Networks and the Middle Way

Recently I’ve been reading about network theory, an inter-disciplinary study related to complexity theory and systems theory. I’m very much struck both by how much it supports the approaches in Middle Way Philosophy, and by how it could help the presentation of it. Network theory studies the properties of any network: for example, the network of connections on the internet, the social connections between friends and relatives (online or offline), the connections between animals, plants, and non-organic elements in an ecosystem, or the neural connections in the brain. The illustration is of network connections on the internet, but it could conceivably be a diagram of any of a  number of other types of complex network.

Internet diagram Opte project edited
What makes a network complex (and thus not entirely predictable) is the potential for any element in it to connect to any other element. If you are connected to a computer (or smartphone) reading this now, you are part of a network that could potentially connect to many millions of other machines. If the network is your brain, then it is even more complex than the internet: there are an estimated 100 to 500 trillion neural connections in an adult human brain.

We’re more in the habit of thinking of social or ecological networks than of ourselves as networks, but if we can do so it could open up our thinking in many useful ways. We need to think of ourselves as a network of neural connections that is so mind-bogglingly complex that it can create consciousness, ego, experience, and all those other features we think of as ours. That model can make it easier to explain both how desire, meaning and belief relate to each other (all of them consist in neural connections or disconnections), and how our desires, meanings and beliefs can be more or less integrated – depending on how well interconnected the different parts of the network are. Of course, this is a simplification of the actual processes in the brain, but a model that might be helpful.

Network theory talks in terms of strong ties and weak ties between nodes on the network. In the picture, strong ties are the thicker lines, thinner the weaker ties. Strong ties, either in an individual brain or in a society, would correlate to strongly shared beliefs which are based on well-worn cognitive models. Weak ties, on the other hand, provide further potential beyond those well-worn channels, and might be associated with creative thinking and new metaphors. Two or more clusters of strong ties that are only weakly related to each other suggest unintegrated and possibly polarised beliefs. It is very difficult to say how far such patterns could actually be traced in a brain, where there would also be many other processes occurring, but I presume that this is what we would be able to see if we could isolate the pattern of neural connections that were most relevant to the beliefs concerned.

I think that the Middle Way might well be conceived as involving a balance between strong and weak ties in relation to our meanings and beliefs. We can have strong beliefs in the sense of lots of strong ties integrated into a single pattern, without neglecting weak ties. However, those with strong beliefs often unfortunately maintain them by trying to impose an exclusivity on the network that it cannot have. Imagine a part of a network with a strong central node and very strong links to other nearby nodes – but hardly any links beyond that. At a social level that would be the pattern of an exclusive cult, or an isolated authoritarian institution, and it would also be the pattern that members of such groups would try to impose on their brains. This kind of exclusive pseudo-network of strong ties would represent metaphysical belief. Of course, those who try to impose such a pattern on their brains do not completely succeed, because they continue to be embodied beings requiring all sorts of other neural links, but the dominance of left hemisphere function can still make such imposed patterns dominant in conscious experience, and do quite enough damage.

Alternatively one could potentially have lots of weak ties, and be very open to a variety of experiences and ways of thinking, but lack the core of strong ties that are necessary to be effective in practice. We can’t avoid having beliefs if we want to do anything, and when we act, the clearer and more comprehensive those beliefs are, the better. Lots of strong ties mean power, whether that the political power of a person in a social network or a belief in a neural one, because the more nodes that can be united by similar motives, the stronger the capacity to act.

Network theory also talks about equilibrium in a network. This is when the different elements in the network have no incentive to radically change the network. This state of equilibrium (also known as homeostasis) will occur when the network addresses the conditions it needs to address. This is perhaps easiest to see in an ecosystem, where different creatures can settle into a ‘balance’ despite the fact that they are probably eating each other. My suggestion would be that our best chance of addressing the complex and changing conditions around us in a sustainable way, and thus developing this equilibrium, is to maintain a balance of strong and weak links. That way we can both act effectively in the current situation and think flexibly when new conditions arise.

Picture: Internet connections by the Opte Project (Wikimedia Commons)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

9 thoughts on “Networks and the Middle Way

  1. This is yummy brain food!

    Some proto-thoughts: I do find this helpful in understanding the Middle Way Philosophy, but perhaps in a way that is slightly challenging to parts of it. What follows may well be based on a misreading of the philosophy on my part; perhaps Robert can help me see if that is the case.

    Previously I have struggled a bit with one aspect of the philosophy in particular: that of avoiding metaphysical belief. I don’t feel I have much of a problem avoiding dogma, but it seems to me that metaphysical belief can and will sneak in however vigilant we are. I feel that perhaps we cannot avoid it, only repress it – and if we repress it, we may become blind to its existence altogether, or miss important insights.

    I feel that metaphysical belief is somewhat akin to Kahneman’s system 1, or “thinking fast”. It is a mental shortcut that shouldn’t be relied upon in the wrong situations, but we could never survive without it, unless we were some sort of conscious rock organism, that need not act or interact but merely reflect.

    I feel that lately many ideas have cropped up from different directions to suggest that diversity of ideas and phenomena is the ideal, rather than trying to find one ideal idea or phenomena: Iain Mcgilchrist said in the podcast that we need the extremes, Tom Atlee is on to something similar, when he claims that for group intelligence, diversity is more important than average intelligence. Here is network theory telling us that many connections are more sustainable and adaptive. Nassim Nicholas Taleb comes to mind also, though I haven’t read the book, he seems to bring up something similar as being antifragile. There are of course many parallells in ecology, medicine, etc. as well.

    So perhaps it may not be best to have as a (explicit or implicit) goal that we should all strive to avoid “extreme” views, perhaps these views are an evolutionary stage and it is impossible to “skip” them, and furthermore they may have important information for us. I suggest that there is an idea underlying the Middle Way philosophy that posits that it would be desirable for all people to “evolve” to a state where they can detach and integrate and we would then have a better world. However, perhaps what we need is rather ways to bring people together in networks without them having to change first, and harness the information that is there now. Human society may “evolve”, but to try and force the direction by pruning the network may be hubris. It is however vital to have ways of being interrelated in a web of contrasting views.

    Those of us who have sought out the society are coming to it presumably because it makes sense to us already in some way. We are an important node in the network, and perhaps along with others can help to strengthen the web considerably. Perhaps that should be an important goal? We can contribute many things, with excellent networking strategies like incremental objectivity, integrating desire, avoiding appeal to authority and dogma.

    I suggest that we should be incremental also about avoiding all metaphysical belief so that we do not end up pruning our network too considerably. Perhaps it is enough to be aware that metaphysical views are always at least partly unsupported by experience? I say partly, because I believe that they are often partly based on experience – but as soon as we try to take that experience and make it meaningful to others we inevitable leave the realm of our experience and start to send out little filaments in each other’s direction in hopes of connecting with another, and then we have at best incorporated another’s experience, and at worst, been infected by mind worms such as the cultural content and associations that “tag along” with words such as “God”, “sacred”, “sin” etc, that we use to communicate our experience based concepts to others.

    This all gels with certain Taoist thought that warns us against trying to make things better, and in light of complexity theory, we should be mindful of trying to pull one strand of the web because we do not know the ripple effects that may result. There are multiple factors to everything, and these factors have factors, and so on and so forth.

    Either way, this post made my brain churn, always a pleasant experience! 🙂

  2. Hi Emilie,
    Lots of interesting stuff here.

    I think you’re right that the ‘avoidance’ of metaphysical belief needs to be incremental, and that if we just reject metaphysical belief then we just repress it – which has the effect of creating more metaphysical belief. That’s why I put so much emphasis on balance and avoiding negative metaphysics as well as positive. It’s very easy to reject a positive metaphysical belief only to land on a negative one instead.

    I think you’re also right to say that we can’t expect to get rid of metaphysics. Being aware of its influence and working with it incrementally is the main thing. However, I’m not sure that that implies that we can’t have the avoidance of metaphysics as a goal – providing it is understood as an incremental goal. I’d call it ‘avoidance’ rather than ‘removal’ or ‘purification’ for that reason.

    I also think that you (and McGilchrist etc.) are right that there is a sense in which we ‘need’ the extremes. However, that sense needs to be specified. A dialectic can’t happen without a thesis and an antithesis, or integrate extremes without awareness and understanding of both of them. In many cases, though, I think it might be enough to understand and engage with an extreme sufficiently to relate its weaknesses to experience, rather than actually having to go through a phase of believing in extremes. One can’t really avoid metaphysics without seeing and experiencing how problematic it is, though. It’s for this reason that I’m OK with continuing to teach conventional Philosophy and Religious Studies, despite my frustration with many assumptions in the syllabuses. For example, before avoiding metaphysical beliefs about mind and body, it will probably help students to understand the thinking behind Descartes dualism and modern materialism. Nevertheless, I feel there’s a difference between teaching this as an absolute dichotomy and the approach I take, which is to at least raise the possibility of a third option based on hard agnosticism.

    I don’t think metaphysics should be identified too simplistically with Kahneman’s ‘fast thinking’. A lot of fast thinking is metaphysical, but fast thinking can also be merely intuitive – a distillation of previous experience enabling one to act fast in a familiar environment. This capacity to act fast is obviously often necessary. I’d identify metaphysical thinking much more with fast thinking when slow thinking is available than just fast thinking per se. Rules of thumb that help us engage with conditions are not metaphysical as long as they can still change in different conditions. It’s when they get stuck and stop us engaging differently with different conditions that they become metaphysical.

    I wouldn’t agree that metaphysical belief itself is to any extent based on experience. But one needs to be very careful in understanding metaphysical belief as consisting in propositions, either as they’re communicated to others or to oneself. Elements of propositions like ‘God’ or ‘sin’ are associated with experiences and are not in themselves metaphysical. Metaphysical beliefs also coincide in the same person with lots of practical beliefs, but practical successes are often attributed to the metaphysical beliefs – e.g. a person prays to God to cure their cancer, they get better and they believe that their cancer was remitted by God. Here of course the causal processes are complex and mysterious, but we don’t have to rule out the possibility that praying to God contributed to the remission – it’s the attribution of the cure to God rather than prayer that’s metaphysical.

    Finally, in applying the idea of networks to metaphysics the challenge is always to keep bearing in mind the idea that a network can not just hold a belief, but be one. It’s the strength of those neural connections that allows the energy to flow in that particular way. It’s a challenge not to prune too far and too fast, I agree. But I think that’s mainly achieved by being completely open about meaning, and expecting all views to be meaningful in terms of our experience. That keeps lots of weak ties open in all directions. At the same time we can perfectly well maintain strong and coherent beliefs in the centre, developed through experience.

    1. Hi Emilie,
      I like your ‘ brain food’ description, all information I come across while studying Middle Way Philosophy and the accompanying threads, I think of as brain storming! I do enjoy the challenge involved in making an attempt to understand at least some of it. I picked up on Iain McGilchrist’s comment about extremes, it is hard not to encounter extreme views and beliefs in world news and the mass media, some are quite upsetting. As a network we do have the opportunity to air views and maybe, if only incrementally, we can arrive at a Middle Way solution to some of the conflicts or differences of opinion that we come across, we will not always agree about everything we discuss, that wouk
      ld be boring and not very productive, but we have the willingness to see all sides, which can help to resolve some of the difficulties we will be facing. In the short time since we joined in here, we have come a long way I think. Relying purely on our individual ideas may lead us into dead ends, in other words we can get stuck in a groove where no movement is possible. There is a saying, problems shared….are halved.
      I am pleased to be considered a node in the network, as you say we came to this society with very similar intentions. No doubt we each have strengths and weaknesses, I am aware that my ability to think critically about detailed points is wanting, but I feel brave enough to add a little to this discussion, rather than refrain from replying altogether.
      Perhaps because I have been an atheist, now modified to accepting that I’m a hard agnostic, I don’t have quite the same queries about metaphysical positions. I have been thinking about archetypes lately, can belief in them be placed in the same category?
      Happy New Year to you all.

    2. Robert, thank you so much for replying and for the clarifications, I wanted to reply sooner but it’s been a busy few days for me. I find this a very stimulating topic.

      I think perhaps my understanding of metaphysics needs a bit of refining. I am reading Migglism right now, which might help 🙂

      I found this a very helpful distinction: “I’d identify metaphysical thinking much more with fast thinking when slow thinking is available than just fast thinking per se. Rules of thumb that help us engage with conditions are not metaphysical as long as they can still change in different conditions. It’s when they get stuck and stop us engaging differently with different conditions that they become metaphysical.”. (However I didn’t mean to suggest that system 1 and metaphysical belief were totally analogue, just that they had in common certain characteristics.)

      So metaphysical belief could be seen as rigidity in the face of evidence, and a tendency to take reasoning-short cuts when they are not needed?

      What you write about the belief in God and sin etc is very interesting; I assumed that belief in God would always qualify as a metaphysical belief. But avoiding the pitfalls of reasoning described above would redeem it? I am still struggling with how to think about or make meaningful a spiritual experience without sliding into fast thinking.

      I am still somewhat unsure of how one would pin down the precise difference between a belief based on experience and some types of metaphysical belief. For example a belief in God could for me be either a “blind faith” (as in, I have been taught that God exists so he must exist), to having experienced a feeling of for example being overwhelmed by love and drawing the conclusion that this is a phenomena that go beyond the self. A person, embedded in culture, might associate that with some of the contents of the archetype God. (I feel that there is a lot of baggage in the words “God” and “divine” etc that makes it difficult to discuss them, as one may discuss totally different aspects of it and disagree because of it.).

      I see that making that association leap is a bit “fast thinking” and problematic in some respects and it is starting to depart from being experience based. What I am not sure of though is how (if?) drawing that conclusion and making that leap is different than holding any other working hypothesis. As an example, the famous disagreement between Darwin and Agassiz where they disagreed on how atolls form. Agassiz had a theory about it based on (lots of) empirical evidence, and Darwin refused the evidence, held instead a theory that he reached by intuitive feeling, a sort of “this makes sense to me somehow, so it must work this way”. Later it turned out that Darwin was right. He couldn’t prove it however, as the technology to do so wasn’t invented until much later. Sometimes we have a feeling, and we reach beyond the justifiable conclusion and hypothesize. It can lead us to make mistakes, and it can lead us to new knowledge or experience that it immensely valuable. Of course, when we make these leaps, we cannot expect others to blindly follow. Is that perhaps where metaphysical belief comes into play?

      I think where it gets muddled for me is the concept of hard agnosticism. I have always understood it as: holding the position that there can never be knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God, and so one rejects the usefulness of the question of God’s existence. As in, one is against the pursuit of argument for or against because the premise is that such argument must always be baseless. I have two problems with this; 1) this seems like a metaphysical position in its own right, and 2) I am not disinterested in the question! 🙂 And perhaps this is why I don’t yet understand fully your assertion that metaphysics aren’t based on experience. To me it seems that they are, but that it is a question of degrees.

      As to extremes, I don’t mean to suggest that we each have to go though extreme stages, or that we should adopt extreme positions for the sake of it. I just mean that we might, rather than try to top-down encourage people not to hold extreme views, accept that a diversity of extreme and moderate positions exist in society – not because they are all right or good or because we need to go through them as evolutionary stages- but simply because they in fact exist. People adopt them for reasons, and those reasons need to be worked though somehow. We cannot change the fact that they do exist by applying force, what we can do is try to harness the information that the extremes can offer and incorporate it so that we then can make better decisions. (And what I see being suggested by all these various thinkers is that this additional information will help us make better decisions in the end, than if we were all “almost perfect”.) When there is no longer information in the extremes (no reasons for them to form), they will disappear and new ones will form, no doubt, leading us on and on.

  3. Emilie, I’m really enjoying your ‘chewy’ responses to Robert’s posts, although it may be as much the gutsy sound of strong jaws and teeth on cartilage and osseous tissue that gives me satisfaction! I think I get your drift, although I’m not sure I understand ‘fast thinking’ (unless it means thoughts running over well-used and regularly lubricated rails).

    One phrase of yours caught my attention and there rose up an impulse to remark on it:

    “I am still struggling with how to think about or make meaningful a spiritual experience without sliding into fast thinking”.

    Now, I may be completely up the wrong tree, but would I be right in thinking that your labelling an experience as a spiritual one might be an example of fast-thinking?

    One reason for my asking is my slight aversion to the ‘spiritual’ label, if only because it begs the question, “What’s a non-spiritual experience?”. Well, one might conjecture, perhaps gnawing a bone, or picking one’s feet. But why?

    Anyway, it’s good to chat, and I look forward to hearing from you with your thoughts about this, be they quick as lightning, or slow as drying paint 🙂

  4. Hi Emilie and Peter,
    I agree that this is a useful discussion. I also agree entirely with your final paragraph about working with extremes, Emilie.

    Peter raises the issue of the definition of the term ‘spiritual’. I tend to use the term spiritual to mean something akin to ‘integrative’, or perhaps ‘engaging with our deepest experience’. That involves a disclaimer that I don’t understand the term as having anything to do with supernatural spirits, but like ‘objective’ there is a common use of the word that is incremental and experiential. If you describe yourself as ‘in good spirits’, few people today would assume you were talking about supernatural entities. It’s one of those words that one almost has to define every time one uses it to avoid confusion.

    I’m assuming that Emilie is using ‘spiritual’ in this experiential way. To separate the spiritual from the metaphysical, I think one just has to try to separate language that tries to describe the experience itself from any absolute claims that have become associated with it. I’ve found some of Sartre’s writings very helpful in this regard (e.g. his short popular lecture ‘Existentialism and Humanism’). What he brings out there is the importance of taking responsibility for your interpretation of experience. He also points out that someone who claims God has sent them a sign is themselves responsible for that belief, and like Kierkegaard he uses the example of Abraham – who is depicted in Genesis as following divine instructions to sacrifice his son and then to refrain from doing so, but was nevertheless responsible for both of those decisions.

    I do think belief in God is always metaphysical belief. It could not avoid being absolute as God is usually defined. However, I distinguish this from finding God meaningful. One could have an experience that one chooses to label ‘of God’ that is a meaningful experience, but I think the crucial point where one crosses into metaphysics is where the interpretation becomes revelatory. In revelation, one takes propositional beliefs that one takes to be true because they are given by God.

    An interesting example of Darwin and Agassiz, Emilie. On this point I’d be very much inclined to agree with Popper, who said that it didn’t matter where a belief comes from, just whether it is investigable. Even if it is not scientifically investigable it can be personally investigable. I make a lot of use of intuitive myself in developing theory, and I tend to think that synthesis is often done better with at least an element of intuition. One often can’t hold all the elements that are required for a comprehensive picture consciously in one’s head at the same time. We have to think slowly in order to be critical and evaluative, but that doesn’t mean that slow thinking is always the best way of understanding things in the first place. All this is distinct from metaphysics, I think. Metaphysics is about how we judge our claims rather than how we arrive at them.

    Then there are your problems with hard agnosticism. The belief that we should avoid metaphysical beliefs is not itself metaphysical, but rather a principle of method. It is not absolute because it is what makes incrementality and reliance on experience possible in the first place. One can’t be incremental about metaphysics itself because of metaphysics’ own self-defined absoluteness. However, one can be incremental about dealing with the practical effects of metaphysics and gradually trying to limit its influence. If you do try to be incremental with metaphysics itself I find the effect is that one’s experiential theory becomes appropriated by metaphysics. It is necessary to confidently draw a line and say “I’m not going allow metaphysics to dominate my thinking here”. This is an act of suppression in which one remains aware of what is suppressed, rather than of repressive denial.

    A parallel with this is that of not allowing Fascists to appropriate democracy, or Fundamentalists to take over a Quaker meeting. Spheres of experiential openness unfortunately have to be defended (as in my post on internet discussion, too). Such defences are a way of addressing conditions and of preserving a precious sphere in which integration remains possible. I think this applies as much within our minds as in the social sphere. We need to keep the metaphysical Fascists in our own minds at bay in order to give experience a chance. As long as we remain aware of our reasons for doing this, and these remain rooted in the Middle Way rather than just a counter-reaction, we are not being repressive, absolute or dualistic.

    As for whether you are actually disinterested in metaphysical questions: I think that’s just something to work with. We all have a tendency to react against metaphysical beliefs we disagree with, or perhaps to identify with the experientially positive associations found in religious traditions along with the metaphysics. I just try to limit the oscillations (there’s an autobiographical section at the end of MWP2 where I write a bit about my own experience of such oscillations – stilling them is a far from complete process for me!). If you still really care whether God exists or whether there is freewill, or where the universe ends, a process of critical argument might help one to gradually see the uselessness of such questions. But after this there are still all kinds of gut reactions that are a matter of personal practice.

    Metaphysics itself is never a matter of degree, because of the way in which it defines itself through the left hemisphere absolute mechanism. But everything to do with the way we engage with it through experience is incremental, given that in practice metaphysics co-exists with other views within us, and that it comes and goes in our identifications. It is a basis of practice involving recognition of meaning in our bodies that helps us to develop the context where saying ‘no’ to metaphysics is not just another oscillation.

  5. Peter, you pose a very good question. I like Robert’s definition. I think my own answer, today, is that “spiritual” refers to something that expands one’s awareness or experience of self. A perspective shifting/expanding/encompassing phenomenon. One spiritual experience I have had is a profound feeling of being deeply immersed in benevolent interconnectedness with everything. That is just a description and it already changes some of the meaning of it by putting it into “the best but not perfect available words,” but it is the best way I can describe it. A feeling of non-separateness, and of “knowing” that we all affect each other and so are responsible for what we contribute – and that differences and boundaries between beings are to some extent illusory.

    Robert, to clarify: when I wrote “…1) this seems like a metaphysical position in its own right, and 2) I am not disinterested in the question!” I meant that #1 referred to the idea that the existence of God can never be proven or disproven – this seems like an absolute claim to me. I wasn’t referring to avoidance of metaphysics as being a metaphysical belief, just that particular claim of hard agnosticism. As for #2, the question I am interested in is perhaps what you describe as “finding God meaningful”, rather than being interested in metaphysics per se, especially since I have to adjust my definition of metaphysics after this discussion! ☺ I am not especially interested in the question of whether God exists, but I am interested in many of the phenomena and qualia that are related to spiritual experience, and the many attributes and consequences that spring from world views that may or may not include God.

    I find the distinction between a “belief in God” and finding God meaningful very interesting. This seems to be the meat of the matter of this discussion for me. I think that the distinction is really hard for me to see clearly, and I suspect that it is so because I have little experience with “belief in God” but much experience with finding God meaningful. Could the difference be as between the difference of belief and faith? I have gone from being a very secular atheist, to being an agnostic pagan, to being an agnostic pantheist-christian-anarchist-taoist… None of these incarnations have touched upon belief in God, but I feel I have always had faith, as in a sense that there is meaning and purpose in the universe.

    I do consider myself an agnostic, because no matter what I may feel is true, I assume there are many “unknown unknowns”. Therefore I do my best to question my assumptions and to not assert that my position is superior to someone else’s or set in stone. I also have never found the capacity for belief in any divinity, or other “entities or beings”. I lean towards a sort of pantheist worldview, and I have been quite inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s version of Anarchist Christianity, as well as the Quaker concept of inner light.

    I do have spiritual experiences (using the definition above), and I do find, upon thinking long and hard about it, that however I strive not to let them form metaphysical beliefs; the second I name them I seem to have done something of the sort. I started to write that I feel that God is a meaningful concept, but then I found myself thinking about what “God” means, and I found that I may as well substitute “universe” or “web of life” or “human connectivity” – and suddenly we end up again at having a rather ill-defined concept at the core of the discussion.

    I don’t know if this is what you are talking about Robert, but as with the word “spiritual”, calling something “God” or “sacred”, which is what seems to make spiritual experiences most easily communicable, quickly attracts lots of what I call “sticky stuff”- the baggage, associations and concepts that those words carry with them culturally. It is very easy for words like “God” to become like secret trapdoors into your mind; paths along which things can sneak in undetected – so that an experience based concept, such as feeling immersed in benevolent interconnectedness, is somehow expanded to include lots of things that are not experience based (for me) – for example belief in original sin, or an afterlife, or suggestions to what God might look like (and suddenly one has slipped into imagining some sort of being) finding yourself trying to think your way to a conclusion of what to believe rather than letting feeling and experience grow into strands that connect into worldview. I do have very strong evidence on a personal level that there is interconnectedness. This isn’t something I can prove, so as a hard agnostic, should I ignore these feelings? I could not do that or see it as desirable, and I misunderstood (I think) that this was what was meant by avoiding metaphysical questions.

    It is really difficult to see one’s own constructs and trapdoors- it is much easier to se those of others! So to check if I have understood your definition of the difference between a metaphysical position, such as a “belief in God”, and an experience made useful, such as finding God meaningful, I’ll try another example.

    I often hear people refer to the “wonders of science” when they are looking at an awe-inspiring thing, such as a waterfall or a nebula. It makes me think of a person smelling a rose and exclaiming: “My nose is amazing!”. Undoubtedly the nose really is amazing, but it is a little myopic to leave out all of the other phenomena that allow the scent of rose to be lovely; the most obvious being the rose itself, but also the ecosystem that allows it, the neural sensory pathway and rest of the body of the smeller, the air and lack of pollutants to mask the delicate fragrance, the climate and seasons, etc. In the same way, some people have come to a belief in science as something more than a method that allows them to gain useful information about the world; a belief that, if one isn’t careful, can mask the actual reality of that world. So, would attributing the existence and wonder of, for example, black holes or ice on the moon Europa, to science (rather than the attributing the discovery of these things), in some ways be analogue to what we are discussing here?

    As in, I have an experience of interconnectedness and feeling that there is benevolence imbedded in the universe. Due to cultural experiences I call this “God”, and in doing so, I have, if I am not careful, unconsciously gained some thought-viruses; for example, the assumption that there is a being of some sort responsible for this interconnectedness.

    As for this: “Spheres of experiential openness unfortunately have to be defended (as in my post on internet discussion, too). Such defences are a way of addressing conditions and of preserving a precious sphere in which integration remains possible. I think this applies as much within our minds as in the social sphere.”

    I think this is a very fine way of putting it. We need to be simultaneously open and defended. We must keep a space in our minds where new information is allowed to come in and change the outdated (openness), but in order to preserve diversity we have to also reserve some of it so it doesn’t change too much, depart too much from that very tendency for openness (defence).

    Perhaps metaphysical beliefs are like closed feedback loops that keep reinforcing themselves. If so, I agree there is no problem with avoiding them. I suppose I reacted because I felt that whole continents were being shut off from exploration, so to speak. But it is rather the means of exploration that are in question, which is quite reasonable.

  6. Hi Emilie,
    We seem to be in agreement on lots of things, which is great. I like your “my nose is amazing!” analogy, and it does seem to be on the wavelength I’m trying to broadcast on. As for “faith” – there is another word that has to be defined every time it is used! I take faith to be the emotive and intuitive aspect of belief, and as such it could be about either experiential or metaphysical matters. So, I do think there is justifiable faith (which is where I would want to place my faith in the Middle Way) – but ‘faith’ is very often attached to metaphysical assumptions too.

    I don’t agree, though, that “existence of God cannot be proven or disproven” is a metaphysical claim. I think it is just a recognition of conditions: that we are finite beings, so therefore proof is impossible – not just of God, but of anything else. For it to be otherwise we would have to be something other than finite beings. That’s why I think that soft agnosticism (i.e. agnostics who await further evidence) actually have a more dogmatic position than hard agnostics. The very idea that we could attain the kind of certainty that would be required to satisfy ourselves about metaphysical claims involves a kind of arrogance that is cloaked by the openness to experience that is supposedly involved. But openness to experience, on the contrary, is in direct conflict with the very idea of drawing such conclusions from experience. It is not metaphysical to recognise that metaphysics is beyond us, but rather it’s the starting point of confident engagement with non-metaphysical ways of justifying our beliefs.

    1. Thanks Robert, further down the rabbit hole I go! 🙂

      “… a recognition of conditions: that we are finite beings, so therefore proof is impossible – not just of God, but of anything else.”

      I think perhaps I understand now… well maybe? 🙂

      I can agree that on a fundamental level we cannot “know” anything at all… we just operate under assumptions, that certain things are a certain way. I can see that by this logic the existence or non-existence of God cannot be proven, and the hard agnostic is correct. I guess I just get sidetracked by the fact that agnosticism is only ever heard of when it comes to the question of God. I couldn’t see why this question is different and should require special logic. But if the agnosticism extends to encompass all things, it makes sense.

      …Not that one has to go about questioning everything, of course, because most people have experiences of cupboards and ashtrays and cats that justify functioning from these assumptions, but not all people have experiences that make God a meaningful concept.

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