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Music, art, culture and the problem of the one and the many

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

The problem of the one and the many is a philosophical conundrum that seeks to understand how singularity and plurality coexist.

In terms of music, think of the many as the individual notes and the one as the composition they create when combined. Each note has its unique sound. Played in isolation, a note can be beautiful, but it doesn't convey a melody. Each note (in isolation) represents the "many" – individual, unique, diverse. However, if you only focus on this diversity and uniqueness without considering how these notes can form a harmonious whole, any composition won't make sense and might feel dissonant or chaotic.

Conversely, if you focus only on the unity (the one) without considering the uniqueness of each note and what each note can offer the whole of a composition, you might end up with a design that's too monotonous or lacks complexity and depth. A single note played repeatedly, may form a sound, but it isn't a melody.

This is where the balance between the one and the many comes in. A composer must understand how to use the many (i.e. the individual notes) to create the one (the music). They must strike a balance, using the unique properties of each note to enrich the composition while maintaining unity and coherence.

This metaphor for explaining the problem of the one and the many shares many parallels between the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and creation. The Trinity comprises God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit – three distinct persons, yet one God (being). This is the archetypical example of the "many" (Father, Son, and Spirit) and the "one" (God). The diversity of the Trinity doesn't undermine its unity, and its unity doesn't erase the uniqueness of its constituents. They are both equally ultimate. You cannot see Jesus without seeing his Godhead, and you cannot think of the Godhead without simultaneously having the three persons of the Godhead in view.

Creation, too, reflects this balance. God, in Christian belief, created a diverse universe filled with a multitude of creatures, ecosystems, and galaxies (the many). Yet, these myriad components coexist within one universe, functioning together to sustain life and glorify God as its singular purpose (the one). The relationships between God's many creations are exhaustively pre-interpreted by God. God did not create many things and left them to chance, or create many things each so distinct so as to destroy any relationship between them. Nor did He create just one general thing, or so emphasized the unity between His many creations to remove the significance of any particular creation (e.g, if you remove a note from a composition, there is genuine loss).

God created many things according to His good pleasure and will and ordered them. For example, God did not merely create animals to be named "1", "2", or "3"... as if everything in creation is so unique and diverse that they can only be referred to by a unique set of names. Rather, after God created all the animals, he brought them to Adam so that Adam can classify them and name them in general.

Thus in both, the Trinity and creation, unity and diversity are held in balance to be equally ultimate. The one doesn't overwhelm the many, and the many don't disintegrate the one. It's this divine blueprint that serves as a model for humans to maintain the delicate balance between unity and diversity, between the one and the many.

Christianity and art

Continuing with our analogy of God as the grand Composer, we can explore how humans, made in God's image according to Christian belief, inherently mirror this divine creative process in our works, including music, art, and culture.

When a human composer creates a piece of music, they start with individual notes – the many. Each note holds its unique beauty and contribution to the final piece. But without an intentional arrangement, the notes could turn into a cacophony. Therefore, the composer weaves these notes together, recognizing their strengths and how they can enrich the collective sound. In doing so, they create a harmonious melody – the one. This process echoes the divine composition of the universe, where diverse elements are harmoniously orchestrated to form a unified, functioning whole.

Think about it like this. If you've heard a single piece of music, you've probably heard all of the notes on the seven-note diatonic scale, i.e., do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. If we abstracted each of these notes from a particular song and studied them in isolation and in such a way value unity over diversity, music would bring no joy for us, as these same notes cannot bring anything new to the table for us. Similarly, suppose we study each note as if it is a completely unique and discrete object of knowledge. In that case, we'll never be able to string many different notes into a coherent whole which is a composition. The study of music, therefore, assumes the equal ultimacy of the one and the many.

Likewise, an artist crafting a painting combines different colours – the many – on a canvas. Each hue has its unique character, but it's the artist's task to blend them into a coherent, beautiful image – one.

All this reflects God's creation, where diverse life forms and ecosystems are masterfully arranged into the coherent unity of our world.

In culture, societies are composed of individuals with their personalities, talents, and viewpoints – the many. But when they come together with shared norms, values, and traditions, they form a unified culture – the one. Here, too, humans mirror the divine composition, by treating both the one and the many as equally ultimate.

In all these instances, humans reflect the image of their Creator, mirroring the divine pattern of creation. By recognizing and maintaining this balance in our own creations, we embody an essential aspect of the divine nature in a derivative (i.e. at a created level) manner. This is not to say human creations are divine; rather, they reflect the divine process of harmoniously integrating the one and the many.

Just as God's creation mirrors the unity and diversity of the Trinity, so too do human creations reflect this balance. By creating, humans participate in a divine process, shaping order and harmony from diversity, making the many serve the one without losing their unique contribution (and vice versa). This ongoing creative process is a testament to the indelible imprint of the divine Composer in every human artist and musician.

Non-Christian worldviews

Within the rich tapestry of worldviews in our world, the equal ultimacy between the one and the many is often lost. Particularly in non-Christian outlooks such as atheistic materialism, there's a tendency to lean towards extreme pluralism, which risks devaluing the one for the sake of the many. Islam on the other hand tends to lean towards a complete monism, with their god being a god with no eternal diversity in many persons.

Atheistic materialism postulates that reality is fundamentally composed of individual physical particles or entities. This perspective focuses on the many – the separate, disparate elements of the universe. It's like a composition where each note is played independently, with no regard for how they could harmoniously unite to create a meaningful melody. Remember, according to atheism, there fundamentally is no order to the found in the universe except Chance.

In this worldview, the unity that ties everything together into a coherent whole is often downplayed or outright dismissed. Just as a composition is more than a Random collection of individual notes, so is our universe more than a mere aggregation of separate particles. A melody is not just a series of notes; it's the relationship between those notes, their sequence, and their harmony that makes it a melody. In the same way, life is not just a series of isolated physical elements; it's their interactions, relationships, and interconnectedness that shape our universe.

Atheistic materialism, with its emphasis on the many and neglect of the one, disrupts the balance crucial for maintaining unity and diversity in our world. This imbalance would (were it not for God's common grace) result in a fragmented understanding of reality, where the richness of diversity becomes a chaotic jumble rather than a symphony of harmonious interactions. This view of the world is largely seen in today's post-modernist and LGBTQ movements.

In contrast, the Christian worldview of God as the grand Composer presents a more harmonious understanding of the universe. It appreciates the diversity of the many individual 'notes' of creation – the variety of life forms, ecosystems, galaxies, and human individuals. Yet, it doesn't lose sight of the one – the unified composition that these many elements create under the divine Conductor's guidance.

The Christian perspective doesn't force a choice between the one and the many. Instead, it holds them in balance, understanding that both are essential for a symphony to be harmonious and a world to be vibrant. This worldview values the unique contributions of the many while recognizing that their true beauty and purpose are realized when they contribute to the harmony of the one – a cosmic symphony composed by the divine Composer Himself.


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Published by Apologetics Central

At Apologetics Central, we are committed to providing biblically grounded, Reformed presuppositional apologetics resources to equip believers in defending the Christian faith. As a ministry, we strive to uphold the truth of God's word and present it winsomely to a world in need of the gospel.

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