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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.

Conditions

Brief definition:

Whatever it may be that impacts on our experience but does not appear to be part of that experience itself. An open way of talking about “reality” in the everyday sense, whilst avoiding the metaphysical connotation that “reality” often quickly gathers.

Detailed discussion:

The concepts of ‘conditions’ and ‘adequacy to conditions’ play an important role in Middle Way philosophy. These are philosophically hedged terms that provide a tentative way of referring to truth beyond our experience, that is also compatible with the full recognition that we are limited by our experience. We do not have access to how things really are beyond our experience, and it is remarkably easy to slip into imprecise language that incorporates the assumption that we do have access to how things really are – it is important to guard against such slippage. Nevertheless, objectivity needs not a guarantee, but a direction. Things from beyond our mind and perceptions do constantly impact on us, often in unexpected ways, and objectivity consists in an ability to respond more adequately to those pressures from beyond. The term ‘conditions’ seems the best way of referring to the way things appear to affect us from beyond our experience, without appealing to any kind of supposed “reality” as an epistemological foundation.

The term ‘conditions’ is not limited to, or reducible to, ‘external conditions’. Conditions that we perceive as being beyond ourselves are often inextricably combined with ones from ‘within’ ourselves. Conditions may be physical, social, economic, psychological, or spiritual. To address internal conditions, it may be important for us to avoid addressing outward “reality” for the time being as a necessary defence mechanism, for example to prevent excessive stress. It may also be necessary to temporarily suppress internal conditions (e.g. anger) so as to deal with pressing external issues. Addressing ‘conditions’ as a whole means finding the best available balance between the addressing of inner and outer conditions in the circumstances.

The concept of adequacy to conditions is equivalent to objectivity, and refers to our capacity to understand, investigate, anticipate, and respond appropriately to new experiences that affect us, arising from the perceived external world, from others, or from our own psyches. Adequacy to conditions can also be understood in terms of psychological integration – or more specifically in terms of integration of meaning, desire or belief -, which enable different energies within us to work together in responding to conditions. Such integration is linked to the avoidance of dogmatic beliefs, the development of provisional beliefs, and the development of more concentrated and more emotionally positive states, all of which assist in the adequacy of our response to new conditions. For example, we could have a better or worse response to a conflict with a colleague, an unexpected episode of depression, or the apparent falsification of a cherished theory, given greater integration and thus greater adequacy to those conditions.

The concept of adequacy to conditions should not be confused with other theories about causality or conditionality. For example, it does not depend on a particular metaphysical account of cause (except that we are likely to be more objective if we avoid commitment to such metaphysical accounts). Our adequacy of response to conditions does not depend on a concept of causation as being real or ideal, or even as being linear or mutual (though most Westerners could pragmatically use reflection on mutual causality to reduce their unacknowledged attachment to concepts of linear causality). The concept of conditions here should also not be confused with the Buddhist doctrine of conditionality or pratityasamutpada, as although, again, some Western Buddhists may have made some use of this concept to help liberate them from attachment to concepts of linear causality, pratitysamutpada has itself been made into a metaphysical construction by many Buddhists.

“Conditions” are not a truth about the universe, and there is no justification for a “doctrine of conditionality” as often presented in Buddhism. Nor should conditions be assumed to be in any way personal, ordered, or providentially organised for our benefit: all such assumptions about conditions in general are metaphysical dogmas. Reference to conditions is just a pragmatic way of recognising that “reality” is bigger than we think it is. As soon as “conditions” become more than that, then they start to betray that pragmatic purpose. We need some such term to maintain the balance of the Middle Way, and avoid the possible lapse into idealism that would follow if we were to try to give up all language referring to what lies beyond our experience.

 

Desire

Brief definition: Desire is any energy, drive or motive that actually or potentially creates mental or physical activity, whether conscious or unconscious. Desire propels an organism towards a goal of some kind, whether explicit or implicit, but can shift between different conceptualised goals.

Detailed discussion:

The concept of desire used in Middle Way Philosophy is developed from the psychoanalytic concept of drives or of psychic energy. It needs to be seen as purely energic, able to transfer from one goal to another, rather than as necessarily tied to one goal. Our desires obviously emerge from our physical experience of being an organism, and they drive and structure that experience from early infancy. Having desires is one of the basic conditions of our existence.

Desires are seen in Middle Way Philosophy as contingently morally positive. Most of the time, most of us experience having desires and fulfilling them as a good thing – one that provides our actual values. If we don’t, this is probably due to a lack of integration. See All desires are good page.

The flexible nature of desires is what makes it possible for them to be integrated. We start off with energies that are associated with certain goals, but if we gradually adjust our conception of those goals, they can change into more integrated ones. This is not to deny that our desires will be more readily stimulated towards some goals than others – e.g. food and sex – but this is only a moral problem if the direction of energies towards those goals involves conflict with other desires. We need to work with integrating our desires whatever conditions happen to stimulate them, rather than assuming that their goals are inevitable or unchangeable. See integration page.

A much more in-depth discussion of desire, its conflicts and integrations, can be found in Robert M Ellis’s book Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire.

Dogmatism

Brief definition:

The psychological state in which metaphysical views are held, involving the repression of alternative views which then cannot be examined.

Detailed discussion:

Metaphysics consists in beliefs that offer false certainty, and can only be held in a dogmatic psychological state. Dogmatism in turn requires a metaphysical type of belief. There is thus a complete interdependence between metaphysics and dogmatism that provides the meeting point between philosophy and psychology that is the key insight of the Middle Way. If this ‘completeness’ sounds unlike the theoretical provisionality that the Middle Way requires, it needs to be remembered that this completeness is the property of the delusory metaphysical belief itself. It is because we desire certainty that we construct beliefs that can take a form that apparently offers certainty.

Metaphysical beliefs can only be held dogmatically, because openness to new information requires the possibility of competing beliefs. Where a belief is absolute, representational and dualistic in form no alternatives are possible, as any new experience can be explained in a way that is compatible with the metaphysical belief. That means that all doubts – beliefs that might compete with the metaphysical belief – are repressed. The state of dogmatism is one of repressive assertion, in which alternative beliefs cannot be seriously considered. Dogmatism offers a continual self-justifying positive feedback loop, whereby any new information is continually interpreted as confirming the initial belief, and negative feedback is repressed.

Dogmatism also requires a metaphysical belief as its basis, because a belief that could be changed would not serve its purposes. If any negative feedback occurred this would be disallowed by the dogmatic psychological state.

For example, suppose Burt has a metaphysical belief in the superiority of men over women. If this was just a provisional theory, he would be open to experiences that appeared to disprove his belief – for example, a women showing him to be wrong about something. However, his belief is both metaphysical and dogmatically held because he does not allow any such evidence. If a woman attempts to show him to be wrong about anything, he does not accept their point because of his belief that women are inferior.

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.

Integration

Brief definition:

The incremental uniting of initially opposed beliefs, meanings or desires by the relaxation of opposing energies, and the recasting of beliefs in a compatible form that better addresses conditions

For detailed discussion see the Integration page.