MWP 1.1.h: Sceptical Slippage and Modern Forms of Negative Metaphysics

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Sceptical slippage is my term for the way in which agnostic positions justified by sceptical uncertainty have a tendency to become positions of denial. There are a number of possible reasons for this.

One is that the distinction between agnosticism and denial is a subtle one – but that at least can be remedied by study. Agnosticism involves rejecting a positive metaphysical position just as denial does, but it equally involves rejecting the converse position. At the same time one accepts whatever either position has to offer in relation to experience – only rejecting the metaphysical assumptions. The information that one rejects one position conveys little by itself unless one can also think more positively what alternative is embraced. In the case of metaphysical agnosticism the alternative embraced to either acceptance or denial is the possibility of progress in understanding the conditions that relate to the claims made on either side. We can only start to make that progress if we avoid thinking merely in terms of metaphysical affirmation or denial.

Another reason for sceptical slippage is the social fact that groups find it easier to unify around concepts that are readily understood, and to have clear points of disagreement with opposing groups. For example, psychological research has helped to establish the tendency of the members of one group to exaggerate the homogeneity of other groups, who are assumed to have consistently wrong beliefs rather than a variety of different beliefs with differing degrees of correctness.[1] The definite denial of the clearly identified and supposedly consistent beliefs of opposing groups thus gains support more readily than agnosticism can. In political terms, this can be revealed in a polarisation effect, where media bias is reinforced by public preferences for simplified alternatives and party interest in maintaining those alternatives[2].

This tendency for easily identifiable positions that maintain a group to be defended can even lead to the unholy alliance effect: that is, for those with vested interests in maintaining a simple dualistic model of a situation to unite in condemning what they see as the obfuscations of agnosticism. For example, politicians to the extremes of a political spectrum may unite against the challenges posed by the centre in order to maintain the conditions for their shared supremacy: a situation that continues in the democracies of both the US and the UK. In the UK, an unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative Parties until recently repressed all forms of electoral reform to create a more proportional electoral system, which would mean increased sharing of power in coalitions with the central Liberal Democrat party. The counter-dependency of each major party on the other and on the conception that it offered the only alternative to the other is reflected in Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “There’ll always be a Labour Party”. The opposed two-party system, especially in its heyday in the 1970’s, was closely associated with dichotomies of class and regional support and a perception of diametrically opposed economic policies (though fortunately this polarisation began to weaken in the 1990’s) and these polarisations in turn were often perceived as based on absolutely opposed values such as individualism vs. socialism, or social conservatism vs. social progressivism. In this kind of atmosphere, it was hardly surprising if those who tried to think about the best ways of addressing political conditions found themselves subject to strong social pressures towards one political group or the other, and a questioning of the Conservative approach tended to lead one either to the Labour Party or to marginalisation.

A third likely reason for sceptical slippage is semantic: if we (implicitly or explicitly) think of claims as either true or false according to their representational relationship with an out-there reality, rather than as incrementally justified in relation to our whole experience (in the way outlined in 1.d above), then there is little room for the Middle Way. To understand the very possibility of metaphysical agnosticism requires us to shift our understanding of what is being asserted in a theory, from that of a “real world”, right or wrong, to that of a more or less useful metaphorical construction that we may be able to fruitfully relate to our basic experience to a greater or lesser degree. To be agnostic about the claims of a metaphysical set of beliefs, we do not have to reject the whole set of representations of the world that it has built up, only the idea that this set of representations has an absolute validity. Indeed it is important not to reject the set of representations itself, just to start taking those representations much more provisionally: as a story rather than as a truth. To treat them provisionally, as a story or a hypothesis, is to defuse their metaphysicality, rather than creating a rival metaphysicality through complete and absolute rejection. For example, in rejecting the metaphysical claim that Jesus was the son of God one does not reject the stories about Jesus, or even the significance of him being the son of God in those stories: only the abslute truth or falsity of such an assertion. 

As often, the debate about God’s existence provides a particularly clear example of these issues. Hard agnosticism about God’s existence is difficult to maintain in the face of both theistic and atheistic expectations. Both sides tend to try to exploit the sceptical arguments that support agnosticism for their own purposes, and to sweep agnostics either into their own camp or the opposing camp. Both theists and atheists have contributed to sceptical slippage here by labelling agnosticism “negative atheism”[3], on the assumption that anyone who doesn’t believe in God can be lumped together with those who deny the existence of God. Atheists sometimes assume that God’s existence is an empirical matter, and thus, on the basis of empirical standards of proof (which will be discussed in section 2), reject God as non-existent because of the lack of empirical evidence[4]. This tends to make agnostics just look like people who can’t make their mind up in a case where the evidence is clear, rather than people who take God’s existence to involve metaphysical claims which are immune from evidence. Alternatively, atheists may attack the a priori justifications for believing in God using sceptical arguments which only support agnosticism[5], thus acting as a spoiler for arguments for agnosticism and further confusing the issues.

At least in the debate about God the concept of agnosticism is recognised, even if it is widely misunderstood. Try being an agnostic in the debate about the mind-body problem, for example, or in the debate about the absolutism and relativism in ethics, and you may as well be talking Klingon – even the idea that agnosticism is a serious, coherent option that is not just ‘sitting on the fence’, let alone the idea that it might be the key to objectivity, is completely alien both to most philosophers and to the wider public. Their response, then, is either to reject it as on the other side, or incorporate it into their own, despite the fact that many practical responses to these issues begin with such agnosticism. For example, any legal resolution to the moral dispute about the permissibility of abortion other than a total ban or free abortion on demand (such as those adopted in the UK by the 1968 Abortion Act or in the US by Roe vs. Wade) must implicitly assume that a foetus is neither wholly a person nor wholly not a person, for the state would otherwise either become accessory to murder or be interfering unjustifiably in women’s property rights. Metaphysical agnosticism is the obvious practical solution, yet it often does not even appear on philosophical horizons. Our theory has often yet to catch up with our practice.

Western thought since the enlightenment is full of figures who seemed to be breaking the mould in their time, because they questioned metaphysical orthodoxies, but who failed to break the final orthodoxy of dualism. Sometimes they achieved some measure of popularity, because they seemed to relate to at least some of the suppressed experience of the people of that time. However, because their scepticism was only selective and there were further conditions in experience that their approach prevented them from addressing, they became new figures of a counter-orthodoxy. So it was with Descartes and Hume, with Kant, Hegel, Marx and Schopenhauer, with Mill, the Logical Positivists and Wittgenstein, with the Pragmatists and Existentialists and Postmodernists[6]. All of these figures rejected revelatory metaphysics, but many of them substituted a priori metaphysics. Rather than coming fully to terms with uncertainty, they merely attacked the certainties of their opponents, whilst relying on new certainties of scientific fact, of mathematics, of historical inevitability, of individual freedom or of relativism. Even that Protean arch-ironist, the indefatigable critic of metaphysical certainties, Nietzsche, relied upon an aesthetic elitism[7]. Some philosophers, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, even adopted an anti-systematic style, but this was no indicator of a lack of metaphysical assertions in their thinking[8]. Irony, also, that last refuge of the nihilist, is no indicator of philosophical progress, but merely a lack of confidence in putting forward even provisional assertions that supports negative assumptions about whatever one might put forward.

There have been two main ways in which modern philosophers have clung onto metaphysical beliefs. One tradition, beginning with Hume and inherited today by analytic philosophy (as well as academics in many other subjects) depends on the fact-value distinction (which I will deal with in the next chapter) to give a status to scientific knowledge that it does not give to ethics. In analytic philosophy, metaphysical assumptions are thus made about the relativity of ethics, the ‘objective’ nature of scientific truth, and also about the absolute status of a priori claims (dealt with in 1.f). Another, ‘continental’ tradition, going through the existentialists to the postmodernists, often takes a relativist view of scientific beliefs as well as moral ones[9].

Relativism of any kind requires the denial of a metaphysical belief in absolute and universal standards of truth – a denial that is just as metaphysical, and in the process involves just as many contradictions, as the affirmation. First amongst the contradictions is the relativist’s paradox – that a relativist is making a universal and absolute statement of relativity. In the process of denying universal values, other equally metaphysical values must also be affirmed (given that we cannot be value neutral), which means that relativists end up by default affirming the justification either of their society’s values or of the choices of individuals. For further discussion of relativism see 7.a. Sceptical slippage is a pervasive problem for anyone seeking to put forward metaphysical agnosticism. One battles against the difficulty people have even in understanding agnosticism as an alternative. If you have read thus far and think that Middle Way Philosophy is ‘really’ absolutist or relativist, really in one camp or the other – perhaps that it is just a new manifestation of relativism or secularism or naturalism – then you will not have understood it yet. I would ask you to continue to give me the benefit of the doubt for the moment and let the cumulative advantages of the agnostic position unfold a little further.


[1] Ostrom et al (1993)

[2] See Bernhardt et al (2008) in relation to US politics

[3] It seems to have been an atheist (at the time), Antony Flew, who first used the term: see Flew (1994).

[4] E.g. Dawkins (2007)

[5] Ibid

[6] All of these figures are discussed in detail in Ellis (2001) chapters 3 and 4.

[7] Ibid 4.g

[8] Ibid 4.e. and 4.g

[9] See Ellis (2001) 4.a, 4.g. and 4.i for a fuller discussion.

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