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MWP 2 Introduction

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Desire is the energy that propels us by directing us forward to a goal. Not so much like petrol in a car as like a rubber band pulling things towards it, desire envisages a change to its advantage and tries to make it happen. It may or may not succeed to any extent.

Desire is not bad, nor is it doomed to eternal frustration. Without desire, we would never act. The driving force behind our experience would be absent. If anything is the purpose of our lives, it is the fulfilment of our desires – desires that we feel throbbing within us at every moment. Any other ‘purpose’ to life that anyone may propose is just a pale abstraction beside our immediate experience of desire. Desire is value.

However, it is also easy to understand how desire has often been seen as the root of evil – particularly in samsara, the cyclic universe driven by desire in Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the Christian notion of original sin. Desire drives us to kill, steal, rape, corrupt, hate, lie and shirk. Desire creates obsession, lust, gluttony, and ruthlessness. It can be perverted into hatred, anger, jealousy and resentment. Desire leads us even to create a delusory world in which to live – a world where our desires can be fulfilled better.

This book argues that the bad press given to desire is not due to any properties of desire itself, but rather to the lack of integration of our desires. If we take the desires that we have at one moment to be the ultimate ones that define our purpose and identity, without awareness of the changing complexity of desire, then our desires are more likely to be frustrated. Desires that do not address a wider range of conditions both within and beyond us, may possibly succeed in the short term, but will probably fail in the longer-term. On the other hand, the more we can integrate our desires both with our own at other times and with those of others, the more we can address conditions successfully, and succeed in getting what we (more broadly and fully) want.

To take desire as the source of our values is not necessarily nihilistic or relativistic, but, when put together with the integration model, is rather the beginning of a more effective and more objective ethics that unites philosophical and psychological approaches to value. Put simply, the answer to our problems with values seems to be this: more integrated desires are morally better, whilst less integrated ones are morally worse. If our desires work together, they create increasingly sophisticated and increasingly adequate values: if they do not, then the result is confusion and conflict, whether psychological, social, or political.

This approach to desire is at the heart of Middle Way Philosophy, the subject of this whole series of books. This book is the second in that series, and builds on the first. The first volume, The Path of Objectivity, concentrated on the philosophical justification of Middle Way Philosophy: exploring its relationship to scepticism and agnosticism, its rejection of both positive and negative metaphysics, and its account of objectivity both scientific and moral. In the first volume the concept of integration was also introduced. The second, third and fourth volumes of the series focus on the different levels of integration as sketched out in volume 1: these are integration of desire, integration of meaning, and integration of belief.

Whilst the first volume was largely philosophical, then, these next three will be more psychological, though with frequent links to the philosophical framework offered in the first volume. There will also be more of a practical focus in these three volumes as I consider, not only how integration works at a given level, but how it can be achieved. This fits a conception of these volumes as clearing the ground for practical progress both in individual and social types of spiritual progress.

Most of this book, then, is an exercise in philosophical psychology. It is philosophical psychology because it is working with a theoretical model of the psyche. This theoretical model is given initial support by the philosophical argument laid out in volume 1. There I put forward an epistemological argument that we have no grounds to assert any kind of final or absolute belief (a type of belief that I refer to as ‘metaphysics’), but only provisional belief. Provisional belief is identifiable as a psychological state in which beliefs are held, but where they are open to change in the light of further experience. The failure of philosophers to explain how we can justify our beliefs in philosophical terms alone is perhaps the first reason for turning to psychology.

However, in volume 1 I also put forward an argument for not accepting the core of much traditional Western psychology: the notion of the self. Since we do not actually experience being a self, but only an identification with what we take to be ourselves at each moment, we have no grounds either to accept or to reject the existence of a self that is continuous between one moment and another. We can be sure, in a sense, of being egos (“I want therefore I exist”) but not selves. Without assuming anything more than what we experience at a given instant, then, our psychology needs to be built up from the notion of instantaneous identifications rather than either a permanent self or its absence. What we want at one moment may, through awareness bridging those moments, be able to co-operate with what we want at another moment, but we cannot assume from this that the momentary desires have been finally unified by a self – only that we can experience them working together. It is this working together that I mean by integration.

Though these philosophical starting points might (I hope) lend some initial plausibility to the psychological theory in this book, I am not suggesting for a moment that they prove it. This theory, like any other, needs to be tested through experience. This experience may well lie at the level of individual investigation: considering whether the theory makes sense in relation to your own experience, and testing it within the scope of that experience. There is no shortage of experimental material for every individual. We encounter desire and conflicts of desire virtually every minute of the day: it is the concepts through which we interpret the significance of those desires that need attention. So in many ways the integration of desires needs clarification more than it needs demonstration.

However, there is also no reason why the theories offered here should not also be investigated using empirical psychology, for they make predictions that may be testable to some extent in more formal scientific terms by empirical psychology as well as in individual experience. I have drawn on empirical psychology at various points in this book, but I am not in a position to test my predictions empirically because I am not a trained empirical psychologist. I would be very willing to work with empirical psychologists who wished to attempt testing of what I am suggesting here (and also in volumes 3 and 4). For example, it should be possible to devise ways of testing the correlations between lack of integration of desire and a failure to address conditions, more positively how integration of desires leads to better addressing of conditions, and also the degree of success of the different methods for integrating desire discussed in section 4 of this book.

If I have not wholeheartedly embraced empirical psychology, but rather used it selectively and relied more on philosophical arguments, the main reason for this is the unnecessary assumptions often adopted in empirical psychological study. Prime amongst these is the fact-value distinction, which assumes that facts can be justified in a completely different way from values and thus given a completely different ‘subjective’ status. As I argued in volume 1, there are no grounds for accepting this distinction, given that both facts and values are subject to scepticism, and thus dependent on people and their integration (not abstract metaphysical justification) for their degree of objectivity. There are thus no grounds for assuming that empirical psychology can only investigate facts about the psyche. Psychology is a moral tool as well as a scientific one. This has long been implicitly recognised in popular psychology, which is often a substitute for a discredited ethics amongst the modern educated classes.Practices like psychotherapy, transactional analysis, neuro-linguistic programming, and cognitive behavioural therapy all offer an implicit moral goal, even if they avoid labelling it as such. They are also confined and under-represented by a merely therapeutic label, presupposing a merely conventional norm to which we should return from our dysfunction.

Ethical psychology constantly has to find the balance of the Middle Way: neither imposing a metaphysical absolute on our experience of desire, nor allowing the ephemeral insistences of the ego too much space. Our experience incorporates both goals and present wants, and there is actually a long tradition of attempts to navigate them on which we can draw, long before the development of popular psychology. There are the mystical manuals of the great religions: from the mystical Christian saints to the Sufis and the Hindu and Buddhist writings on ways to work with one’s personal experience of crowding desires and make God, or another symbolised absolute, meaningful in experience. We also have Plato’s Symposium, and various attempts by Stoics and Epicureans in the Hellenistic period to offer spiritual instruction as an accessory to metaphysical abstraction. More recently we have many works of art, music and literature recording individual integration of desires. Wherever people have wrestled with their experience, there useful accounts of the integration of desire can be found.

This book does not aim to substitute for these many sources of rich inspiration and practical instruction regarding the integration of desire. Instead it aims to provide philosophical clarity on the subject of a kind which I have not yet discovered written elsewhere. Philosophical clarity on the question of desire unavoidably has to be somewhat indirect: we are dealing with beliefs about desires rather than the desires themselves. Nevertheless, the interdependence between the integration of desire and that of belief means that the integration of desire can easily be interrupted by unhelpful beliefs. Since beliefs offer us our whole account of what it is that we desire, this is hardly surprising. We cannot get what we want, in a longer-range, broader, sense, unless we conceive both what we want and how we can get it in terms that avoid fixed metaphysical assumptions of the kind that stop us addressing conditions as they arise in our experience.

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