Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

Poetry 135: A Partial History Of My Stupidity by Edward Hirsch

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Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge,
and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,
and got stuck in the car for hours.

Most nights I rushed out into the evening
without paying attention to the trees,
whose names I didn’t know,
or the birds, which flew heedlessly on.

I couldn’t relinquish my desires
or accept them, and so I strolled along
like a tiger that wanted to spring
but was still afraid of the wildness within.

The iron bars seemed invisible to others,
but I carried a cage around inside me.

I cared too much what other people thought
and made remarks I shouldn’t have made.
I was silent when I should have spoken.

Forgive me, philosophers,
I read the Stoics but never understood them.

I felt that I was living the wrong life,
spiritually speaking,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.

So I walked on—distracted, lost in thought—
and forgot to attend to those who suffered
far away, nearby.

Forgive me, faith, for never having any.

I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.

If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email me at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

A distillation in four points

I’m always looking for new ways to get across the key points of Middle Way Philosophy in a compact list that can be readily referred to. The Five Principles  on which our summer retreat this year will be based (scepticism, provisionality, incrementality, agnosticism, integration) are one way of doing this, but these five principles focus on qualities to cultivate or use in judgement, rather than on the distinctive world-view they emerge from. So here’s a new attempt to distil that world view into four very brief slogans:

  1. Meaning is body-memory
  2. Belief is assumption
  3. Justification needs provisionality
  4. Truth is archetypal

The explanation of each that follows will no doubt be rather compressed. However, the main idea of this blog is to encourage you to see these points as interdependent (each building on the previous ones), and to at least glimpse how they challenge much conventional thinking and offer new ways forward  for humans stuck in that thinking. For more details on this whole way of thinking, please see first the introductory videos, then the Middle Way Philosophy books.Four Points

1. Meaning is body-memory

The embodied view of meaning tells us that meaning is an accretion of memory. But by ‘memory’ here I don’t anything on the analogy of data-storage which people too often use to try to understand memory.  Rather, whenever we encounter a new experience, we create new synaptic links connected to our whole body’s active engagement in that experience. That experience may involve associating words or symbols with the experience, and when we are prompted by similar words, symbols, or other associated experiences in future, we mildly re-run the synaptic connections associated with it. We thus lay down layer after unconscious layer of memories that then provide the basis of meaning-association in future, and even quite complex or abstract language draws on this embodied experience to be meaningful, via the medium of metaphorical constructions. Think about the most abstract language – a scientific paper, say, or a company board meeting. The meaning of all this language, however abstract, still depends on your body. When you have no body memories to connect with it, you cease to understand what is being said.

2. Belief is assumption

The dominant tradition in philosophy and science, which then influences the way people usually talk about their beliefs, is to think of them as explicit, but explicit beliefs are the tip of a very large unconscious iceberg. Most of our beliefs are a matter of what we assume, rather than what we have explicitly said. If you said you were hungry and then started looking at the sandwiches in a café, it would not be unfair to conclude that you believed that a sandwich might address your hunger, even though you didn’t explicitly say such a thing. Yet, strangely enough, most of the established thinking about how to live our lives just offers explicit reasons for believing one thing rather than another, rather than trying to work with what we actually assume. It is not reasoning (which always proceeds from assumptions) that will help us make our beliefs more adequate to the situation, but rather greater awareness of the assumptions with which we start to reason.

But we can only believe what we first find meaningful in our bodies, so the second point depends on the first.

3. Justification needs provisionality

How do we tell how well a belief is justified? That’s a question at the core of all the judgements we make in everyday life, in ethics, in science, in politics or elsewhere. The traditional answers all involve explicit reasons: for example, that a certain action is wrong because it says so in the Bible, or a certain scientific theory is correct because it can be supported by evidence. But we are constantly subject to confirmation bias, all of us living in our own little echo-chambers in which we seek out what we want to hear. The old ways of justifying our beliefs are not enough by themselves. We need to take into account the mental state in which the judgement is made too, to incorporate psychology as a basic condition in our reasons for adopting one belief rather than another. If we can hold a belief provisionally, so that we can consider possible alternatives, we are better justified than if we do not.

The mental state in which a belief is held is inextricable from the set of assumptions that support that belief. We can hold a belief provisionally if we find alternatives sufficiently meaningful (using our imagination). In the traditional ways of thinking dominant in philosophy and science, this way of justifying our beliefs cannot be taken seriously, because meaning is assumed to depend on belief and belief to depend on justification. In that way of thinking, reasoning comes first rather than the mental states in which the reasoning takes place, but this mistakes the tip for the whole iceberg. The third point thus depends on the first two.

4. Truth is archetypal

People are typically obsessed with ‘truth’, ‘the facts’, God, nature, ontology, ultimate explanations. Surely these things are important? Well, only in the sense that they are meaningful to us, not in the sense that we need to build up justifications of our beliefs by depending on them. If we think of ‘Paris is capital of France’ as true and ‘Paris is the capital of Mongolia’ as false, that is usually a kind of shortcut for the thought that the first is much better justified than the other, and that we assume it in practice. But, according to the third point above (justification needs provisionality), to be justified in believing that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ I need to believe it provisionally, that is to be able to consider alternatives. Whether I actually do this or not, claiming that it is true or false adds nothing to that justification apart from cutting off the provisionality, making it the final story and closing off any further thought or discussion on the subject. Claiming that it is true or false thus actually seems to undermine one’s justification.

Nevertheless, we can respect the motive of those who seek to establish the truth (which they will do best by considering the justification of a belief against alternatives – by doubting the truth of their claims rather than asserting it). Truth can thus still be a kind of symbolic inspiration or archetype (see this blog post for examples), and not claiming to possess archetypal truth a mark of fully respecting it. Just as we need to avoid projecting an archetype on someone else by thinking that they are God, or the perfect woman, or whatever (even though we may also appreciate ideal artistic depictions of God or of the feminine) we need to recognise truth as a symbol that we find meaningful in relation to our body-memory, without projecting it onto a particular set of words that we take to be ‘true’. Instead, whenever there is a discussion about whether we should hold one belief rather than another (in science, politics, ethics etc.) we can focus on justification.

We could not make sense of truth being archetypal if we did not separate meaning (point 1) from belief (point 2), recognising that meaning precedes belief rather than the other way round, and that we can find truth meaningful without believing that we have it. It’s also precisely because of the need to maintain provisionality about our beliefs (point 3) that we cannot justify claims of truth.

This view of truth can potentially transform our view of science, ethics and religion: whether we are talking about scientific facts, the good, or God, we can respect the motivations of those who value these things without accepting that any of them are actually possessed in a particular verbal formula.

The four points and the Middle Way

The Middle Way means a practice of seeking justification for our beliefs in provisionality rather than in consistency or evidence alone. To stay in this provisional zone, we avoid the absolutes of claiming truth on the one hand or falsity on the other. To do this in practice requires our mental states to be provisional, which is just as much a matter of our emotions and body as of our reasoning. It’s not a question of aiming to be in some wonderfully enlightened mental state, but simply of judging better every time by being less confined by our personal echo-chambers than we might otherwise be.

In connection with the founding story of the Buddha from which the term ‘Middle Way’ derives, we need to focus not on the final state that the Buddha supposedly achieved by using the Middle Way, but how his judgements at each stage reflected provisionality and enabled him to move beyond the rigid assumptions of those around him. First he needed to leave the palace with its rigid ‘truths’, then also move beyond the religious world of spiritual teachers and ascetics with their ‘truths’ (which also declared the world ‘false’). If we unpack what is required for the Buddha to go through this process at each stage, it involves maintaining a sense of the meaning of alternatives (point 1), developing a greater awareness of the limited assumptions of those around him (not just their explicit views – point 2), and recognising their lack of justification (point 3). If the Buddha had at any point discovered the ‘truth’, this would have halted his progress by ending the story, but instead the story continues – indefinitely.

Critical Thinking 20: Appeal to consequences

To point out the likely consequences of a course of action usually seems like a helpful thing to do: for example, discouraging your friend from making themselves ill by drinking, or considering how much the recipient will really value the gift you are preparing. However, there are some cases where appealing to a particular consequence is a form of distraction or manipulation. Perhaps the consequence is frightening or flattering, but not nearly as important or probable as it is being presented as being, but because we have had our minds focused on that consequence we miss more important factors. An appeal to consequences needs to be distinguished from merely alerting people to them as possibilities.

I came across a striking example recently in an article about ‘essay mill’ sites where students can pay to have essays written for them. This included the following clip from an essay mill site, in which its authors tried to persuade students of the morality of using it:Buy essays - appeal to consequencesThis is quite cleverly done. The moral idea of cheating is ambiguously conflated with the idea of getting caught, so the unlikelihood of getting caught may well be confused with the justifiability of using the essay mill (even though the very idea of ‘getting caught’ implies cheating!). The student’s likely feelings are then sympathetically anticipated, making it more likely that the student will feel that the author understands their situation and can guide them wisely. But the clinching argument is where the appeal to consequences comes in: “In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating”.

“Your success will be all that matters” is a matter of the end justifying the means. In order to persuade the student of this, the author invites the student to think ahead to when they’ve got their qualification and succeeded in their goals, and the importance of those goals to them will doubtless outweigh every other consideration. This is an appeal to consequences because it invites us to assume that this consequence is necessarily the one that trumps all other considerations – in this case the normal social and academic rules about cheating. But just because it may contribute to the achievement of a goal that may be of great importance to you does not necessarily mean that this form of cheating is justified.

Another form of appeal to consequence is the type that seeks to persuade people to change beliefs that are justified by evidence because of the political, social, or economic benefits of doing so. Thus, for example, a climate change scientist might be appealed to by a politician or administrator distort their findings to follow an official anti-climate change line, despite the weight of evidence for climate change. At an extreme, this might amount to a form of blackmail (change your beliefs or you might lose your job) or bribery (change your beliefs and you’ll get promoted), which also involves an appeal to consequences. The reason that we should reject such appeals to change our beliefs about the ‘facts’, in my view, is not that the ‘facts’ are incontrovertible or that we do not at some level generally accept certain ‘facts’ because of the pragmatic consequences of doing so, but because from a wider and more integrated perspective the long-term consequences of supporting beliefs that fit the evidence better are far more important than the short-term reasons for rejecting them.

Why should the student resist the temptation to cheat? Not just because there are social rules against cheating, because those social rules are not necessarily correct just because they are social rules. Rather, because a more integrated perspective, in which the student remained fully in touch with a desire for integrity both in their own lives and in the academic system, should motivate the avoidance of cheating. A student tempted to cheat, or a climate change scientist tempted to abandon the integrity of their research for political reasons, might be better able to resist that temptation if they reflected on the situation not as just a conflict between social rules and individual inclination, or even between rival ‘facts’, but rather between different desires that they themselves possess – desires that can only be reconciled by taking the more integral and sustainable path. The alternative is not just a danger of being ‘caught’, but also a danger of long-term guilt and conflict.

The problem with appeals to consequences is thus the narrow absolutisation of the particular consequences that are being appealed to. The Middle Way, which asks us to return to the middle ground between positive and negative types of absolutisation, would point out that neither the social rules against cheating nor the rationalisations we might give for cheating are absolute. By freeing ourselves from both sets of extreme assumption, we are in a better position to make a judgement that is actually based on both evidence and values that are sustainable in the long-term.

 

Link to a list of other posts in the critical thinking series

 

Poetry 134: The Fall of Rome by W. H. Auden

Sculpture Monument Rome Fountain Tourism Dove

(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email me at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Power-speak

Power is the ability to make people do things they would not otherwise have done. The gangster who points a gun at your head is, of course, exerting power, as is the politician who uses the apparatus of the state to enforce new measures – which we may ultimately obey in order to escape punishment from the state. The manager who gives you the sack is also, of course, exerting power. But then there are more subtle kinds of power, not so much formalised in political or economic structures, but rather implicit in the language of certain social relationships. When reviewing a draft of my latest book with a friend recently, I was struck when he drew my attention to the power of the writer. When I wrote “relativism, postmodernism, atheism” (to distance myself from all three of these isms) he said he felt “thumped” by the complex words that I was defining and using for my purposes. Such words, he implied, are weapons or tools of power.

Since I had never thought about what I was doing when writing philosophy in quite that way before, this episode made me think about a whole associated set of issues to do with the power of words. I guess my normal model of what is happening when I write something and someone else reads it is of a kind of voluntary mutual relationship: after all, nobody is obliged to read it, so I am being offered the opportunity to communicate with someone else. Could this be an act of power?Power Todd Huffman CCA 2-0

Well, this seems to me to have a lot to do with the Middle Way. Absolute claims seem to involve an act of power, because they lock people into a particular way of thinking in which there are only two alternatives – one controlled by the group and the other highly undesirable and rejected by the group. For absolutist theists, for example, ‘atheism’ is highly undesirable, beyond the group, but the only alternative to it is the theism sanctioned by the group. Talking or writing in a way that effectively excludes any alternative views is a way of keeping people in the group’s control. “If you don’t believe me, you’re condemned to be one of them – and we don’t want that, do we?” The Middle Way challenges that dualistic construction in order to avoid a power relationship.

So, much depends on whether what one is writing is absolute or not. But this depends not only on the words one uses, but on the states of mind of the audience and thus how they interpret one’s words. Eventually it occurred to me that my friend’s problem when reading my words was that he was interpreting them absolutely. One of the problems with words is that we also tend to think of them as having a meaning and power in themselves, rather than gaining their meaning and power from us and our interpretation of them, as we use them for a particular purpose. If, for reasons that have emerged from your own background and states of mind, you interpret the writer’s intention as that of making you think in a certain way, rather than as offering you an alternative that you might consider, you might well feel as though the words are being used as weapons against you. Of course, that might be particularly the case if there is any kind of social pressure to read or accept what is written. But the writer may have merely intended to offer you an alternative. Or, of course, it could work the other way round too: she might in fact be trying to shove a dogma down your throat, but you interpret her as just offering you an option. It could go either way.

Of course, it’s the writer’s responsibility to try to write in a provisional way, but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to solely blame the writer if you ever feel thumped by what you read. It’s also your responsibility to interpret it charitably, if there is any ambiguity about whether it involves an absolute claim or not (though very often, the context makes it fairly plain – for example, papal bulls do not shrink from absolute language). I’ve written in previous posts about provisionality markers (which means language that tries to signal provisionality) and about the principle of charity (which involves our responsibility in interpretation). Paying attention to provisionality markers is just as important as using them (though there are also some circumstances where provisionality markers are only employed to sweeten dogma – again you have to judge from the context).

So, it seems that words are much more ambiguous weapons than guns, because they depend on the interpreter to a much greater extent. Nevertheless, their power can hardly be underestimated, and the ability to manipulate people by using language that absolutely distinguishes the beliefs or interests of the in-group from the out-group is something we have seen demonstrated recently in politics: whether it is the anti-EU sentiment that drove the Brexit vote, or Trump’s Mexican Wall and rants against the ‘liberal media’.

In the final section of my book Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire I have written about the justification of the use of power. We can hardly avoid having to use power in certain circumstances, for example as a parent with small children or an agent of the state dealing with criminals, but the question is how we use it and with what justification. It seems to me that the integration of the judgement that justifies using power is the crucial criterion for whether it can be justified. If one is addressing conditions better by using power than one would be by not using it, and the judgement to do so is more integrated than the judgement of the person whom power is being used against, it can be justified. Merely appealing to greater ends, or traditions, or motives, is not enough if we do not have a good enough judgement in assessing the relevance and application of these kinds of judgements. So, for example, you might forcible restrain your toddler from running into the road, and you are justified in doing so, not just because you think it’s in the toddler’s interests and is an expression of love, but also because you are in a much better position to judge the whole situation than the toddler is.

As with uses of power for violence or bodily restraint, so also, it seems to me, for language. We might use absolute language with the toddler to stop them running into the road for very similar reasons to the reasons we would forcibly restrain them. Sometimes practical necessity makes the use of power-speak justifiable, but in most cases, when talking about political or other issues with other adults, there is no call for the use of power, whether that is in words or any other way, and it is essential for the issues to be resolved without power. Most people in Western democracies recognise this, but often they do not recognise to what extent the use of absolute language is a use of power. For my part, though, it seems that the difficulties of judging how to communicate with urgency and commitment but without power will probably never cease, given that absolutisation depends on mental states as well as words. Whatever one says, one may get it wrong, because one does not know the mind of the audience. One can only try to find the Middle Way in each new situation, and fall down and try again.

 

Picture by Todd Huffman (Wikimedia: CCA 2.0)