The MWS Podcast: Episode 5, Julian Adkins

In this second of our member profiles, Julian Adkins talks about his life, why he joined the society and his experiences with the Christian, Buddhist and Atheist traditions. He goes on to say how these experiences partly informed his decisions to become a classical ballet dancer, an engineer, a nurse and now a CBT therapist. He explains the impact, Stephen Batchelor, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have had on his life. He also talks about how he’s getting on introducing Middle Way Philosophy to the meditation group he runs in Edinburgh.


About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

8 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 5, Julian Adkins

  1. Thanks to both Barry and Julian for this. I just thought I’d say something more about the issue towards the end, of the idea that it is an unavoidable metaphysical assumption that the world did not begin last Thursday. Julian correctly explains my position when I first responded on this point, but I have since thought further about it.

    The more I consider this example, the more I think that it is a genuine example of a metaphysical belief – and thus not deserving of provisional acceptance, but rather just of avoidance. We don’t know for sure whether the world began last Thursday or not: but if it did, with all memory of previous times implanted into our brains as a delusion, this would make no difference whatsoever to our experience. It’s thus something that we would do better not to take a position on. Hard agnosticism about whether the world started last Thursday seems the best policy, as on other metaphysical issues.

    Such hard agnosticism is entirely compatible with us working with a phenomenological world that did not start last Thursday. The difference between me holding the belief that the world did not start last Thursday phenomenologically (i.e. only in terms of experience) and holding it metaphysically is my openness to phenomenological indications that it did or did not start last Thursday, should there ever be any. If I were to manage to hold it phenomenologically (which would not be easy, and would require practice), I would not repress any counter-evidence that came along that challenged my view of the world in such a profound way. People like Rupert Sheldrake are challenging conventional scientific assumptions so radically that they are almost (though not quite) on this level of challenging models. One could apply a ‘Rupert Sheldrake test’ as to how seriously one took someone who presented evidence that the world started last Thursday: a test that many philosophers and scientists would probably (unfortunately) fail. One of the main reasons they would fail, I suggest, is that they are using a metaphysical and representational model for the ‘truth’ of what they believe, and the test of this is how they respond to challenges like Sheldrake’s.

    You could also understand this in terms of brain hemispheres. One can play around with the mere idea of the world beginning last Thursday in a way that is purely abstract and discontinuous – i.e. entirely in terms of left hemisphere representations. To do this and draw definite conclusions on that basis would be just as metaphysical whether you drew the conclusion that the world did begin last Thursday or that it didn’t, whether you tried to use it to support the idea that we have unavoidable base metaphysical beliefs, or whether you used it to start a new conspiracy theory in which gods or aliens made the world start last Thursday. The idea only becomes useful to us when it can connect with experience entering through the right hemisphere, however likely or unlikely that experience.

    However, that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the idea because it runs against common sense. Common sense is based only on the probabilities of a limited experience. Instead, we need to take the idea seriously, no matter how wacky it seems. The idea of a typhoon with 235 mph winds might have seemed quite wacky a few weeks ago, and the idea of a stock market crash would have been pretty wacky in 2007. We can’t dismiss ideas just because they are wacky, but nevertheless to take them seriously they have to be within the realm of experience rather than a priori speculations. I don’t suppose Joe actually wanted people to take the idea that the world started last Thursday at all seriously, but that’s what I do.

  2. Hi Robert,

    I cannot disagree with the suggestion that we have no way of knowing if the world ‘began’ last Thursday or not, and (possibly) hypothetical scenarios, such as the one above are impossible to disprove. However there appear to be consequences of regarding a statement such as ‘the world did not begin last Thursday’ as a metaphysical claim that is ‘better not to take a position on’, which I am struggling with.

    Firstly, by applying this logic to all of human experience then everything that can be expressed by a human becomes a metaphysical claim, for example ‘I am brushing my teeth’ (I might believe that I am brushing my teeth, but I could be asleep and plugged into the Matrix, or residing in a care home suffering from severe delusions). My concern here is that by stating that everything is metaphysical we are devaluing the word. If everything is metaphysical (and I can, in theory, accept that it is) then I can see no use in the word, it is redundant for practical purposes.

    Here is a hypothetical scenario to try and explain why I think that it is important to make decisions based on the likelihood of a claim (metaphysical or not) being a description of ‘reality’.

    Imagine that you are falling from an aeroplane with a parachute strapped to your back. Either side of you there is a person, one with a parachute and one without. Concious of the gravity (he! he!) of your situation, you desperately ask for advice on what to do. The man to your left suggests that you should pull the cord of your parachute, thereby deploying it and enabling you to reach the ground safely. The man to your right on the other hand, suggests that to pull the cord would be madness – instead you should flap your wings, like a goose. Now, you have never used a parachute but have seen them used on t.v, but of course this could be a trick. Maybe nobody really does this and all the footage that you have seen has been computer generated. You have seen a goose fly, but then maybe these have been hallucinations or maybe the flapping serves no purpose – besides, you have been taught that physics will not allow you to fly by flapping – but you have no way of proving if this is ‘true’ or not. Whose advice would you take and on what basis? I am making an assumption that most people reading this would choose to deploy the parachute and if we accept that the claim the parachute will work might be a metaphysical claim (as might the claim that we can fly like a goose), then we must accept that some metaphysical claims are more likely to be ‘true’ than others, such as whether the world started last Thursday, which might also have important practical implications.

    So my first question is

    ‘do you agree that an implication of the Thursday Problem is that anything might be regarded as metaphysical’?

    My second question is

    ‘If there are things that are not metaphysical, then can you give an example of one’?

    My third question is

    ‘If everything can be said to be a metaphysical claim then is there a scale of metaphysical by which the usefulness of a claim can be measured?’

    Rich.

  3. Hi Rich,
    I think you need to take on board more here the distinction I made between a metaphysical and a phenomenological (or experiential) belief. A metaphysical claim is absolute and lies beyond experience – a point that applies to the world beginning or not beginning last Thursday, but not to your example of whether a parachute works better at saving your life than flapping your ‘wings’ (presumably arms) like a goose. There might be cases like this where we end up being wrong because of the limitations of our knowledge, rather than because our judgement was metaphysical. Metaphysics is deluded because of the poor use it leads us to make of the information available to us, which in your hypothetical scenario is very restricted.

    So, no, I don’t agree that ‘anything’ can be regarded as metaphysical, if by ‘anything’ you mean any claim. Metaphysics is a property of people’s claims where their brains get stuck in the left half. Claims that are made with awareness of their own limitations are not metaphysical. There are no metaphysical ‘things’ if by ‘things’ you mean objects.

    The provisionality (non-metaphysicality) of a claim is not just determined by its representational content, but by the surrounding interpretation. For example, it’s a non-metaphysical claim that ‘the cat is in the garden’ provided that I hold that claim with some awareness of the possibility of being wrong. The cat may have moved since I last looked, etc. To make it very clearly metaphysical we’d have to put it in a form like “The cat really is in the garden, whatever it looks like”, or “It’s an ultimate truth that the cat is in the garden”.

    Metaphysical claims are absolute, so there is no ‘scale of metaphysical’. However, they also occur in a context. A metaphysical belief is only one of many beliefs potentially actuating us, so there is a scale of how much we as people are actuated by metaphysical belief (which is another way of presenting a scale of integration). A judgement at a particular point may be only partially affected by metaphysics, but actually take a range of conditions into account. Imagine that there’s a crowd of people inside your head: two of them are metaphysical, but twenty are not. Your judgement depends on whom you listen to, and whether you try to take the metaphysical views into account at all.

    You might find it helpful to look at the about metaphysics page that I’ve added recently, to get a wider idea of the theory with some helpful diagrams.

  4. This has cleared some things up for me but not others, so please be patient with me :).
    I had looked at the Metaphysics page before I posted and I think that I understand it, but I can get into a bit a twist about what is meant by metaphysical. Until very recently I thought that it meant something akin to spiritual but I now know that a metaphysical claim does not have to be spiritual.

    I should ask here of your definition of metaphysical is widely held or is it specific to the Middle Way Philosophy? I ask in regard to a metaphysical claim needing to be absolute and beyond experience – is this a widely held view? If I say that Elvis might live in my attic, but he is invisible, this is not absolute and so this would not be regarded as a metaphysical claim (even though to me it seems to be ). If I say that Elvis definitely lives in my attic, but he is invisible, then this becomes a metaphysical claim – am I on the right track?

    I am also struggling with regards to metaphysical claims being beyond experience. Here are two examples of possible metaphysical claims that we have discussed here and else where:

    1. The world did not begin last Thursday.

    2. God has spoke to me.

    Example 1 does not seem to me to be beyond experience as I have experience of last Wednesday (although I understand that this experience might be wrong), yet I have no experience of the world starting last Thursday. Similarly, if I were to speak to a member of the Church of Latter Day saints they might tell me that they, and many others have direct experience of God and that their relationship is a real as it is with their parents. So my point here is that it seems that some metaphysical claims can be experienced directly, even though this experience might be (and often is) wrongly interpreted.

    I cannot see the difference (metaphysically or phenomenologically) between the belief that the world did not begin last Thursday and the belief that using a parachute is better than flapping ones arms (wings!) when falling from a great. I have direct experience and evidence for the world existing before last Thursday, photographs, technology, my family, my education etc. Where as I have no direct experience in using a parachute, other that seeing it on the T.V. and reading about it – all of which I did before last Thursday. I can’t see why the logic of the Thursday problem cannot be extended to the use of a parachute, if my belief that the world did not start last Thursday might be deluded (which I agree that it might), then so could my belief that a Parachute is better that flapping – this too, could have been implanted into be brain as a sinister joke by a higher power, for example. The logic of the Thursday problem can be applied to any time. It is possible the universe came into existence 1 minute ago and that I, and everything else materialised as we are, with memories fully formed. If I accept that this might be so (and my experience that it did not is metaphysical), then it seems to follow that any claim that was made before 1 minute ago (including the usefulness of a parachute when falling) could also be metaphysical.

    I hope that I am not totally off the mark with my understanding of metaphysics and that this makes my objections to the Thursday problem clearer.

    Rich

    p.s. When I said ‘things’ I did mean ‘claims’, as I did with’ wings’ and ‘arms’ – although if one did flap theirs arms and achieve flight then the arms might also be regarded as wings.

  5. Hi Richard,
    My specific use of the term ‘metaphysical’ is different from that used by analytic philosophers today, but is much more in harmony with how the term is often used by Buddhists, and was used by some earlier Western philosophers, such as Popper.

    It’s almost the opposite of ‘spiritual’ – at least in the positive way that I would use the term spiritual! But if you compare one contested term to another there are likely to be misunderstandings.

    If you say that an invisible Elvis definitely lives in your attic, then this would indeed be a good example of a metaphysical claim.

    ‘The world did not begin last Thursday’ is only metaphysical when it is interpreted as a denial of the claim that it did begin last Thursday regardless of our experience. If your experience does or can make a difference, then it’s not being interpreted metaphysically.

    With ‘God spoke to me’, you need to separate the claim about a finite experience of something called ‘God’ speaking to me from any claim about an infinite and perfect being doing so. You don’t have to deny that experience in order to be clear that the metaphysical interpretation of it is deluded. A finite creature cannot experience an infinite being, so the belief that the finite creature was spoken to by an infinite being involves metaphysical speculation attached to that record of the experience.

    I agree that any claim can be interpreted as metaphysical. Even if you hedge it all round with lots of ‘may bes’ and ‘seems’ etc, some people will still interpret whatever you say metaphysically sometimes. Likewise, it would be possible to interpret even a papal pronouncement about the Trinity, say, as non-metaphysical. We just have to take responsibility for our interpretations and try to make a balanced judgement. So, the Thursday example and the parachute example could both conceivably be interpreted either way.

    However, the balance of evidence in my judgement is that as Joe originally put the Thursday problem, it involves a metaphysical claim (and indeed, was intended to do so). Joe was trying to prove that we must make some metaphysical assumptions. Your parachute example, however, seems to be more a problem of lack of information. In that situation, you wouldn’t know which person to believe because you didn’t know which could help you. It would involve a metaphysical belief if, say, you believed that there was a conspiracy afoot to make people believe that parachutes were less effective than flapping like a goose, in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

    What has been surprising Julian in our recent discussions is how widespread metaphysical claims are. Clarifying this is part of what led me to produce the ‘about metaphysics’ page. One of the reasons for their ubiquity is that they are involved whenever we absolutely restrict our sources of evidence to one sphere and exclude others, which we often do in cognitive biases (see the page of that name). I can see that what sometimes confuses people is that the metaphysical belief itself is absolute, but its effect may just be to weaken our judgement relatively, because we have other beliefs at the same time. E.g. If you have come across the statistics that plane journeys are safer than car journeys, but continue to assume that planes are more dangerous, your repression of the knowledge about planes sets up an absolute exclusive boundary that is metaphysical, even though the judgement you make is only about relative dangers in relative situations. I think this is just a different version of the kind of boundary set up by a fundamentalist who believes everything in the Bible is literally true and discounts all contrary evidence from beyond the Bible. All metaphysics can be understood in terms of imposing rigid boundaries on incremental experience.

  6. Hi Robert,

    I am able to form some order to my thoughts now. I would say that I am ‘hard agnostic’ (theism/ atheism isn’t appropriate here) as to whether the world started last Thursday or not. In being ‘hard agnostic’ I feel able to say that the world did not start last Thursday, without this being an absolute claim – and therefore not being metaphysical in nature.

    I think that it is important to have an opinion regarding which event is more likely to be accurate (as with the parachute v flapping like a goose – although less so, perhaps). The available evidence, at present, certainly indicates that the world started a long time before last Thursday but if the balance shifted the other way then this might have important consequences that might be worth exploring, like how did the memories and history come to be and can we utilise this knowledge for the future (these are just two examples and a better mind might be able to think of more).

    If a being were to show itself to the world and claim that it was God, performing miracles and displaying a knowledge far superior to our own, then all that we could say is that ‘this is a being that can perform acts that defy our understanding and has a greater degree of knowledge than us’. We could never be sure if this being was God or not because we, as humans, can not have experience of being the creator of the Universe – so even with this being existing the claim that it was God would still be Metaphysical. Have I got this right? If I have, then could Metaphysics be relative? So, in my example; if the being is God (and knows it) then the claim, from its perspective is not metaphysical but from the point of view of the humans it would remain so, owing to the fact that the claim is still beyond their experience?

    I like your example of perception and belief in relation to plane and car travel (Dan Gardner discusses issues such as this in his book ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’), there must be countless examples of Metaphysical beliefs of this nature (sometimes based on fear and sometimes not) – and I am sure that we can all be susceptible.

    I enjoy the discussions between Julian and yourself, they often involve friendly challenges and often get me thinking, even if I only understand some of what is written – Julian seems to speak your language ;).

    Rich

    p.s. by spiritual, I really meant a belief in ghosts, deities and other such things. Spiritual is clearly problematic because it can mean many things and is quite ambiguous. A better word, which didn’t come to me at the time would be ‘supernatural’. So, I used to think that metaphysical meant supernatural.

  7. Hi Rich,
    Thanks for this. I can’t say that I’ve tried to think about metaphysical claims from the perspective of God before! If, as you say, an actual God claimed to be such, then this claim would presumably not be metaphysical for God. However, I don’t think this is particularly relevant to us, as our perspective is finite! As we don’t have infinite experience, anything we claim with infinite scope is metaphysical and infinitely deluded. Given that an infinite quantity minus a finite one is still infinity, anything that we say about an infinite may be infinitely wrong!

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