MWP Video 3: Provisionality

Provisionality is the capacity to change our beliefs when we have new experiences, a capacity that we all crucially need to adapt to new conditions. Many people (e.g. scientists) tend to praise provisionality in theory: but what does it involve, and how can we cultivate it? This video, the third in the Middle Way Philosophy series by Robert M Ellis, presents the meaning of provisionality in practical terms.

This is the third video in the Middle Way Philosophy Introductory Course.

Some suggested reflection questions:

  1. Do you often have chance to pause for reflection, so as to be more critically aware of your assumptions? When does this happen, or when could you make it happen?
  2. Think of examples of belief that you take for granted in everyday life. Are you aware of possible criticisms of those beliefs?
  3. If you live a very social life, do you take opportunities for solitude so as to gain perspective on what groups expect from you?
  4. Do you have any ways of cultivating weak links, through the arts, or other ways of stimulating the imagination or broadening experience? If not, how could you develop these?

Suggested further reading:

Middle Way Philosophy I: 1c

Middle Way Philosophy IV: Section 2 gives a detailed analysis of provisionality

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2 thoughts on “MWP Video 3: Provisionality

  1. I have two suggestions for further reading on this topic of Provisionality, from the same author: Tim Harford.

    First, his 2011 book “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure ” fits very well with understanding the ‘critical awareness’ aspect of provisionality. He examines the broad ways that we adapt to changing circumstances, making the obvious parallel with evolution by natural selection, but with the important difference that we have awareness of the process (unlike the ‘Blind Watchmaker’ of evolution). This means that we need to know when a particular venture has failed, and be prepared to abandon it in favour of something that has fared better. If we are blind to the signs that a particular idea, technology or belief has failed to address conditions adequately (which could be due to dogma, cognitive bias, etc.) then we won’t be able to adapt because we won’t have the option of allowing unproductive things to fail. The book contains plenty of examples from a wide range of human endeavours (especially economics, where Hartford has his training), where the main mechanism for improvement is to allow variation, to know when some variants have failed and others have done better, and to make changes in the light of this.

    There is considerable overlap in his 2016 book “Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”, although this book is more closely related to the second aspect of provisionality, namely optionality. In the book he looks at examples of situations where, by design or otherwise, a ‘messy’ situation has proved rich soil for serendipitous discoveries, inventions and collaborations to take root in. He also laments the bureaucratic drive for efficiency which attempts to tidy things up and in so doing greatly reduces optionality by reducing experience and engagement. This isn’t the only aspect of messiness that he considers in the book, but it is the one most relevant to the cultivation of provisionality. The following (rather gushing) review by Oliver Burkeman gives a good idea of what the book is like: “Ranging expertly across business, politics and the arts, Tim Harford makes a compelling case for the creative benefits of disorganization, improvisation and confusion. His liberating message: you’ll be more successful if you stop struggling so hard to plan or control your success. Messy is a deeply researched, endlessly eye-opening adventure in the life-changing magic of not tidying up.”

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