MWP 1.1.d: Incrementality

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Just as scepticism does not prevent the justification of provisional statements that take into account the possibility that they may be wrong, similarly it does not prevent the justification of incremental statements that are a matter of degree. However, scepticism does create a reason for us to be much more careful and consistent in making all our claims incremental rather than absolute. I use the term ‘incremental’ rather than ‘relative’ here to avoid an unfortunate ambiguity in the term ‘relative’. If a statement is ‘relative’ it can mean either that it makes limited claims, or that it is equally justified with all other statements. ‘Incremental’ on the other hand, can be used to mean the former without the latter.

Incrementality can be used as a further way of distinguishing metaphysical claims from provisional claims. Metaphysical claims are concerned with truth, either by claiming that a certain state of affairs is true or that it is untrue. Provisional claims, however, only deal with a degree of justification. I say ‘a degree of justification’ rather than ‘a degree of truth’ here, because the very idea of truth cannot be incrementalised.  A degree of truth has to be guaranteed by knowledge of the whole truth, just as we cannot go half the distance to Edinburgh without knowing where Edinburgh lies. Without knowing where Edinburgh lies, what we take to be half the distance to Edinburgh may be in a completely different direction to Edinburgh, and similarly a degree of truth cannot be distinguished from complete falsity. Given that our very language and physical limitations rule out the possibility of knowing that we know the whole truth, we also have to abandon the belief that we can ever know a degree of truth. This does not mean, however, that we cannot have a degree of justification based on variable criteria from experience, because a level of justification can be based on the degree of adequacy of our approach rather than any measure backwards from a supposed reality (for more on this see 1.e).

Metaphysical claims cannot be incremental, both because of their concern with truth and because of their dismissal of error. If we only have a degree of justification this also implies a degree of error, but error is the condition for learning in human experience. We become relatively more justified, not only as we detect errors and learn from them, but also as we display the capacity to do so[1]. Metaphysical claims involve a fundamental rejection of this attitude to human progression, because they try to take shortcuts to a complete account of the truth. In this they reflect Plato’s belief that a partial justification is no justification at all[2].

Incrementality also provides us with a crucial method for understanding aspects of our experience which have traditionally been discussed only in dualistic metaphysical terms. We are not obliged to think in metaphysical terms if we make the effort to think through an incremental alternative. The basic method here is to adopt a strict agnosticism as regards metaphysical claims (see next chapter) and to consider what qualities in our experience are referred to when we use dualistic metaphysical terms. I will give a few brief examples of incrementalised metaphysical dualisms in the remainder of this chapter to illustrate this method, but this is far from an exhaustive list. These and other examples of dualisms will be discussed in more detail in IV.4.

  • One of the most important areas where Western thought has tended to think in metaphysical dualisms has been universal ethics. Either we have a dogmatic source of universal ethics such as God or an a priori deduction, it is thought, or ethics is merely relative to different societies, groups, or even individuals. However, I will be arguing throughout this book that the incrementalisation of ethics is psychological integration of different desires identified with by the ego (or left hemisphere) at different times. For more on this see I.7 and IV.4.b.
  • The dualism of mind and body is created by mind being seen as having qualities such as self-consciousness, freewill, or intentionality that cannot be incrementalised. This dualism is not resolved by ignoring these qualities or treating them as unimportant in the way that physicalists and behaviourists tend to do. Instead, we need a critique of metaphysical accounts of the self (see 1.j), and to substitute a dynamic psychological function – what I call the ego – for a metaphysical absolute (the self). Instead of certainty about our identity, we substitute a flexible awareness of identifications. Apart from self-consciousness, though, some other features of mind are primarily features of uniqueness or situatedness. The meaning of a symbol for me, or the specificity of a sensual experience (like my individual experience of the red of a tomato), seems to be unique to my individual awareness because it is concentrated in the particular location associated with an individual brain: but situatedness is an incremental quality, not an absolute one, even if awareness is very sharply concentrated in one place and very rapidly falls away as we depart from the complex brain-conditions required to maintain it. Incrementality is not a quality unique to physical types of object (e.g. my pain, a mental quality, can get incrementally worse as I focus increasingly on the most affected spot), so that incrementalising mental properties in this way should not be confused with reducing them to physical properties. Mental properties are thus more or less identified with and more or less situated in my brain and body, regardless of whether they are ‘inside’ or ‘outside’: a pain in my toe, for example, is probably a bit less ‘mental’ on these criteria than a pain in my head.[3]
  • The dualism of ideal and real is created by absolutising a quality of character which we experience as incremental – i.e. objectivity. I will be discussing objectivity, including the relationships of scientific, moral and aesthetic types of objectivity, and the ways I think it can be understood in terms of integration, in section 4 of this book. Also see IV.4.d for more discussion of idealism and realism.
  • The dualism of freewill and determinism is related to those of mind-body and ideal-real, and can partly be resolved in the same way. However, the concept of responsibility or its absence is also central to the discussion of freewill. Responsibility is an incremental quality that can be understood in terms of psychological integration, because the more integrated I am, the more reflective my actions become (so as to take more conditions into account) and the less constrained. For more details on this, see I.7.b, IV.3.f and IV.4.c.
  • The dualism between belief in God (theism) and denial of God (atheism) needs to be incrementally understood in relation to the meaning of God as people encounter it in experience, with a rigorous agnosticism refusing to enter into questions of God’s existence. My suggestion is that God is primarily encountered in religious experience in relation to integration of meaning, a concept that will be explored fully in III.4.e. I shall argue there, along Jungian lines, that we encounter a God archetype more fully the more meaning is integrated. For more detailed discussion of theism and atheism see IV.4.f.

In terms of the brain, all of these approaches to metaphysical dualisms can be seen as finding ways of moving our understanding of these concepts out of absolutist left-hemisphere dominance and more into effective contact with the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere has to engage with incrementality constantly as a feature of time and space[4], whilst the left hemisphere can only grasp incrementality in an abstract conceptual way. Incrementalisations usually have the common property of requiring some sort of imaginative representation across time or space: for example, integration involves the idea of different desires, meanings or beliefs at different points of time or space being unified. Even an incrementalisation of colour into shades of grey tends to make us implicitly imagine a spectrum that stretches across space, rather than just the single ideas of black or white. For this reason, incrementalisation is also part of the key to provisionality. We are forced to connect with the more provisional right hemisphere by being incremental in our interpretation of concepts.


[1] For a superb account of this process, with a wide variety of excellent examples, see Schulz (2010)

[2] Plato (1987) §504c

[3] For a more detailed discussion see IV.4.e

[4] McGilchrist (2009) p.76 d

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