Category Archives: Philosophy

How not to be a Conservative

A little while ago I purchased a book from a bookshop called ‘How to be a Conservative’ by Roger Scruton. I realised as I was buying it that I was feeling some embarrassment. It was a bit like buying a pornographic magazine. What if somebody saw me? What if someone thought I was a Conservative too?

Conservatives may put down this embarrassment to mere social conditioning. It’s true that my parents were liberal (which means middle of the road in England), and the majority of my friends have always tended more to the left than the right. But I don’t think that’s the only reason for my instinctive sense that being thought a Conservative would be shameful. As political polarisation advances, those on the left increasingly seem to see Conservatism, not as a coherent alternative political philosophy, but as a mask for the most unreflective exploitation. In the UK and the US at least, Conservatives are often seen as the epitome of narrow self interest. They are the allies of the big business and media interests who have brought about increasing social inequality, the stagnation of ordinary people’s standards of living, the starving of public services and the welfare state, and the galloping excesses of the rich as they plunder the world’s resources and exploit the ignorance of the poor. I think I can be excused for being concerned about any possible mistaken association that I support all that.

When I read Scruton’s book, however, I found, predictably, quite a different story. A fair section of that story I found quite coherent and in many ways in harmony with the Middle Way. Scruton is a thoughtful philosopher, but I did find him very uneven, sometimes slipping into the political prejudices of the Daily Mail (on issues like immigration and the EU) in a way that seemed to have no clear relationship to his overall case. The Middle Way Conservative case owes a lot to late 18th Century thinker Edmund Burke, and was discussed in Barry’s podcast with Amod Lele as ‘literal conservatism’. It recognises that human society depends on a complex inter-related web of relationships, institutions, cultures and values that has developed organically, not by planning. Revolutions threaten to destroy that rooted organic structure and all that is good in it. Over-reliance on the bureaucratic state can also destroy the deeply-rooted motivations and relationships of civil society, which are quite independent of the state. Scruton also stresses the ways in which our feelings of ‘home’ and of beauty and sanctity are rooted ones that depend on all these organic cultural relationships.

There are some important ways in which thinkers who have influenced me in recent years would agree with Scruton. Iain McGilchrist is a conservative who would stress the ways that the over-dominant left hemisphere can result in political dependence on an instrumental bureaucratic mindset. A more balanced relationship between the hemispheres is likely to result in more openness to the unplanned and unrationalised messiness of traditional civil  society and religion. The work of Jonathan Haidt also points out the way in which Conservatives typically draw on a wider range of values than do liberals and socialists: not only care, justice and liberty, but also loyalty, sanctity and authority. Liberals and socialists do have a sense of loyalty, authority and sanctity of their own (think of the authority of past Labour greats, like Nye Bevan the founder of the NHS, for UK Socialists), but they often have trouble acknowledging that these values have much of a place in politics. Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the importance of ‘skin in the game’. It’s too easy to have an abstracted position on the reform of society and the things the government ought to do, but it’s what we actually have a stake in that’s morally important.

Scruton’s presentation of conservative values involves a basic appeal to balance. Most of his book takes the form of a discussion of ‘the truth of…’ a range of positions: nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, internationalism, and conservatism. This effectively requires him to go through a sorting process in each case that involves thinking about what elements of each position are really compatible with a rooted, organic approach to civil society. For example, when he discusses ‘the truth in capitalism’ he points out the ways in which the free market offers a much more efficient way of determining the fair value of something in trade than any other. However, he also points out that the functioning of a free market depends on there being a stable society with certain basic moral norms, creating trust, on which that market depends. Scruton argues quite convincingly that some things don’t have a price and should not be sold, because to do so would corrupt the more basic structure of civil society on which the market relies. He also criticises the appeal to the free market of those who are passing on their costs to future generations by leaving a negative mark on the environment that will affect them.

There seems to be a basic compatibility between Burkean conservatism and the Middle Way. It is sceptical in a very embodied way, recognising our situated place in time and space. It also puts a lot of emphasis on incrementality – incremental, organic change is the only realistic and sustainable sort of change for humans. There is something highly integrative, too, in the conservative emphasis on the relationship between past, present and future. We delude ourselves if we think we can uproot ourselves from the past, and we bear a great responsibility to future generations. So why, in the end, do I also end up disagreeing with Scruton profoundly in many places? Why, too, does the idea of voting Conservative still seem as unthinkable as it has been all my life?

The main reason is that Conservatives are nowhere near conservative enough. Their appeal to a range of human values, where it happens at all, is far too selective and unreflective, and does often seem motivated by the interests of an economic elite under a very flimsy cover of conservative philosophy: as we have seen recently in the US, for example, in the flagrant voting through of tax cuts for the rich.

Objections to the ‘bureaucratic’ state are also deeply inconsistent, when Conservatives seem to have imposed far more bureaucracy on public services than any others, motivated by an overriding imperative to ensure value for money for taxpayers. Far from enabling genuine integrative growth in the realms of education and health, Conservative rule has imposed a crippling burden of bureaucratic distrust and disabling resource cuts on the professionals who work in these sectors. Far from enabling an organic balance of values to emerge, Conservatives tend to place a relentless emphasis on loyalty to the nation-state (as opposed to other levels of organisation) and fairness in terms of market rates (as opposed to many other sorts of fairness). In their dogmatic distrust of state power, they have often allowed corporate power and corporate bureaucracy to override the interests of workers. Far from respecting the sanctity of the environment, many Conservatives actively deny the threat of climate change, and are active in handing over protected areas to business interests. The trusted authority of the professional, the sanctity of the environment, the fairness of equity between employers and employees, care of the vulnerable – these all seem highly neglected values amongst Conservatives today.

There seem to be many different possible reasons for the ways that Conservatives have betrayed conservatism, but there seem to be two particular Faustian pacts that stand out. The first Faustian pact was with neo-liberalism, and dates back to the 1980’s and the era of Thatcher and Reagan. At first this may have corrected some excesses of the ‘bureaucratic state’, but it went on to to absolutise the power of the market rather than holding it in balance with other values. We have seen how destructive this has been. The other, more recent Faustian pact has been with nationalism. There is no reason at all why our sense of rooted loyalty, of ‘home’, of organic identity should particularly take the form of national rather than local, regional, continental or world identity; but Scruton, along with many other Conservatives, seems to simply assume that it must. The result of this way of thinking in the UK is Brexit, where Conservative breadth has given way to nationalist populism, and the visionary project to integrate a continent is under threat.

Can there be another political ideology whose application to practical policy is so shot through with contradiction and hypocrisy? No, I am in some ways conservative, just as I am in some ways socialist or liberal or green. But the best expressions of conservative philosophy seem to clearly recommend voting for left-wing or Green parties that attempt to rectify the imbalance of the ‘Conservative’ rule we have experienced. You would have to put this conservative on a torture rack to get him to vote Conservative.

Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.

I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits

Double Vision

When we try to think critically and to open our imaginations at the same time, a kind of double vision results. At one and the same time we develop our awareness of potential alternatives, making our thinking more flexible, but still remain aware of the limitations of our beliefs, and do not allow our imaginativeness to slip into credulity. We develop meaning but also control belief. It seems to me that developing this double vision is one of the hardest parts of the practice of the Middle Way: but if we are to avoid absolutizing our beliefs we need to develop both meaning and belief. Those of an artistic disposition will find it easier to imagine, and those of a scientific disposition to limit their beliefs to those that can be justified by evidence: but to hold both together? That’s the challenge.

I’ve been reflecting more on the metaphor of double vision, since I heard it used recently in a talk by Jeremy Naydler in the context of the Jung Lectures in Bristol. Naydler used this metaphor in a talk called ‘The Inner Beloved’, which was about the way in which visionary men of the past have maintained images of beloved women that were actually projections of their own psyches (what Jung would call the anima). He spoke of Dante’s vision of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and Boethius’s figure of Philosophia in The Consolations of Philosophy. These were not ‘real’ women, or had the slightest of relationships to real women, but rather became powerful archetypal symbols of the part of themselves that remained unintegrated. They were the focus of yearning, but also the path of sublimated wisdom – never possessed but always beckoning and challenging.

The capacity for double vision is central if one is to cultivate such a figure: for if a man were to project it onto a real woman (or vice-versa) the results could be (and often are)disastrous. “Being put on a pedestal” probably creates conflict when the real person starts behaving differently from the idealisation – for example, needing time of her own away from a relationship. It is only by maintaining a critical sense of how the mixed up, complex people and things in our experience are not perfect and do not actually embody our idealised projections that we can also give ourselves an imaginative space to engage with the archetype itself. Recognising that the archetype puts us in touch with meaningful potentials, showing us how we could be ourselves, and how we could relate to the world, can provide a source of rich inspiration that I see as lying at the heart of what religions and artistic traditions can positively offer us without absolute belief. 

The annunciation, a Christian artistic motif that I’ve previously written about on this site, for me offers an example of the archetypal in its own terms. For most of us, it is much easier to look for the archetypes in art, and separate this mentally from trying to develop balanced justified beliefs with the real people we meet every day, rather than prematurely over-stretching our capacity to separate them by risking archetypal relationships with real people. That’s why lasting romantic relationships need to be based on realistic appraisal rather than seeing the eternal feminine or masculine in your partner, and also why venerating living religious teachers like gods may be asking for trouble.

Personally, I do have some sense of that double vision in my life. My imaginative sense and relationship to the archetypes has developed from my relationship to two different religious traditions (Buddhism and Christianity) as well as from the arts and an appreciation of Jungian approaches. On the other hand, my love of philosophy and psychology provide a constant critical perspective which also provide me with a respect for evidence and a sense of the importance of the limitations we must apply to practical judgement. Sometimes I find myself veering a little too far in one direction or the other, slipping towards single vision rather than double vision, and then I need to correct my course. Too much concentration on cognitive matters can make my experience too dry and intellectual. Underlying emotions and bodily states can then come as an unpleasant surprise. On the other hand too much imagination without critical awareness can reduce my practical resources in other ways, as my beliefs become less adequate to the circumstances.

Our educational system overwhelmingly only supports a single vision, with the separation of the STEM subjects on the one hand from arts and humanities on the other. But a single vision seems to me an impoverished one, even within the terms of that vision. Those with a single vision based on scientific training and values tend to have some understanding of critical thinking, but to think critically with more thoroughness it’s essential to be aware of your own assumptions and be willing to question them – which requires the ability to imagine alternatives. There are also those with a single vision who are willing to imagine, but tend to take the symbolic realm as in some sense a key to ‘knowledge’ of ‘reality’, and thus uncritically adopt beliefs that they can link with their imaginative values. For example, those who, like Jung, find astrology a fascinating study of meaning, often seem to fail to draw a critical line when it comes to believing the predictions of astrology – for which there is no justification.

If it is not simply a product of limited education or experience, a single vision is likely to be associated with absolutisation; because absolutisation, being the state of holding a belief as the only alternative to its negation, excludes alternatives. We avoid allowing ourselves to enter the world of the other kind of vision, then, by regarding ours as the only source of truth, and by disparaging and dismissing the other as ‘woo’ (from the scientific side) or as soulless nerds (from the imaginative). Rather than accepting that we need to develop the other kind of vision, we often just construct a world where only our kind of vision is required. Then we share it with others on social media and produce another type of echo chamber – alongside those created by class, region, educational level, or political belief.

Developing a double vision, then, is an important part of cultivating the Middle Way, and thus also a vital way beyond actual or potential conflicts. A failure to recognise your projection onto someone, for example, creates one kind of conflict, but a failure to imagine may take all the energy out of it and lead to another type of division between you. We may not be able to develop double vision all at once, and it’s best not to over-stretch our capacity for it, but the counter-balancing path is open to you right now from here. Here are some follow-on suggestions on this site: if you’re a soulless nerd, go to my blogs about Jung’s Red Book. If you’re more of credulous “woo” person, try my critical thinking blogs.

Pictures (both public domain): double vision from the US air force and Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’.

The MWS Podcast 124: Abeba Birhane on a person is a person through other persons

Our guest today is Abeba Birhane. Abeba is an Ethiopian cognitive science PhD student presently living in Dublin. She blogs regularly at on topics including philosophy, psychology, feminism, anthropology. She recently drew quite a bit of attention on the internet in an article for Aeon entitled Descartes was wrong: a person is a person through other persons and this will be the topic of our discussion today

MWS Podcast 124: Abeba Birhane as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_124_Abeba_Birhane
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The Third Phase revisited

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on this site called the Third Phase. This suggests that, although nothing in history is inevitable, there do seem to be some signs that our civilization as a whole may be entering a new phase of engagement with conditions. You could see that as a new kind of science, philosophy, psychology, or practice. Here is the crucial part of that post that explains the three phases:

In the medieval era, complexity was ignored because of the over-simplifications of the ‘enchanted world’ and its unresolved archetypes. We mistook projections of our psychological functions for ‘real’ supernatural beings. A supernatural world provided a causal explanation for the world around us that prevented us from needing to engage with its complexity. The medieval era was gradually succeeded by the era of mechanistic science, in which linear causal mechanisms took the place of supernatural ones. Although we began to get to grips with the processes in ourselves and the universe, this was at the price of over-estimating our understanding of them, because we were using a naturalistic framework according to which, in principle, all events could be fully explained.

We are now gradually moving beyond this into a third phase of intellectual development. In this third phase, we not only develop models to represent the universe, but we also recognise and adapt to the limitations of these models. We take into account not only what we know, but what we don’t know. The signs of this third phase have been appearing in many different areas of intellectual endeavor.

Look at the original post for a list of what those areas are. They include complexity theory, embodied meaning, brain lateralization, and cognitive bias theory. These are all relatively new developments, involving psychology and neuroscience, that come together to offer the basis of a new perspective. But that perspective is not entirely dependent on them, and is actually far older, since it is another way of talking about the Middle Way. The Third Phase may arguably have first been stimulated by people living as long ago as the Buddha and Pyrrho.

The Third Phase











What strikes me, looking back at this idea more than three years after the original blog, is how simple and obvious it is. The idea of being aware of our limitations is not at all a new one. It’s just the product of the slightly bigger perspective that I’ve tried to illustrate in the diagram above. You can merely be absorbed in the ‘reality’ you think you’ve found, probably reinforced by a group who keep telling you that’s what’s real, or you can start to recognise the way that this ‘reality’ is dependent on (though not necessarily wholly created by) your own projective processes. You look at that hated politician and see the Shadow. You look at scientific theories based on evidence about the earth and see ‘facts’. Or you can look at yourself seeing either of them, and also recognise that those beliefs are subject to your limitations. In both cases that doesn’t necessarily undermine the meaning and justification of what makes the politician hated or the theories highly credible. It just means that you no longer assume that that’s the whole story.

The third phase is not simply a matter of the formalistic shrugging-off of our limitations. It’s not enough just to say “Of course we’re human” if the next moment we go back to business as usual. The third phase involves actually changing our approach to things so as to maintain that awareness of limitation in all the judgements we make. I think that means reviewing our whole idea of justification. In the third phase, we are only justified in our claims if those claims have taken our limitations into account. That’s the same whether those claims are scientific, moral, political or religious. So it’s really not enough just to claim that such-and-such is true (or false) just because of the evidence. People have a great many highly partial ways of interpreting ‘evidence’, and confirmation bias is perhaps the most basic of the limitations we have to live with.

So far people have only really dealt with this problem in formal scientific ways, but science is like religion in being largely a group-based pursuit in which certain socially-prescribed goals and assumptions tend to take precedence, even if very sophisticated  methods are used in pursuit of those goals. Such scientific procedures as peer review and double-blind testing are not the only ways to address confirmation bias, and they are applicable only to a narrow selection of our beliefs. The third phase, if it is happening, is happening in science, but it is also very much about letting go of the naturalistic interpretation of science: the idea that science tells us about ‘facts’ that are merely positively justified as such by ‘evidence’. In the third phase, science doesn’t discover ‘facts’, but it does offer justifications for some beliefs rather than others, and these are acknowledged as having considerable power and credibility. In the third phase, that is enough; we don’t demand an impossible ‘proof’. Better justified beliefs are enough to support effective and timely action (for example, in response to climate change).

The third phase involves a shift in the most widely assumed philosophy of science, but it is not confined to science. It is also a shift in attitude to values and archetypes. Some of us are still caught up in the first, supernaturalist, phase as far as these are concerned, and others in the second or naturalistic phase. Ethics and religious archetypes are either assumed to be ‘real’ or ‘unreal’, absolute or relative, rather than judged in terms of their justification and the limitations of our understanding. I do have values, that can be justified in my context according to my experience of what should be valued. At the same time, the improvement of those values also involves recognizing that they are dependent on a limited perspective that can be improved upon, just as my factual beliefs can be.

Perhaps what I didn’t stress sufficiently in my first post on the topic is that the third phase is not a matter of clearly-defined scientific breakthroughs. It is individuals who can start to exercise the awareness offered by the third phase with varying degrees of consistency. As Thomas Kuhn wrote of scientific breakthroughs or paradigm shifts, they actually depend on a gradual process of individuals losing confidence in an old paradigm and shifting to a new one. But there can also be a tipping point. When it starts to become expected for individuals to recognise the limitations of their justification, as part of that justification itself, social pressure can begin to be recruited to help prompt individual reflection.

We can hope for some future time when the third phase is fully embedded. When religious absolutists stop assuming that the way to make children more moral is to drill them in dogmas. When secularists get out of the habit of dismissing whole areas of human experience in their haste to find a secular counterpart to religious ‘truth’. When promoting understanding of the workings of our brains is no longer considered suspiciously reductive. When the public is so well educated in biases and fallacies that they complain to journalists who let politicians get away with them. When evolutionists respond to creationists not by appealing to superior ‘facts’, but solely by pointing out deficiencies in the justification of creationist belief, in ways that apply just as much in the realm of ‘religion’ as in that of ‘science’. Yes, we are still a long way off the entrenchment of the third phase. We can only try to get it a little more under way in our lifetimes.