real sense. But for a sailor in a small boat, it can be very useful to distinguish one wave from another. The human brain and mind are survival tools. They allow us to make distinctions and have thoughts, because some "waves" on the ocean (aspects of the whole) are very bad for our health and we need to be able to deal with them, or we die.

The dualistic nature of thought can be easily demonstrated by considering how we can think about any "thing" we can think about. For example, a lamp cannot be defined as a lamp without creating a distinction between "the lamp" and "everything else that is not the lamp." Like all thoughts, this creates a dualistic distinction. Even though we understand that monism is true, anytime we think, we establish dualism in our own minds. So, while monism is true of the world, dualism is true of the mind. That is what is meant by "dialectical monism." This is also why Zen masters and other mystics stress getting rid of thought to perceive the world directly, but that's another issue.

For now, let's go back to the unity of opposites, but instead of focusing on how the opposing things are the same at a deeper level, let's focus on how they are opposed as the human mind sees it.

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis is the "formula of dialectics." Scholars don't always like these terms, because the people who helped create most of the important concepts in dialectics didn't use them. But they are useful in spite of this, and they make the concepts involved easier to understand.

A thesis is any thing, idea, or other distinction, and an antithesis is the opposite of that thesis. It's important to note that the antithesis doesn't always have to be the "exact opposite" in the way we usually think of opposites. For example, in the case of the lamp we discussed in the previous article, the antithesis of "the lamp" was given as "everything that is not the lamp." In other words, thesis and antithesis are context-dependent. It isn't important that we find the "exact opposite" in the usual sense, but instead, we should find the opposite that is meaningful within the given context.

Now we are getting to the interesting part. In the Introduction section, it was stated that dialectics is "the study of change," but so far not much has been said about that subject. That will change in the next subsection.

Principles of Change

Change is the result of a thesis interacting with its antithesis. For example, when a piece of ice is dropped into a hot frying pan, thesis (cold) and antithesis (heat) interact, resulting in change - the ice melts and the pan fills with water. This process is known as synthesis.

But it doesn't stop there. Each time a synthesis is created, it becomes a new thesis which begins to change due to the influence of its antithesis. The water in the pan won't stay there forever, even if the heat is turned off. It will begin evaporating due to other factors in the environment, which serve as the antithesis of the new thesis. Wherever there is a thesis (any thing, idea, or distinction of any kind), there will be an antithesis, and therefore the process of change is never-ending. New syntheses are continuously created and transformed as they become theses themselves.

There is nothing in the world that is immune to change and transformation. This is actually very simple to understand if we have followed the previous sections. The only thing that is constant is the single undivided reality of being, or "the ocean." But this ocean is not a "thing" like the oceans on Earth. Our oceans can be distinguished from their antithesis, land. But the ocean of being cannot be distinguished from any other "thing" because it contains all things. There is nothing outside it, therefore it cannot be envisioned, conceptualized, or thought about. It can only be experienced directly.

The direct experience of undivided reality is available to us at all times, but when we are thinking, we are dividing reality, making distinctions, and creating conceptual "things." That's why dialectics is the study of things and how they change. It is not just a way of thinking about the world, it is a way of thinking about how people think.

Progress

Progress is a description of how change looks from a human perspective over long periods of time. As new syntheses are constantly created, the state of the world becomes increasingly complex. While a more complex state is not "better" from a disinterested "objective" perspective, increasing complexity in human affairs is motivated by the necessity of survival and therefore tends to result in survival-enhancing outcomes over the long term.

This may sound very "academic," but it is easily demonstrated in everyday life. For example, human lifespans have been continuously extended from 30-40 years in primitive times to 70-80 years today. Living conditions for a large portion of the world's population have improved by a similar degree. For larger and larger areas of the world, much of the drudgery, hard physical labor, and pain of life has been eliminated through modern labor-saving devices, medicines, and improvements across the whole spectrum. Many painful and even fatal diseases which once killed millions have been entirely wiped out. Slavery is no longer practiced in developed nations. Science has uncovered increasingly useful truths about the natural world which have led to countless advancements.

Despite all this, the concept of progress has become less popular in recent years, owing largely to the devastating wars of the 20th century and the social upheaval which followed. As a result, many people no longer buy the idea that human society is "going anywhere." While war and conflict are undeniably tragic, this view ignores the reality that many of the most important advancements in history have resulted from them. Heraclitus said that "war is king of all and father of all." While this statement may be understandably uncomfortable to modern audiences, even that discomfort is evidence of progress - we are gradually becoming increasingly humane in our outlook and less willing to tolerate the outrages and abuses of war. War makes us uncomfortable, whereas a thousand years ago, our lives might have centered around its glory.

Progress is a constant process, but it is not a linear one. In the short-term view of a single human lifespan, it does not go "directly forward" without setbacks or reversals. In fact, setbacks and reversals are what ultimately drive progress forward, because a synthesis cannot be obtained unless an antithesis interacts with any given thesis. To use an anaolgy, unless the away team wins some of the games, the home team doesn't learn much, and may not go on to win the state championship next year as a result.

Even though nobody can tell you whether a single coin flip will come up heads or tells with any accuracy, it's easy to figure out what the result of a million coin flips will be to a good degree of accuracy. Similarly, while we may not know exactly what the next scientific advancement will be or who will win an upcoming election, over very long time scales, progress has a predictable course. If we understand that nature of things and how change works, we can look at the whole course of human history and use it to figure out what will happen in the future with a high level of confidence.

If this sounds difficult to believe, it is only because dialectics has not been taught in most of the Western world, so people have no tools to use for the job. There are very good reasons for this, and most of them have to do with the best interests of those who have the most money and power in Western society. It isn't in their interest for ordinary people to understand dialectics, history, or the future. This isn't an organized "conspiracy theory," it's just human nature. The "powers that be" are benefiting from things just the way they are, so why should they want people to understand the nature of change? Naturally, they aren't going to go out of their way to teach anyone that sort of thing, and that's part of the reason this article exists.

The Future

The Future is the extension of change beyond the present time. Dialectics suggests that change occurs in a predictable manner, and therefore the future is predictable over long time scales. While there are always short-term variables, just as any given coin flip in a series of a million is difficult to predict, the results "smooth out" over the whole series of events and we can predict the outcome of the entire series with a high level of confidence.

Based on an examination of human history, a dialectical viewpoint suggests that the future, over long time scales, will be characterized primarily by increasing human freedom. Georg Hegel, a pioneer of Western dialectics, stated that "history is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom." This means that as human affairs across the spectrum continue to undergo dialectical change, they will always gradually tend toward syntheses which improve living conditions and free human beings from undesirable states.

In the previous article, we already covered many of the ways this tendency has been expressed so far. But human civilization is still young, and we are faced with many challenges which limit freedom and bring down living conditions for many people. As history moves forward, we will gradually overcome these challenges. There may be brief (but tragic) setbacks, such as the Nazi Germany years or McCarthyism in America. But these will tend to be self-correcting over the long term, and in fact the process of correcting them will generate many of the next-generation advancements that will come after, just as a lot of amazing technology developed during WWII and the Cold War is now available to much of the world. Computers and the Internet were created this way, among many other things.

Of course, nothing is certain. Human history cannot move forward if humanity is utterly destroyed. Unfortunately, our current level of technological advancement makes this a possibility. However, even though wars continue in many nations, most of the developed world has become increasingly squeamish about war. Even when wars are undertaken, consideration is given to "collateral damage" and similar concepts which surely did not exist in the time of Genghis Khan, when anything less than wholesale slaughter was taken as weakness. While an undeniable danger of extinction remains, history suggests that our chances are better than many pessimistic Westerners believe.

And even if extinction can stop human progress, we can take comfort in the fact that nothing else can. Unless we destroy ourselves utterly, Utopia is inevitable over the long term.

Utopia

Utopia is the semi-final state of human existence. The term "semi-final" is used because in dialectics, everything has an antithesis and is subject to change, including the state of Utopia. The antithesis of Utopia is (and has always been) extinction. However, if extinction is avoided long enough for Utopia to be achieved, the state will almost certainly be maintained for an enormous length of time, unless a highly improbable cosmic "freak accident" occurs such as the total destruction of Earth.

Utopia is characterized by complete freedom from mental or physical states that are undesirable to human beings, or at least (perhaps more realistically), complete freedom from highly distressing undesirable states. In a Utopian society, there may still be "problems" such as whether one's dream home should face east or west, but significant human tragedies as we know them will have been overcome. A Utopian society is one without war, poverty, hunger, disease, death, or any of the other factors which impair basic human freedom in any sense.

A Utopian society cannot be achieved by altering human nature through ideology, positive thinking, inspiration, religion, philosophy, or any other "abstract" factor such as these. Instead, Utopia is approached and attained primarily through technological advancement. Technology gradually changes human nature automatically and effectively, by making obsolete the factors which underlie a destructive psychology. Human beings fight, compete, and destroy because they have been programmed by evolution to do so in order to survive. But as generations pass, human society gradually becomes more "civilized" as technological advancements mitigate the intense struggle for survival that created our psychological charateristics, so those characteristics themselves gradually change.

The precise structure of Utopian society is widely debated, with some versions emphasizing the role of nanotechnology in making all material needs easily satisfied, and other versions focusing on "posthuman" states where human beings merge with information technology in some manner. Which of the scenarios will prove true is less important than the virtual certainty that unless we destroy ourselves, one of them will. Far from being a "pie-in-the-sky" fantasy or an impossibility, as popular Western thought currently suggests, Utopia is virtually inevitable. In the next section, we will explore why so many people find this difficult to believe, and who benefits from keeping it that way.

Regressive Forces

There are several reasons dialectics is not taught in large parts of the developed world. Together, I call these factors regressive forces, simply because they tend to prolong periods where things go backwards by denying people the knowledge of how change works.

One major reason dialectics isn't taught is that Karl Marx, the father of communism, used a version of dialectics called "dialectical materialism" to support his ideas. Dialectical materialism was different than standard dialectics (which is actually dialectical monism) because it denied the role of the mind in structuring reality and focused solely on economic factors to explain how human society makes progress. For Marx, the structure of the economy was the driving force in human affairs. But Marx was a man of his time, and he could not have forseen how technology would become more important than economic ideas in driving progress forward. Unable to see this, Marx felt that violent revolution was required to set up an economic order that would move civilization forward. He used his version of dialectics to justify this, and the rest is history.

Even more than Marx, the various dictators and totalitarians who ruled in his name succeeded in giving dialectics a very bad name. Unfortunately, dialectics became associated with figures like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. This meant that no one in the "free world" wanted anything to do with it, for obvious reasons. But the communists were misapplying dialectics. They were attempting to force progress, when the much older and wiser Tao Te Ching advised us that it is only necessary to align ourselves with the direction of progress, or to "go with the flow," as the saying goes. In Taoist terms, this approach is called wu-wei, or "effortless action" - letting Nature do the work instead of forcing it through conscious effort. The communist dictators earned infamy for themselves by trying to keep their "forced progress" afloat, an effort which was always doomed to failure and resulted in enormous suffering.

But the evil of men like Stalin and Mao done through misunderstanding and misusing dialectics is not the only reason we no longer hear much about it. There is another reason which is more immediate and familiar to all of us - self interest.

Self-Interest

Self-interest is the motivating force of human nature. It ensures that we almost always "look out for number one" ahead of other considerations. Self-interest on the part of those who have large amounts of money and power in modern Western society is a primary reason dialectics is not taught or widely discussed.

It is not in the short-term interest of the rich and powerful to promote or support widespread knowledge of dialectics. The reason for this is very simple - while the dialectical process eventually leads to Utopia for all, the lives of the rich and powerful are already close enough to Utopia (as they imagine it) to discourage anything that could lead to changes in the existing system. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is their attitude, and they naturally take a dim view of ideas which empower the general population to align themselves with change.

If enough people were to become aware of dialectics and its implications, many of them would be encouraged to stop consciously resisting change and progress, and the political and economic climate of the world would be affected as a result. While these changes would be inherently progressive and therefore good for a vast majority of people, they would not be good for the rich and powerful during their own lifetimes. Many would lose some portion of their wealth as people became increasingly conscious of the trend toward economic justice and equality and aligned themselves with it.

However, the rich and powerful of society should not be viewed from a one-sided, non-dialectical viewpoint which suggests that they are exclusively regressive. While they do contribute to regression by discouraging functional philosophy such as dialectics and promoting its antithesis - static conservatism, it should be noted that they simultaneously fuel progress in other ways, such as by being heavily involved in technological advancement. From a dialectical viewpoint, no person, group, idea, or action is ever exclusively "one way or the other." A single action or person can produce opposing results in different contexts.

Since the rich and powerful have a tremendous degree of control over cultural and social institutions such as the media and the schools, it is easy to see how knowledge of dialectics could be widely ignored in our society. Those "at the top" are not involved in some sort of organized conspiracy to keep this knowledge from us. Their short-term understanding of self-interest simply gives them no reason to promote or support it. This is basic human nature.

However, at least for the moment, the matter is partially out of their hands. The progressive freedom of information made possible by the Internet allows dialectics to be taught on an independent basis, as this articles does.

Conclusions

  • Dialectics is the study of the nature of change.

  • There is one reality, but the human mind makes distinctions within that reality for survival purposes.

  • Things (distinctions) do not exist independently, but are dependent on other things (distinctions) for meaning.

  • Things are made distinct by being opposed to other things, even though all things are united at a deeper level.

  • The interaction of one thing (thesis) with its opposite in a given context (antithesis) creates a new thing, the synthesis.

  • A synthesis is a new thesis with its own antithesis, making the process of change continuous.

  • Syntheses move in the direction of increasing complexity, which is interpreted by the human mind over long time scales as "progress."

  • Progress is continuous but not linear. It relies on setbacks and reversals to move forward in the long run. "3 steps forward, 2 steps back."

  • The most regressive, tragic, and destructive short-term conflicts, such as wars, often move progress forward very rapidly in later years.

  • If we avoid total self-extinction, dialectical thought predicts that human society will eventually achieve Utopia.

  • Dialectics is not well-known in the modern Western world because of misuse by communist rulers and self-interest on the part of current rulers.

  • The Internet creates an opportunity to make people aware of dialectics on an independent, community-driven basis.

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