Monthly Archives: February 2015

The MWS Podcast 53: Jean Boulton on Complexity Theory & Spirituality

Jean Boulton has a background in theoretical physics and is a strategy consultant and also a part-time academic at both Bath and Cranfield universities. She is passionate about the implications of complexity theory for management and policy development as well as its connection to spiritual traditions. It is this relationship between complexity theory and spirituality that will be the topic of our conversation today.

MWS Podcast 53: Jean Boulton as audio only:
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Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief – now available

MWP4 cover2Now available! The final volume in Robert’s ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series, ‘The Integration of Belief’. This includes discussion of what belief is, how we can avoid delusions and how we can develop provisionality of belief. It draws on extensive evidence from psychology (cognitive bias theory) as well as philosophy,MWP4 Back Cover and includes quite a comprehensive survey of cognitive biases, fallacies and metaphysical beliefs that make us absolutise our beliefs and thus make errors. The front cover is reproduced right and the back cover below. Please go to this link if you’re interested in purchasing a copy.

Why I am not a naturalist

Of all the possible appropriations of the Middle Way (and there are many), that by naturalism seems the most common, and the one leading to most confusion. The majority of scientists and philosophers seem to think in naturalistic terms, and the work of thinkers like Sam Harris and Mark Johnson on ethics may seem to have much in common with the Middle Way, yet proclaims itself as naturalistic. What, then, is naturalism, and why do I think it is so important to distinguish my thinking from naturalism? I thought it would be useful to try to give a brief and clear account of that here. Given to what extent naturalism is the zeitgeist (at least in Western academic circles), it seems just as appropriate to stand up and say “Why I am not a naturalist” today as it was for Bertrand Russell a hundred years ago to explain “Why I am not a Christian”.

Here is a definition of naturalism from the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (a mainstream source if there ever was one): “A sympathy with the view that ultimately nothing resists explanation by the methods characteristic of the natural sciences”. On Wikipedia, the definition that seems to have been reached by consensus is the “idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world.” Often a distinction is then made between metaphysical and methodological naturalism, where the former claims that science offers us ultimate truths, and the latter appeals only to the methods of natural science.Scientist

Metaphysical naturalism is obviously incompatible with the Middle Way, because it takes no account of the uncertainty that accompanies any human claim. Methodological naturalism is more subtle, because it only claims that we should rely on the methods of natural science to produce the best available explanations of things. Yet in both cases we need to examine the reason why scientific method or results is appealed to. It is claimed to offer objectivity only because it is a way of ascertaining facts to the exclusion of values. Scientific method, I would argue, is extremely valuable in offering us ways of investigating the world that try to avoid human biases, delusions, and limitations of all kinds. But naturalism should not be confused with scientific method – it is an interpretation of science.

The most basic problem with naturalism of all kinds is that our biases are confused with emotion and value. This reflects a widespread misapprehension: it is not emotions as opposed to reason that cause us to make mistakes, because reasons are inextricably interlocked with emotions. It is unhelpful emotions and interlocked reasons that interfere unhelpfully with justifiable emotions and reasons.

The spectre that haunts Western thought is the fact-value distinction. A distinction between factual claims (e.g. ‘Fred is hungry’) and value claims (e.g. ‘We should feed Fred’) that is valid in the terms of abstract logic is often unthinkingly applied in a very basic, foundational way to thinking about science, ethics, and all kinds of other issues that are concerned with human experience. That logical distinction, however clear it may seem conceptually, is not actually found in human experience, where every factual claim is loaded with values and every value implies facts. If Fred is a friend of mine, my recognition that he is hungry may not even be experienced separately from the felt desire to offer him food. Even the most abstract mathematical or scientific claim is, in practical experience, inseparable from the value of asserting it. The embodied meaning thesis offers further evidence that the very meaning of any language we use is not merely one of abstract representation, but remains dependent on our value-charged bodies.

There are some self-proclaimed methodological naturalists, such as Mark Johnson, who claim not to accept the fact-value distinction, or at least not to accept a crude version of it. But even they are not even-handed, and their claim to address the fact-value distinction is not followed through. If we do not accept the fact-value distinction, we need to recognise not just that values have a factual dimension, but also that facts have a value dimension. That means that all the power we have previously attributed to morality (but falsely separated into an insulated ‘moral’ zone) spreads out and potentially inspires everything else. Health, beauty, art, prudential actions, and science itself, for example, as long as they are integrative rather than dogmatically focused, can thus be recognised as moral activities. In that case, to see the natural sciences as ultimately having the right explanations for everything is just an inexcusable narrowing of human experience and value. Even a subtly articulated takeover of ethics by a single scientific model is still a long way from a Middle Way approach that genuinely follows through on the recognition that all our models have to be provisional.

There is a growing and influential body of opinion that consists of naturalism that has appropriated the Middle Way. But the Middle Way is not to be reduced to the models of natural science, any more than it can be reduced to Buddhism, or to the dominant ways of talking in any other tradition. In my recent discussion with Stephen Batchelor, he seemed to have trouble actually thinking beyond the assumption that the Middle Way was in some way essentially Buddhist, despite simultaneous indications of openness. I’m sure that there will be many naturalists who similarly just can’t digest the idea that the Middle Way is not intrinsically naturalistic. To such people, whatever their tradition, I beg you to open your minds. The possibility of communicating to people beyond your tradition and of overcoming entrenched conflicts between traditions depends on you opening your minds. The Middle Way can be approached in a naturalistic way, but it can also be approached just as readily in non-naturalistic ways. Call me stubborn if you will, but that is central to my vision of what the Middle Way is about, and I will argue for it as long as necessary.


The MWS Podcast 52: Gay Watson on a Philosophy of Emptiness

Gay Watson has a PhD in Religious Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She trained as a psychotherapist with the Karuna Institute in Core Process, a Buddhist inspired psychotherapy. She is very much concerned with the dialogue between Buddhist thought, psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences and is the author of Beyond Happiness, Deepening the Dialogue Between Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences and she’s here to talk to us today about her latest book A Philosophy of Emptiness.

MWS Podcast 52: Gay Watson as audio only:
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Max Weber and the iron cage

Recently reading a review of a new book about Max Weber (1864-1920), I was reminded of how much of an effect his thinking in ‘The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism’ had on me when I was first writing my Ph.D. thesis (which was when I first started to develop Middle Way Philosophy about 15 years ago). He’s often thought of as a pioneering sociologist, but you could also see him as a kind of historian and/or philosopher, and his interests took in religion, politics, and economics among other things. In effect, he was one of those great thinkers who refuses to be pigeonholed. He famously said “I am not a donkey and I do not have a field”. He was also relatively uninterested in most of the trappings of academia, and managed to maintain a relatively objective political position through the First World War in Germany without being dragged into what he called the ‘politics of vanity’.Max Weber

In ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ he points out the important historical link between Catholic monasticism, Protestant worldly asceticism, and Capitalism. The story is roughly this: the medieval monks developed an ascetic mentality of self-denial in a higher cause, together with an individual relationship with God in which they felt accountable to him for their deeds. The monks were also used treating the monastery’s property as corporate. In the Protestant countries at the time of the Reformation, this asceticism was taken over into wider society rather than being confined to the monasteries. The Protestant began to have an individual relationship to God that went together with the literacy and accounting that had formerly been a monastic preserve. Capitalism then began to develop in Protestant societies because the basic requisites for it were there: an ascetic culture of self-denial allowing investment for future profit, a culture of book-keeping (whether moral or financial), the specialised organisation of free labour, and the separation of corporate property. Though of course, trade and industry had existed before this, it is these practices that enabled it to really take off in Europe and create the capitalist world we know today.

What makes this particularly interesting from the standpoint of the Middle Way is the way in which it shows the increasing dominance of a left-hemisphere formed, regularised, bureaucratised view of the world in Western culture. Far from being separated or antithetical, the worlds of ‘religion’ and ‘economics’ also turn out to be deeply inter-related, both shaped in parallel ways by this narrowly focused view of the world. To begin to loosen the grip of that narrow perspective and integrate it into a wider one, it helps to understand some of the conditions that formed it for us. These conditions have now spread into nearly every other area of life, where they tend to take the form of what is often called ‘managerialism’: if you can represent things and keep close control over them, this view goes, they will fulfil your desires more fully in the future. Max Weber seemed to understand clearly, more than a hundred years ago, how much of a delusion resided in this approach to life.

The last few pages of ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ offer a remarkably prescient account of the ‘iron cage’ created by this narrowed, bureaucratised view, and the ironic way this has emerged from religious other-worldliness. Though written in 1905, it begins to foreshadow modern concerns about sustainability. I will finish with a quotation from there:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling: we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic production, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilised coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

(A more detailed discussion of Max Weber’s arguments and their critics can be found in my thesis here.)