Charles Sanders Peirce’s Nonduality

Here are some final thougts about my topic for the science and nonduality conference next week. If anyone who reads this blog happens to come to that event please introduce yourself to me.

Peirce’s inquiry continued as he strove to understand what the entire universe is made up of. What is it that evolves? What is the fundamental stuff, to use a term of William James, that the universe is most fundamentally made up of? Peirce concluded that the universe was made up of three aspects. He called these firstness, secondness and thirdness and he related them roughly to the I, we, it, pronouns which he felt contained the essential make up of the universe. Firstness, secondness and thirdness are not separate elements that combine to form the universe. They are inexorably mixed into the fabric of reality. They cannot be separated in the same way that the two sides of a sheet of paper cannot be separated. If you try to separate the two sides of the paper you end up with two sheets of paper each still having two sides.

Pierce’s conception of Firstness is as powerful a description of non-duality as you are likely to find anywhere. From his essay A Guess at the Riddle he writes,

The idea of the absolutely First must be entirely separated from all conception of or reference to anything else; for what involves a second is itself a second to that second. The First must therefore be present and immediate, so as not to be second to a representation. It must be fresh and new, for if old it is second to its former state. It must be initiative, original, spontaneous, and free; otherwise it is second to a determining cause. It is also something vivid and conscious; so only it avoids being the object of some sensation. It precedes all synthesis and all differentiation; it has no unity and no parts. It cannot be articulately thought: assert it, and it has already lost its characteristic innocence; for assertion always implies a denial of something else. Stop to think of it, and it has flown! What the world was to Adam on the day he opened his eyes to it, before he had drawn any distinctions, or had become conscious of his own existence—that is first, present, immediate, fresh, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent. Only, remember that every description of it must be false to it.

As Peirce contemplated evolution he saw the development of life on Earth as a very small part of a much larger process of evolution through which the entire universe had come into being and was heading toward some final outcome. The universe had started in a state of absolute firstness, which is a state of absolute chance, pure possibility before anything ever happened. The universe will end with and absolute secondness, which is the final encounter with the initial state of firstness which gave birth to the universe. And so the universe that human beings have found themselves in is in the middle of an eternal process of encounter with its own absolute initial state. Everything that makes that encounter intelligible is the thirdness of the universe and it is in through the growth of thirdness that the universe evolves.