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.

Finding balance in the Brexit storm

To say that the last couple of days have been eventful in British political life would be an understatement. A narrow vote to leave the EU in the referendum on 23rd June confounded widespread assumptions of the permanence of the status quo. As had been widely predicted, an economic storm blew up immediately. But what is even more notable is what has happened since: not only Cameron’s resignation, but widespread reports of ‘Bregret’ – those who voted leave saying they would change their minds next time, because they hadn’t realised it would actually make a difference. At the time of writing, a petition on the government petition site has gathered over 2 million signatures calling for a second referendum.Ship in strait

What does all this have to do with the Middle Way? Pretty much everything. Remember, the practice of the Middle Way starts right now in whatever situation we are in, finding a point of balance and avoiding either sort of absolutisation, positive or negative. I suspect that most readers of this blog will greatly regret the current situation, and may feel that it’s really unjust, or perhaps a few will feel that it is just: but either of these responses are idealisations of a complex situation. The degree of justice or injustice lies in people, not in the whole situation, so probably the first move in finding a point of balance is to recognise and avoid implicit cosmic justice assumptions or their denial. Related to these may be other absolutisations: absolute blame heaped on one person or group or another, or absolute value applied to the consequence of either leaving or remaining in the EU. Such abolutisations obscure our understanding of the conditions involved.

It is avoiding these absolutisations that can enable us to judge the situation in a more balanced way, but it does not free us from political concerns. Nor does it release us from recognising the degree of justice and injustice, appropriate praise and blame, or right and wrong that need to be applied in understanding the situation. Examination of the process of events can reveal a whole set of biases and fallacies that have both created receptivity for the misleading narrative for ‘Leave’ and also made the ‘Remain’ campaign ineffective.

Personally I think fairly strong moral conclusions can still be reasonably drawn whilst avoiding absolutisation. I think that the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign have behaved in a disgracefully dishonest fashion, and that the English and Welsh working classes have been duped. These are generalisations, which will of course have exceptions, and we can also recognise an interdependency between the naivete of the voters and the lack of integrity of the politicians and of the tabloid media. Neither is wholly to blame, but at the same time considerable blame can be fairly apportioned. The evidence is clear if, for example, we look at the simplistic figure of £350 million pounds a week allegedly given to the EU, the treatment of the issue of possible Turkish accession to the EU, or the treatment of the issue of the economic and social impact of EU migrants in the UK. On the whole, the politicians offered simplistic slogans that obscured the issues, these slogans were passed on without any critical context by the tabloids, and when questioned about them the politicians concerned resorted to diversionary tactics such as ad hominem attacks. The falsely neutral BBC rarely got any further than ‘balancing’ one ad hominem attack against another, letting through unscrutinised no end of misleading mono-causal explanations for complex phenomena or statistics taken out of context.  Only a few more specialised and less popular programmes examined the issues more deeply.

Conclusions like these can be drawn, but we also need to start by coming to terms with the new conditions. Yes, it seems that we have a bitterly divided UK with an alienated, ignorant and even blindly furious working class largely at the mercy of whatever media and political interests are best able to manipulate them. Failing to understand the conditions, this group have collectively engaged in a massively self-destructive act. But we won’t be able to address these conditions if we think that somehow God has made a mistake and it really shouldn’t have been allowed, or that some other intrinsic justice has been betrayed. Nothing finally ‘wrong’ has happened: rather people have made mistakes, and these can be improved upon.

Trying to reach that position of balanced judgement, I still think we can find ways forward and find grounds for optimism. The underlying problem is that people have absolutised in their judgements, because they have not had the training in critical thinking to be aware when they were being fed a narrow account of conditions, nor the training in other integrative practices to move beyond one particular dominant idea (say that of ‘getting our country back’) that has dominated their judgement. This can be changed, but only in the long term. People can be trained in integrative practice and in critical thinking by more effective education, not just at school but throughout life. People can also be greatly encouraged to think more critically about political claims by a more effective and genuinely critical media. As individuals, we can also contribute to them spreading one-to-one even if we do not work in either education or the media.

I would like to contribute to campaigning in both those crucial areas – education and the media – but if forced to choose between them, I am most struck by the responsibility of the media for the situation. That responsibility emerges from a complex web of conditions: the operation of market forces on media organisations, the constant interplay between journalistic creativity and audience expectations, and so on. Yet my impression is that most journalists, even those working for the most reputable newspapers or broadcast organisations, do not see critical thinking as part of their brief, and are simply not trained in it. If journalists really want to give the public the tools to draw their own conclusions in an informed way, they need to become much more aware of the terminology and techniques of critical thinking and of practically applied cognitive psychology. At the moment, for the most part, they are simply not holding politicians to account, because the politicians remain effectively unchallenged in the ways that matter most. Being rude, interrupting the politician and telling them they have not answered the question are simply not enough if endless ad hominems, straw men, false dilemmas, simplistic mono-causal explanations, raw statistical figures without contextual proportions, or dismissals without a practical alternative go straight past them. If the public are not interested enough or aware enough of these things, it is both the job and the talent of journalists to make them interesting, and in the process start to contribute to a more objective and more adequate politics in the future.

The MWS Podcast 98: Jon Ronson on public shaming on social media

We are joined today by the Welsh Journalist, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and best selling author Jon Ronson. He’s written nine books including Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Psychopath Test as well his most recent work So you’ve been publicly shamed , an exploration of shame in particular via social media outlets such as Twitter an this is going to be the topic of our discussion. The book is full of humour but I also found it very compassionate and wise and as you’ll see as the conversation unfolds, brave too.


MWS Podcast 97: Jon Ronson as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_98_Jon-Ronson

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Critical Thinking 18: Ad Hoc Argument

An ad hoc argument is one in which a person shifts their goals or ‘moves the goalposts’ in mid-argument in order to avoid having to admit that they’re wrong. It tends to accompany defensiveness and a dogmatic attachment to a position that can’t possibly be accepted as wrong without losing face.

It’s also sometimes known as the ‘No True Scotsman’, from an example in which a Scotsman who claims that no Scotsman eats his porridge with sugar, when challenged with a counter-example of one who does, rejoins that no true Scotsman eats his porridge with sugar. The claim about the Scotsman in this example has thus shifted to a claim about a much more flexible and manipulable ‘true’ Scotsman. The ‘truth’ of the Scotsman seems to amount to nothing more than the favour of being defined as such by the ad hoc arguer, but of course ‘true’ sounds terribly grand and may deceive the unwary, even though it turns out to be empty bluster when examined more closely.

More controversial contemporary versions of the ‘true Scotsman’, may include the ‘true Muslim’, the ‘true scientist’ or the ‘true Socialist’: the true Muslim may always be peaceful, the true scientist always provisional, and the true Socialist always committed to equality, thus allowing us to hang on to idealisations of these positions when challenged with counter-examples that show them to be rough labels for diverse traditions. It may still be the case that the overwhelming majority of Scots refuse to eat their porridge with sugar, and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful, but if we absolutely essentialise those categories it may be a way of repressing recognition of the minority who are not.

Another example of ad hoc argument is illustrated by the following cartoon, which is a version of a historical example from the life of Galileo. Here it is not the category of ‘Scotsman’ that is being defended, but an Aristotelian scientific theory that all celestial bodies from the moon upwards must be perfect spheres. In order to avoid questioning this theory, one of Galileo’s opponents came up with this highly implausible explanation of what he observed. Of course, it’s just possible that he might be right, but the defensive intention is pretty transparent (if you’ll forgive the pun).

Ad_hoc

Ad hoc argument departs from the Middle Way because it involves an absolutisation of the belief that is being defended. It is so absolutised that the alternatives being offered are just not seriously considered, and instead the person using the ad hoc argument just wants an excuse to dismiss the alternative. As with any absolutisation, it also has an opposite that is just as unhelpful, which in this case is the assumption that the theory being defended is unquestionably wrong. The problem with the transparent substance is not that we know it to be wrong, but that it is necessarily assumed to be right for defensive reasons, just as the problem with assuming all ‘true’ Muslims to be necessarily peaceful is not that there may not be a justifiable interpretation of Islam that would require peaceful behaviour, but that the assertion about ‘true’ Muslims is made to avoid acknowledgement of the violent ones who at least use the label ‘Muslim’.

Ad hoc argument is closely related to confirmation bias, the tendency to select from our experience and interpret it in terms of our existing beliefs. It can also be seen as a form of circular argument or ‘begging the question’. For example, in the Galileo example, Aristotle’s theory is supported by the belief that the moon is perfectly spherical despite appearances to the contrary, which in turn justifies the belief in Aristotle’s theory.

Ad hoc argument needs to be distinguished from some other reasons people may have for changing their position in the course of an argument. For example, it may be necessary to redefine one’s terms in the course of an argument in a way that is not defensive, but rather has the goal of reaching a helpful conclusion. For example, if you were having an argument about Christianity and started off with a very narrow definition of it (e.g. belief that Jesus is the son of God, meaning a supernatural entity), but then recognised that you could reach a more helpful agreement with another person by recognising that Christianity could be defined in different ways (e.g. as a symbolic or archetypal relationship with a Christ-figure within our experience), shifting your definition would not be ad hoc argument. In the end, it’s the unhelpful disruption to engagement and mutual understanding involved in a particular shift in position that makes it ad hoc, not the mere fact of shifting one’s position.

Exercise

Are these examples of ad hoc argument?

  1. The ‘Leave’ Campaign in the UK EU referendum pointed out that there have been 72 occasions (since the 1990’s) when the UK disagreed with new EU laws but was overruled. They argued that this involved unacceptable infringement of UK sovereignty.  However, the ‘Remain’ campaign responded that these 72 occasions should be seen in the context of over 2000 occasions when the UK has agreed with new EU laws, so that seen as a proportion rather than as a raw number it was not very high.
  2. In a debate before a football game between England and Germany, an England fan predicted that England would win the game. In the event, England scored one undisputed goal, but Germany scored two goals, both from penalties awarded in controversial refereeing decisions. After the game, the fan argued that he had been correct, because England should have won the game if the referee had been fair.
  3. Two Christians are discussing the interpretation of the Bible in relation to the ordination of women, which one supports but the other opposes. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 it says: “As in all congregations of God’s people, women should keep silent at the meeting. They have no permission to talk, but should keep their place as the law directs. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their husbands at home. It is a shocking thing for a woman to talk at the meeting.” The first Christian argues that this passage clearly implies that women should not be ordained, as one could hardly be an ordained priest or minister and not speak at a church service. The second argues that Paul’s motive when he wrote this passage was to prevent conflict between early Christians and the surrounding Roman culture, and that there is no reason why it should be interpreted as a commandment for Christians today.

Link to index of other Critical Thinking blogs in this series

Poetry 115: Friendship by Henry David Thoreau

Henry_David_Thoreau

I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
Tween heaven and earth.

I only know it is, not how or why,
My greatest happiness;
However hard I try,
Not if I were to die,
Can I explain.

I fain would ask my friend how it can be,
But when the time arrives,
Then Love is more lovely
Than anything to me,
And so I’m dumb.

For if the truth were known, Love cannot speak,
But only thinks and does;
Though surely out ’twill leak
Without the help of Greek,
Or any tongue.

A man may love the truth and practise it,
Beauty he may admire,
And goodness not omit,
As much as may befit
To reverence.

But only when these three together meet,
As they always incline,
And make one soul the seat,
And favorite retreat,
Of loveliness;

When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates
Eternally;

And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love’s bands more tight,
Service he ne’er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;

In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move
Resistlessly.

______

Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter’s storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow’s pride,
For both are strong

Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
Insep’rably.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons