Monthly Archives: March 2016

What is wisdom?

Wisdom is our most important practical quality, but it often seems to be more the basis of fantasy than cultivation. Given an educational system that will barely mention it, it is hardly surprising if wisdom to many people primarily means wizards with long beards and flowing robes. If we have not even reflected how far we have it ourselves, it’s not surprising if it’s projected onto distant figures. But wisdom is about how you make judgements: about, say, what to eat for lunch, or how to respond to that irritating colleague, or whether to spend the evening reading or browsing the internet. We all have it to some extent, and we lack it in other respects.Wise old woman Ferdinand Reus CCSA 3.0

Wisdom should not be confused with knowledge. It is not about what you know, unless it’s about recognising how little you know (as Socrates famously said, he was only wise in the sense of recognising his ignorance). That means you could conceivably be quite wise with little education. Nor is wisdom an automatic benefit of age: you only have to reflect on the narrow-mindedness into which some older people sink to see that.

Instead, I want to suggest that wisdom is a quality dependent on how well we use the experience we have. If we only interpret experience in terms of narrow assumptions, that experience will be useless to us, and will not enable us to learn. Instead, experience will only re-confirm the assumptions we already carry. That’s the positive feedback loop we can get into if we are fixated on ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’, believing that we have these things and then making our experience fit.

To become wiser, then, we will need to avoid these kinds of fixed beliefs, whether they are positive or negative, but investigate closely, even amongst sets of beliefs we otherwise reject, for ideas that are relevant and helpful. That means that, for example, the wise socialist will try to learn from conservatives even whilst rejecting dogmatic elements of conservatism (and vice-versa). Or if you have a strong belief in yourself as, say, destined to be a successful artist, but end up rejecting that belief as unrealistic, to cultivate wisdom in relation to that belief you will search around for aspects of that artistic aspiration that you can carry forward into other visions of your life.

Wisdom is often contrasted with compassion, but I want to suggest that the two are only conceptually distinguished: in practice they are inseparable. That’s because ‘reason’ is inseparable from ’emotion’, and it’s only a series of unhelpful cultural and philosophical habits that makes us often separate them too sharply. To be wise is to be compassionate, because whenever you challenge fixed beliefs about a person, you also challenge fixed feelings about them. By entering into more open beliefs about them, you also enter into more open emotional responses. By developing provisionality you also develop love, in a sense that avoids both hatred and possessiveness. Of course, the development of wisdom can only continue from wherever you start in emotional as well as cognitive terms, and someone who finds empathy difficult will not magically find it easy because of greater wisdom: but they will be more compassionate than they were before.

I’ve recently completed a video that explores the theme of wisdom in terms of the integration of belief. The integration of belief is simply a term for that process of sifting absolute beliefs from more helpful provisional ones – the process of developing wisdom and compassion. Here’s the video.

Picture by Ferdinand Reus (Wikimedia Commons) CCSA 3.0

Middle Way Thinkers 9: Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, novelist, dramatist, and public intellectual. As befits the cultural prominence of philosophy in France, his funeral cortege in 1980 was followed by 50,000 people. Generally the philosopher who best fits the label ‘existentialist’ (which, unlike Heidegger, he used himself), Sartre was in many respects a bold and original thinker – he was concerned with imagination, action, and practice as much as theory, and above all focused on human experience as our source of information (phenomenology).sartre

To my mind Sartre’s important contribution to Middle Way thought lies in his unflinching recognition of human responsibility. Very much a moral philosopher, Sartre argued that we are not only responsible for how well we follow moral rules, but also for the rules themselves. By selecting and obeying such rules, we give them their moral justification and validity. In his famous example of Abraham from the Old Testament (also used by Kierkegaard), Sartre pointed out that when Abraham heard God telling him to sacrifice his son, he could not justifiably pass on the responsibility for the deed to God – for it was Abraham who was responsible for interpreting what he had heard as the authoritative voice of God.

In this recognition of our responsibility for our judgements, Sartre contributed an important part of the case against metaphysics, and against the doleful but dominant insistence that it is inevitable still found today in much philosophy and science. But whatever we experience, whether it is a big voice in the sky or a scientific observation that seems to neatly fit a theory, there are always alternative possible interpretations, and thus we can never be compelled to accept one necessary interpretation. If we remain consciously unaware of alternatives but might, with considerable effort, have become aware of them, we also remain responsible (though, to clarify Sartre, I would say that we do so only to a small degree). Humean naturalism, which asserts that we can’t help what we believe, is shown up as dogmatic by Sartre’s recognition of our responsibility.

Unlike previous philosophers and theologians who attributed our responsibility to a metaphysical soul, Sartre did not seek any justification for it beyond experience. We are responsible because we experience responsibility. However, Sartre also recognised conflicts in that experience: we often find that responsibility uncomfortable and cannot face up to it, so we slip into the ‘bad faith’ of pretending that we are not responsible, because God told us or the universe itself told us, or we couldn’t help it or we were just following orders. If we can face up to our responsibility we can be ‘authentic’.

Sartre also did recognise that our choices are made in a context of certain conditions that are already set for us. He called this ‘facticity’. At every moment when we make a judgement, the openness (or ‘nothingness’) of mere potential is closed and becomes facticity. But then we are faced with yet another choice and another. Sartre pointed out that our choices have to be constantly remade for as long as they take to be put into action: for we could always potentially reverse our decision.

The focus on judgement in Middle Way Philosophy owes much to Sartre. Like Sartre, I think that it is the quality of a judgement itself, rather than its content, that makes it better or worse. However, it must be added that the content does have a big effect on the quality of the judgement, together with the character of the person who makes it. Thus, for example, a judgement to commit murder is extremely likely to be a bad judgement because it’s only likely to be taken by someone who ignores or represses their awareness of many of the consequences of committing murder. Sartre put a lot of emphasis on what is often taken to be a form of relativism (or subjectivism): that is, denying that there are any absolute rules that make one choice better than another. But I think it is debatable whether Sartre should be read as a relativist at all. For him an authentic (and thus, we can surmise, integrated) judgement is better than one made in bad faith that does not recognise our responsibility. Such arguments will apply in science as well as in the generally accepted moral realm.

There are several less helpful aspects of Sartre’s thought, though, that seem to take him further from the Middle Way. One is his rejection of psychology and public disagreement with Freud. He seems to have been understandably reacting against Freud’s determinism, but in the process also rejected the concept of the unconscious, which could have been very helpful to him in developing a more psychologically adequate account of ‘authenticity’ and ‘bad faith’. Another is his long-term flirtation with Marxism, although he did not join the Communist Party and later described himself as an anarchist. Nevertheless, Sartre has been blamed by his critics for leading others towards Marxism without sufficient scrutiny of its dogmatic assumptions and authoritarian practice. It does seem that, without a very developed psychological idea of what an authentic judgement would look like, Sartre sometimes seemed to make judgements (like that in favour of Marxism) that were more the product of an individual choice made in a vacuum than a careful scrutiny of conditions.

Sartre tends to stress the openness of our responsibility at the expense of balance. Though he tries to avoid metaphysical assumptions, he does not seem to be sufficiently aware of the dangers of negative metaphysics, and sometimes, arguably, he slips into it whilst reacting against traditionalist absolute positions. Thus he may not come across very much as a Middle Way thinker in his general style and approach: he is more of an enfant terrible. Nevertheless, Sartre’s contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way in respect of judgement can hardly be underestimated.


Link to index of previous ‘Middle Way Thinkers’ blogs


Excavating agnosticism

You may think you know what agnosticism is, but I think there is far more to it than meets the eye once you start digging. I have just finished producing a series of videos in which I try to make a comprehensive case in digestibly-sized chunks. Agnosticism

First of all, agnosticism is a practice, not a failure of decision. It is not just about God, but God just happens to be a particularly well-known example of a pair of metaphysical opposites (theism and atheism) to which agnosticism offers a third alternative. It does not involve hanging onto impossibilities, but rather coming to terms with them. Far from being passive, it involves an effort not to be sucked into the absolutizing extremes that dominate discussion (the diagram here, though it may remind you of a football referee, represents the potentially isolated position of the agnostic between dominant groups).

If those points surprise you, you will need to start by looking at the introductory video on agnosticism.

But there’s much more to be said after this. What, after all, is wrong with the extremes in the first place? I want to argue that it’s not simply a dogmatic failure of justification that’s wrong with it (though that is bad enough), but much more seriously, the role of metaphysical (i.e. absolute) beliefs in repressing alternatives, and thus constantly limiting the new conditions we can address, as well as creating conflict. In ‘what’s wrong with metaphysics’, I argue that metaphysics should not be confused with basic or prior claims (a common move by philosophers), that absolute metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally, and that their only function is to maintain unconditional loyalty to groups or authorities. Metaphysics is a power ploy rooted in a past era when it may possibly have been necessary – but it now greatly hampers us. It’s geared for ancient armies, not modern democracies. That’s why we really need to be agnostic.

But after showing what’s wrong with absolute belief, it’s then very important to rescue the meaningfulness of absolute terms. Terms like God, truth, Satan, nature, beauty etc. should not be objects of absolute belief, but they can still be fully appreciated as archetypes with crucial meaning in embodied human experience. That means that we really can have our cake and eat it: we can participate in religious life without compromising our integrity or triggering the repression and conflict that often accompanies religious ‘belief’. Metaphysical belief is in no way necessary to what religion has to contribute to human experience. All we have to do is separate absolute belief from archetypal meaning.

The practice of agnosticism also demands clarity about what it is we’re avoiding, and the balanced treatment of positive and negative kinds of absolute claim as equally unhelpful. This is the subject of the final two videos. ‘Sceptical slippage’ deals with the tendency to slip from agnostic to negative positions. It offers some explanations as to why we tend to do this, and thus why agnosticism is so unfairly treated in much dominant thought. The final video, ‘Even-handedness’ offers some practical principles for maintaining a clear balance so as to be able to practise agnosticism without giving too much weight on one side or the other.

The MWS Podcast 92: Sharon Begley on the Emotional Life of Your Brain

This week’s guest is Sharon Begley. Sharon is an American journalist who is the senior science writer for Stat, the publication from The Boston Globe that covers stories related to the life sciences. Previously she was the senior health & science correspondent at Reuters, the science columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and previous to that the science editor at Newsweek. Her interests include the neuroplasticity of the brain, issues affecting science journalism and education She’s the co-author (with Jeffrey Schwartz) of The Mind and the Brain, the author of Train your Mind, Change your Brain and co-author (with Richard J. Davidson) of The Emotional Life of Your Brain which will be the topic of our discussion today.

MWS Podcast 92: Sharon Begley as audio only:
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Critical Thinking 17: Appeal to moderation

This particular fallacy is well worth considering here, because it can so easily be confused with the Middle Way. An appeal to moderation (or argument from moderation, or false compromise) consists in the assumption that a belief must necessarily be correct because it falls midway between two extremes. If used in an argument, this is fallacious, because the midway point is not necessarily true or good. To assume this is the case is, indeed, an absolutisation of the middle – of the kind I have sometimes been falsely accused of myself.

A classic example can be found in the biblical story of the judgement of Solomon. The story goes that two women came to Solomon as he sat in judgement, arguing over the possession of a baby. Each of them claimed that the baby was really hers. Solomon then offered to resolve the dispute by cutting the baby in half. Now, that of course neglects a key condition – that the baby needed to remain alive to be helpful to anyone. The (rather incredible) story then goes on that one woman agreed to this solution, whilst the other (the true mother) who really loved the baby was so distressed that she immediately offered to give it up so as to save its life. Of course, one then has to ask why a woman who wanted a baby at all (whether or not she was the true mother) would consent to it being killed: which suggests that she rather represents a very narrow left-hemisphere view of the matter in which an obsession with one outcome blinds one to all other conditions.Judgement of Solomon Boucicaut Master

This story also shows the problem with any kind of assumption that compromise is necessarily right. It does not tell you what the compromise is of or between, nor what the surrounding conditions are. Another example illustrating this is the  philosopher’s ‘paradox of the gentle murder’.  If person A wanted to violently murder C, but B did not, a compromise between A and B might be to only murder C gently. This illustrates how you can distort a compromise just by setting the boundaries of the ‘extremes’ to be negotiated closer to your desired outcome: a technique known to salesmen and known in psychology as anchoring. If a salesman wants to get £100 for an item that in market terms would only be worth £50, he just has to start the negotiations at £150, so that by the time you have beaten him down to a ‘compromise’ £100 you feel you are getting a bargain.

So how is this different from the Middle Way? The extremes to be avoided in the Middle Way are not conventional or manipulable, but consist in positive and negative absolutes. Such absolutes are focused on conquering their opposites, and tend to exclude all third alternatives to their opposite. By considering alternatives, and addressing the conditions as widely as possible, we may end up with a position that superficially looks like one of the extremes, or one that looks like a compromise: but it will not be the fact of it being a compromise that made the difference and justified the judgement. For example, if you’re trying to give up an addiction, the ultimate desirable outcome is obviously not to partake of the addictive substance at all (which looks like one extreme) – but the absolutes you encounter are likely to be the lure of the addictive substance versus the belief that you should give it up. The Middle Way requires you to find ways round this obsessive polarity, but the further solution is not a compromise at all.

To return to the earlier example, in the judgement of Solomon the absolutes might be those of justice (in the sense of fairness between the women) versus those of truth. Solomon employed what Buddhists would call a ‘skilful means’ to find a solution that only on the surface appears to be a fallacious appeal to moderation. His deeper purpose seems to have been to find out how the two women would react to his proposal. In doing so he recognised that he couldn’t reach the absolute ‘truth’ of the matter without doubt, and nor could he reach an absolutely just solution without a means of sharing the indivisible baby. The Middle Way here is widely recognised as a good way of resolving the situation, even though it does not ultimately either find out the ‘truth’, nor is it ultimately ‘just’ to all concerned. Instead, the questioning of the two absolutised extremes leads us to recognise third, alternative values: those of the value of the baby being cared for, even if the carer turns out not to be the genetic mother and even if the disappointed party turns out to indeed be the genetic mother.

In the paradox of the gentle murder, the Middle Way does not involve the acceptance of the positions of A and B as ‘extremes’. Instead, the extremes need to be absolute beliefs. These might be the value of whatever motivates the murder, versus the absolute wrongness of murder. Since a murder of any kind is most unlikely (in most cases) to fulfil the desires that motivated it once they were integrated beyond a certain very limited state of obsession, murder does not have to be absolutely wrong to justify a conclusion that it is wrong in this, and the vast majority of other cases. People who seriously contemplate murder are usually just not aware of all the horrendous short and long-term effects murder has – on the victim, the murderer and others. Such effects would not be greatly reduced by doing the murder gently. So, again, the ‘compromise’ solution is very likely to be wrong, and the Middle Way points towards an approach that looks very close to one of the extremes. Even if the solution looks like just following the rule against murder, however, the motive of a Middle Way approach is more far-reaching and, by allowing the absoluteness of the rule against murder to be questioned, actually offers much stronger experiential reasons for refraining from murder.

Finally, in the example of the salesman who exploits our anchoring vulnerabilities, the Middle Way requires us to become aware of anchoring and compensate for it. Of course, if this proves impossible this will just remain as a condition we have to put up with, and we will continue to be taken in by the ‘compromises’ of salespeople. But psychological evidence suggests that people can make progress with anticipating anchoring in the contexts where it is more likely to have an effect. If we are sufficiently aware of anchoring, we can insist on more acceptable parameters for ‘compromise’ at the beginning of the negotiations.

In practice, moderation often has a lot going for it as a rule of thumb. For example, my own approach to alcohol is based on moderation. Some people might not find this practicable, and prefer to abstain altogether, but for me, moderation generally works. However, it is quite possible to absolutise moderation – and the Middle Way should on no account be confused with a tendency to do this.


Do these examples show an appeal to moderation? If they do, how does it differ from the Middle Way?

  1. John and David are arguing over a cake. John wants to divide the cake in half, but David wants all of it. “OK,” says David, “Let’s compromise. I have three-quarters of the cake, and you have a quarter of it.”
  2. Lena and Olga are sisters engaged in a lengthy lawsuit contesting their sadistically patriarchal father’s will. The most recent will states that Lena should receive the whole estate, but only on condition that she is married. If Lena is not married, Olga inherits the whole estate (whether Olga is married or not). At the time of her father’s death, Lena was not married, but she has since married. Lena is contesting the award of the estate to Olga, but Olga proposes an out-of-court settlement whereby she gives Lena one quarter of the estate.
  3. In the recent Climate Change talks in Paris, the world’s nations agreed to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels. However, no detailed programme was agreed to actualise this aspiration, only further ongoing reviews. Critics complained of the inadequacy of the non-binding target, but defenders insisted that more progress had been made than might have been expected, and that the agreement was the best compromise available.