Archives

A C D E I J M O

Absolute

Brief definition:

An absolute claim (used to describe metaphysics) is one that is not incremental, i.e. in some respect assumes that a given quality is either completely present or completely absent rather than present to some extent.

Agnosticism

Brief definition: Agnosticism is the recognition that we may not have knowledge, because what we think we know may not be true. It is most commonly applied to our lack of knowledge of God’s existence, but can also be applied to any other knowledge claim.

Distinction:

  • Hard agnosticism is the recognition that we can never achieve certainty in our knowledge because of our finite and embodied nature.
  • Soft agnosticism assumes that we might possibly achieve knowledge in the future, so sees agnosticism as temporary

Middle Way Philosophy here recommends hard agnosticism.

Detailed discussion:

Agnosticism is the recognition that we may not know, and it can be applied to every possible belief. For beliefs about things that lie beyond our experience we can have no evidence, and thus it is clear that we cannot know about them. For beliefs about things that lie within experience there is still plenty of room for doubt, because any assertions we make on the basis of our experience are limited in their justification by the limitations of our senses, viewpoint, prior assumptions and categories. Sceptical arguments spell out these grounds for doubt. Agnosticism is thus the most balanced and rational response to the lack of total justification for our beliefs: we may not know anything, and we cannot and should not affirm either that we know or that we do not know.

Agnosticism does not remove the possibility of justification from our beliefs, because justification, unlike knowledge, is an incremental term which can be calibrated in relation to experience. Justification depends on the extent to which we have removed the conditions of ignorance which prevent us from assessing our experience objectively. The conditions of ignorance include the assumptions either that we “know”, or that we “don’t know” about what we are dealing with, when all we actually have access to is degrees of justification.

The Middle Way involves agnosticism because all claims to knowledge (or to its absence) are metaphysical, and the Middle Way involves systematic navigation between positive and negative metaphysical claims. The practice of the Middle Way thus begins with agnosticism as an underlying attitude, and is undermined by claims to knowledge of any kind. Instead, the practice of the Middle Way requires the use only of provisional claims.

Especially important in the practice of the Middle Way is metaphysical agnosticism, the avoidance of acceptance of claims that can be explicitly identified as metaphysical. Metaphysical agnosticism requires a practice of even-handedness in dealing with different metaphysical claims, plus a certain philosophical wariness.

The Middle Way involves hard agnosticism rather than soft agnosticism. Soft agnosticism involves the suspension of judgement whilst waiting for further evidence. However, no further evidence is possible in the case of any knowledge claim, so long as we do not have a God’s-eye view. From our relative position, no amount of further evidence can provide certainty. Thus soft agnosticism is a way of hanging on to the possibility of certainty, when what we need to do is come to terms with the impossibility of certainty. Hard agnosticism is a better response in the terms of the Middle Way, because once we have fully taken on board that certainty is impossible and that we only have degrees of justification, we can then focus our attention much more clearly on that degree of justification.

Embodied meaning

Brief definition:

The theory that the meaning both of language and of non-linguistic symbols is processed through the neural links made in active physical experience, not through a mental representation of objects referred to by language. This theory is put forward by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and others, with support from cognitive science and linguistics.

For detailed discussion see ‘Embodied meaning’ page

Incrementality

Brief definition:

An understanding of the qualities of objects (or people) as a matter of degree rather than as absolutes.

Detailed discussion:

Incrementality is a crucial feature of Middle Way philosophy. The most basic imperative in Middle Way philosophy is to address conditions – that is, to judge on the basis of beliefs that are as free from delusion as possible. If we make an effort to understand any matter incrementally or gradualistically, rather than in terms of absolute quantities, then this helps to avoid the delusions created by our conceptualisation in terms of absolute quantities. We do not ultimately know whether or not the world is actually made up of absolute things that either exist or don’t exist, but we do know that we have a tendency to construct a view of the world in absolute terms, and that subsequent experience often shows these constructions to have been an over-simplification of a more nuanced picture. We need to try to understand things in terms of shades of grey, not in black and white, because further reflection and awareness nearly always provides us with more shades of grey and reveals the degree of delusion in our previous back-and-white view.

 

To consider the increments often takes a further effort of awareness. Is that table brown? An instant stubborn response might lead to a fruitless argument about colour, but more awareness suggests that it is brown in some ways and to some extent, and in others not. Was President George W. Bush a wise man or a fool? Much as political passion might lead me to answer ‘ a fool’, closer examination obviously leads to the reflection that he was (indeed is) a complex human being who is foolish in some ways to some extent, and wise in others. Should I give up eating chocolate? An absolute answer is easily arrived at – of course – but the sudden giving up of a pleasure one is accustomed to (and still has access to) is far less likely to succeed in the longer term than a gradualist strategy. Our absolute conceptions are usually hasty, gross, and dualistic, but our incremental conceptions, whilst still imperfect, get a lot closer to the conditions.

 

This is why in Middle Way philosophy incrementality can be identified with objectivity and absolute positions with metaphysics. Our experience, when more closely examined, tends to be an incremental experience, whilst absolute conceptions tend to prevent us from appreciating the subtleties of that incremental experience. Absolute conceptions can usually be analysed as metaphysical conceptions of one sort or another that are immune to modification in the light of experience. I might believe that the table is really brown because of metaphysical realism, that George W. Bush is a fool because of a belief in, say, determinism or positive freedom, or that I should give up chocolate all at once because of moral absolutism. The metaphysics in all these positions restrains our objectivity and thus our morality.

Incrementality is necessary for maximising the objectivity of our judgements, but it does not help us with actually making judgements that lead to action. When we act we have to set a presumed view of the world as the background to our action, and in many circumstances decisiveness is important, and too much effort to arrive at incrementality would actually interfere with the objectivity of our judgement about how to act. For example, when you are captain of a ship that is about to hit an iceberg, it is not helpful to seek an incremental view about where the iceberg begins and ends before rapidly changing course. Where our provisional view of a situation includes a recognition of urgency and a need for decisiveness, the value of incrementality disappears, but nevertheless that does not undermine the value of maximum possible incrementality prior to that point. For example, it may only be because of careful observation through foggy conditions, tolerating vagueness and probing it for indicative patterns, that the iceberg was spotted in good time by the lookout in the first place. If we waited for a pattern that was certainly an iceberg it might be too late.