Warning: The magic method OCDI\OneClickDemoImport::__wakeup() must have public visibility in /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/book-club/importer/inc/OneClickDemoImport.php on line 121 Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/book-club/importer/inc/OneClickDemoImport.php:121) in /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/plugins/onecom-vcache/vcaching.php on line 614 Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/book-club/importer/inc/OneClickDemoImport.php:121) in /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/plugins/onecom-vcache/vcaching.php on line 622 The Five Principles of Middle Way Philosophy: Introduction – Robert M. Ellis

The Five Principles of Middle Way Philosophy: Introduction

How do we live in a world of uncertainty? The first book in this Middle Way Philosophy series, Absolutization, was concerned with how we often ignore uncertainty and assume that we have the whole picture when we do not. This second one, however, is concerned more positively with how we can face up to uncertainty in practical judgement and avoid absolutization. In the process of doing this, too, although we may start off focused on merely avoiding errors, we create the conditions for integration – the coming together of energies in our experience that can make our lives more positively meaningful and effective.

This book explores five interlocking principles that also indicate areas of practice (see diagram). These begin with the practice of facing up to uncertainty itself, and culminate with the positive fruits one can expect that to bear in our experience of the process of integration. Unlike many religious, spiritual, or psychotherapeutic approaches, I am not working top-down but bottom up. I will not start with an inflated positive ideal and then make deductions from that: such ideals can be helpful symbols of a desirable end point, but not representations of attainable targets. Nor will I start with any claims to ‘knowledge’ about such an end point, or of how we can attain such ‘knowledge’. Rather I will begin with a thorough exploration of our lack of ‘knowledge’, and work up from there to explain the implications of taking that limitation seriously as the basis of practice.

The central metaphor and symbol for that approach is the Middle Way. The Middle Way is a path in the sense of a series of judgements made by an individual (and by extension, also by groups), with each judgement offering better or worse options. It is ‘Middle’ in the specific sense that it lies between positive and negative forms of absolutization. I capitalize it because it is a specific concept, not just any old ‘middle way’ in the sense of a compromise. The capitalization is not a sign of reification or metaphysics.

In Absolutization I explained how absolutization constrains judgement. It does this by offering only two options (the acceptance or rejection of the current belief) at a given moment of judgement, where further awareness could make us aware of many more. When we’re caught up in an absolutization (for instance, the belief that that person who is talking rudely must be attacking me personally), that belief and its denial is all there is in our awareness. The positive belief absorbs all our available energy, and its opposing denial, the only possible alternative considered, is completely rejected as unthinkable. Caught up in that state, We’re convinced that we ‘know’ the ‘truth’ of that situation, and anyone who contradicts us is just ‘wrong’.

The Middle Way dares to remind us that this is not the only possible way of looking at things – that there is always a third alternative, if you open your mind enough to look for it. Indeed, there is not only a third alternative, but commonly a fourth, fifth and many other alternatives. The Middle Way does not presume to tell you which of these is correct, only to point out that there are alternatives.

It is the Middle Way as an approach that, taken seriously, means that recognizing our lack of knowledge is not ‘nihilistic’ or ‘relativistic’. Far from depriving us of values to live our lives by, it helps us to find them, but only in the process of experience, not through a shortcut substitute of adopting an absolute conceptual belief that is supposed to guarantee your values. Crucially, by recognizing that absolute negative claims are just as absolute as positive ones, it provides a basis for even-handedness in our treatment of absolutist and relativist positions. Absolutist positions may be associated with symbolic ideals (God, truth etc.), but these should not be mistaken for bases of belief. On the other hand, relativist positions often offer well-justified beliefs about the conditions of our lives, but these cannot function as symbolic ideals. The Middle Way involves a navigation in which we avoid taking either the absolute or the relative as the whole story, instead building up both a grounded experience of motivating value and a realistic factual understanding of the conditions around us.

The Five Principles explored in this book build up this approach from the ground up. The ‘ground’ here means a philosophical justification rooted in sceptical argument and brought into contact with the practical conditions of experience. The basis on which the theory that emerges needs to be tested, then, is practical. In the second half of Absolutization, I offered a detailed account of a set of practical criteria by which I think any response to the phenomena of absolutization need to be judged: practicality (including embodiment, responsibility, and effectiveness), universal aspiration, judgement focus and error focus. My argument is that previous ways of addressing absolutization have not seen it as a unified phenomenon (but rather as separated phenomena like bias, metaphysics, projection, conflict or reinforcing feedback loops). They have thus have not provided a sufficiently effective basis for addressing the interconnected conditions it creates. The Five Principles aim to fulfil those criteria for an adequate response to absolutization as a whole set of interconnected phenomena, and to demonstrate what those criteria imply in practice.

All five of the principles have developed from consideration of the questions of Western philosophy being considered in a practical context influenced by Buddhism, psychology, neuroscience, embodiment and systems theory – the same types of sources that I drew on and synthesised in Absolutization. In addition, it is possible to understand these principles in terms of scientific method, or in terms of critical thinking skills. However, the principles have become so synthesised over the period in which I have developed them, that it is hard to determine any single main source for each principle. For that reason, I certainly could not present them in the same way I presented Absolutization, with the different kinds of sources providing starting points that help to structure the book.

However, there are some relationships with other sources that may strike the reader. The discussion of scepticism is a development of a long-standing philosophical debate – but one in which I think there have been some major misunderstandings of its implications, due to a failure to understand sceptical argument in a practical context. The discussion of provisionality will remind many of good practice in scientific method, even though it is not limited to the formal, social context in which science is practised. Incrementality connects with the philosophical discussion of vagueness – but again, given a practical context. Agnosticism will be reminiscent of discussions in the philosophy of religion, but offers a position not currently recognized in that context, and with implications that go very much further than that. Integration, finally, is very much a development of the psychotherapeutic tradition, but again, in a way that is applied far beyond the usual limits imposed on that discourse.

In all of these cases, you will misunderstand the nature and role of the principle if you approach it in a mono-disciplinary way. There is not just one discipline that determines the purpose of the principles I’m using and the way they should be assessed. Just as looking up the sources in the Buddhist Pali Canon does not give you a final account of what the ‘Middle Way’ is, you will not get the final word on scepticism in Sextus Empiricus or in David Hume, rich though both of these thinkers are. Nor will you get the final word on provisionality from the philosophy of science, informative though it is, nor the final word on integration from Jung, crucial though his input has been. Rather, each principle needs to be understood in the synthetic context of the Middle Way as a practical approach to human judgement, with any particular source judged in the wider context of its practical helpfulness in the widest and longest-term perspective available to us.

The fact that the principles have been developed from an array of sources also means that they can be justified from a variety of directions, since each of those directions offers overlapping insights into the same kinds of phenomena. It is the difference between wider and narrower uses of different disciplines or sources that is far more significant than which sources we use. To try to illustrate this point, I have created a table that summarises the justification of each of the five principles in relation to a variety of different approaches, included in an appendix. Not all the points in that table are discussed in detail in the text of this book. Rather the purpose of the table is to give a wider impression of the synthesis involved, and to encourage the reader to start thinking synthetically about the five principles, rather than only in terms of whatever kinds of sources or disciplines are most familiar to him or her. A more detailed exploration of some of the points in the table may be found in subsequent volumes of this series.

The first of the principles, scepticism, refers both to a philosophical tradition of argument and to a practical basis of reflection. This tradition is typified, for instance, by the thought that you may possibly be mistaken even in what you think you see in front of your eyes at this moment. Sceptical arguments have been systematically misunderstood for millennia by not being interpreted in a practical context, and through a failure to understand that negative positions can be just as absolute as positive ones. As a result, ‘scepticism’ has come to be associated with negativity, is normally used selectively, and is assumed to be impractical when not used selectively. I will argue on the contrary that scepticism is an entirely practical principle, and that the very momentum of its arguments requires us to apply it even-handedly and thoroughly, without any need to feel threatened by the uncertainty that it implies. Scepticism is a practice of recognizing uncertainty, not just a weird view put forward by fringe philosophers. Its helpful usage needs to be thoroughly integrated with a Middle Way perspective.

The second principle, provisionality, is the capacity to make better judgements that take uncertainty into account. When we assume that we ‘know’ how the world is, we get locked into a binary limitation of possible ways of thinking about a given matter: there is either the ‘true’ view we identify with, or the unthinkable negation of that view, which is ‘false’. For example, two people get locked into an argument about population in which one insists that population is the whole basis of our environmental problems, and the other insists that this is an unacceptable ‘racist’ view. Both of these people are making binary assumptions that are in conflict: either that population is the whole basis of environmental problems (or not), or that this is racist (or not). However, this way of thinking depends on the way that we are framing the issue, and there are in practice always alternative ways of framing it that do not leave us locked in this binary frame. In terms of the example, that there are multiple complex causes of environmental problems in which population is one possible element, and that there are many possible solutions to over-population, many of which are not racist.

Provisionality is the ability, that we can cultivate, to consider alternative possible views of things, which involves recognizing both the limitations of our current view and the possibility of alternatives. That means that it is very much a quality of the imagination, and is dependent on our mental states, rather than just formal checking procedures or a theoretical commitment to considering alternative views. Again, then, provisionality is a practice. The fact that most scientists would theoretically agree with the need for provisionality in their research is potentially misleading in some ways, because their acceptance of it is often superficial and depersonalized. Provisionality is rarely discussed as a wider quality dependent on psychological states. Instead, there is much more reliance on the socially-prescribed requirements of formal science, such as peer review and double-blind testing.

The third principle, incrementality, is the practice of seeing things as a matter of degree. In Absolutization I discussed the way that practically unnecessary discontinuity is often the most easily identifiable feature of absolutized beliefs. When we respond unreflectively to political argument in a way that is either for or against what someone is saying, for instance, we are rapidly judging whether they are part of our group or the opposing group. A discontinuous line is then drawn between that person’s position and our own – for instance that they are ‘right wing’ and we are ‘left wing’. The complexity of the issues is rapidly obscured as we rapidly shift our priorities from addressing the issues to ‘winning’. If we were able to understand those issues as a matter of degree, we could avoid this immediate source of conflict. Not, for instance, whether we tax the rich or give welfare to the poor, but how much we do either in relation to what we do already. Bargaining with figures is a much more helpful basis for disagreement than manning the barricades. If we are not absolutely opposed in the first place, we are in a position to assess the best response and potentially agree on it, in a way we were not before.

incrementality is not necessarily a matter of changing our logic, but of applying it differently. Nor is it necessarily a prompt for compromise: one side may be overwhelmingly right compared to the other, but we’ll only be in a position to see that when we start thinking in increments. Increments follow the contours of our experience rather than of the concepts we use to divide up that experience, and are thus a feature of organic life (and also often of non-organic processes). Cells grow incrementally, not by instantaneously changing from one state to another. By thinking incrementally, we get closer to how things are presented to us in experience, and further away from a conceptual model that’s assumed to have the whole picture.

Agnosticism, the fourth principle, means taking a decisive stand in relation to the absolutized nonsense of opposing group conflict – not taking sides, not accepting the framing that tries to force you to take sides, and not believing those who tell you it’s the only option you have. Agnosticism recognizes that we don’t know the answers to metaphysical questions about ultimate realities (not just God’s existence, but very many other such claims), and thus refuses to accept commitments to such positions. Note that this view of agnosticism is contrary to the popular calumny that sees it as indecisive – on the contrary, agnosticism takes constant courage. It is not those who live in the cloud-cuckoo land of thinking that their absolute conceptual beliefs must be realities who are practically facing up to conditions: instead these are the cowards who constantly take the easy option of going along with the shortcut view of things promulgated by their group. No, agnostics practise the drawing of confidence from elsewhere – from the body and from experience – so as to refuse to be drawn into absolutized conflict.

To do this, however, agnostics need not only to be courageous, but to be on their guard – as wary as serpents. They will find that absolutists on both sides of any conflict will often do almost anything to avoid the mental effort of developing a more complex incremental position. They will constantly confuse agnostic positions with negative ones, because understanding of the Middle Way is generally so poor. They will appropriate agnostic positions into their own side or lump them into the other side rather than admit that there is any third option. They will even form unholy alliances with their supposed enemies on the opposite absolute side in order to keep agnostics down, when they rightly intuit that agnosticism is a much greater long-term threat to their absolute position than their supposed enemies are (in fact they are counter-dependent on their enemies). Agnostics need to be primed to expect all these tactics, and to know how to meet them.

The final principle, integration, refers to the practice of overcoming psychological (but thus also socio-political) conflict in the long-term. Given that absolutized beliefs cannot be adjusted, they are constant sources of conflict in which one belief (with associated desires) tries to repress incompatible beliefs. By judging sceptically, provisionally, incrementally and agnostically, then, we also work to resolve conflict – whether that conflict is within ourselves in the form of cognitive dissonance, or represented in socio-political disagreement between different people holding incompatible beliefs. At the same time, by working on the overall integration of our judgement in the context of the whole mind-body system, we create the long-term conditions for the better practice of the other four principles. We are better able to be provisional, for instance, if our energies are not in conflict, but united.

Integration, then, is the main focus of long-term practice in following the Middle Way. That practice is just as much bodily and emotional as it is ‘cognitive’, and involves working with bodily, mental and emotional states through mindfulness as well as with meaning and belief. In the process of mindfulness practice, we can allow conflicts to arise but also contextualize them in body awareness or other types of wider awareness. An insistent and obsessive belief that once seemed the whole story can then be seen as less important, because we are able to find alternatives meaningful in that larger context. The use of the imagination and the exercise of critical thinking can give us other approaches to that contextualization, where our given beliefs are just one alternative amongst many, and the framing that previously seemed completely non-negotiable is suddenly seen as dispensible.

The final section of this book, then, is concerned with practice. Here I will not so much be offering any new practices as giving a new context for old ones – such as mindfulness, the arts, and critical thinking. Often we are aware that these kinds of practices are helpful for a specific purpose (relaxation, say, or dealing with academic essays), but not how they are linked together in mutual support. An understanding of absolutization as a unified phenomenon, as discussed in my previous book, can also help one to understand the value of an array of practices in helping to address it as such. Bias is linked to projection, conflict, proliferation, restricting the options and metaphysics (among other features of absolutization) I argue, not only because of the interdependence of these things in the wider phenomena of absolutization, but also because our practical response to one is a practical response to all.

The account of practices in the final section is organized in terms of what I call the Threefold Practice – integration of desire, meaning and belief respectively, each of which provides different kinds of contextualization for boosting our awareness that absolute assumptions are not the whole story. In integration of desire practices such as mindfulness or bodily disciplines (like yoga or tai chi), our limited assumptions are at least temporarily placed in a wider context of embodied awareness, so that they no longer hijack our attention in emotional obsessiveness. In integration of meaning practices such as the arts, we extend our available resources for understanding, both cognitive and emotional, so that we are no longer so obsessively dependent on a limited set of symbols supposedly representing an absolutized ‘reality’, but are able to imagine things in a variety of possible ways. In integration of belief practices, such as critical thinking, our limited beliefs are placed in a larger conceptual and cognitive context, so that we can see how limited their justifications are, and that other possible beliefs may be better justified.

These three broad ways of practising can be found to varying degrees in a wide array of already established practices, from ordinary recreation to psychotherapy to academic study of various kinds. So it is not so much a matter of finding or developing new practical techniques as of understanding the relationships between the ones we already have in a wider context. Seeing this wider context also enables us to use them wisely rather than narrowly, not over-depending on one practice interpreted in one way, but rather drawing on an array of interdependent practices. These practices are not only focused on individual development, but also involve engaging with the wider socio-political context that is required to make integrative practice work for individuals. Each of the three types of integrative practice, I shall argue, also has socio-political elements, including friendship, care, the provision of education, the use of ritual, and political campaigning for integrative ends.

In the later part of Absolutization, in addition to identifying the features of absolutization, I tried to also identify four criteria for an effective response to it: practicality, universal aspiration, judgement focus and error focus. These were not principles of practice as discussed in this book, but merely ways of identifying what is a Middle Way approach (that is, one that addresses absolutization effectively) from what is not. Obviously, the five principles advocated in this book are intended to fulfil these four criteria, but much of the time I will not need to draw explicit attention to this.

It is worth emphasising that the five principles are all practices (not truth-claims), and thus take practicality very seriously. They also all aspire to universality, in the sense that I think everyone will benefit from following these principles, as far as I can judge from the evidence so far. As I argued in Absolutization, this is not because of a top-down assumption that the Five Principles all fulfil some cosmic requirement, but because they seem to address common features of the human experience. The lateralization of the brain is one of these basic ones, as it evidently provides the basic condition for absolutization to occur and also for remedies for it to be possible.

These principles are all also judgement-focused, because they all apply, not in relation to what we claim to be the case, but in how we go about judging it. That’s why there could be much to be said for turning the principles into adverbs – we work (and play) sceptically, provisionally, incrementally, agnostically and integratively. They should not be mistaken for more general claims about the universe, even if some provisional claims (such as ones about human functioning) play a role in our thinking about the principles.

They are also error-focused in the sense that they involve practice to overcome absolutization, rather than practice to try to reach some final positive goal (such as enlightenment) specified in advance. Of course, humans need goals, but they do not need absolute or final goals, only intermediate ones that help them to structure their activities. Rather than being united in agreement about where we are going, then, it is much more practicable to be in agreement about what we are avoiding. Any impression that this is somehow less demanding than a positive goal will soon be dispelled when we start thinking seriously about how to change the way we judge things. Overall, then, the Five Principles provide an overview of the most important elements of the Middle Way as a universal path. They do not by any means provide a complete account of it, but my aim in this book is to provide and justify the most important elements of the structure it offers. Further details – for instance, about ethics, or about the arguments for agnostic views of a range of metaphysical dualisms – must be left to further books in this series.