Tag Archives: Even-handedness

Excavating agnosticism

You may think you know what agnosticism is, but I think there is far more to it than meets the eye once you start digging. I have just finished producing a series of videos in which I try to make a comprehensive case in digestibly-sized chunks. Agnosticism

First of all, agnosticism is a practice, not a failure of decision. It is not just about God, but God just happens to be a particularly well-known example of a pair of metaphysical opposites (theism and atheism) to which agnosticism offers a third alternative. It does not involve hanging onto impossibilities, but rather coming to terms with them. Far from being passive, it involves an effort not to be sucked into the absolutizing extremes that dominate discussion (the diagram here, though it may remind you of a football referee, represents the potentially isolated position of the agnostic between dominant groups).

If those points surprise you, you will need to start by looking at the introductory video on agnosticism.

But there’s much more to be said after this. What, after all, is wrong with the extremes in the first place? I want to argue that it’s not simply a dogmatic failure of justification that’s wrong with it (though that is bad enough), but much more seriously, the role of metaphysical (i.e. absolute) beliefs in repressing alternatives, and thus constantly limiting the new conditions we can address, as well as creating conflict. In ‘what’s wrong with metaphysics’, I argue that metaphysics should not be confused with basic or prior claims (a common move by philosophers), that absolute metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally, and that their only function is to maintain unconditional loyalty to groups or authorities. Metaphysics is a power ploy rooted in a past era when it may possibly have been necessary – but it now greatly hampers us. It’s geared for ancient armies, not modern democracies. That’s why we really need to be agnostic.

But after showing what’s wrong with absolute belief, it’s then very important to rescue the meaningfulness of absolute terms. Terms like God, truth, Satan, nature, beauty etc. should not be objects of absolute belief, but they can still be fully appreciated as archetypes with crucial meaning in embodied human experience. That means that we really can have our cake and eat it: we can participate in religious life without compromising our integrity or triggering the repression and conflict that often accompanies religious ‘belief’. Metaphysical belief is in no way necessary to what religion has to contribute to human experience. All we have to do is separate absolute belief from archetypal meaning.

The practice of agnosticism also demands clarity about what it is we’re avoiding, and the balanced treatment of positive and negative kinds of absolute claim as equally unhelpful. This is the subject of the final two videos. ‘Sceptical slippage’ deals with the tendency to slip from agnostic to negative positions. It offers some explanations as to why we tend to do this, and thus why agnosticism is so unfairly treated in much dominant thought. The final video, ‘Even-handedness’ offers some practical principles for maintaining a clear balance so as to be able to practise agnosticism without giving too much weight on one side or the other.


Rigorous even-handedness seems to me a central skill involved in practising the Middle Way, and I’ve been thinking about it especially after recent discussions on the site with Richard Flanagan and Mark Vernon. I thought I’d share a bit more about what I think even-handedness means, how we might practise it and why it is important.

The central metaphor involved in the Middle Way is balance – trying not to lean too far either to one side or to the other, because both sides offer rigidities of view that stop us making provisional judgments that address the changing conditions around us. Of course, the way we each find a point of balance as individuals depends on our background, and our approximation to balance may seem like a series of corrective lurches from one side to the other. But we can only maintain even corrective lurches if we have a clear idea of what we are avoiding. If we’re avoiding both positive and negative metaphysical claims, we need a clear view of each so that we can spot them before we hit them. Even a drunken steersman with a rather blurry idea of the strait ahead of him still has to have a sense of both sets of rocks to be avoided.Blondin_sculpture_Ladywood

That lays some conceptual demands on us, as the way people are accustomed to talk about views does not necessarily make it very clear what the positive and negative metaphysical poles are. We’re probably all fairly clear that the Taliban on one side, or an addict trying to fill a meaningless life with drugs, on the other, represent extremes of both belief and practice to be avoided. However, in between such obvious extremes there are lot of positions that lay claim to the middle ground. The sheer amount of jostling for the middle ground itself provides evidence that in some sense people intuit the Middle Way to be right. Labels that we may have thought were extreme may be re-presented as the Middle Way, or at least a middle way. To some extent they often are, but to some extent also mingled with metaphysical commitments.

The first name that springs to mind to illustrate this is Tony Blair with his ‘Third Way’. The Third Way was quite a specific policy, and was about combining a goal of increasing social equality with the pragmatic effectiveness of market economics. Blair’s Third Way was a re-labelling of a once Socialist British Labour Party, a re-orientation of its economic policy. Although he made little impact on rising levels of inequality in Britain, Blair did manage to change the agenda. Since then British politicians (in marked contrast to the polarisation of the US) have been jostling for the centre ground, all claiming to offer the middle way between extremes. Many of them may be sincere about this. But I’ve yet to find a politician that I found convincingly rigorous, consistent or even-handed in developing a genuinely Middle Way position. The middle was appropriated mainly because Blair showed how politically advantageous it was, not because it was perceived as the morally objective option. It was a partial achievement, but Blair’s Third Way has also become a bit of a hazard for a practitioner of the Middle Way – a narrow interpretation of it that might be mistaken for the whole thing.

As with the Third Way, there are a number of other positions that I continue to argue are at least partially inspired by metaphysical assumptions, but that various people have suggested (some on this website) are compatible with the Middle Way. These include Scientific Naturalism (particularly of the ‘methodological’ variety), various types of liberal Christianity, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, Kant, Natural Law, Deep Ecology, the ‘Radical Middle Way’ in Islam, Social Democracy, Conservatism, Atheism, Humanism, and of course, Buddhism. Now, I don’t want to be mistaken for a purist simply rejecting all these positions because they’re not perfectly right. The Middle Way Society isn’t perfectly right either. All these positions address some conditions to some extent, whilst neglecting others. But we will only be in a position to assess them critically if we maintain some conceptual distinctions between the Middle Way and any one of them, not allowing any of them to appropriate the Middle Way as we understand it. I would then expect lots of quite reasonable disagreement on the extent to which any of these ideologies fall short of the Middle Way, but you won’t be able to assess that extent unless you have an idea of the Middle Way that is distinct from any of them, to start with.

That’s where the practice of even-handedness comes in. I’d suggest the following method, whenever you’re in doubt as to whether a particular belief is part of, or is compatible with the Middle Way:

  • Identify the extremes of view in the area you’re thinking about – i.e. a pair of polarised beliefs that lie beyond experience. See About Metaphysics page for examples.
  • Clarify the vocabulary, checking that you’re not just using the same word for a position that might or might not be interpreted metaphysically. If necessary, stipulate two meanings for yourself, e.g. atheism 1 & atheism 2 (this might be a temporary measure just to avoid confusion).
  • Reflect on the need to avoid both extremes. Most likely your background will steer you in one direction or the other. But both extremes offer equal dangers.
  • Imagine that you come from the opposite background (e.g. Conservative instead of left-wing, or theist instead of atheist) and see if what you thought was the Middle Way still looks like that from the other angle.
  • Try to define the Middle Way for yourself in rigorous avoidance of both the extremes.
  • Think about the practical implications of the Middle Way in this area.

I hope this kind of method might help you to avoid confusions merely arising from terminology. I have developed my own uses of terminology in Middle Way Philosophy in accordance with this method, but I think it’s the method that determines the use of terminology that is more important than the terminology itself. If you can use this method, I hope I will accept your corrections if you can show me that I haven’t used it rigorously myself.

I think this is important for individual practice of the Middle Way, but it’s also vital for the society whilst it is still in its early phase of development. It would be very easy for the Middle Way as a concept to be appropriated and eclipsed by one of the ‘false friends’ mentioned above. The consequences of this would be disastrous, because the whole purpose and central originality of the society would disappear. It would also cease to have the reconciliatory role it could potentially have in entrenched conflicts, because it would start to be seen as a cover for ‘the other side’. Theists would assume it was really atheistic, scientistic types that it was a cover for woolly new-ageism, Conservatives that it was really Socialist, etc. Even-handedness is just a vital part of what I conceive the society to be about, but it would be all too easy to let it slip.

Meditation 3: Balanced Effort

One of the most important ways that the Middle Way can be applied to meditation is through the idea of balanced effort. In fact, I think one could put it rather more strongly than that. One could even say that the practice of meditation, in a broad sense of the term, is balanced effort. That is, whatever one is doing, whether it is formally labelled ‘meditation’ or not, one gains more effective awareness through an immediate experience of balancing between extremes.

The two extremes that one is avoiding can be conceptualised in all sorts of ways, as the assertion or negation of ill-adapted fixed views. However, those extreme views are likely to be associated with reasons for either straining or slacking in meditation. For example, you might be too wilful in meditation because of anxiety about what your meditation teacher or other people in your meditation class will think – which could be identified with a fixed view about absolute value being placed with the authority of the group. On the other hand, you might be too lackadaisical in your meditation because of a fixed view that whatever you feel you want now is OK – which could be identified with a fixed view of yourself.

It is the views behind it that make the practice of balanced effort a practice of the Middle Way, but actually it’s probably not helpful to spend too long analysing the views behind your feelings in meditation. Rather, you can just experience extremes of feeling, whatever the reasons behind them, and respond to those extremes by relaxing what is too stressed or tightening what is too slack. The Buddha used the analogy of a lute-string for the Middle Way, and this applies very well to balanced effort as well. You need to be sounding just the right note.

Too much wilfulness may well be detectable physically, in the form of tension in your body. The shoulders and the face seem to be particular barometers of it, so initial relaxation as you start off in meditation needs to pay attention to the muscles in these areas. It can help to clench each muscle and then relax it. Other indicators of tension might be a tight chest or clenched teeth. I find it very helpful to deliberately open the chest at the beginning of meditation, and an openness of the chest seems to be associated with warmth of emotion.

On the other hand, too much relaxation may well result in a slouched posture. Assuming you’re doing sitting meditation (which you might not be, following Peter’s previous contribution on standing meditation!), you can try to find a balanced uprightness by imagining a thread attached to the top of your head, that is gently pulling your body upwards. If you follow the sense of such a thread, it should lead to a straightening in the shoulders and neck, though without rigidity.

Apart from developing the conditions for balanced effort through posture, there is also an ongoing process of responding to distractions that drag you one way or the other. If you are encountering high-energy distractions such as anxious thoughts or obsessive desires, you can try to balance them out Blondin_sculpture_Ladywoodby focusing more on your rooted body, particularly your abdomen. On the other hand, if you are feeling torpid or sleepy, then opening your eyes slightly, or making your object of meditation more stimulating, may help.

Every time you sit down (or stand up) to meditate, you are also tightrope walking. To practice their skill, though, I imagine that tightrope walkers have to get used to regularly falling off. Let’s hope there’s a safety net.


Picture: Sculpture of Charles Blondin, tightrope walker, at Ladywood in Birmingham