MWP 1.3.l: Distinguishing the Middle Way from Metaphysics

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The boundary between provisional beliefs conducive to the Middle Way on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other, is not always an easy one to detect for a number of reasons. The chief of these is the likelihood of a time-lag before provisional beliefs show their worth in relation to experience. Provisional beliefs about everyday facts (“the bus will arrive at 2.05 pm”) are quickly verified sufficiently to produce confidence, or occasionally falsified. However, broader theories that are open to experience (such as Middle Way Philosophy itself) may require a good deal of complex evidence over time to be confirmed or falsified to our satisfaction. During this period, there may only be subtle indications that they are not metaphysics. While we are uncertain how much confidence to place in a provisional theory, it is not irrelevant to talk of having faith in it – though that faith is not unconditional. Faith here is just a way of talking about belief in a way that focuses more on its emotional impact, but neither faith nor belief are necessarily metaphysical[1].

This problem is compounded by the ways in which metaphysical positions can appropriate the Middle Way. People often seem to hear about Middle Way Philosophy and immediately respond, for example, “Yes, that’s Aristotle” or “Yes, that’s Hegel” and associate Middle Way Philosophy with positions that actually have substantial metaphysical assumptions attached to them. I have even met Catholics who immediately thought that the Middle Way was compatible with St. Thomas Aquinas! Without understanding all the interconnected aspects of Middle Way Philosophy, it is easy to falsely assimilate it to a metaphysical position. It is difficult to predict in advance how much practical difference this will make, because it depends on the interaction between these beliefs and the other conditions in people’s lives, but whenever there’s a metaphysical position assumed there is a good chance that it will affect practical judgements, because people start to identify with the metaphysical position and build up a position they feel is beyond criticism.

Nevertheless, judgements have to be made whether to treat a position as provisional or metaphysical. We cannot and should not suspend judgement for too long, for the suspension of judgement infringes experiential adequacy. Just as a rigid view stops us creating provisional theories, so does suspension of judgement from the other side. We have to invest faith in a position for long enough to explore it, even though that faith cannot be unconditional.

One point that may help us make such judgements initially can be adapted from the philosophy of science – that of theoretical fruitfulness. A fruitful theory is one that provides frequent opportunities for testing in experience, by generating hypotheses that can be tested. This is an approach that can be adopted even when the ‘testing’ is personal and informal. A fruitful theory will be one that is relevant enough to our lives to be tried out often, and also helps to generate further helpful hypotheses which help to explain other aspects of our experience. These hypotheses will be even more informative if they are not otherwise obvious. For example, a provisional acceptance of Middle Way Philosophy might also lead to trying out integrative practices such as meditation, the arts, or critical thinking (all discussed in more detail in volumes 2, 3 and 4 as they relate to the different forms of integration) or any others that might help to develop integration, which may lead to practical results compatible with your understanding of Middle Way Philosophy, at the same time supporting and modifying theoretical awareness through the feedback loop.

A further factor when making judgements about a provisional theory is comparison to alternative theories. We cannot manage without some beliefs, so we should not judge which beliefs to accept outside the context of comparison. One mistake often made in metaphysical thinking is the absolute acceptance or rejection of a position only on grounds of (supposed) certainty or lack of certainty about it, without considering whether alternative theories are any better justified. One example of this is the rejection of evolutionary theory on the grounds that it is not completely proven, despite the absence of more informative theories that explain the evidence available to biology. Here I think Middle Way Philosophy has a major advantage, because many other competing theories can be ruled out at the beginning on the basis of their failure to address sceptical argument.

Another factor involved in making such decisions is the need for a wide range of experience to be involved. If we have thought as rigorously as we can, it may be time for other kinds of assessment to take over. Our intuitions may not be more reliable than our intellect, but that does not mean that they are uninformative. The physical nature of our experience makes it likely that there are many unconscious factors involved in judgement. The meanings of the terms involved in our judgements about beliefs, as I argue throughout this book, are not just cognitive, but also relate to our feelings and physical experience. Thus it would be surprising if our immediate responses to beliefs put before us – whether those responses are justified or not – were purely cognitive. Indeed, McGilchrist argues on the basis of a number of scientific observations that our judgements take place unconsciously in the right hemisphere before the left hemisphere can rationalise them consciously[2]. So, our wider experiences may be more informative than we think. For example, we may sense a certain emotional rigidity in people who support metaphysical positions, which we only half-consciously register from their physical stance or tone. This kind of evidence may be especially crucial when it comes to values. Although values tend to come wrapped up with facts (see 1.i) and thus judgements about them are not entirely distinguishable from those about related facts, we may still feel relatively more uncertainty about them. Once we have ruled out obvious metaphysical assumptions, such relative and ultimately unreliable faculties as intuition and feelings may still have a role, as they always have in the practical implicit Middle Way that many people have discovered for themselves.

When we decide to try out a provisional theory in relation to experience, though, how do we reach a conclusion? If our immediate judgement seems to be incrementally confirmed, it seems that we will then not need a distinct discontinuous judgement as to the correctness and genuine provisionality of a theory. We will just come to rely on it more and more. The challenge will then be, not to have faith in it, but to let go of it if we finally discover metaphysics at the bottom after many years of investment in it. This was my personal experience after years of commitment to the Buddhist tradition, for a long time in real doubt as to whether traditional Buddhism was provisional or metaphysical. Resigning from the Western Buddhist Order on concluding that traditional Buddhism was more metaphysical than provisional was one of the most difficult and painful decisions of my life.

In that event, the important discovery was that traditional Buddhism, as a value as well as a set of factual claims, was falsified for me. A term of years had passed sufficient for me to make an informed judgement on a theory that I had explored in relation to a wide range of experiences. What that term of years should be in any given case when we have provisionally accepted a theory is impossible to state in advance. Nevertheless it should be finite, and perhaps the important point is to maintain awareness of the question. If we stop asking ourselves whether a theory is justified – if, in other words, we have started to ignore sceptical questions – then the theory is no longer provisional for us[3].

In the context of science, falsification is a somewhat more precise matter, because there are often groups of people involved in researching a theory who have to decide whether or not to continue investing time and resources in it, when it ceases to be fruitful in offering much further opportunity for informative testing. However, even here, as both Kuhn and Lakatos have demonstrated[4], there is a period of difficulty when it is very unclear whether or not scientists would be justified in abandoning an old paradigm. If this is the case in science, we should expect it to be even more difficult in personal commitments.

It would be good to give some more decisive answers on how to distinguish the Middle Way from metaphysics. It would be better still to be able to give immediate strong reasons which placed the justification of Middle Way Philosophy beyond all doubt. However, to do this would simultaneously undermine the central insight in Middle Way Philosophy that all justified judgements have to be provisional. Provisional judgements are hard, tricky, and sometimes painful. There’s no way round that. However, that doesn’t change the central arguments I have offered here: that provisional theories address conditions in a way that metaphysical theories cannot, and that not just recognisable theories of science, but even the most personal value judgements need to fall under the category of provisional theories in order to be justifiable.


[1] See IV.1.d for a fuller discussion

[2] McGilchrist (2009) p.184

[3] See Ellis (2001) 6.c for more discussion of this area

[4] Kuhn (1996) and Lakatos (1974)

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