Have you ever struggled to understand how individual things can belong to a common category or have common properties? For instance, how do we know that all trees have leaves, a trunk, and roots, and what makes them trees rather than some other kind of plant? What makes them a plant at all? This is the philosophical problem of the one and the many, a riddle that has puzzled philosophers for centuries.
Some solutions to the problem have proposed that there is a universal property, such as “treeliness,” that all trees share. This property is distinct from the individual trees that have it, but it somehow connects them together as a group. However, this solution only raises more questions. Where does this universal property exist? Does it exist independently of the individual trees, or is it just a mental construct that we use to categorize things?
The answer to that age-old problem is that all things have their definition in the mind of the one true and living God who is equally one and many from eternity. This means that the ultimate source of unity and diversity in the universe is not a universal property, but rather the divine nature of God—God is the source of all being and the foundation of reality.
Christian theologian, philosopher, and apologist, Cornelius Van Til, developed a unique approach to the problem of the one and the many. Van Til rejected the traditional philosophical notion of universal properties which posits that objects belonging to the same category share a universal property that unifies them. Instead, Van Til argued that the concept of universals is fundamentally flawed because it cannot account for the diversity and particularity of objects in the world.
Van Til believed that the only way to reconcile the one and the many is to view the world through the lens of Christian theology. In the Christian worldview, God is the ultimate source of unity and diversity in the universe. God’s nature is both one and many, and this provides the only rational and functional framework for understanding how individual entities can belong to a common category or possess similar properties.
Van Til’s approach to the problem of the one and the many is grounded in the biblical understanding of the relationship between God and creation. He believed that God created the world ex nihilo, meaning that the universe had a definite beginning and is not eternal. Van Til argued that because God created the universe, all things in the world are related to God and depend on Him for their existence and properties. In other words, everything that exists does so because it derives its existence from God, and it is this that allows them to be part of larger categories without losing their uniqueness.
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Now, that might sound a little a little overwhelming, so here’s a simpler way to look at it. Imagine a beautiful painting hanging on a wall. The painting exists because it derives its existence from the artist who created it. The artist is the source of the painting’s being, and without the artist, the painting would not exist. At the same time, the painting has its own unique characteristics, such as its colors, shapes, and textures, that distinguish it from other paintings the artist has created.
In a similar way, according to the concept that existence derives its being from God, everything that exists does so because God created it. God is the source of all being, and everything that exists owes its existence to God. At the same time, each thing that exists has its own unique characteristics that distinguish it from everything else.
Returning to the example of trees, we might say that trees exist because they derive their existence from God. God is the source of the tree’s being, and without God, the tree would not exist. At the same time, the tree has its own unique characteristics, such as its size, shape, and type of leaves, that distinguish it from other trees.
So, the notion of existence being derived from God suggests that everything that exists owes its existence to God and is connected to God in some way while at the same time, it acknowledges the diversity and individuality of each thing that exists, which arises from its unique participation in God’s creation.
Van Til also taught that human beings can only know the world through the lens of the Christian faith, arguing that all human knowledge is rooted in God’s revelation of Himself. Van Til believed that knowledge of the world is only possible because God has revealed Himself in the world and in His Word. Therefore, knowledge of the world cannot be separated from knowledge of God.
This understanding is not just a theological concept, but a solution to a fundamental philosophical problem. The diversity we observe in the world is a reflection of the multifaceted nature of God. This idea can be further illustrated by the Christian concept of the Trinity, which holds that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Trinity provides the model for understanding how unity and diversity can coexist in a single entity. The three persons of the Trinity are distinct from each other, yet they share a single divine nature. This provides the only way of understanding how things can have both unity and diversity without the need for an external source of unity. God’s nature is both one and many, and this provides the framework for understanding how individual entities can belong to a common category or possess similar properties.
(To be clear, it should be noted that it is the Trinity that explains the problem of the one and many, and not the other way around. This should not be confused with a philosophical attempt at explaining the Trinity.)
The concept of God’s divine nature also solves the problem of the one and the many in relation to moral values. In ethics, this problem can be expressed as the tension between moral absolutes (the one) and moral diversity (the many). In Christianity, moral values and duties are grounded in God’s nature, rather than being mere human constructs. This means that moral values are not relative or subjective, but objective and absolute, grounded in the character of God.
God’s nature serves as a unifying principle, providing a single source of moral truth and absolutes that transcends cultural and historical differences. This allows for a coherent understanding of morality, despite the diversity of human experiences and cultural practices.
As Christians, we have the advantage of understanding that the Christian worldview provides the only comprehensive and rational framework for understanding the world around us. It offers the only solutions to philosophical problems such as these and provides the only source of unity that is not dependent on universal properties or mental constructs. By grounding the diversity of the world in the nature of God, the Christian worldview provides a robust and the only satisfying answer to one of the most profound philosophical conundrums in history.