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.

Sliman Mansour 1947 – Palestinian Artist. Salma, a Poster 1988

Sliman Mansour poster 1988 Sliman Mansour 1947   Palestinian Artist. Salma, a Poster 1988

Sliman Mansour was born in Birzeit, Jerusalem in 1947, he went to a boarding school in Bethlehem. He is a painter, sculptor, writer and teacher, he played a part in the Liberation Art Movement in Palestine and was one of the New Visions group of Palestinians, he also served as the head of the League of Palestinian Artists from 1986 to 1990 and served as a director of the Al-Waihi Art Centre in Jerusalem, he organised exhibitions from 1990, his work is exhibited in Palestine, Israel, across Europe, Norway and America, he has written two books on Palestinian folklore and in 1998 he won grand prize at the Cairo Biennial. His work is aimed at reminding the Palestinian community of their roots and identity since territory was occupied by Israeli forces. The history of Palestine is far from simple, in the 18th. Century the population of Palestine was 250,000, 6,500 of them were Jews, by 1897 there were three times as many inhabitants, the majority were Gentiles and more than half a million were Arabs.

Mansour started experimenting with mixed media, such as mud, henna, lime on wood and assemblage materials, the idea behind their use was to use home produced materials and boycott paints from Israel. Mansour was working towards giving Palestinians their identity back while still being ruled by Israeli governments, the second intifada saw the death of 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis which ended with the PM Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas committed to keep the peace in ‘Roadmap for Peace’. Mansour said ‘art helped and is still helping a kind of revival of Palestinian identity. And through art we helped in creating that…. creating symbols for Palestinian identity through art.’

 
I have chosen a poster, probably painted in water colour of a young Palestinian women called Salma, dated 1978, she wears traditional embroidered clothing, she holds a bowl of oranges, the fruits of the land with her labourer’s hands, the orange tree is a symbol of ‘catastrophe,’ – the occupation of Palestine, more about that later. Mansour is among the intifada group of artists who follow a third way of non – violence, ‘not succumbing to occupation nor getting overwhelmed by hate in confronting the occupation, keeping dignity in everyday life, connecting to the land, culture, religious rights and identity and having respect for the other’s source of identity,’ they were concerned too with Moslem- Christian relations.

Background to the conflict – with reference to a recent review I read in the London Review of Books by Nathan Thrall called My Promised Land; The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Savit, the grandson of  Herbert Bentwich who in 1897 sailed to Jaffa with a delegation of twenty one Zionists to investigate whether Palestine would make a suitable site for a Jewish national home. Bentwich shut out the fact that non Jews were already living there, he failed to notice the Arabs and Gentiles only planning a Palestinian land for Jews, soon 25,000 mainly secular Jews moved into Palestine and lived in communal agrarian settlements. By 1935 a quarter of the population was Jewish, in 1936 to 1939 there was the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate and Jewish immigration, ethnic conflict had become almost inevitable. In May 1948 Arab armies invaded the territory called Lydda, any rebellion was crushed by the Israeli forces, called the ‘ Catastrophe,’ tensions still exist. The UN idea to divide the land was rejected by the Arabs and fifty six per cent of the land was given to the Jewish population. Sliman Mansour was part of the second intifada working towards a resolution to the conflict. Shavit wrote ‘ that if Zionism was to be then Lydda could not be’ which perhaps  condones the actions taken. Although ‘ Ben Gurion was enlightened,’ his wishes to resolve the conflict did not last long.

 
Mansour painted a series village paintings to remember those inhabitants uprooted in the Jezreel Valley to provide new homes for Israelis. Mansour’s work was often seen as subversive by the Israeli government, he spent time in prison. Art critics see his work as possessing great maturity which shows an awareness of international currents in art. In other posters by Mansour like Salma we see a young woman in traditional dress, often the female image is used for the mobilisation for Palestinian Resistance filled with ‘complex meanings of nation, rootedness, resistance, fecundity and Palestine itself.’ Another poster called The Camel of Heavy Burdens, 1980, the camel depicted is an iconic description of a camel which goes on giving milk in times of drought.

 
On Youtube there is a clip showing Mansour’s work with music called Baghranni (I sing) sung by Amal Markos.

 

 

The MWS Podcast 37: Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism

Today’s guest is Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism. He talks about what Effective Altruism is, it’s five main principles, counters some of the more common objections against giving to aid organisations and how this all might be related to the Middle Way.


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Poetry 47: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Topsell manticore engraving 300x175 Poetry 47: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What is a sceptic?

This is a re-blog of an article that some people have found helpful on my old ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ blog.

Scepticism (or skepticism, US style) is potentially a big liberating factor in our lives, yet like most ideas What is a sceptic? that started off in a blaze of insight, it has become caught up in entrenched dualistic conflicts. All scepticism involves some degree of recognition of uncertainty about what others take to be true – but the crucial thing is how you then respond to that uncertainty. Pyrrho of Elis, the first Greek sceptic, was very probably inspired by Indian sources, and his approach contains many crucial elements of Middle Way thinking. Yet the overwhelming use of the word ‘sceptic’ today is that of a mere denier of a widely-held view on one topic: we hear much more about Climate Change sceptics and Euro Sceptics than we do about Pyrrhonian sceptics.

I can identify at least four meanings of the word ‘sceptic’. Philosophy textbooks talk about the distinction between ‘global’ and ‘local’ scepticism – being sceptical about everything as opposed to being sceptical about only one or a few things. Then there is another distinction which I think is hugely important but widely unappreciated: between denying a position and remaining in balanced agnosticism. Put those two sets of distinctions together and you get an analysis of four types of sceptic:

  1. The local denier. This is by far the most common use of the term ‘sceptic’ at present. It refers only to people who disagree with another position and have a definitely contrary position. Such ‘scepticism’ is often applied to revelatory religious belief, for example, or to a public issue like Climate Change. Such ‘sceptics’ take advantage of uncertainties in the position they are opposing, but are almost never prepared to recognise the often equal degree of uncertainty in their own position.
  2. The local agnostic Just occasionally, scepticism about a particular issue does lead to a genuine open-mindedness in which the uncertainties of one’s own position are also appreciated in relation to that issue. This is the case, for example, with agnostics about God who have not yet recognised the same degree of uncertainty in many other issues. However, such agnostics suffer from a cultural prejudice against agnosticism in the West, which depicts agnostics as wishy-washy and indecisive. On the contrary, agnosticism, even just about a single issue such as God, often requires a fair amount of courage.
  3. The global denier This is the belief that because all positions are uncertain, therefore they should all be definitely denied. Following the assumptions of David Hume, most western philosophers since have wrongly interpreted Pyrrho in this way: but in the ancient world this view was represented not by Pyrrho but by his opponents – ‘Academic’ sceptics such as Carneades. I think Hume was right in thinking that nobody could seriously and practically hold this position as though they meant it, because it is impossible for us to live our lives without some beliefs about the world around us. It is also self-contradictory, because global scepticism is itself a belief to be denied. The problem was just that Hume thought that was all there was to scepticism.
  4. The global agnostic This is the belief that there is uncertainty about all possible beliefs, and that uncertainty should lead us to hold all beliefs provisionally to the extent that we can justify them through experience. This is the view that I hold, or at least aspire to hold, myself, and that I think is broadly the most helpful interpretation both of Pyrrho’s scepticism and of the Buddha’s Middle Way. One of its implications as I see it is that we should reject dogmatic views that cannot be held provisionally – what I call metaphysical beliefs. So, for example, you cannot hold the belief that God exists provisionally – you either believe it or you don’t. Nor can you hold the belief that God does not exist provisionally. So it is essential to remain determinedly agnostic about God’s existence, whatever the cultural pressures towards one side or the other. Far from being impractical, as Hume depicted scepticism, this kind of scepticism is deeply pragmatic, as it clears the ground for beliefs that we can justify and act on only in experience and removes delusions that are likely to interfere in our effectiveness when acting in the world.

I don’t think that there is one essentially right way to use a word, or that older or ‘original’ ways are necessarily better. Nevertheless, for practical reasons, I lament the decline of scepticism, firstly at the hands of Hume, and then more recently at the hands of the scientific naturalists, who have tried to appropriate both scepticism and critical thinking to support approaches that are not philosophically even-handed. It seems that the understanding of scepticism even amongst those who count themselves as sceptics is haunted both by the idea that global scepticism is impossible and by the assumptions that you have to be naturalistic to apply scepticism. For example, to quote from the ‘About us’ section of the Skeptic magazine website:

“Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism.”

That all depends on how you interpret Socrates. For some reason the idea that we don’t have to make claims about truth or knowledge, but could accept just degrees of justification for provisional beliefs, doesn’t seem to be on the horizon of such self-identified sceptics. It is just assumed that knowing nothing requires that you also believe nothing – which seems obviously false, since knowledge is normally defined as justified true belief, not just as belief. We can maintain provisional beliefs with a degree of justification without claiming that they are true. Scepticism itself can also be part of a provisional framework adopted for practical reasons.

The same source goes on:

“Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.”

I applaud the evident intention of provisionality, and of balanced testing in relation to experience here, but such scepticism cannot be even-handed when it incorporates a prior filter of “naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena”. It is being assumed in such an approach that there is a “nature” with universally consistent laws (usually assuming physicalism and determinism) that are open to scientific investigation, and that “supernatural” explanations can be ruled out from the start. The requirements of public reproducibility in conventional scientific method also rule out from justified provisional belief all areas of individual experience that are not open to that kind of testing.

So this kind of scepticism, however much it may try to assume the mantle of Pyrrho and Socrates, is selective and local: it does not subject its own assumptions to sceptical scrutiny. Its naturalism also means that it slips into denial of supernatural phenomena from the start. I am not recommending belief in supernatural phenomena – but “natural” phenomena in the sense of those following absolute known universal laws which rule out the supernatural are equally beyond our experience. Thus I find this appropriation of scepticism by scientific naturalists misleading.

However, my reasons for preferring a global and agnostic understanding of scepticism are only based on a provisional understanding of the greater usefulness of this wider approach. Scepticism is a powerful tool for overcoming delusions, but only if it is used even-handedly rather than selectively. Used selectively it is all too often a tool of dogma that actually has the effect of preventing us from facing up to conditions, because it seems to effectively shoot down one side whilst leaving the other standing. It is no wonder that many people are unnerved by scepticism – it is powerful – but it is for that very reason that we need to use it with great care.

The MWS Podcast 36: Elliot Aronson on Cognitive Dissonance

Today’s guest is Elliot Aronson, one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the world, his books include the Social Animal and Cooperation in the Classroom: The Jigsaw Method, he co-authored the book on cognitive dissonance ‘Mistakes were made but not by me’ with Carol Tavris and has also fairly recently written his autobiography ‘Not by chance alone’ – the latter two I’ve read and would highly recommend. He was chosen by his peers as one of the hundred most influential psychologists of the 20th century and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the only psychologist to have won all three of the American Psychological Associations top awards for writing, for teaching and for research. He’s here to talk to us today a little bit about his life, the theory of cognitive dissonance and how it might relate to the Middle Way.


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