From time immemorial philosophers and theologians of nondual traditions, those taking the Ultimate Reality to be a one invisible and indivisible whole, have struggled to understand how this One thing appears as the many things of our phenomenal world.
There is no doubt that the world of phenomena is diverse and ephemeral. But there is also no doubt for the mystic and the metaphysician that this world has its root in a One which is undifferentiated and eternal; being such this One is characterized as both Absolute and Infinite. Some may call it God but it is really, if anything, an impersonal principle, though inexpressible under the same principle. The reality of such rootedness is self-evident to the mystic in light of his/her direct perception of the One, and it is also self-evident to the Platonic philosopher by logical necessity. Thus, they can deny neither the Reality of the One which is the most obvious thing to them nor the presence of a phenomenal world. These two brute facts are to be reconciled as far as the metaphysician is concerned. The mystic cannot really care less about this reconciliation; for him/her it is all God; the many is only a word.
This metaphysical question has recently become my serious concern within a different context. My academic research in the field of physics is focused on the foundational issues of Quantum Physics. The problem I am working on is the Identical Particles. Electrons are elementary particles in the sense that they don’t have an internal structure and cannot be divided into smaller parts. Now the problem in quantum physics is that no two electrons can be distinguished from one another. It is not just that they look alike (of course they are not the kind of objects that can look like anything at all; they don’t have a look); they have no individuality whatsoever. If we put two electrons in a box they cannot tell which is which; they have no selves, no identity, no individuality, and this in a fundamental way. This feature of the quantum world is utterly counterintuitive: In our macroscopic world everything has an identity though they may look exactly alike; they have specific histories. A chair remains itself as it endures in time; in other words, a chair is a chair because it keeps being itself as time passes. Maybe the following impossible example can clarify: Assume we have a perfect twin; they look exactly alike, both internally and externally; I mean no one in the world can tell them apart in principle. Now we take these two into a surgery room and put all their memories, somehow, together on a table and shuffle them and then put them back. What happens if we have done everything perfectly is that none of these two twins can know which is which, assuming they have not gone mad yet; they have lost entirely their sense of identity and individuality; they have no sense of “I” or “me” or “mine.” (They would pass as perfect mystics) I know it is an unimaginable scenario but electrons are like that, with the difference that they are so in principle and from the very beginning. Now how is this related to the problem of the One and the many?
One of the hypothesis that has tried to explain the above enigma of the quantum world is the One Electron Universe Hypothesis. The idea is that there are no two or more electrons; there is only one electron in the whole universe but it appears as many electrons that we observe. It says that all the electrons that constitute the substance of the material world are instances of the one single electron. This of course is a pure hypothesis and it is not yet shown that how can the One electron appears as the almost infinite number of electrons in the universe! By the way, it is believed that there are about 15747724136275002577605653961181555468044717914527116709366231425076185631031296 electrons in the observable universe.
This itself is fascinating that one of the fundamental problems of physics may require us answering the same question that was posed thousands of years ago: How Does The One Become The Many!
There are a few observations from metaphysics that may be useful for us here: First, the One never really becomes the many; the One is always the One and the Immutable, and hence never changes or becomes; the many is only apparent; it is said that only out of ignorance we perceive the many. Now there are ways of expressing this situation in the language of mathematics which is being still developed. Of course I have no answer to it for now.
One point to remember is that we are either conscious (direct perception) of the One or the many and not both at once. In other words, we are either conscious of the One or unconscious, ignorant, of the One. Being conscious but not conscious of the One we perceive the many. This implies that our consciousness of the One must lie in a higher plane of existence than our consciousness of the many. The many is not Real relative to the One. Only the One is Real. One must also be careful here not to consider this world to be an illusion: Metaphysically speaking, this world is an illusion only relative to the One which belongs to the plane of the undifferentiated Absolute. Relative to the One we too, our bodies and minds, are illusory; thus relative to us humans this world of multiplicity is real and not illusory. The very mind that thinks the world to be an illusion is itself an essential part of the same illusion. Only relative to the One everything else is illusion and unreal. In other words, the One is absolutely real while the world, including humans, is relatively real.
A familiar example of the one thing appearing as the many is very well known to all of us, namely dreaming: If we look at dreaming from a phenomenological point of view which is more empirical and scientific than the cognitive scientific approach, we see that the one consciousness, say my consciousness, when I sleep can make itself appear to itself as a world of diverse forms with many people in it. My one consciousness appears, when it goes one level down to subconscious or unconscious, as many consciousnesses in a world of many objects. See that this One that appears as the many does not dwell in the same level of reality: The higher One becomes the lower many. When dreaming, being in the unconscious which is the lower level, there is multiplicity; but the moment we wake up and hence come to a higher level of reality the multiplicity of the dream world instantaneously collapses into one single consciousness of my waking state which I call my consciousness. Thus, one consciousness can make itself appear as many things when it implodes within itself (interestingly reminds me of the big bang explosion), or we may say when it falls deeper into itself. Some say that the dream world is a manifestation of the unrealized possibilities of the waking consciousness. This rings true for the metaphysician who sees the world as apparent actualities within God who is All Possibility.
In a similar fashion the multiplicity of this world may be really the basement of a higher mode of reality which is the abode of the Immutable One. It may be that we are just characters in the subconscious of a dreaming God!
To add a note, it seems to me that maybe only consciousness has such property, that it can occupy different levels of reality, being One in a level and many in another. If this be so, then we must after all return to consciousness as the ground of reality. Quantum physics seems to have already taken this leap, though not yet wholeheartedly and by many physicists. But we all know that truth always prevails.
Anyways, the main point of this post was to jot down some ideas about this metaphysical, and recently physical, enigma. Let it be at least a food for thought.