MWP 1: Introduction

Full text level
  • The headteacher of a church school is giving a boring address in a school assembly. He is talking about morality and God again. Most of his teenage audience are not in the least interested in what he feels obliged to say.
  • A teenager is ‘sod-casting’ on a bus. The loud music coming from his mobile phone is annoying several other passengers, but they don’t feel entitled to complain. His taste in music is different from theirs, but what right have they to impose silence on him?
  • A scientist is giving a public lecture on evolution when she is heckled from a section of the audience. Evolution is just a theory, they say. Why isn’t ‘creation science’ given equal billing alongside evolution?

What these examples have in common is that they are all indications of the failure of our models of objectivity. In ethics, when we are not limply relativist, we often flee to the opposite extreme of moral panic, dogmatically asserting grounds of ethics that many people feel to be dead, and others keep a fragile grasp on. If music is a personal matter, there seems to be no escape from relativism of taste. If science is shown to be merely a matter of theory, rather than of truth, no one theory seems better than any other. We might as well believe that the sun goes round the earth.

My thesis in this book is that many people in the modern world are confused about objectivity, and that the reason for this is that we have an unhelpful model of it. This confusion affects science, ethics, politics, the arts, in fact nearly every area of life. We tend to think of objectivity as absolute, but when we gain a critical perspective on that absolute objectivity we realise that it is a sham, a childish illusion. How can we believe that there is one right theory when there are many competing theories, all available to us on Wikipedia? How can we believe that there is one right culture when there are many cultures, all with equal rights under the constitution? The conservatives continue to insist that the old certainties are right, while the more open-minded end up with the confusions of relativism, where every view is as good as every other view. Since no group can prove they are right, philosophical discussion decays into mere analysis of the implications of these competing positions.

I will be arguing in this book that there is an alternative way of understanding objectivity, if we are willing to question the basic assumptions that underpin this confusion. We do not have to understand objectivity as an absolute view, like the view God would have if he exists. Instead objectivity can be seen as personal and incremental – that is, something we ourselves can have, in our judgements and in our habitual attitudes, as a matter of degree.

If we base our understanding of objectivity on our experience rather than on dogmatic philosophical dualism, we find that experience is not, after all, merely relative. Different people’s experiences vary in adequacy, and my own experience varies in adequacy at different times, according to the extent of the conditions I am taking into account. We usually improve the adequacy of our experience over our lifetime, from baby to mature person, and some groups have developed ways of relating that help them to pool their experience more adequately than others – compare a group of scientists with a group of quarrelsome thugs. If our experience is more adequate, so is our objectivity greater.

Our cultural traditions also suffer from over-specialisation, which has particularly separated facts from values and the objectivity of science from that of wise individuals. When philosophers theorise and analyse but never synthesise, it seems that the broad view we need to understand objectivity in general is closed to them. If anyone ever had the responsibility to clarify our confusion about objectivity it is philosophers, but it seems that they have largely failed in this task. One reason for this is that an understanding of objectivity must combine all the aspects of philosophy: epistemology, critical metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and indeed all the other associated branches. Philosophy also needs to be considered in relation to psychology and to spiritual and political practice, not artificially separated from them. The theory I shall offer here is synthetic and inter-disciplinary, because the answers I can offer in different areas are mutually dependent.

I have called this theory Middle Way Philosophy, a name which reveals some original inspirations from the Buddhist tradition. When I first started working on this theory, fourteen years ago now, I took some initial insights from my own experience of Buddhist theory and practice and tried to apply them in an entirely Western way, arguing from first premises in a Western philosophical context. The initial result of this was my Ph.D. thesis, A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity[1]. All the main features of the theory were developed in this thesis, but I have continued to refine it in the ten years since it was completed in 2001.

Since 2008 I have ceased to describe the theory as ‘Buddhist’ and have begun to see that label primarily as a distraction that tends to raise unhelpful expectations. I thus prefer to describe it as a Middle Way theory which begins with the idea that greater objectivity is found by avoiding both positive and negative types of metaphysical claim – ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ as they are described in the Buddhist tradition. I just happen to have first discovered this in the Buddha’s teachings, even though it is available in other places too. Pragmatically, such an approach cannot create any guaranteed truths, but it can help us to avoid what are quite clearly delusions.

In 2011 I also discovered a quite different way of approaching Middle Way Philosophy, inspired by reading Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating and important book The Master and his Emissary[2]. I then realised that everything I had been saying from a philosophical point of view could alternatively be understood in terms of the relationships between our left and right brain hemispheres. This provided further insights that I have tried to incorporate into this book, for which I am extremely grateful to McGilchrist.

In my book Truth on the Edge[3], I tried to introduce Middle Way Philosophy more briefly and accessibly than in my Ph.D. thesis, starting with the idea that we are never justified in making claims about truth, but should nevertheless give the concept a regulatory role on the edge of our experience. We seek truth, but are aware in principle that we will never find it because of the basic conditions of our experience: finiteness, physicality, and the grounding of meaning and belief in our physical drives and practical purposes. Unlike the relativists, I do not let those conditions deny objectivity: rather it is through recognising them fully that we gain greater objectivity.

However, Truth on the Edge aimed merely to inspire interest rather than providing full argument. I have been referring those interested back to my thesis for fuller support, yet with increasing awareness of its limitations for that purpose. The thesis now seems rather inaccessibly written in many places, and it is also now out of date in the way it represents my thinking, with many points having become more refined or better explained from a different angle over a decade of discussion and re-presentation. I have been realising that a new full academic explanation of Middle Way Philosophy was needed.

However, this left me initially with a dilemma about the length and scope of a new academic book. To be anything other than comprehensive would be to offer a less balanced and less convincing account of Middle Way Philosophy, which works because it is comprehensive where other theories, in my view, address only a limited range of conditions. However, I also had to consider the difficulties of my readers, and the possibly off-putting prospect for them of another lengthy treatise. Eventually I hit upon the best solution: to plan out a linked series of books but issue them one at a time. This turned into a plan for five volumes, of which this is the first.

The overwhelming emphasis in this volume is philosophical. It aims to deal with all the major issues in Middle Way epistemology and ethics, with a full explanation of my critical approach to metaphysics. There will also be some explanation of the nature of the relationship with the Buddhist Middle Way, and a basic explanation of the integrative psychology which informs the approach. In doing this I have aimed to address the likely concerns of Western philosophers and others, and to balance clarity and comprehensiveness with readability.

The next three volumes of the four will be concerned with different levels of integration, which will give them more of a psychological emphasis. However, I will also need to deal with philosophical issues concerning desire (volume 2), meaning (volume 3) and belief (volume 4) as they relate to this psychology, and to do so in a bit more detail than I have been able to do in this volume. Volume 4, in particular, returns to many of the questions in this volume, but tackles them from a more psychological point of view, particularly drawing on evidence from cognitive biases and showing how they depend on the absolutisation avoided by the Middle Way.

However, this volume is probably the fullest and clearest philosophical account I have yet managed of the view of objectivity I am offering in Middle Way Philosophy. Obviously there will be some overlaps in content with some of my previous work, but all the text is entirely new and written for the purposes of this book. Nevertheless it is still part of an ongoing project that is subject to change and revision. Up to date information about new writings and developments can be found on the website of the Middle Way Society, a society I founded to involve others in development and practice of the Middle Way.   Constructive feedback which aims to further improve the objectivity of the judgements made in Middle Way Philosophy will always be welcome, and can be emailed to 

This book contains sets of arguments that are probably better seen as interlocking than as sequential: a jigsaw rather than a journey. Thus it may not be crucial for everyone to begin at the beginning with section 1 and read sequentially to the end. The conception of the book makes that a reasonable approach for those from a philosophical background, who begin by asking philosophical questions and want reasoning from first premises. However, not everyone who picks up this book may have that background. Those approaching it from Buddhism, for example, may find it more engaging to start with section 3 and then go back to read sections 1 and 2. There are also some chapters addressed to those with certain specific concerns that will be of less interest to those without those concerns, such as 1.g, which is mainly addressed to those from a theistic or theological background. These kinds of sections can be skipped where not relevant to you, without great loss to the overall sense.

I hope that you will be able to use this book, and the planned ones that follow it in the series, in a way that stimulates and supports your own path towards objectivity and integration.

Robert M. Ellis

Malvern, December 2011

Note on the second edition (2015)

After writing and publishing the remainder of the volumes in the series, this second edition of volume 1 sets out to iron out the inconsistencies that have unavoidably crept in during the journey. This new edition of volume 1 now takes into account the change in my original plans from a 5 volume series to a 4 volume one. Any arguments that I think I can now improve upon have been revised, and some internal forward references to the other volumes have been inserted. Internal references use the format of volume number (in roman numerals), followed by section and chapter number, so chapter a of section 1 of volume 1 is I.1.a.

[1] Ellis (2001)

[2] McGilchrist (2009)

[3] Ellis (2011c)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.