MWP 1.3: The Middle Way

Chapter outline level

a.      Buddhist inspiration without Buddhist justification

The Middle Way probably has its clearest and fullest traditional formulation in Buddhism, so Buddhism can be a major source of inspiration for it. Stories of the Buddha’s life before enlightenment, the Buddha’s first sermon, the raft simile, the Buddha’s ‘silence’ on metaphysical issues and the Kalama Sutta can all provide inspirational sources from early Buddhism. However, the Middle Way does not have to be justified in this way, any more than the theory of gravity is proved by appealing to Newton as its source. Treating the Buddha as a revelatory source is a major problem in Buddhist tradition.

b.      The limitations of traditional Buddhist presentations of the Middle Way

Buddhist presentations often neglect the Middle Way or reduce it to other formulae such as the Eightfold Path or conditionality. Conditionality alone does not give us a sufficient understanding of the Middle Way as a principle of judgement, as it is either obvious or involves metaphysical claims. The traditional Buddhist classifications of ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ may have been relevant to the Buddha’s time, but no longer provide a clear enough theory of the metaphysical extremes to be avoided by the Middle Way that is sufficiently relevant to the variety of modern beliefs.

c.      The Middle Way in Christianity and Islam

The universality and flexibility of the Middle Way means that it can be applied in the context of any complex tradition, and that it is our responsibility to interpret these traditions in a helpful way. Some brief suggestions about the forms it could take in Christianity and Islam are made to illustrate this point. In Christianity, the incarnation involves an attempt to navigate between metaphysical beliefs that emphasise divine perfection and human imperfection. In Islam, the intense avoidance of idolatry (shirk) can be understood as a recognition of the need to avoid metaphysical claims that go beyond human experience.

d.      Defining the poles avoided by the Middle Way

My earlier work tried to define the poles avoided by the Middle Way in terms of the Buddhist ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’, but concluded that this was not a sufficiently universal basis for understanding the Middle Way. Here the terms ‘positive metaphysics’ and ‘negative metaphysics’ are used instead to define the extremes avoided in any given situation of judgement in any context. Despite the inter-dependence of different metaphysical beliefs, it is not any essential basis for that inter-dependence that we need to seek out, just a basis of practical judgement.

e.      Pragmatism and the feedback loop

The Middle Way aims to improve the adequacy of the response to conditions in our judgements. This is a thoroughly pragmatic aim. The nature of this pragmatism can be understood using a feedback loop model. Our habits of thinking can continue and intensify in positive (closed) feedback loops, or they can be interrupted by a collision with conditions and then adjusted in negative (open) feedback loops. The Middle Way can be seen as a means of supporting negative feedback loops in adjusting our responses to conditions, rather than the positive feedback loops associated with metaphysical thinking.

f.       No final goals

We need motivating goals in all our activities, but these goals do not have to be final ones. Final goals lie beyond experience, because we can never tell whether or not a final goal has been achieved or whether there is further to go. It is a Buddhist mistake to often assume that the motivation of our intermediate goals depends on having a final goal (enlightenment) to deduce them from, but it does not. Such final goals may offer meanings that may inspire us, but such inspiration needs to be distinguished from belief in the final goal as an achievable state that defines our intermediate goals.

g.      Dualism and non-dualism

In Buddhist and other related thought, non-dualism has too often been taken to be a alternative metaphysical position rather than an attitude of judgement. I take it not to assert any state of ‘non-duality’, but rather to be usefully interpreted as method of judging with provisionality and incrementality, avoiding the metaphysical claims that comprise dualism. As an attitude, it needs to be understood psychologically rather than only philosophically. The development of such non-dualism as an attitude is also an ongoing practice, not just a philosophical statement of what is the case. Dualism, in contrast, thus also needs to be understood psychologically as the attitude required to believe that metaphysical statements can be ‘true’ or ‘false’.

h.      The Middle Way and the brain

McGilchrist’s work on brain lateralisation provides an alternative (not reductive) way of understanding the Middle Way and supporting it empirically. The self-referentiality of the linguistic and goal driven left hemisphere contrasts with the openness to experience of the right hemisphere. Whilst both functions are vital for us, it is the over-dominance of the left hemisphere in the relationship that helps to explain the closed feedback loops of dogma. Metaphysics can be understood as the state of our dominant left hemispheres assuming they have the whole story, the Middle Way as the adequate use of the right hemisphere in conjunction with the left to adjust our beliefs and break closed feedback loops.

i.       The Middle Way as moral good

‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are matters of experience that can only be incrementally understood, but they have often been unhelpfully understood in metaphysical terms. If we abandon these traditional terms, we can make sense of good and evil by understanding evil as metaphysics and good as the Middle Way, stressing that by saying this we are talking about criteria of judgement, not states of the world or of people. Evil is self-defining through its rigidity, and good more open as a response avoiding that rigidity. To understand good and evil in this way has many practical advantages, given that the metaphysical model has failed us. The metaphysical model lacks justification and thus lack practical effectiveness, but a Middle Way model can be linked to our understanding of different forms of normativity in experience.

j.       The Middle Way as integration

The Middle Way is a method of integration of opposed desires. These desires are associated with meaning and beliefs, so the process of integration can be understood at the levels of desire, meaning or belief. Opposing desires maintain their opposition through association with absolute or metaphysical beliefs – with these representing a universe where the desire is justified. If we can identify the opposing absolute beliefs in each case, wider awareness can help us to defuse this opposition by applying an agnostic alternative model. Where our desires are opposed to each other, either internally or externally, it is moving beyond these opposed absolutes that enables us to develop strategies for more adequate assumptions and behaviour.

k.      Dialectic and homeostasis

The Middle Way can be described as a dialectic because it allows the reconciliation of opposed beliefs and desires: a thesis and an antithesis. Agnostic, provisional and incremental judgement can bring these together to create a synthesis, as long as the opposing absolute elements have been carefully separated from the remaining experiential elements. This dialectical process occurs in judgement, so should not be confused with metaphysical accounts of total dialectic with final goals, such as those of Hegel and Marx. The application of the Middle Way should result in a maximally balanced response to conditions, but will not necessarily produce a complete homeostasis, i.e. a totally stable system.

l.       Distinguishing the Middle Way from metaphysics

Middle Way theory can be distinguished from metaphysics by its provisionality. There are many difficulties in judging that boundary in practically necessary judgements, but generally speaking provisional approaches are likely to be practically applicable, provide opportunities for testing, be open to comparison with alternatives, and draw on a wide range of experience. Intuition, although not a shortcut to justification, can often be highly informative because it draws on a wider synthesis of experience. We also need to bear in mind both the ways that metaphysical beliefs can try to appropriate the Middle Way, and that a degree of faith is required in the Middle Way to allow it to show its worth. Though there are no final tests of a theory’s status, we can set up and define fruitful tests for ourselves.