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.

The Third Phase revisited

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on this site called the Third Phase. This suggests that, although nothing in history is inevitable, there do seem to be some signs that our civilization as a whole may be entering a new phase of engagement with conditions. You could see that as a new kind of science, philosophy, psychology, or practice. Here is the crucial part of that post that explains the three phases:

In the medieval era, complexity was ignored because of the over-simplifications of the ‘enchanted world’ and its unresolved archetypes. We mistook projections of our psychological functions for ‘real’ supernatural beings. A supernatural world provided a causal explanation for the world around us that prevented us from needing to engage with its complexity. The medieval era was gradually succeeded by the era of mechanistic science, in which linear causal mechanisms took the place of supernatural ones. Although we began to get to grips with the processes in ourselves and the universe, this was at the price of over-estimating our understanding of them, because we were using a naturalistic framework according to which, in principle, all events could be fully explained.

We are now gradually moving beyond this into a third phase of intellectual development. In this third phase, we not only develop models to represent the universe, but we also recognise and adapt to the limitations of these models. We take into account not only what we know, but what we don’t know. The signs of this third phase have been appearing in many different areas of intellectual endeavor.

Look at the original post for a list of what those areas are. They include complexity theory, embodied meaning, brain lateralization, and cognitive bias theory. These are all relatively new developments, involving psychology and neuroscience, that come together to offer the basis of a new perspective. But that perspective is not entirely dependent on them, and is actually far older, since it is another way of talking about the Middle Way. The Third Phase may arguably have first been stimulated by people living as long ago as the Buddha and Pyrrho.

The Third Phase

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What strikes me, looking back at this idea more than three years after the original blog, is how simple and obvious it is. The idea of being aware of our limitations is not at all a new one. It’s just the product of the slightly bigger perspective that I’ve tried to illustrate in the diagram above. You can merely be absorbed in the ‘reality’ you think you’ve found, probably reinforced by a group who keep telling you that’s what’s real, or you can start to recognise the way that this ‘reality’ is dependent on (though not necessarily wholly created by) your own projective processes. You look at that hated politician and see the Shadow. You look at scientific theories based on evidence about the earth and see ‘facts’. Or you can look at yourself seeing either of them, and also recognise that those beliefs are subject to your limitations. In both cases that doesn’t necessarily undermine the meaning and justification of what makes the politician hated or the theories highly credible. It just means that you no longer assume that that’s the whole story.

The third phase is not simply a matter of the formalistic shrugging-off of our limitations. It’s not enough just to say “Of course we’re human” if the next moment we go back to business as usual. The third phase involves actually changing our approach to things so as to maintain that awareness of limitation in all the judgements we make. I think that means reviewing our whole idea of justification. In the third phase, we are only justified in our claims if those claims have taken our limitations into account. That’s the same whether those claims are scientific, moral, political or religious. So it’s really not enough just to claim that such-and-such is true (or false) just because of the evidence. People have a great many highly partial ways of interpreting ‘evidence’, and confirmation bias is perhaps the most basic of the limitations we have to live with.

So far people have only really dealt with this problem in formal scientific ways, but science is like religion in being largely a group-based pursuit in which certain socially-prescribed goals and assumptions tend to take precedence, even if very sophisticated  methods are used in pursuit of those goals. Such scientific procedures as peer review and double-blind testing are not the only ways to address confirmation bias, and they are applicable only to a narrow selection of our beliefs. The third phase, if it is happening, is happening in science, but it is also very much about letting go of the naturalistic interpretation of science: the idea that science tells us about ‘facts’ that are merely positively justified as such by ‘evidence’. In the third phase, science doesn’t discover ‘facts’, but it does offer justifications for some beliefs rather than others, and these are acknowledged as having considerable power and credibility. In the third phase, that is enough; we don’t demand an impossible ‘proof’. Better justified beliefs are enough to support effective and timely action (for example, in response to climate change).

The third phase involves a shift in the most widely assumed philosophy of science, but it is not confined to science. It is also a shift in attitude to values and archetypes. Some of us are still caught up in the first, supernaturalist, phase as far as these are concerned, and others in the second or naturalistic phase. Ethics and religious archetypes are either assumed to be ‘real’ or ‘unreal’, absolute or relative, rather than judged in terms of their justification and the limitations of our understanding. I do have values, that can be justified in my context according to my experience of what should be valued. At the same time, the improvement of those values also involves recognizing that they are dependent on a limited perspective that can be improved upon, just as my factual beliefs can be.

Perhaps what I didn’t stress sufficiently in my first post on the topic is that the third phase is not a matter of clearly-defined scientific breakthroughs. It is individuals who can start to exercise the awareness offered by the third phase with varying degrees of consistency. As Thomas Kuhn wrote of scientific breakthroughs or paradigm shifts, they actually depend on a gradual process of individuals losing confidence in an old paradigm and shifting to a new one. But there can also be a tipping point. When it starts to become expected for individuals to recognise the limitations of their justification, as part of that justification itself, social pressure can begin to be recruited to help prompt individual reflection.

We can hope for some future time when the third phase is fully embedded. When religious absolutists stop assuming that the way to make children more moral is to drill them in dogmas. When secularists get out of the habit of dismissing whole areas of human experience in their haste to find a secular counterpart to religious ‘truth’. When promoting understanding of the workings of our brains is no longer considered suspiciously reductive. When the public is so well educated in biases and fallacies that they complain to journalists who let politicians get away with them. When evolutionists respond to creationists not by appealing to superior ‘facts’, but solely by pointing out deficiencies in the justification of creationist belief, in ways that apply just as much in the realm of ‘religion’ as in that of ‘science’. Yes, we are still a long way off the entrenchment of the third phase. We can only try to get it a little more under way in our lifetimes.

Autumn Retreatgirl meditative thinking

Announcing our autumn weekend retreat 2017, Compassion, imagination and the Middle Way, led by Nina Davies in Sussex UK! Please see this page for more details.

Martin Luther, the dogma breaker

This year is the 500th Anniversary of what is often seen as the decisive act that set off the Reformation: when Martin Luther, a monk and theology professor, nailed ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. A few years ago, I was travelling through eastern Germany and made a point of stopping in Wittenberg to see Luther’s House, and the experience only increased my admiration of this flawed, stubborn, but nevertheless courageous, inspired, and often down-to-earth man. He has gone down in history as one of the great breakers of dogma, though, like many people with that kind of achievement, he was also instrumental in setting up new counter dogmas of his own.Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk Lucas Cranach the Elder

I recently heard a talk about Luther given by church historian Judith Rossall, which also refined my understanding of the key events that led to the Reformation. In some ways, Luther was lucky: he managed to get away without being burned at the stake because of political protection from the Elector of Saxony, and because German national pride rallied people to his support against the trans-national papal bureaucracy. In some ways, then, the Lutheran Reformation resembled an early German version of Brexit. His defiance of the church’s authority also gradually grew as the argument became more polarised and more started being at stake. He started off only protesting against the selling of indulgences (a medieval church money making scheme where people paid for time off purgatory), but it was in 1519, when in a debate his position was compared with that of Jan Hus (a previous reformer who had been burned at the stake as a heretic) that he made his most courageous move, saying that he believed the condemnation of Hus was wrong and thus by implication questioning the church as an absolute source of authority.

It’s at that crucial point that I’d see Luther as moving out of the absolute positions that dominated the church of his time into a more creative and ambiguous zone. In his debate with Johann Eck, he was then asked what authorities he did accept. Only scripture and common reason, he said. From that realignment of authorities so much else in the Reformation followed, because Protestants were thus able to strip away 1500 years of accrued church dogmas dependent on tradition, on Aristotelian metaphysics that had been adopted by the church, or on the authority of the pope or the councils of the church. So much that was previously closed became open for re-examination, and that of course created a huge wave of creativity and thought.

Did Luther in any way achieve a Middle Way? In those heady early days in 1520’s Germany, when everything seemed to opened up, when new thinking spread quickly because of the recent invention of printing, and a whole new set of radical thinkers were further sparked off by him, it’s easy to think that he might temporarily have got somewhere near it. All sorts of customs were re-thought: church governance, the eucharist, monasticism, the marriage of priests, the role of saints, the sacraments. Most of all, the door was thrown open to individual judgement, enabling individuals to bring their own thinking to bear on religious matters rather than simply accepting the authority of the church. In the longer term that emphasis on individual judgement was extremely important in stimulating the enlightenment and the rise of scientific method and democratic politics. If you want to understand why the Middle Way has in effect been practised more in the West than in the East where it was first explicitly formulated, look to some of the effects of Martin Luther.

However, Protestantism today is polarised between liberals who have come to terms with the enlightenment, and much more numerous fundamentalists who take Martin Luther’s invocation of the authority of scripture as a new basis of absolutism. Despite its value in supporting individual judgement, the narrower legacy of the Reformation is the allegiance of individuals who believe that absolute truths can be represented in the words of a book. Until the development of Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century, Protestants continued to ignore all questions about the human origins of the Bible or the ambiguities of its interpretation. While Protestants influenced by Luther thus built the church and its meaning anew, they also rapidly created the new rigidities of puritanism, repression of the imagination, spiritual accountancy and sectarianism. Iain McGilchrist writes disapprovingly about the Reformation because of its degree of dependence on the left hemisphere, and he’s certainly right that much of Luther’s legacy seems to have consisted in people adopting abstracted absolute beliefs that were strongly identified with a limited group who shared them, and were the focus of obsessive loyalty. Along with the enlightenment and individual thinking, another indirect legacy of Luther is ISIS/ Da’esh and the kind of thinking it represents. Fundamentalism was invented by Protestants long before it was adopted by Muslims.

However, to understand the positive aspects of Luther’s complexity more fully, let’s go back to the motivations of the man himself. One of the other crucial conflicts in Luther’s experience that helped to give birth to the Reformation was the question of salvation. The idea of God’s grace, reflected particularly by St Paul in the book of Romans, is central to the early motivation of Christianity and the way that it differentiated itself from Judaism as early Christians perceived it. Luther apparently had a strong ongoing sense of sinfulness, being tormented by the ways that his varied motivations as a human being were inconsistent with his commitments to following God’s will. The Catholic Church of Luther’s time often seemed in practice to have gone back to the legalism that Christians tend to attribute to the Pharisees, in which we have to save ourselves by obeying the rules set by God. The medieval church reconciled this to Christian teaching about grace by saying that God’s grace still requires enough of a response from us to allow us to save ourselves. Even if we save ourselves from mortal sin and avoid going to hell, we will still have to sweat out our lesser sins in purgatory before we can be saved, and it’s this view of how sin is expiated that justified the sale of indulgences.  Luther was still tormented by this, because he could never be sure that he had responded enough to God’s grace to be saved. Re-reading the book of Romans, however, he concluded that the church was wrong to believe that we saved ourselves at all: only God could save us. We were solely justified by faith, not by actions. We could only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

The positive thing to note here is that Luther went back to his experience. Trying to open himself to God’s grace, he went back to the openness of the brain’s right hemisphere rather than being solely dependent on the representations of the left. Rather than just accepting that he couldn’t be sure of salvation under the church’s model of how it worked, he compared his experience of sinfulness to his experience of God and the experience of what he interpreted as God’s grace working in his life. He found that the church’s teachings didn’t fit his most profound and valuable experiences, so he gave those experiences higher priority, and had the courage to try to make new beliefs that were more adequate to those experiences. Of course, that could only be part of a long journey of developing beliefs that are more adequate to the conditions, and we can look back at it today and are struck by how far he was from any destination. But nor have we reached any final destination today. The Middle Way was a journey for him as it is for us, responding as well as we can to the conditions of each time and place.

Picture: Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (public domain)

The MWS Podcast 119: Hári Sewell, Arno Michaelis and Robert M Ellis on Prejudice

In our latest round table discussion we welcome back to the podcast Hári Sewell who is a trainer and consultant in equality and social justice and author of Working with Ethnicity, Race and Culture in Mental Health , ex-white supremacist and now peace activist Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate and the chair of the Middle Way Society, the philosopher Robert M Ellis, author of many books including the Middle Way Philosophy series. The topic today will be prejudice, what it is, how it affects us and what we might do about it.



MWS Podcast 119: Prejudice as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_119_Prejudice
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Poetry 143: Unicorn by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oslo Vigeland Unicorn Sculpture Girl Bronze
Oslo Vigeland Unicorn Sculpture Girl Bronze

This is the animal that never was.
Not knowing that, they loved it anyway;
its bearing, its stride, its high, clear whinny,
right down to the still light of its gaze.

It never was. And yet such was their love
the beast arose, where they had cleared the space;
and in the stable of its nothingness
it shook its white mane out and stamped its hoof.

And so they fed it, not with hay or corn
but with the chance that it might come to pass.
All this gave the creature such a power

its brow put out a horn; one single horn.
It grew inside a young girl’s looking glass,
then one day walked out and passed into her.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This weeks poem was suggested by Robert M. Ellis.  If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email Richard Flanagan at richard@middlewaysociety.org.