Friday, 8 June 2012

Book Review: 3 Theories of Everything

An hour after buying 3 Theories of EverythingI found myself unexpectedly having dinner with its author.

Ellis Potter is one of the most interesting and occasionally frustrating conversation partners you will ever encounter. He's the kind of person who ends a meal by challenging you to spend some time thinking about the question of "what does meaning mean?"

According to Potter's new book, there are - as its title suggests - three major ways in which people see the world.

The first of these is 'monism'.

Monism is the belief that all is one; me, you, God, the trees, the planets. The individual's quest, in monism, is to experience this oneness for themselves and to feel all the apparent distinctions between them and everything else melt away.

Potter spent many years as a monist, recalling:

"When I was a teenager doing Yoga and Buddhist mediation I had an unforgettable experience one afternoon. I experienced being the exact same size as the entire universe."

This early experimentation eventually led to many years as a Zen Buddhist monk. Potter vividly explains the power of apparently experiencing oneness with all reality. There are Buddhist chants, he says, which even now still bring tears to his eyes when he hears them.

Potter's ability to see the best in other worldviews sets 3 Theories of Everything apart from many other Christian books. His disagreement with monism is a respectful one without a hint of snobbishness.

The same can be said of his interaction with the second popular framework for viewing life: 'Dualism',

Unlike monism's emphasis on oneness, dualism sees the world in terms of opposites: light and dark, hot and cold, wet and dry, male and female. "The idea behind dualism", Potter writes, "is that life is good when opposites are in proper balance, or are in harmony with each other". Feng shui is dualist. So, to an extent, is Star Wars.

Yet Potter finds that neither Monism nor dualism provide an adequate basis for understanding all of reality. He has come to favor a third worldview, namely Trinitarianism.

Trinitarianism shares with monism the understanding that there is a fundamental unity to all reality, yet it also agrees with dualism that there are distinctions between things. Potter explains it like this:

"God is perfectly unified as one God, and yet God is perfectly diversified in the three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is unity and diversity in absolute reality. There is not one God who chooses to reveal Himself in three ways in order to create the appearance of diversity, and there are not three persons who choose to unite and cooperate in order to create the appearance of being unified. The original reality is 100% unified and 100% diversified."

As he compares Trinitarianism to dualism and monism, Potter outlines some of the many implications of the idea that the universe is the product of a being who is both unified and diverse. 

The most striking of these is his argument that only Trinitarinism provides a rationale for the complementary relationship between subjective and objective truth. Potter argues that the existence of multiple persons within the Trinity legitimizes seeing things from several different and unique perspectives. But the unity of God means that subjective truths will always be in harmony with one another.

Overall, this is one of the most intriguing books you will read all year. There are occasional weak moments, such as an undercooked few pages on hierarchy, but these are few and far between. For a work on such a complex subject, it is written in incredibly straightforward prose and it's just 112 pages long. I read it in under two hours. 

And, as a bonus, it answered Ellis Potter's meal table question of "what does meaning mean?"

You can buy 3 Theories of Everything in paperback here,
or download the Kindle edition here.


  1. I'd be interested to see in more detail how he thinks trinitarianism offers resources to understand the subjectivity/objectivity of knowledge. Added to wish list.

  2. Hey Martin, thanks for the comment. Here's a bit more of what he says:

    "I do not believe in objective truth, but I also don't believe in subjective truth. I believe truth is both objective and subjective...

    Adam according to the biblical account of creation, had no meaning in himself. When God made Adam, He said: 'it is not good for man to be alone'. Adam was only... objective, because his was the only point of view within the creation. True subjectivity requires more than one viewpoint. God made Eve, and then it was good. There was subjectivity in the creation - just as there is in the creator - as a result of relationship...

    We see the same expression of meaning in God. In the original perfection... you have three persons, and the persons have no meaning in themselves. The meaning of Jesus is not in Jesus. The meaning of Jesus is in His relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The same is true of the other two - their meaning is in their relationship with each of the others. They also see each other from a different point of view. The Son, for instance, sees the Father from a different point of view than the Holy Spirit does. What they see is slightly different from each other, but they each see perfectly... There can be variety of point of view and reaction. Difference of perspective is a part of absolute reality, of the original perfection.

    When we find out that the original perfection is like this - a true God who is both objective and subjective - then we shouldn't be surprised to experience objectivity and subjectivity in our reality... Objectivity and subjectivity belong to each other in reality. The relationship is not competitive but complementary."

    Does that flesh it out a bit?

    I'd be interested to see what you think if/when you read it!

  3. I might have to read it in its fuller context. As it stands here I don't really have any idea what he means by "meaning", or "objective/subjective truth". Yup, I'm asking him "what does meaning mean?"