Tag Archives: Meaning

A distillation in four points

I’m always looking for new ways to get across the key points of Middle Way Philosophy in a compact list that can be readily referred to. The Five Principles  on which our summer retreat this year will be based (scepticism, provisionality, incrementality, agnosticism, integration) are one way of doing this, but these five principles focus on qualities to cultivate or use in judgement, rather than on the distinctive world-view they emerge from. So here’s a new attempt to distil that world view into four very brief slogans:

  1. Meaning is body-memory
  2. Belief is assumption
  3. Justification needs provisionality
  4. Truth is archetypal

The explanation of each that follows will no doubt be rather compressed. However, the main idea of this blog is to encourage you to see these points as interdependent (each building on the previous ones), and to at least glimpse how they challenge much conventional thinking and offer new ways forward  for humans stuck in that thinking. For more details on this whole way of thinking, please see first the introductory videos, then the Middle Way Philosophy books.Four Points

1. Meaning is body-memory

The embodied view of meaning tells us that meaning is an accretion of memory. But by ‘memory’ here I don’t anything on the analogy of data-storage which people too often use to try to understand memory.  Rather, whenever we encounter a new experience, we create new synaptic links connected to our whole body’s active engagement in that experience. That experience may involve associating words or symbols with the experience, and when we are prompted by similar words, symbols, or other associated experiences in future, we mildly re-run the synaptic connections associated with it. We thus lay down layer after unconscious layer of memories that then provide the basis of meaning-association in future, and even quite complex or abstract language draws on this embodied experience to be meaningful, via the medium of metaphorical constructions. Think about the most abstract language – a scientific paper, say, or a company board meeting. The meaning of all this language, however abstract, still depends on your body. When you have no body memories to connect with it, you cease to understand what is being said.

2. Belief is assumption

The dominant tradition in philosophy and science, which then influences the way people usually talk about their beliefs, is to think of them as explicit, but explicit beliefs are the tip of a very large unconscious iceberg. Most of our beliefs are a matter of what we assume, rather than what we have explicitly said. If you said you were hungry and then started looking at the sandwiches in a café, it would not be unfair to conclude that you believed that a sandwich might address your hunger, even though you didn’t explicitly say such a thing. Yet, strangely enough, most of the established thinking about how to live our lives just offers explicit reasons for believing one thing rather than another, rather than trying to work with what we actually assume. It is not reasoning (which always proceeds from assumptions) that will help us make our beliefs more adequate to the situation, but rather greater awareness of the assumptions with which we start to reason.

But we can only believe what we first find meaningful in our bodies, so the second point depends on the first.

3. Justification needs provisionality

How do we tell how well a belief is justified? That’s a question at the core of all the judgements we make in everyday life, in ethics, in science, in politics or elsewhere. The traditional answers all involve explicit reasons: for example, that a certain action is wrong because it says so in the Bible, or a certain scientific theory is correct because it can be supported by evidence. But we are constantly subject to confirmation bias, all of us living in our own little echo-chambers in which we seek out what we want to hear. The old ways of justifying our beliefs are not enough by themselves. We need to take into account the mental state in which the judgement is made too, to incorporate psychology as a basic condition in our reasons for adopting one belief rather than another. If we can hold a belief provisionally, so that we can consider possible alternatives, we are better justified than if we do not.

The mental state in which a belief is held is inextricable from the set of assumptions that support that belief. We can hold a belief provisionally if we find alternatives sufficiently meaningful (using our imagination). In the traditional ways of thinking dominant in philosophy and science, this way of justifying our beliefs cannot be taken seriously, because meaning is assumed to depend on belief and belief to depend on justification. In that way of thinking, reasoning comes first rather than the mental states in which the reasoning takes place, but this mistakes the tip for the whole iceberg. The third point thus depends on the first two.

4. Truth is archetypal

People are typically obsessed with ‘truth’, ‘the facts’, God, nature, ontology, ultimate explanations. Surely these things are important? Well, only in the sense that they are meaningful to us, not in the sense that we need to build up justifications of our beliefs by depending on them. If we think of ‘Paris is capital of France’ as true and ‘Paris is the capital of Mongolia’ as false, that is usually a kind of shortcut for the thought that the first is much better justified than the other, and that we assume it in practice. But, according to the third point above (justification needs provisionality), to be justified in believing that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ I need to believe it provisionally, that is to be able to consider alternatives. Whether I actually do this or not, claiming that it is true or false adds nothing to that justification apart from cutting off the provisionality, making it the final story and closing off any further thought or discussion on the subject. Claiming that it is true or false thus actually seems to undermine one’s justification.

Nevertheless, we can respect the motive of those who seek to establish the truth (which they will do best by considering the justification of a belief against alternatives – by doubting the truth of their claims rather than asserting it). Truth can thus still be a kind of symbolic inspiration or archetype (see this blog post for examples), and not claiming to possess archetypal truth a mark of fully respecting it. Just as we need to avoid projecting an archetype on someone else by thinking that they are God, or the perfect woman, or whatever (even though we may also appreciate ideal artistic depictions of God or of the feminine) we need to recognise truth as a symbol that we find meaningful in relation to our body-memory, without projecting it onto a particular set of words that we take to be ‘true’. Instead, whenever there is a discussion about whether we should hold one belief rather than another (in science, politics, ethics etc.) we can focus on justification.

We could not make sense of truth being archetypal if we did not separate meaning (point 1) from belief (point 2), recognising that meaning precedes belief rather than the other way round, and that we can find truth meaningful without believing that we have it. It’s also precisely because of the need to maintain provisionality about our beliefs (point 3) that we cannot justify claims of truth.

This view of truth can potentially transform our view of science, ethics and religion: whether we are talking about scientific facts, the good, or God, we can respect the motivations of those who value these things without accepting that any of them are actually possessed in a particular verbal formula.

The four points and the Middle Way

The Middle Way means a practice of seeking justification for our beliefs in provisionality rather than in consistency or evidence alone. To stay in this provisional zone, we avoid the absolutes of claiming truth on the one hand or falsity on the other. To do this in practice requires our mental states to be provisional, which is just as much a matter of our emotions and body as of our reasoning. It’s not a question of aiming to be in some wonderfully enlightened mental state, but simply of judging better every time by being less confined by our personal echo-chambers than we might otherwise be.

In connection with the founding story of the Buddha from which the term ‘Middle Way’ derives, we need to focus not on the final state that the Buddha supposedly achieved by using the Middle Way, but how his judgements at each stage reflected provisionality and enabled him to move beyond the rigid assumptions of those around him. First he needed to leave the palace with its rigid ‘truths’, then also move beyond the religious world of spiritual teachers and ascetics with their ‘truths’ (which also declared the world ‘false’). If we unpack what is required for the Buddha to go through this process at each stage, it involves maintaining a sense of the meaning of alternatives (point 1), developing a greater awareness of the limited assumptions of those around him (not just their explicit views – point 2), and recognising their lack of justification (point 3). If the Buddha had at any point discovered the ‘truth’, this would have halted his progress by ending the story, but instead the story continues – indefinitely.

Finding Jesus (perhaps that hole isn’t God shaped after all)


My relationship with Jesus of Nazareth has recently changed for the better.  I’ve never felt particularity negatively towards him, as I have towards God (I just can’t respond well to a character who encourages filicide, slavery, bigotry and genocide, to satisfy their own jealous insecurities) and have always found his depiction to be strangely captivating.  Yet I have not consciously regarded him as a figure of inspiration; I always felt that he was the property of practising Christians, and anyway, wasn’t he the Son and earthly manifestation of the God that I find so problematic?  This, I am pleased to report, is no longer representative of how I feel (about Jesus, at least) and I’d like to spend some time explaining how this change of heart has come to pass.

As the assumed Son (and earthly manifestation) of a perfect God, it has always been posited to me that Jesus must also be perfect; this was either something you believed in or you didn’t, take this view of Jesus or don’t take him at all.  I assumed that as there are compelling arguments to suggest that the Abrahamic God is far from perfect, then it must also follow that Jesus could not be perfect.  Further confirming this view, a recent reading of the New Testament revealed a sometimes flawed and aggressive Christ rather than the serene, unshakably tolerant, haloed figure of Christian tradition.  This Biblical character seemed leagues apart from the perfect Jesus that I’d been taught about, through art and carefully selected Bible readings.  I also had the suspicion that even if I did find inspiration in Jesus, I could not do so openly and easily without belief in God – as an atheist (hard agnostic) I have often been asked (sometimes forcefully) why I celebrate Christmas, and the fact that my wife and I were married, as atheists, in our local parish Church has also caused confusion and even offence.  When I considered all of this alongside the glaring inconsistencies in the New Testament my response was one of rejection.

In the past year or so I have read two books that have caused me to think again: Zealot by Reza Aslan and Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong.  Although I discuss them here, this is by no means supposed to be a detailed analysis or synopsis.  I would, however, recommend them both for reading.  Aslan spends a lot of time exploring the historical context of Jesus’ life and of the subsequent writing of the books of the New Testament.  I think he does this well and draws many interesting conclusions.  The main one being that Jesus was a radical Jew who, as part of a wider movement, challenged the authority of Rome and perceived corruption of the priestly class, and despite being unsuccessful had a profound impact on those that followed him.  In the decades after Jesus’s death and in the wake of the Roman’s retaliatory destruction of Jerusalem (following their successful expulsion), the foundations of the Christian church were laid – by some that knew him and by many that did not.  Interesting as they are, such conclusions were not the most affecting aspect of my time with this book.  Rather, by thinking about Jesus as a human being and the New Testament as a series of documents – both worthy of historical analysis and set within a surprisingly (for me at least) well understood historical context, I found that my entrenched rejection began to subside.  The fact that Jesus might have existed (and I think it seems likely that he did, given the short time in which his cult developed following his death) and that I felt able to explore this possibility, without feeling that I should harbour some sort of Christian belief, has become fundamental to the way I am able to engage with him and the texts in which he appears.

One can argue, rather successfully as it happens, that to be inspired by Jesus’s life and message requires neither Christian belief nor interest in the historical figure.  I agree, to an extent; why should one have to suspect that Jesus existed to respond positively to his message of forgiveness?  One doesn’t.  Nonetheless, by doing so I have been able to attain much more meaning from the Jesus story than I could before.  Why then, should it matter if individuals or events can be argued to be historical in relation to the meaning they have for me?

Take the image of Father Christmas.  I’ve long believed that the red and white colour scheme of his outfit was designed and introduced by Coca-Cola as part of a marketing campaign.  Red and white are the identifying colours of the company and they do have an irritating habit of plastering Santa’s image over a massive articulated lorry that appears on their festive adverts and visits various towns and cities.  It came to my town this year and people went wild, standing round it in large crowds staring excitedly – filming it on their mobile devices, no doubt.  Anyway, this association with a) the advertising industry and b) a multi-national company, that has a rather chequered ethical reputation, tarnished the meaning of images of Father Christmas for me.  I still had fond memories of childhood, of family getting together in merriment, of nativity plays, of Christmas smells (the list goes on) – but they were mixed up with notions of cynicism, commercialism and exploitation of communities in the developing world.  Of course, the whole Christmas season involves these things, it is a time of excessive contradictions, but the idea of this treasured figure from my childhood being the cynical marketing construction of a company that I have had ethical concerns about distilled this somehow.  Thus, I was quite delighted to find out that the story is probably not true.  Yes, Santa’s image is widely used for cynical marketing purposes, but the fact that his traditional image is used, rather than having been created for, this purpose seems to matter to me.  The story of Coca-Cola creating Father Christmas’s modern image still exists, but the knowledge that it is likely a misconception, rather than historical event changes, for me, the nature of its meaning, and the meaning of depictions of Santa.

Walter White and the series Breaking Bad provide another example of how confidence in the historicity of events can impact on the meaning they may have on an individual.  I loved Breaking Bad; I didn’t want to, because of its popularity, but I did.  The series is harrowing in places and the actions of White become increasingly extreme and difficult to justify.  It skilfully explores a wide range of ethical issues, and I often found myself questioning not only the characters, but myself.  However, if I’m honest, I was always on the side of White.  No matter what he did, I was with him all the way.  Now, if I ‘d gone into the series with the belief (or found out after) that it was either a biography based on actual events, or that it was a documentary, I would have had a very different response to White and his activities.  The ethical questions would still be there, as would the wonderful grey morality in which the story revels, but my response, both intellectual and emotional would be very different; White and his story would have had different meanings for me.

By thinking about Jesus without personal associations of Christian dogma, I’ve been able to imagine, with varying degrees of confidence an individual of greater scope and depth.  This does not require a separation of Jesus from either Jewish or Christian belief.  Nobody seems to quarrel when historians study Alfred the Great or Joan of Arc.  Both individuals were pious Christians, both have mythologies that blur the lines between history and fiction, and one does not have to share their beliefs to study or take inspiration from them.  It seems acceptable, in a way that it often isn’t with Jesus, to examine the evidence and conclude with a degree of confidence that each of these figures existed and that some life events are more likely to have occurred than others.  Joan of Arc (like most historical figures) is both a figure of mythology and of history, there is no conflict and the lines between the two need not be distinct.  If I consider the possibility of Jesus as the radical reformative Jew described above and then take a hard-agnostic view on the possibility of him being the Son of God (whether he thought he was or not is often debated, but there is at least the possibility of finding historical evidence) then Jesus ceases to be perfect, and this is a good thing.  Apart from being more interesting, his sometimes erratic and even intolerant behaviour becomes less problematic.  As a human in a specific historical context, he can be excused for being imperfect, or even morally questionable in a way that God cannot.  The New Testament can be similarly viewed.  Even more than Jesus (who is not around today), the Bible has a history, its various books can be placed, with varying degrees of accuracy, within historical times and places.  The authors need not be identified to understand the context in which they were written.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle is a vast document that details events over a long period.  It’s often contradictory and seems to freely mix fiction with historical events and yet it’s place as an important historical document is rarely questioned.  I don’t have to have the same beliefs as those that wrote it and I don’t have to think that everything that is written in it actually happened.  Aslan, treats the New Testament in much the same way, not just studying the text itself, but also exploring the societies and historical events that frame their construction.  While Aslan’s book enabled me to look at Jesus with fresh eyes and provided an interesting perspective, it didn’t describe a Jesus who significantly inspired me.  Agreeing with all of Aslan’s conclusions felt unimportant compared to the process of exploration that he provided.

Spong’s book, on the other hand, did present me with an inspirational figure.  Like Aslan, Spong also considers historical evidence for Jesus’s life and the formation of the books of the New Testament, but his focus is very different.  In many ways, it’s an account of how he, as a Bishop and long standing Christian who can no longer adhere to mainstream Church teachings, has struggled and succeeded in maintaining his meaningful experience of Jesus and God.  The Jesus he presents is (very roughly) a first century Jew whose radical activities and high levels of humanity, love and integration were able to inspire similar attributes in those that knew him and those that came to know the versions of him that existed after his death.  Spong describes a Jesus that is able to inspire a deeper level of human experience; an integrated state that he calls the ‘God experience in Jesus’.  For me, as someone who has no attachment to the idea of God, I would not describe such an experience in those terms.  Nonetheless, a combination of my experiences with this society (especially Roberts explorations of inspirational integrated Christian figures such as St. Francis of Assisi) and the reading of these two books has allowed me to reassess and come to understand how one could experience and describe a ‘Jesus experience’ of integration, regardless of background or faith.

I haven’t had such an experience, but I’m now able to experience Jesus as a figure of inspiration alongside others, such as Julian of Norwich, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai.  Another unexpected consequence is that my various Buddha figures have taken on additional meaning: instead of representing only the Buddha, the statues now seem able to represent all those who I find inspirational and who also appear to have experienced high levels of integration.  For some, the historical existence of these characters, and others like them will have little impact on their relationship with them.  For me, confident historical speculation seems to augment my experience with deeper levels of meaning.  I have got no idea if the story of Jesus washing Peters feet (depicted above) represents something that happened but I still find it inspirational.  If, however, evidence was discovered that increased my confidence in its historicity then the inspiration and meaning I experience would be further enhanced.