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Middle Way Philosophy: Omnibus Edition

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Abstract

Middle Way Philosophy is not about compromise, but about the avoidance of dogma and the integration of conflicting assumptions. To rely genuinely on experience as our guide, we need to avoid the interpretation of experience through the lense of unnecessary metaphysical dogmas. Very often the dogmas we need to find our way between are ones conventionally assumed in modern thinking. Middle Way Philosophy questions alike the assumptions of scientific naturalism, religious revelation and political absolutism, trying to separate what addresses experience in these doctrines from what is merely assumed. Robert M. Ellis draws on balanced Pyrrhonian scepticism, experience of Buddhist practice, falsificationist philosophy, cognitive psychology, Jungian integration and archetype theory, embodied meaning, and the neuroscience of brain lateralisation to develop a synthetic philosophy that is not limited by the false divisions between arts, religion and science. Seeking a universal philosophy without dependence on metaphysics or tradition, he develops a new account of objectivity based on the adequacy of our judgement rather than on the traditional obsession with a ‘truth’ that is always speculative. This Omnibus Edition includes all four of the volumes of the 'Middle Way Philosophy' series that were previously published separately: 1. The Path of Objectivity (2012), 2. The Integration of Desire (2013), 3. The Integration of Meaning (2013) and 4. The Integration of Belief (2015).
Middle Way Philosophy
By Robert M. Ellis
Omnibus edition
combining in one volume:
1. The Path of Objectivity
2. The Integration of Desire
3. The Integration of Meaning
4. The Integration of Belief
2
Copyright © Robert M. Ellis 2015
Published by Lulu, Raleigh, N. Carolina
ISBN 978-1-326-34379-8
Cover picture: Peril Strait, Alaska
(this picture is in the public domain)
Other books by Robert M. Ellis, all available from www.lulu.com :
Migglism: A Beginner’s Guide to Middle Way Philosophy
A Theory of Moral Objectivity
A New Buddhist Ethics
The Trouble with Buddhism
Truth on the Edge
Theme and Variations (fiction)
North Cape (poetry)
3
Foreword by Iain McGilchrist
The “Middle Way” Ellis argues for so cogently is far from being a simple compromise between
existing polarities, but a departure at right angles to typical thinking in the modern Western
world, which looks to me like the path to ancient wisdom.
The perception that objectivity is neither an absolute, nor any the less real for that, is central.
Ellis argues for an approach that is incremental and continuously responsive to what is given,
rather than abstract and absolute. This is the difference, as he notes, between the pragmatic,
provisional, nuanced, never fixed position of the right hemisphere in the face of the absolutism
towards which the left hemisphere always tends.
The need for certainty must inevitably lead to illusion, whether in philosophy or in the business
of living, and here too Ellis makes clear – as far as I am aware for the first time – the
connections between the cognitive distortions known to psychology and the fallacies identified
in the process of philosophy.
This is an important, original work, that should get the widest possible hearing.
Iain McGilchrist is the author of ‘The Master and his Emissary’, fellow of All Soul’s College
Oxford and a former psychiatrist.
This foreword was originally written for volume 1 of the series.
4
Preface to the Omnibus edition
I have written and published this series in four instalments over the space of four years, but it
is, in the end, best seen as a single work. As the number of internal references will show, the
different strands of argument are interdependent, and they work together to create a total
vision. I am trying to create philosophy as though psychology mattered, and you will see that
better after the later volumes, not just the first. I am also trying to treat psychology in a way that
is thoroughly ethical and epistemological, not constrained by the conventions of the false moral
neutrality often found in scientific discussion: but to appreciate this fully you need to read the
later more psychological sections in conjunction with the more philosophical ones. Above all,
the vision is one driven by practical applicability in different interdependent areas:
psychological, spiritual, artistic, social, and political; desire, meaning and belief. You will also
see that practical interdependence much better if you read this work as a whole. For all these
reasons, I wanted to create a single book that would encourage people to read and refer to it
as a whole.
This is primarily an academic book (though a rather unorthodox one), and I can appreciate that
some may find it initially daunting. Most will be better starting off with my introductory books
‘Migglism’ and ‘Truth on the Edge’. However, I would encourage those who have read these
introductions to move onto the greater detail found in this one, because to work adequately
with the Middle Way we need to start engaging with some of its complexity. I have tried to
make it easier to engage with by providing the running headers, the glossaries, and the tables
in the fourth volume. You will also find further supporting resources (including audio talks) on
www.middlewaysociety.org.
This book also does not necessarily have to be read as a whole, and could also be dipped into
or read in a variety of ways in a variety of orders. For example, if you are more interested in
the psychology of cognitive biases you might like to start with volume four and then work
backwards, or if your background is more artistic you might find it better to start with volume
three. However, wherever you start, it’s important to move outwards to engage with other
aspects of Middle way Philosophy. It is a synthetic process.
This is my attempt at Middle Way Philosophy, but by no means the last word. I hope and
expect that others will in future surpass what lies here, correct its errors, and improve on its
limitations. That is what I have myself attempted to do with the initial inspirations about the
Middle Way I received from the Buddhist tradition, which I felt needed a very thorough
reconsideration in the light of Western philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.
Acknowledgements
I would like to express gratitude to Anthony Martin, Barry Daniel, Iain McGilchrist, Viryanaya
Ellis and Jason Malfatto for their help as critical readers of one or more of the volumes of the
series combined here prior to publication.
Robert M. Ellis
Contents
5
Contents
Foreword by Iain McGilchrist 3
Preface to the Omnibus edition 4
Contents 5
I. THE PATH OF OBJECTIVITY 13
Introduction 14
Note on the second edition (2015) 16
1. The avoidance of metaphysics 17
a. Sceptical arguments 18
b. The failure of philosophical arguments against scepticism 21
c. Provisionality 25
d. Incrementality 28
e. Distinguishing negative metaphysics from agnosticism 30
f. Against a priori arguments for metaphysics 32
g. Against revelatory metaphysics 35
h. Sceptical slippage and modern forms of negative metaphysics 40
i. Against the fact-value distinction 43
j. Metaphysical assumptions about the self 46
2. The Appeal to Experience 48
a. Experience and its adequacy 49
b. Experience and meaning 52
c. Theory in relation to experience 55
d. The phenomenological use of terms 57
e. The limitations of empiricism 58
3. The Middle Way 60
a. Buddhist inspiration without Buddhist justification 61
b. The limitations of traditional Buddhist presentations of the Middle Way 63
c. The Middle Way in Christianity and Islam 67
d. Defining the poles avoided by the Middle Way 69
e. Pragmatism and the feedback loop 71
f. No final goals 73
g. Dualism and non-dualism 75
h. The Middle Way and the brain 77
i. The Middle Way as moral good 80
j. The Middle Way as integration 83
k. Dialectic and homeostasis 85
l. Distinguishing the Middle Way from metaphysics 87
4. Aspects of objectivity 89
a. The incremental nature of objectivity 90
b. The dispositional nature of objectivity 92
c. Scientific or factual objectivity 93
Contents
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d. Moral objectivity 96
e. Compassion 98
f. Aesthetic objectivity 100
g. Objectivity, adaptivity and evolution 102
5. Justification 105
a. Rejection of positive foundationalism 106
b. Coherentism 108
c. Agnostic foundationalism 110
d. Agnostic foundationalism in relation to falsifiability 111
6. Integration 113
a. Ego-identification 114
b. The psyche 117
c. Conflict models and integration models 119
d. Integration in relation to objectivity 121
e. Integration in relation to justification 123
f. Group integration 124
g. The three types of integration 126
7. Ethics 127
a. Resolving relativism 128
b. Responsibility 130
c. Normativity 133
d. Dispositional objectivity and virtue 135
e. Virtues and practices 137
f. Deontological ethics and agnostic foundationalism 139
g. Moral authority 142
h. Calculating consequences 145
i. Provisionally derived rules 150
j. Rationality and emotion 152
II. THE INTEGRATION OF DESIRE 154
Introduction 155
1. Conflicts of desire 158
a. Experience of Conflicting Desires 159
b. Unconscious conflict 164
c. Corporeal Conflict 167
d. Brain conflict 170
e. Group conflict 173
f. Political conflict 176
g. Violence 179
2. Integration of the ego 181
a. Non-fulfilment of unintegrated desires 182
b. The process of integrating desires 185
c. Fulfilment of integrated desires 188
d. Ends and means 190
e. Desires and values 192
Contents
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3. Egoistic ideology 194
a. Alienation and metaphysics 195
b. Moral failures of religion 197
c. Natural Law and naturalism 199
d. Hedonism 201
e. Marxism and Fascism 202
f. Subjectivism 205
g. The spirit of capitalism 207
4. The practice of integrating desire 209
a. The Four Exertions 210
b. The state of the brain 213
c. The impact of the environment 215
d. Effect of relationships 217
e. Recreation 219
f. Meditation 221
5. Integrative achievement 223
a. Reliance of integration of desire on other integrations 224
b. The irrelevance of total integration 226
c. Temporary forms of integration 228
d. Asymmetrical integration 230
6. Integration of government 232
a. Government and the justification of power 233
b. Integrating groups in society 237
c. Democracy and the integration of the individual 239
d. Integrating people with government 241
e. Integrating government 243
f. Integration between governments 245
7. Case studies 247
a. Autobiographical 248
b. Sangharakshita 252
c. Margaret Thatcher 255
d. The Ottoman Empire 258
e. Northern Ireland 261
8. Conclusion 263
III. THE INTEGRATION OF MEANING 264
Introduction 265
1. Our experience of meaning 269
a. The cognitive and emotional spheres of meaning 270
b. Meaning and communication 273
c. Language and other symbols 276
d. The physical basis of meaning 278
e. Metaphorical extension 282
f. Representation and the two hemispheres 285
g. The practical importance of semantics 288
Contents
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h. The role of logic 289
i. Sublimity, creativity, and Heron’s Beard 291
2. Fragmentation of meaning 294
a. Cognitive models and defeasibility contexts 295
b. Cognitive and emotional fragmentation 298
c. Linguistic fragmentation 300
d. Cultural fragmentation 302
e. Archetypal fragmentation 304
f. Fragmentation as a condition for conflict 307
3. Fragmenting philosophies 309
a. Linguistic idealism 310
b. Representationalism and religion 313
c. Representationalism and philosophy 318
d. Representationalism and politics 322
e. Expressivism 325
4. The archetypes 327
a. The role of archetypes in meaning 328
b. The Hero 330
c. The Shadow 332
d. The Anima/ Animus 334
e. The God Archetype 336
5. The process of integrating meaning 339
a. The dialectic of meaning-integration 340
b. The proliferation of symbols 342
c. Clarification 344
d. The uses of ambiguity 347
e. Integrating meaning in relation to belief 350
f. Integrating meaning in relation to desire 352
g. The meaning of the Middle Way 354
6. The practice of integrating meaning 355
a. Integrating language 356
b. Integrating culture 359
c. Music 361
d. The visual arts 363
e. Poetry 366
f. Story and literature 369
g. Ritual and theatre 371
h. Film 373
i. Integrating meaning in meditation 375
j. Focusing 378
7. Integrative achievement in meaning 380
a. Temporary forms of meaning-integration 381
b. Asymmetrical meaning-integration 383
c. The limits of meaning-integration 384
8. Political forms of meaning-integration 386
a. Lying politicians 387
Contents
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b. Political ritual 389
c. Government support for the arts 391
d. Government and meaningful education 393
9. Conclusion 395
IV. THE INTEGRATION OF BELIEF 396
Introduction 397
1. Our experience of belief 400
a. Judgement and belief 401
b. Implicit belief and cognitive models 405
c. Explicit belief 407
d. Faith and trust 410
e. Confidence and doubt 412
f. Ideology 415
2. The provisionality of beliefs 418
a. Complexity and unpredictability 419
b. Optionality 421
c. Antifragility 424
d. Adaptiveness 426
e. Analysis and synthesis 429
f. Fast and Slow thinking 433
g. Incrementality 435
h. Suppression 437
i. Balance and integration 440
3. Dogmatism 442
a. Metaphysics as a blockage to integration 443
b. The fragility of dogma 445
c. Cognitive biases and fallacies 447
d. The positive feedback cycle 450
e. Absolutising sources 455
Personal and textual authority 455
Group authority 457
Circularity 459
f. Absolutising the subject 462
Idealism 462
The Self 465
Agency 467
Total Responsibility Fallacy 468
Zero Responsibility Fallacy 470
Projecting the self/ other dichotomy 471
Projecting the act/ omission dichotomy 473
g. Absolutising the object 475
Realism 475
Rationalism 478
Supervenience 479
Cause 481
Person 485
Contents
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h. Absolutising values 488
Moral Naturalism 488
Relativism 491
Value of self 493
Value of desire 494
Legalism 496
i. Limiting attention in space 499
Coherentism 499
Limited attention 500
Limited identification 500
Limited availability of meaning 501
Limitation of evidence 504
j. Absolutising time 507
Absolutising the past 509
Absolutising the present over the past 510
Absolutising the present over the future 513
Absolutising the future 516
k. Limiting attention in time 520
Direct limitation of attention 520
Probability errors 522
Other statistical errors 526
l. Limiting meaning 528
Anchoring and framing 529
Dichotomies 531
Ambiguity 533
Definition 535
Metaphor 537
Expressivism 539
m. Dogmatism and compassion 542
n. Dogmatism and evil 545
4. Dualistic beliefs 548
a. Metaphysical field beliefs 549
b. Moral absolutism and relativism 551
c. Freewill and determinism 554
The meanings of ‘freewill’ and ‘determinism’ 554
Metaphysical freewill and the experience of choice 554
Determinism and the experience of causality 556
Compatibilism 558
Incrementalising conditioning 559
Incrementalising integration 560
d. Real and ideal 562
Rationalist idealism 562
Absolute idealism and dialectical materialism 564
Realism and naturalism 567
Interdependence 569
e. Mind and body 571
Mind-body dualism 571
Materialism of the brain 574
Behaviourism and functionalism 576
f. Theism and atheism 579
Theism 579
Atheism 582
Contents
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Agnosticism 584
g. Cosmic justice 587
h. Political ideologies 590
Haidt’s six value foundations 590
Political ideologies in general 591
Socialism and Marxism 593
Liberalism 595
Conservatism 597
Nationalism 600
Political Islam 602
Green Ideology 603
Feminism 605
i. Economic doctrines 607
Rational choice theory 607
Perfect Information 608
The fact-value distinction and cosmic justice 608
Growth model 610
Profit maximisation 612
j. Artistic dualisms 614
Representation and abstraction 614
Form and formlessness 615
Sentimentality 616
5. The practice of integrating belief 618
a. Wisdom 619
b. The role of philosophy 623
c. Critical thinking 627
d. Scientific practice 630
e. Autobiography 633
f. Historical Study 635
g. Religious Studies 638
h. Education 640
6. Integrative achievement in belief 643
a. Temporary integration of belief 644
b. Asymmetrical integration of belief 646
c. Memory and identity 648
d. Optimising theory 650
e. The limits of belief-integration 652
7. Political integration of belief 654
a. Political competition and critical dialogue 655
b. Parties and ideologies 657
c. Ideological consensus 659
d. Objectivity and false neutrality 661
e. Political education 663
8. Conclusion 665
a. Overview of the series 666
b. The Middle Way Meditation Practice 670
1. Mindfulness warm-up 670
2. Desire stage 670
3. Meaning stage 670
Contents
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4. Belief stage 670
5. Absorption stage 671
c. The Middle Way Society 672
Appendix: Table of relationships between types of metaphysics, cognitive biases and fallacies 673
REFERENCE SECTION FOR ALL FOUR VOLUMES 675
Bibliography 675
Glossary of Middle Way Philosophy terms 691
Glossary of cognitive biases, fallacies and metaphysical beliefs 696
13
I. The Path of Objectivity
Introduction to Middle Way Philosophy 1: The Path of Objectivity
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Introduction
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.
Introduction to Middle Way Philosophy 1: The Path of Objectivity
15
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 Objectivity1. 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 Emissary2. 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 Edge3, 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
1 Ellis (2001)
2 McGilchrist (2009)
3 Ellis (2011c)
Introduction to Middle Way Philosophy 1: The Path of Objectivity
16
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
robert@middlewaysociety.org.
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 1sets 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.
I.1.a Sceptical Arguments
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1.The avoidance of metaphysics
This section aims to clear the ground for the positive understanding of the Middle Way that I
hope can be built up in the longer term. I will begin in a critical and sceptical vein, in order to
avoid misunderstandings at the outset and lay the groundwork for a new account of objectivity
without interfering metaphysical assumptions.
This section is about how we can distinguish Middle Way Philosophy from various kinds of
metaphysics common in Western tradition. This is a largely negative but nevertheless a crucial
function. I will begin with sceptical arguments simply to show why we should not accept
metaphysical claims, but nevertheless argue that consistent scepticism liberates us to hold
provisional and incremental beliefs that relate to our experience. After heading off some of the
likely objections to this project that might be offered by analytic philosophers and theologians, I
will then also focus on some specific metaphysical beliefs that can distort our whole approach
to objectivity: the fact-value distinction and assumptions about the self.
I.1.a Sceptical Arguments
18
a. Sceptical arguments
Sceptical arguments are the best place to start in presenting the Middle Way, because they enable a
philosophical argument about its justification to be built up. To start by facing up to all our uncertainties, and then
consider what positions we can justify in spite of them, is a pattern of presentation that has often been used in
Western philosophy (for example, by Descartes and Hume, who both attempted to confront scepticism after it had
re-arisen in Western civilisation). What this approach reflects is a concern with justification which I share with
Descartes and Hume, even though of course I disagree with them in other ways.
A concern with justification is ultimately a practical concern. If we do not face up to the challenges of justification,
we may remain deluded in ways that could have been avoided, and those delusions may well catch us out with
practical consequences in the future. I want to argue that much Western thought has turned its back on this
concern with justification, because of a set of interrelated unnecessary assumptions about it, and that this has had
negative practical consequences.
So, I am going to begin with an account of a range of sceptical arguments. Many of these arguments are well
known and are often taught on introductory philosophy courses. The first of them were introduced to Western
Philosophy by Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of the Pyrrhonian school of scepticism in Hellenistic philosophy, but they
are also found in Indian philosophy, which may have influenced Pyrrho. These arguments set up a basic
challenge in Western philosophy that the most prominent philosophers have been struggling to address ever
since. What all of these arguments have in common is the casting of doubt on all claims of knowledge.
1. The ten modes of Pyrrhonism (first given by Aenesidemus4) give a range of reasons why our senses do not
necessarily give us correct information about objects. These are
a. that different animals have different sense organs, so therefore animals perceive objects differently from
humans
b. that different humans have different sense abilities (e.g. some have visual impairments) and thus perceive
objects differently
c. that different senses perceive objects differently (e.g. I may be able to hear something I cannot see)
d. that differences in circumstances lead to different perceptions (e.g. a hand put in hot water and then cold
will find the cold colder through contrast)
e. that differences in spatial position relative to an observed object (e.g. a distant landmark) lead to different
perceptions and to perceptions that may be mistaken
f. that our perceptions of an object will be altered by what we see it with or near, which may lead us to see it
differently (e.g. camouflage)
g. that the same object will vary in the way it is perceived when in different quantities or when composed
differently, making it impossible to identify the object with certainty (e.g. wheat grains look different from
flour, but are composed of the same substance)
h. that if objects are claimed to be absolutely existent this claim is still only understood relative to other
claims
i. that the constancy or rarity with which something appears changes our perception of it (e.g. comets are
rarer, and thus seeing one is more significant to us, than stars)
j. that moral claims also differ between people (one person’s good child is another’s bad).
In general, then, these arguments point out that all our perceptions are relative, because influenced both by
the specific circumstances of our perception and of the object we are (or may be) perceiving. This means that
any perception may be in error.
2. The dream argument considered by Descartes5 and others, suggests that we cannot tell with certainty that
we are not dreaming (or that our whole experience is not otherwise illusory) at a given moment, and therefore
that our perceptions are not erroneous. This argument is problematic if applied to all our experience through
time, as it then deprives us of any contrast between ‘dream’ and ‘reality’, but we could consistently maintain
4 Sextus Empiricus (1996)
5 Descartes (1912)
I.1.a Sceptical Arguments
19
this distinction to assert that at least some of our past experience must not have been a dream, and yet not
be certain that our current experience is not.
3. The error argument points out that even if our whole experience at a given time is not erroneous, particular
objects that we think we perceive may still be so. Past mistakes in perception show that mistakes are
possible, and we were not aware of those mistakes at the time we made them, so we may not be aware of
our current mistakes. This argument can be applied to current perceptions and also to memory, to point out
that with a past perception we may have made a mistake in the original perception or in our memory of that
perception.
4. The time lapse argument used by Bertrand Russell6 suggests that we cannot be certain of the object of
perception because the conditions of that object may have changed by the time we receive the perception
(e.g. the sun may have ceased to exist 7 minutes ago, but due to the distance from the sun and the time it
takes light to traverse that distance, we wouldn’t know about it yet).
5. The relativity of cultural background. Earlier sceptical arguments acknowledged all the physical reasons
for the relativity of perception, but more recent psychological and linguistic research
tells us more about the mental reasons. Our cultural background may lead us to
perceive objects differently: for example, perceivers of the Müller-Lyer Illusion (see
figure) make a bigger misjudgement about the relative lengths of the lines if they
are accustomed to environments with rectilinear architecture7.
6. Problem of Induction. All generalisations based on specific observations lack certainty, because the
observations do not provide enough evidence to cover the possibly infinite number of instances referred to in
the generalisation. For example, if I claim that all physical objects have mass and are subject to gravity, I
have not checked all the physical objects in the universe to ensure this.
7. The infinite regress of justification. There is no possible claim for which one could not ask for further
justification (i.e. there are no self-evident claims). However, if a justification is offered, one could then ask for
a justification of the justification, and so on ad infinitum. This argument works not only for empirical claims but
for a priori ones. For consideration of possible self-evident claims which might be claimed to undermine this
sceptical argument, see 1.b
8. The relativity of linguistic categories. Even if we were able to overcome the above sceptical arguments in
other respects, the language out of which we represent claims about objects in the universe does not have an
absolute relationship with the objects themselves, either as they may exist in themselves or even as we
experience them. We cannot be certain either that another person understands the same as we do by a
particular proposition about the world, or even that we mean the same ourselves when we return to our
previous utterances after an interval of time8. Even if we were to weaken the requirement to one of identical
representation of our experiences to ourselves after a few seconds, we cannot be sure that our mental
representation of that experience has not changed, and thus that the language does not mean something
different from what it meant to us beforehand. Claims of certainty depend on the absolute consistency of
language used to represent those claims, otherwise any certainty that might apply to a statement at one
instant will immediately be lost at the next instant, even for the person who made the statement.
9. The vagueness of linguistic categories. Any possible representational term out of which a claim of certainty
might be made is also inadequate for the representation of any reality (or even any experience) because of its
6 Russell (1940) p.13
7 Segall et al (1963) pp. 769-771
8 This is the scenario considered by Wittgenstein in his ‘Private Language Argument’ (Wittgenstein 1967 §258),
which I discuss in Ellis 2001 pp.258-62. I argue that although Wittgenstein is correct in pointing out the lack of
standards of correctness based on defeasibility in private language, this is no different from the situation with
public language. Standards of correctness are not absolute in either case because meaning is not purely
representational, but this does not deprive us of a degree of meaning (see volume 3 for much fuller discussion of
meaning).
I.1.a Sceptical Arguments
20
vague relationship to that reality or experience. The terms used for representing objects (even abstract ones)
are nouns, and any given noun is vague in terms of the scope of what it represents either in experience or the
object of experience. For example, if I use the word ‘pen’ to describe an object, and even if I give a precise
and unique description of that pen, giving measurements and physical co-ordinates, what I am referring to is
vague both in terms of space (some molecules or even smaller particles may not be clearly defined as part of
the pen or not) and time (any interval of time I may specify for my statement about the pen will have duration,
and during that duration the pen may change). If, on the other hand, I make no claims for the object which
take up any space or time, my claims will be uninformative. It might be claimed that a priori claims such as
those about numbers avoid this vagueness, but when applied to any claim about the universe these numbers
depend on counting and measurement, which are unavoidably vague (see 1.f for more discussion of a priori
claims).
Together these sceptical arguments provide a huge over-determination of the sceptical case. We do not need
them all. Only one of them has to be successful to prove that there can be no certainty attached to any claim of
knowledge. It is not surprising that philosophers have often been concerned with questioning the assumptions
behind these sceptical argument rather than refuting them directly in their own terms. In their own terms they are
unanswerable. However, as I will argue in the rest of section 1, it is the assumptions of those who attempt to
undermine the sceptical approach that are unnecessary.
Before I go on to defend the basis of these sceptical arguments further, and then develop an account of their
implications, I should re-iterate that my purpose in doing this is ultimately practical. I am not defending scepticism
in order to assert the relativity of all judgements. In fact, I think that sceptical arguments of the kinds listed above
offer us the key to avoid relativism and assert that some judgements are better than others – but only if sceptical
arguments are consistently and unflinchingly applied, and we do not try to dodge scepticism nor ever cease to
take it seriously.
I.1.b The Failure of Philosophical Arguments against Scepticism
21
b.The failure of philosophical arguments against
scepticism
Philosophical arguments against scepticism have come in broadly five types, as far as I can identify:
1) The assertion of self-evident truths (e.g. Descartes)
2) Arguments that scepticism is practically unsustainable, and thus that dogmatism is unavoidable (e.g. Hume)
3) Arguments that scepticism involves practical inconsistencies (e.g. Burnyeat, Nussbaum)
4) Arguments that scepticism is unjustified because it only offers negative grounds of judgement (e.g. Moore and
other positivists)
5) Arguments that scepticism makes invalid semantic assumptions (e.g. Wittgenstein)
I shall argue here that each of these lines of criticism itself involves assumptions that we do not necessarily need
to make in approaching the subject. The case for not making these assumptions is not merely sceptical, but also
pragmatic.
1. If self-evident truths exist then this would obviously undermine scepticism, as there would be a foundational
certainty from which other certainties might then be deduced. Descartes’ cogito, in which the certainty of the
thinker’s existence is deduced from the experience of a thought, is the classic example of a self-evident truth9. In
1.g I will provide a more detailed response to the claim that a priori propositions such as mathematics or the laws
of logic provide self-evident truths.
But for the moment let us accept for the sake of argument that there might be self-evident truths such as that I, a
thinker, exist at this instant. Since it is not empirical, this claim avoids the first six sceptical arguments listed in the
previous chapter, and it avoids the seventh, the infinite regress, if its foundational claims are justified. However,
this claim and any other foundational claim are still subject to the last two sceptical arguments that point out the
relativity and vagueness of linguistic categories. “I, a thinker, exist at this moment” is relative to each thinker
because it can only be interpreted according to the linguistic understanding of each individual thinker. If you tell
me that you exist at this moment, to me that obviously means that you exist at this moment, which means
something rather different from me existing at this moment. Unless this statement has an absolute unchanging
meaning for all who may comprehend it – which it clearly does not – it can hardly have an absolute unchanging
justification. The same point would apply to mathematical or logical claims (see 1.f), if considered in accordance
with the account of meaning that will be presented fully in volume 3.
The ambiguity of statements supposedly offering self-evident truths creates contradictions in the very claims
involved. “I, a thinker, exist at this moment” for example, either means that a thinker exists over a short period of
time, or at a genuine instant of time with no duration. If the former, the thinker can have thoughts (which always
take up a certain amount of time), but by the time the thinker gets to the end of her thoughts, she may be different
from when she started them and thus no longer “exist” in the absolute, unchanging sense required. On the other
hand, within an instant without any duration, no thoughts can take place and thus it seems that a thinker cannot
exist.
All these kinds of arguments (the sport of philosophers, but very tiresome after a while) are merely different ways
of showing that we, being non-absolute creatures, cannot handle absolutes without constantly contradicting
ourselves. Our physical experience and our language shrug off absolutes as water shrugs off oil. Philosophers
should know better by now than to go in for any kind of absolute, and self-evident truths are unavoidably absolute
in their claims.
2. Hume’s argument about scepticism, on the other hand, attempts to adopt a no-nonsense practical approach to
it. After admitting that we cannot refute scepticism on its own terms, Hume seems to be saying that there is no
way that we can, in practice, accept those terms. It is ‘nature’, he says, that drives us to belief, rather than reason,
because when we engage with objects in the world around us we do so on the basis of a practical assumption of
their existence and form. Scepticism is all very well in the abstraction of a study, but there is no way we can keep
it up in ordinary life:
9 Descartes (1641/1968)
I.1.b The Failure of Philosophical Arguments against Scepticism
22
'I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four
hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I
cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.'10
Hume makes an unjustified assumption about the implications of scepticism here: indeed, he gets the whole
matter the wrong way round. Scepticism casts doubt on any claims to certainty, but this does not imply that to
take it seriously means that we must be constantly straining to disbelieve what we encounter in everyday
experience. On the contrary, our everyday experience involves uncertainty, and scepticism, far from relying on
‘cold’ and ‘strained’ calculations, uses this everyday experience as its point of departure. It is claims of certainty,
and the attempt to justify them, that go far beyond everyday experience and become cold and strained.
This point is closely related to another that I will consider more closely in 1.e: namely the distinction between
denial of claims and denial of certainty about them. If we were to assert the opposite of everything we take for
granted in everyday life, e.g. that there is not a table in front of me, that the world does not exist etc, then this
would indeed be a cold and strained exercise. However, there is no reason why we should have to interpret
sceptical arguments in this way. Scepticism denies certainty, and thus leaves us in a position lacking certainty,
rather than asserting the opposite of our accepted beliefs. To assert the opposite would be at least as uncertain
an enterprise. Hume, however, (along with many of his successors) seems to confuse these two positions.
3. Burnyeat and Nussbaum, on the other hand, respectively accuse scepticism of other kinds of practical
inconsistency. Burnyeat claims that it’s impossible to maintain the degree of detachment from one’s views that
scepticism demands11. Nussbaum argues that the classical sceptics are dogmatic about the value of ataraxia,
which in classical Pyrrhonian scepticism is the relaxed state of detachment from opposing certainties12. Both
these objections could be seen as versions of what is sometimes called ‘the paradox of scepticism’: namely, that
sceptics are certain about uncertainty. This supposed paradox can be presented either as a direct contradiction or
at least as a practical inconsistency.
Both of these thinkers are commentators on the classical sceptics and make these remarks in the context of
discussing classical Pyrrhonism. I am purposely avoiding too much discussion of the scholarly issues about
historical schools of philosophy here, but am attempting only to isolate what we do or do not need to think about
sceptical arguments based only on the implications of the arguments themselves13. Burnyeat’s and Nussbaum’s
arguments may or may not be true of classical Pyrrhonism, but my argument is that their criticisms distract us
from the useful insights offered by this line of sceptical argument in the modern context.
Both of these objections fail to take sufficiently into account the distinction between the denial of claims and the
denial of certainty about claims. If we assert the opposite of a given claim, we raise the same issues of certainty
about it as with the original claim. If we merely deny the certainty surrounding a claim, however, we modify the
way in which that claim may be held rather than setting up a new claim. If we understand the modification of the
way we hold a claim in psychological terms, rather than merely in terms of opposing propositions, this becomes
clearer. I will explore this point in more detail in 1.c. A claim not held with certainty is held in a more provisional
and a more relaxed fashion, which may also affect our subsequent judgements about how to assess it. Contrary
to Nussbaum’s assumptions, the value of such a provisional state is not one that we have to accept absolutely
and all at once, but is a matter of incremental recognition (a point that interlocks with various other arguments
about value to be found throughout this book).
Burnyeat overestimates the degree of detachment required to take scepticism seriously, because he shares the
confusion between denial and provisionality with many modern commentators. We do not need the amount of
detachment that would be required to seriously adopt a position of denying all our beliefs in order to merely hold
them provisionally. Nor does it require a certain fixed amount of detachment in order even to hold them
10 Hume (1978) p.269
11 Burnyeat (1980)
12 Nussbaum (1994)
13 A similar argument to mine, but grounded more in the historical context, is found in Kuzminski (2008) ch.1
I.1.b The Failure of Philosophical Arguments against Scepticism
23
provisionally. If we think about provisionality in an incremental rather than an absolute way (see 1.e) then we can
think of the process of giving up attachment to certainty as a gradual and dynamic one. This process then
becomes practically achievable in a way that a sudden demand for massive detachment would not.
4. Another, positivist type of response to scepticism is to assert that only positive justifications for belief are
acceptable, and that negative doubts about a claim not accompanied by definite evidence against the claim are
inadmissible14. The logical positivists and their allies in the early twentieth century saw this as a way of protecting
evidence-based scientific investigation against the encroachments of metaphysics. Those who deny commonly
accepted empirical beliefs, after all, often do so only on the basis of speculation.
Much as I sympathise with the logical positivist attempt to distinguish metaphysics from claims that can be
justified through experience, the positivist route does not succeed in doing this. Positivism prevents us from taking
negative doubts seriously, and simultaneously makes its own metaphysical assumptions unassailable. We need
negative doubts in order to be able to consider conventionally accepted beliefs from an adequately critical
perspective. The positivist dismissal of negative doubt leaves us dependent upon conventional beliefs and unable
to break out of the set of assumptions that are currently accepted in our context. Logical positivism, and its
successors in analytic philosophy, remain dependent on analysis of conventional positions or commonly shared
intuitions, and unable to reach a justified critical standpoint beyond those conventional positions.
Like many of the previous criticisms, too, positivism confuses denial with the mere acceptance of uncertainty.
Negative doubts require us to accept the possibility of currently accepted beliefs being wrong, not to accept the
alternative claim that they are definitely wrong. Speculative metaphysics puts forward new claims that are beyond
experience – so sceptical argument is a crucial tool that should be used for combating metaphysics, not discarded
at the very point when it would be most useful.
A more specific version of this positivist argument is that used by both Moore15 and Wittgenstein16 in slightly
differing ways to assert the existence of their hands as a basic certainty. Their reason for dismissing scepticism
about something as certain as the existence of one of their hands was not just that mere negative doubts were
inadmissible, but that any evidence that could be used to support the assertion that their hands existed would be
less certain than the existence of their hands. For positivists, then, some kinds of claim have to be taken as
certain and basic to all other discussions. Without those basic assumptions, it is argued, the discussion could not
take place.
This argument, even if it is valid in other ways (and there are many other ways that its assumptions can be
disputed), can only be directed against the error argument, and other sceptical arguments that raise one specific
doubt whilst taking a wider context for granted. It does not apply to the dream argument, or the infinite regression
argument, or the linguistic arguments. The dream argument does not require us to take one kind of fact for
granted in order to cast doubt on others, only that there be some unspecified factual basis to use as a ground of
contrast with a current uncertainty. Similarly, the infinite regression argument can be used against any claim of
certainty whatsoever, regardless of its relationship to other claims, and the relativity and ambiguity of the linguistic
composition of these claims remains regardless of its relationship to other claims.
5. Finally, Wittgenstein’s objections to sceptical argument were also based on the alleged linguistic privacy of
sceptical argument, and his objections to linguistic privacy in the so-called private language argument17. However,
he was mistaken on both counts. Not only is scepticism not necessarily based on linguistic privacy (assuming that
we can even make sense of the idea of linguistic privacy), but there is no reason to assume that language
developed in linguistic privacy is meaningless.
14 E.g. in Ayer (1946)
15 Moore (1962)
16 Wittgenstein (1969)
17 Wittgenstein (1969). See note 8 above.
I.1.b The Failure of Philosophical Arguments against Scepticism
24
The Cartesian version of scepticism, in which I can entertain the possibility of being the only real thing in the
universe, does not depend on solipsistic assertions but only on the possibility of solipsism (the same confusion we
have already noted). However, all the other types of sceptical argument mentioned above, including the modes of
Pyrrhonism and the linguistic arguments, could just as well be applied to a publicly shared context as to a ‘private’
one. I might be wrong about my perceptions, but we might also be wrong about our collective perceptions, for
very similar reasons. The publicity or otherwise of the language makes no substantial difference to these kinds of
arguments.
The concept of linguistic privacy, completely and absolutely distinguished from linguistic publicity, seems dubious
in the first place to me. We use language to communicate with others, but we also use it to communicate with
ourselves over time (as in a private diary) and perhaps even to articulate without communicating (as when we talk
to ourselves to clarify our thoughts). Wittgenstein simply assumes, without further justification, that the only
acceptable function of language is communication. He then asserts that when using purely private language (i.e.
a symbol whose significance is known only to me) in a private diary, when using it later I would have no clear
criterion of meaning. However, I would have a relative criterion of meaning based on my memory of previous
experience which the symbol represented. A falsely absolute distinction is made if it is assumed that the private
criterion is relative whilst a public one is absolute, for there is no guarantee that a publicly used piece of language,
even within a particular language game (i.e. social context where that language is shared) is not equally
ambiguous.
Like the other attacks on scepticism, then, Wittgenstein’s do not apply to all the arguments, and also confuse lack
of certainty with definite denial. Like the other attacks, it is based on a confusion about the purpose and
implications of scepticism, as should become clearer as we go on. A complete reversal of the assumptions in all
these attacks on scepticism is required. Scepticism is not a dragon to be slain, but rather a knight in shining
armour. It is certainty that is the dragon.
I.1.c Provisionality
25
c. Provisionality
Now that I have established the justification of sceptical arguments, it is possible to move on to the much more
interesting business of their implications. Scepticism removes certainty, and without certainty we have, instead,
provisionality. Since we can no longer justify holding any beliefs absolutely, we can only justify holding them more
lightly.
The idea that beliefs should be held with a degree of conviction that is proportional to the evidence is one that
goes back to Hume18. The implications of this, however, are more profound than Hume seems to recognise.
Philosophical justification by itself does not offer an account of what it would be like to hold a belief provisionally
and to a certain degree, because a priori reasoning can only tell us about the contradictory nature of absolute
beliefs, not the positive calibration of the non-absolute beliefs we might use to replace them. Instead, the
justification of specific non-absolute beliefs depends on a complex interplay of different factors of context,
character, language and intention. A priori reason deals only in invariable generalities, so using it to describe
variables is like using an unreliable nuclear weapon to make a minor adjustment to your bicycle gears: the nuclear
weapon either destroys everything or leaves it exactly as it was, when what is needed is gradual and subtle
change. Only experience itself tells us what provisional beliefs are like, and any description of them is a
psychological description, not ultimately a philosophical one.
That psychological description could be based on a theoretical model of the relationships between parts of the
psyche that explains how provisionality works. This is what I will attempt in detail in IV.2. There I argue that
provisionality is distinguished by offering optionality: that is, at the moment we make a judgement, there are
alternative possibilities available to us. This forms a contrast with the repression of alternatives created by
absolutisation, in which the supposed complete justification of one belief blocks all alternatives. This optionality
also creates antifragility19that is, the ability to benefit rather than suffer from a range of unexpected conditions.
To maintain optionality, we also need what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘slow thinking’20 at the right moments when
circumstances make it possible to use it. In this way we avoid the cognitive errors that follow from rigid patterns of
‘fast thinking’ that may be adapted to some situations but are not sufficiently flexible in the wider range we are
likely to encounter.
Alternatively, provisionality can be explained using a physiological model in terms of the relationships between the
two hemispheres of the brain. Since it is the left hemisphere of the brain that maintains all our linguistic
representations of the world and a sense of certainty about those representations21, provisionality can be seen as
the maintaining of sufficient awareness of the perspective of the right side of the brain to limit that left-brain
certainty. The right hemisphere provides all contextuality in our awareness22, and it is contextuality that is required
for an awareness of fallibility. It is only if our beliefs exist in a functional vacuum, with other possibilities not being
actively considered, that we can start to attach certainty to them.
Sceptical arguments, then, can act as a prompt to remind us that our brains have two hemispheres, and that if we
have slipped into the mode of left-hemisphere dominance, this is not even justifiable in its own terms. We may
need to take active steps to balance our mental states by taking enough account of the right hemisphere, in order
for our judgements to become more objective and justified. There will be much further discussion of such steps
later in this book and later in the series.
For the moment, however, I am going to focus not on the positive psychological explanation of provisionality, so
much as the negative philosophical explanation of processes that interfere with provisionality. Philosophy cannot
give a precise enough description to help us make subtle adjustments in our experience, but rather than working
only with the destructiveness of a nuclear weapon, it can also work as an air-raid siren to warn us when a nuclear
18 Hume (1975) pp 110-111
19 A term coined by Taleb (2012)
20 Kahneman (2011)
21 McGilchrist (2009) p.70
22 Ibid. P.80
I.1.c Provisionality
26
weapon is on its way, or as a bomb disposal expert to render the nuclear weapon useless. These kinds of
operations are crude but vital. They provide us with a starting point, a clear field of security in which more subtle
psychological work can begin to take place. In the middle of a nuclear war, we are not likely to be too troubled
about the exact state of our bicycle gears.
The nuclear weapons in this analogy are metaphysical beliefs. It is metaphysical beliefs that fall foul of sceptical
argument and are incompatible with provisionality. They are also purely the products of our left brain
hemispheres, which maintain a self-referent certainty about them that repels any interference by the right
hemisphere. The term ‘metaphysics’ is used in a variety of ways, but I am using it here to mean absolute beliefs
that can only be dogmatically asserted, rather than provisionally asserted in a way that can be justifiably falsified
through experience. As I will argue in more detail in 1.f, these kinds of beliefs function psychologically as
apparently invulnerable rallying points for our egoistic identification but the invulnerability is deceptive. A full
survey of different types of metaphysical belief is also made in IV.3 & 4.
The ideas of verification and falsification have been another of the many philosophical battlegrounds in which
philosophers have tried to reach absolute beliefs about the world of experience – and have failed to do so23. If we
could manage absolute verification or absolute falsification through experience, then we could achieve certainty,
but, as I have already established, we cannot do that. The distinction between metaphysics and general theory is,
most importantly, that metaphysics pretends to that certainty and fails to entertain possible alternatives, whilst
general theory is justified to a degree and set beside alternatives.
Metaphysical beliefs can often be identified from their necessary source of justification (i.e. the source without
appeal to which they could not be justified). If the source of justification is absolute, such as a revelation from
God, an absolute law of nature, or a purely a priori framework (or the direct denial of these things – see 1.e) then
their justification cannot be provisional. Even if the belief in question claims to be a scientific theory, if it makes
absolute claims this will fall foul of the problem of induction unless the theory is made provisional (and also
remains consistently provisional in the further implications it is judged to have).
Even if the belief is claimed to merely provide a prior condition for other widespread beliefs, if it is claimed to be
the only possible a priori framework that could be used it becomes metaphysical. So, for example, the observation
that we generally rely on an a priori framework of space and time is not metaphysical, but the absolute assertion
that all experience must use a framework of space and time is a metaphysical assertion (because without
evidence of the absence of other possible frameworks, it must dogmatically appeal to the uniqueness of the one
we have).
Another way that metaphysical beliefs can often be identified a priori is through their dualism. Metaphysical
beliefs tend to come in opposed pairs, where the same claim is either affirmed or denied, and dualism is the
tendency to be restricted to these opposed pairs without awareness either of further alternatives, or of the equal
justification that can be given to the opposing claim. For example, theism and atheism, realism and idealism,
determinism and freewill (or determinism and indeterminism, depending on which features of determinism you
highlight), and mind and body are each opposed pairs of metaphysical dualisms. If the application of a different
explanatory framework makes a denial just as likely or unlikely to be correct as an affirmation, and this point is
completely unrecognised by the person making the claim, then we are dealing with a metaphysical belief. For
example, a theistic set of beliefs may superficially appear convincing even in the face of evil if we accept that only
God knows his own justification for allowing evil events, but if we don’t accept this framework of explanation we
could just as easily conclude that God does not exist because his goodness and omnipotence (which are usually
seen as essential features of God) are contradicted by him permitting evil. Someone who puts forward this
defence for believing or disbelieving in God without recognising the equal plausibility of the alternative is doing
metaphysics. Another incidental feature of such dualism is that the third alternative – agnosticism is not taken
seriously, but for more on this see 1.e.
Metaphysical claims can often be readily seen as incompatible with scepticism because of their dogmatic
justification and dualistic form, whereas provisional beliefs without these features are just as clearly not
threatened by scepticism – not because they are proof against it but because they take it into account. If I claim
23 For example, in Ayer (1946) – the verificationist approach, and Popper (1959) – the falsificationist approach
I.1.c Provisionality
27
that I have seen a blackbird in the garden several times, I rely not on a dogmatic source of justification, but only
on my own observation on several occasions, and my memory of those occasions. I may be wrong (I may have
misidentified the species, or misremembered the previous occasions, for example), but I could freely admit to
discovering that I was wrong without it having the further implications that would undermine an absolute source of
information. Similarly, I could confidently assert that I saw a blackbird several times without needing to defend this
claim against a sceptical threat. However, if alternatively I asserted that the blackbird exists, I would have to
assert that it did so regardless of my experience, and in the process repress alternatives. To distinguish that the
blackbird really existed as opposed to the fact that I observed it, I would need to dogmatically assert that it could
not have been an illusory blackbird, even though this would be just as coherent an account of the event.
It might be objected here that there are perhaps an infinite number of possible explanations of any experience, so
that it is impossible to distinguish experiences with multiple possible explanations as metaphysical as opposed to
those without such, for this would be a false distinction. It is not the possibility of multiple interpretations that is the
point that makes the difference, but our awareness of them. When I thought I saw a blackbird, I could possibly
have seen a disguised alien spacecraft, a hologram, or a hallucination. However, a self-consciously limited claim
allows for these alternatives, whilst still confidently asserting that, as far as I can tell on the evidence available to
me, I saw a blackbird, not a hologram. It might need further discussion to establish explicitly that my claim is
intended to be provisional, because it takes into account these other possibilities without refusing to make a claim
at all. If I go on to make the metaphysical claim that the blackbird really existed, however, my claim does not allow
for these alternatives, but is arrogantly extended so as to actively deny any contesting claim that the blackbird did
not exist.
This self-conscious limitation (an aspect of justification that I call agnostic foundationalism) will be discussed
further in 1.e., and it is a relatively easy way in which provisional claims can usually be distinguished from
metaphysical ones. Of course, we have to investigate closely the issue of meaning here (discussed in volume 3)
and take into account the intentions which would enable us to distinguish claims with attached metaphysical
assumptions from those without them. We cannot just pounce on every use of the word ‘exists’ and assume it is
metaphysical, or conversely assume that every statement apparently just describing or generalising from
observation is not. Claims accepted from the testimony of others also may or may not be accepted for dogmatic
reasons. If the claim is made philosophically explicit, though, or if other philosophically explicit metaphysical
claims are deduced from it, we can become clearer about whether it is metaphysical or not.
To use a different analogy, metaphysical claims are like old oak trees in a storm, that are so stiff they cannot bend
to the wind. They either stand or they break. Provisional claims, however, are like young oaks, flexible enough to
change when the conditions change, and thus always able to stay adequate to those conditions. The difference in
flexibility between provisional and metaphysical assertions is determined psychologically by the awareness of the
possibility of different conditions, which is only generally rather than precisely reflected by the terminology used.
I.1.d Incrementality
28
d.Incrementality
Just as scepticism does not prevent the justification of provisional statements that take into account the possibility
that they may be wrong, similarly it does not prevent the justification of incremental statements that are a matter
of degree. However, scepticism does create a reason for us to be much more careful and consistent in making all
our claims incremental rather than absolute. I use the term ‘incremental’ rather than ‘relative’ here to avoid an
unfortunate ambiguity in the term ‘relative’. If a statement is ‘relative’ it can mean either that it makes limited
claims, or that it is equally justified with all other statements. ‘Incremental’ on the other hand, can be used to
mean the former without the latter.
Incrementality can be used as a further way of distinguishing metaphysical claims from provisional claims.
Metaphysical claims are concerned with truth, either by claiming that a certain state of affairs is true or that it is
untrue. Provisional claims, however, only deal with a degree of justification. I say ‘a degree of justificationrather
than ‘a degree of truth’ here, because the very idea of truth cannot be incrementalised. A degree of truth has to
be guaranteed by knowledge of the whole truth, just as we cannot go half the distance to Edinburgh without
knowing where Edinburgh lies. Without knowing where Edinburgh lies, what we take to be half the distance to
Edinburgh may be in a completely different direction to Edinburgh, and similarly a degree of truth cannot be
distinguished from complete falsity. Given that our very language and physical limitations rule out the possibility of
knowing that we know the whole truth, we also have to abandon the belief that we can ever know a degree of
truth. This does not mean, however, that we cannot have a degree of justification based on variable criteria from
experience, because a level of justification can be based on the degree of adequacy of our approach rather than
any measure backwards from a supposed reality (for more on this see 1.e).
Metaphysical claims cannot be incremental, both because of their concern with truth and because of their
dismissal of error. If we only have a degree of justification this also implies a degree of error, but error is the
condition for learning in human experience. We become relatively more justified, not only as we detect errors and
learn from them, but also as we display the capacity to do so24. Metaphysical claims involve a fundamental
rejection of this attitude to human progression, because they try to take shortcuts to a complete account of the
truth. In this they reflect Plato’s belief that a partial justification is no justification at all25.
Incrementality also provides us with a crucial method for understanding aspects of our experience which have
traditionally been discussed only in dualistic metaphysical terms. We are not obliged to think in metaphysical
terms if we make the effort to think through an incremental alternative. The basic method here is to adopt a strict
agnosticism as regards metaphysical claims (see next chapter) and to consider what qualities in our experience
are referred to when we use dualistic metaphysical terms. I will give a few brief examples of incrementalised
metaphysical dualisms in the remainder of this chapter to illustrate this method, but this is far from an exhaustive
list. These and other examples of dualisms will be discussed in more detail in IV.4.
One of the most important areas where Western thought has tended to think in metaphysical dualisms has
been universal ethics. Either we have a dogmatic source of universal ethics such as God or an a priori
deduction, it is thought, or ethics is merely relative to different societies, groups, or even individuals. However,
I will be arguing throughout this book that the incrementalisation of ethics is psychological integration of
different desires identified with by the ego (or left hemisphere) at different times. For more on this see I.7 and
IV.4.b.
The dualism of mind and body is created by mind being seen as having qualities such as self-
consciousness, freewill, or intentionality that cannot be incrementalised. This dualism is not resolved by
ignoring these qualities or treating them as unimportant in the way that physicalists and behaviourists tend to
do. Instead, we need a critique of metaphysical accounts of the self (see 1.j), and to substitute a dynamic
psychological function – what I call the ego – for a metaphysical absolute (the self). Instead of certainty about
our identity, we substitute a flexible awareness of identifications. Apart from self-consciousness, though,
24 For a superb account of this process, with a wide variety of excellent examples, see Schulz (2010)
25 Plato (1987) §504c
I.1.d Incrementality
29
some other features of mind are primarily features of uniqueness or situatedness. The meaning of a symbol
for me, or the specificity of a sensual experience (like my individual experience of the red of a tomato), seems
to be unique to my individual awareness because it is concentrated in the particular location associated with
an individual brain: but situatedness is an incremental quality, not an absolute one, even if awareness is very
sharply concentrated in one place and very rapidly falls away as we depart from the complex brain-conditions
required to maintain it. Incrementality is not a quality unique to physical types of object (e.g. my pain, a mental
quality, can get incrementally worse as I focus increasingly on the most affected spot), so that
incrementalising mental properties in this way should not be confused with reducing them to physical
properties. Mental properties are thus more or less identified with and more or less situated in my brain and
body, regardless of whether they are ‘inside’ or ‘outside’: a pain in my toe, for example, is probably a bit less
‘mental’ on these criteria than a pain in my head.26
The dualism of ideal and real is created by absolutising a quality of character which we experience as
incremental – i.e. objectivity. I will be discussing objectivity, including the relationships of scientific, moral and
aesthetic types of objectivity, and the ways I think it can be understood in terms of integration, in section 4 of
this book. Also see IV.4.d for more discussion of idealism and realism.
The dualism of freewill and determinism is related to those of mind-body and ideal-real, and can partly be
resolved in the same way. However, the concept of responsibility or its absence is also central to the
discussion of freewill. Responsibility is an incremental quality that can be understood in terms of
psychological integration, because the more integrated I am, the more reflective my actions become (so as to
take more conditions into account) and the less constrained. For more details on this, see I.7.b, IV.3.f and
IV.4.c.
The dualism between belief in God (theism) and denial of God (atheism) needs to be incrementally
understood in relation to the meaning of God as people encounter it in experience, with a rigorous
agnosticism refusing to enter into questions of God’s existence. My suggestion is that God is primarily
encountered in religious experience in relation to integration of meaning, a concept that will be explored fully
in III.4.e. I shall argue there, along Jungian lines, that we encounter a God archetype more fully the more
meaning is integrated. For more detailed discussion of theism and atheism see IV.4.f.
In terms of the brain, all of these approaches to metaphysical dualisms can be seen as finding ways of moving
our understanding of these concepts out of absolutist left-hemisphere dominance and more into effective contact
with the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere has to engage with incrementality constantly as a feature of time
and space27, whilst the left hemisphere can only grasp incrementality in an abstract conceptual way.
Incrementalisations usually have the common property of requiring some sort of imaginative representation
across time or space: for example, integration involves the idea of different desires, meanings or beliefs at
different points of time or space being unified. Even an incrementalisation of colour into shades of grey tends to
make us implicitly imagine a spectrum that stretches across space, rather than just the single ideas of black or
white. For this reason, incrementalisation is also part of the key to provisionality. We are forced to connect with
the more provisional right hemisphere by being incremental in our interpretation of concepts.
26 For a more detailed discussion see IV.4.e
27 McGilchrist (2009) p.76
I.1.e Distinguishing Negative Metaphysics from Agnosticism
30
e. Distinguishing negative metaphysics from agnosticism
I have already mentioned the importance, when interpreting sceptical arguments, of distinguishing the denial of
positive claims from the casting of uncertainty on those claims. This is a distinction that goes back to that between
the arguments of Academic and Pyrrhonian types of sceptic in ancient times. Academic sceptics made assertions
about the relativity of knowledge, whereas Pyrrhonians merely doubted the existence of knowledge and refrained
from making claims about it. It is not clear, however, that the Pyrrhonians followed through their agnostic attitude
in every respect28. I am concerned here not with historical claims about the Pyrrhonians, but with the possibility of
making the distinction clearly and consistently.
In the modern context, it is the distinction between negative metaphysics and agnosticism that is crucial for
distinguishing Middle Way Philosophy from naturalism, scientism, atheism, existentialism, nihilism,
postmodernism, relativism, or any other theories that in one way or another deny metaphysical claims. The nature
of metaphysical claims is such that the mere denial of a metaphysical claim only sets up another, converse,
metaphysical claim that is equally distant from experience.
This point can be seen more closely if we analyse more fully what is meant by the denial of an assertion. If I deny
a claim that is within experience (e.g. “I can see a dog in the room”), then the converse is also within my
experience (“I can’t see a dog in the room”). When looking for the dog, I can take into account the possibility that
the dog may or may not be seen in the room, without having to pre-judge the question. In contrast, a metaphysical
statement (“God exists”) is neither easier nor harder to support through experience than its denial (“God does not
exist”), because in either case, I can only interpret any particular experience as evidence for or against God by
not taking into account the possibility of that evidence being interpreted the opposite way. For example, I can only
take the evidence of the complexity of the eye as proof of God’s design if I ignore the ways it can be explained as
due to a long process of random genetic mutation and environmental selection29. On the other hand, I can only
take that explanation as disproving God’s design if I ignore the ways in which random genetic mutation and
environmental selection can still be explained as the results of divine creation.
In the case of God, it can be illustrated relatively clearly and easily how the denial of a positive metaphysical claim
only sets up a dualistic opposition and does not advance the discussion. Rancorous debates between theists and
atheists are common, and in all cases each side merely proceeds by casting doubt on the metaphysical
assumptions of the other, but nevertheless drawing the opposed metaphysical conclusion30. This can only be
done when one fails to understand the difference between metaphysical assertions and assertions within
experience, and that metaphysical assertions remain untouched by evidence.
One rather glaring example of this is found in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion: his rejection of agnosticism
contains much rhetoric and only one argument, which is this one:
If he existed and chose to reveal it, God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his
favour.31
Presumably Dawkins envisages a voice booming from the heavens saying “I am God” or something similar, so
that everyone on earth could hear. We could hardly envisage metaphysical claims being proved in any way more
explicit than this. But would it convince everyone? Should it convince everyone? Hardly. The experience of a big
voice indicates that some being or thing has produced a big voice, not that a perfect and infinite being is
producing it. No possible finite experience can provide the evidence to support an absolute claim – either about
an infinite being or about an alleged truth that is said to be the case throughout the universe – it’s a simple as that32
.
28 See Ellis (2001) 4.b
29 Dawkins (1996) ch.5
30 For example, Dawkins (2006) vs. McGrath (2007), which put together provide a veritable armoury of arguments
for agnosticism
31 Dawkins (2006) p.73
I.1.e Distinguishing Negative Metaphysics from Agnosticism
31
Even if one appreciates this point in relation to the debate about God, it is less widely applied to other issues, but
exactly the same considerations apply to metaphysical dualisms in philosophy of mind, the debate about freewill,
in ethics, in political ideology, in scientific realism, and for other kinds of religious metaphysics (such as Buddhist
claims about enlightenment). In all these areas, philosophy and related areas have often got fruitlessly caught up
in disputes which admit of no possible resolution, because they consist only of one dogmatic assertion followed
by an equally dogmatic counter-assertion. These assertions are backed up by the selective use of sceptical
arguments which undermine the opposing position, whilst those which undermine one’s own are ignored.
The alternative to denying metaphysical propositions is to remain agnostic about them. Agnosticism involves a
recognition that we do not know, and is the outcome of sceptical argument applied equally to all sides. As I have
been arguing in the previous chapters so far, these sceptical arguments do not leave us unjustified in making any
assertions whatsoever, but only unjustified in making metaphysical assertions, whilst provisional assertions
remain justifiable. It is not possible to make a metaphysical assertion provisionally because a metaphysical
assertion is necessarily absolute, and impossible to either justify further or to incrementalise.
As it is impossible to make a metaphysical assertion provisionally, soft agnosticism, in which one awaits further
evidence for metaphysical claims, is practically mistaken. One would be waiting infinitely, simply having failed to
get the message that metaphysical assertions do not admit of evidence. So the type of agnosticism I am
recommending is hard agnosticism, in which one recognises that no evidence can ever be available on
metaphysical claims. Such agnosticism is in no sense indecisive, but actually involves a decisive refusal of
involvement in fruitless metaphysical disputes.
One possible objection to this position is that it involves agnosticism about trivial metaphysical positions as well as
those that people are actually attached to. I need to be just as agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster as
about God, even though nobody seriously believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so it may be claimed to be not
worth being agnostic about. However, I think this confuses the question of what discussions are worth our
attention from metaphysical agnosticism as a general approach. I can be in principle agnostic about the existence
of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (if it comes up), even though it is far more important to be agnostic about God,
because a lot more people believe or disbelieve in God and their belief or disbelief has a lot more practical
implications.
Another argument that has been used against hard agnosticism is that it is contradictory in “dogmatically”
rejecting both positive and negative metaphysics. Here one needs to distinguish between dogmatism and a
decisiveness justified by practical requirements. A belief is dogmatic if it is absolute, represses alternatives, and is
thus inaccessible to counter-evidence, but hard agnosticism decisively rejects metaphysics precisely in order to
maintain an accessibility to evidence which would be obscured if it were to accept metaphysics. Hard agnosticism
itself is not a metaphysical belief, but rather is the avoidance of metaphysical beliefs, in order to make practical
progress by focusing on non-absolute beliefs.
In order to be maintained consistently, however, hard agnosticism requires a psychological state of provisionality.
In practice, agnosticism even on important topics is difficult to maintain consistently because of the phenomenon
of sceptical slippage, where positions that are in principle agnostic easily turn into positions of metaphysical denial
the moment we lose a psychological state of provisionality. I will be discussing this further, with the ways in which
many modern philosophies are subject to it, in 1.h.
More positively, it is the balancing of sceptical agnosticism between positive and negative types of metaphysical
claim that forms the basis of the Middle Way – which is, of course, a defining feature of Middle Way Philosophy.
For more about the Middle Way see section 3 of this book.
32 I owe this point originally to Sartre, who points out our responsibility for the interpretation of all ‘signs’ of God as
being such. See Sartre (1948).
I.1.f Against A Priori Arguments for Metaphysics
32
f. Against a priori arguments for metaphysics
I am now going to offer a more detailed argument in this chapter against the claims of those who will continue to
insist that some claims must be accepted as certain on a priori grounds. This chapter is aimed at the likely
objections of some analytic philosophers and Kantians, whilst the next is aimed in a similar fashion at theologians.
If you are not especially interested in either of these categories of argument you might find it helpful to skip these
two chapters and go directly to 1.h.
I have already argued in 1.b against the idea of self-evident truths that are not subject to scepticism, dealing there
particularly with the idea that Descartes’ cogito is a self-evident truth. At that point I stated that mathematical and
logical self-evident truths could be accounted for in a similar way. In order to clarify why mathematical and logical
truths are not examples of justifiable metaphysical truths I will need to adumbrate the account of meaning that will
be tackled in more detail in volume 3.
The case for self-evident truths a priori begins with claims that must be universally true, or true in all possible
worlds, because of their definitional nature. Thus a bear is an animal, whether or not there are any bears or any
animals, whether or not people understand that bears are animals (or whether or not people even exist to have
such understanding). The claim is alleged to be absolutely universal because it is hypothetical – if there is a bear
(in the sense we usually understand ‘bear’), then that bear must be an animal.
Hume’s empiricist response to this kind of claim is to point out that, although such claims are indeed universal,
they are also uninformative and trivial, because they tell us only about the way in which we categorise the
universe, rather than the universe itself they are analytic as well as a priori, and Hume alleges that all a priori
claims are analytic. This is the basis for Hume’s ‘fork’ in which only analytic and empirical types of knowledge are
allowed33.
Whilst I find Hume’s fork a very useful starting-point in dealing with a priori claims, it does not quite complete the
job Hume wanted it to do, which is that of making experience the only source of justified belief. This is because it
is too strong in one respect and too weak in another. It is too strong in claiming that all a priori claims must be
analytic, because this would rule out the Kantian a priori, in which a priori claims tell us about the prior conditions
for experience (and which I will turn to presently). On the other hand it is too weak in allowing a priori claims even
the status of trivial knowledge.
As we saw in 1.a, sceptical argument need not stop at casting doubt on knowledge through the senses. It can
also challenge even a priori arguments by requiring further justification, and it can also employ the final two
linguistic arguments. However, simply asking for further justification for a priori claims will not convince those who
think they are self-evident. It is the linguistic arguments that can do the sceptical work more fully here, because
they point out the assumptions made about meaning by those who appeal to a priori certainty.
The main problem with a priori claims to metaphysics, then, is that they assume linguistic categories that are both
absolutely consistent and that have unambiguous boundaries. Without such consistency and such boundaries, if
you read “a bear is an animal” the terms “bear” and “animal” mean something different to you to what they mean
to me. Indeed they may already mean something different even to me now as I write this paragraph to what they
meant when I first brought in this example five paragraphs back. They may be different in terms of what counts
either as a bear or as an animal, or in terms of what is bear or animal and what is not. We are not only dealing
with academic zoological disputes between Linnaeans and Claddists (who have different accounts of species
taxonomy) here. For example, is a genetically engineered creature with 95% bear genes a bear? Is a piece of fur
on the point of falling out of a bear’s coat “bear”? We may have different answers to these questions, and our
answers may vary with context, purpose, and feelings.
One analytic response to this is to continue to insist on the purely hypothetical nature of the claim “A bear is an
animal”. Ambiguities in identifying particular bears or animals, or vagueness about their boundaries, it may be
33 Hume (1975) p.163-5
I.1.f Against A Priori Arguments for Metaphysics
33
argued, make no difference to the claim that if we are agreed that a particular thing is a bear, then it will also be
an animal. However, this purely rational insistence would allow a bear to somehow be an animal even if all the
things we actually called “bears” were not actually animals. A bear “in the usual sense” now, might in a future
context have quite a different sense, yet the usual sense now would still be asserted to be true in all possible
worlds and times. More generally, to maintain the metaphysical insistence on the certainty of a priori claims we
might have to completely disconnect it from human experience. There can be fewer clearer instances of the
abstracted turn in philosophy, where the goal of philosophy in reasoning for the clarification of the beliefs of
people is lost, due to attachment to a particular theory with no connection to that goal.
It is also an example of what in other contexts would be called ad hoc reasoning, sticking to a proposition that one
insists must be universally true regardless of the practical circumstances. Compare these two scenarios:
1. Jock asserts “No true Scotsman eats his porridge with sugar.” It is pointed out that Hamish is a Scotsman, but
he eats his porridge with sugar. “Hamish is not a true Scotsman” asserts Jock.
2. Aldous asserts that “A bear is an animal” is true in all possible worlds where “a bear” is used in the usual
sense. It is pointed out that in possible world x “bear” is used to mean anything that is not an animal. “In this
possible world ‘bear’ is not used in its usual sense” says Aldous.
What these two scenarios have in common is that ‘true’ in the first and ‘usual’ in the second are entirely
abstracted from the context in order to defend a particular claim. The problem with Jock’s idea of a true Scotsman
is not just that it hasn’t been fully specified in advance, but that it is impervious to any possible evidence, just like
Aldous’s use of ‘usual’. What one takes to be ‘usual’ cannot be specified in advance because it is the result of
custom in a particular area rather than definition. Thus a priori claims about things that are necessarily true when
we take the words in them in their ‘usual’ sense turn out to be merely asserting the conventions of a particular
time and place without any particular reason for doing so. Certainty ascribed to a priori claims is thus just as
metaphysical as that ascribed to ‘God exists’.
An even more abstracted case than that of a categorical statement like “a bear is an animal” is that of the laws of
logic. It may be claimed, for example, that “a=a” is an absolutely certain proposition. However, one does not get
beyond the inconsistency and ambiguity of linguistic categories by using algebraic constants. To be correct, “a=a”
must be true for any term inserted in the place of a. Even in the time it takes me to think that “a=a”, any term that I
may insert in the place of a may change its meaning by the time I get to considering its equivalence to itself. For
example, if the meaning of ‘bear’ is constantly changing, and I insert ‘bear’, then the bear I consider at the
beginning of the statement is no longer precisely equivalent to itself by the time I get as far as considering its
equivalence. More obviously, if I insert “Proteus”, a creature who completely changes form every millisecond,
Proteus has obviously changed during the time elapsed in reading the proposition. It does not matter if the
change in meaning is miniscule, because the equivalence has to be absolutely perfect for the law of logic to be
absolutely true in the way asserted.
Similar points apply to the assertion that mathematical claims are certain. 1+1=2 is only true a priori by virtue of
the fact that whenever we find two objects that we regard as singular and put them together, there will be two of
them, regardless of what the objects are. However, by the time we complete this reflection, the meanings of the
object terms that we regard as singular may have changed. One what? Two what? What makes any object
discrete other than a set of conventions that are subject to change? Even two people can become one, if the
wording of some traditional marriage services is to be believed, and one person can become two, by a different
convention, if they have multiple personality disorder. If this is the case for people, how much more flexible might
be the conventions attached to the singularity of stones, blades of grass, or electrons!
What I have been doing here is trying to show some of the ways in which the theory of meaning assumed by a
priori metaphysics is self-contradictory. The theory of meaning assumed, under which the traditional assertions
appear to make sense, is a truth-conditional theory in which the meaning of a proposition consists in the
conditions according to which it would be true. This theory is inadequate for all sorts of reasons, which will be
discussed more fully in volume 3. Chief amongst these is its complete abstraction from what we actually take to
be meaningful in experience, which in brain terms involves the dominance of the left hemisphere to the exclusion
of the right. The reason it is proving self-contradictory here, however, is because it is a static theory that assumes
meanings to be fixed and eternal, rather than a changing property of living human beings. But it is our right
hemispheres that engage with experience, including that of changes in time. As soon as we introduce temporal
changes of meaning into a system that relies on this exclusive left-hemisphere fixedness, the whole system
I.1.f Against A Priori Arguments for Metaphysics
34
collapses. This is a further indication that scepticism is on the side of the humans against the angels, not the other
way round.
There is an alternative way of understanding meaning, which you will need to read in detail in volume 3, and
which forms an important link in the coherence of the alternative approach of Middle Way Philosophy. Briefly for
now, this approach to meaning recognises that meaning is not just a cognitive matter, separated falsely from
emotive meaning, or ‘meaningfulness’, and from physical experience. Instead, the theory of George Lakoff34,
which relates meaning to physical experience, can be used to unite cognitive and emotive aspects of meaning
into a single type of explanation. If meaning arises from our physical experience, it is certainly variable and
dependent on our complex individual states. However, one other effect of this account of meaning is to remove
the eternal certainty from a priori propositions.
This approach does not deny all usefulness to mathematics, logic, and taxonomy, but merely limits the more
arrogant claims for universality that might be made for them. If the meaning of terms used in mathematics, logic or
taxonomy is dependent on our physical conditions, then we have to share enough of those conditions for those
ways of working to be useful to us when communicating. Mathematics remains useful for those who share a
sufficient understanding of it, for practical purposes where the ambiguities that might obtrude are not practically
speaking a problem. Similarly, logical reasoning (such as the reasoning in this book) remains valid, but only to
those who share enough of the same cultural basis to find it so. Even those may understand and apply it in very
different ways.
One other sense of the a priori must be considered here – the Kantian. In these terms, a priori claims must be
considered certain because they identify the conditions required for our experience and/or judgement to occur.
For example, “Objects exist in space” might be considered metaphysically true, just because existing in space is a
necessary condition for any object we can conceive.
One long-standing problem with this kind of assertion, identified by Körner35, is that we cannot prove the
uniqueness of our particular transcendental deduction: in other words, spatiality may be necessary for all objects
for us, but we cannot prove that there may not be other creatures who perceive objects without spatiality. We
cannot say anything about such alternative categorial worlds, because (if they exist) they lie beyond even the
categories upon which our imagination is founded. Yet there may nevertheless be such categorial worlds for other
beings.
The linguistic sceptical arguments we have already discussed also apply to this kind of a priori claim of certainty
as much as to the more traditional kind. The meanings of the terms ‘objects’ and ‘space’ may differ between me
and others, or even for myself at different times. If I am going to create an a priori metaphysical certainty that is
true in all circumstances, I need not just consistency of experience but also consistency in the language used to
describe that experience.
Again, that does not prevent Kantian discussions of the conditions for experience being extremely valuable, but it
means that they should be judged as theoretical claims to be judged by their consistency with experience like any
other theory. The requirement of provisionality applies to theories of the Kantian a priori very much as it does to
empirical theories, with the conditions theorised about just being those required for all experience so far rather
than being about the objects of that experience. To theorise about the conditions of experience is, after all, just an
extension of theorisation about the conditions for anything else: for example the conditions for life or the
conditions for combustion. Just as sceptical argument successfully undermines all claims about “Laws of Nature”
that are said to apply across the universe despite the limitations of the evidence used to support them, similarly
Kantian theories about the a priori amount to generalisations about all experience so far, but it would be an over-
extension of the justification of such theory to claim that they were true of all possible evidence whatsoever.
34 Lakoff 1987
35 Körner (1967)
I.1.g Against Revelatory Metaphysics
35
g.Against revelatory metaphysics
Apart from philosophers, the other major source of metaphysical claims in the world is religious. I do not identify
religion solely with revelation and metaphysical belief, so it is not religion as a whole, or even any specific religion
as a whole, that I am commenting on here. However, religion is a sphere where revelatory metaphysics is often
found. In this chapter I am going to try to head off some common defences for it.
By ‘revelation’ here, I mean a metaphysical claim that is justified by appeal to an absolute authority. Very often
such revelations are believed to come from God, but God is not the only claimed source of revelations. In the
Buddhist tradition, revelations come from enlightened beings, and in polytheistic traditions, from gods or other
spiritual beings. Even when revelations are believed to come from God they also need a proximate authoritative
source to convey them, such as a religious leader, a scripture, a ‘sign’, or the inspired will of a community. These
revelations become metaphysical when they gain absolute authority because of their source, rather than being
judged as theory according to their relationship to experience.
Here we need to distinguish the idea of absolute authority from a source and credibility from a source. If we have
trusted a source before and found it reliable, then we have greater justification in trusting it again, based on
experience. We are also likely to trust sources in a secondary way because they are recommended by people
that we know as trustworthy, or are widely assumed to be trustworthy. So, for example, many people throughout
the world (including me) trust the BBC news as offering a reasonably objective report of world events. However,
this is far from an absolute reliance. If I began to experience the BBC as less reliable, I would lessen my trust in
them and perhaps switch to other sources of news – if I could find better ones. An absolute revelatory authority,
however, is not subject to this kind of review in the light of experience. A religious believer who trusts God, or
trusts the guidance of the Buddha, cannot withdraw or even reduce that trust when it proves unreliable, because
there are no circumstances in which it can be accepted to be unreliable. If the BBC allows an uncritical account of
a despotic or corrupt regime in a distant country, we can soon find out by consulting other sources about that
regime. If, on the other hand, we are given a one-sided account of Jesus or the Buddha by religious scriptures or
modern religious teachers, the absolute claims made for these figures, and the lack of an effective critical tradition
within religious traditions, means that challenges will be taken as attacks on the religious group as a whole and
ignored or reinterpreted so as to be compatible with continuing faith in the revelation.
Credibility is not only based on direct or indirect experience to begin with, but it is also subject to continuing
scrutiny by comparison with alternative sources of information. Revelation may sometimes be accepted on the
basis of experience, but the partiality and limiting assumptions that are used to interpret that experience can only
be recognised with great difficulty once the revelation has been accepted, because of the lack of ongoing critical
scrutiny. Critical scrutiny becomes redundant once an absolute source of truth is believed to have been
discovered, simply because the motive for believing in that source of truth is no longer conceived as investigative.
It is the dualistic features of revelatory metaphysics that have been most obvious to atheistic critics making a
moral case against ‘religion’. Revelation puts the emphasis on a source of authority, which often has the effect of
polarising the response between those who obey or disobey that authority. This polarisation is strongly illustrated
by the episode in Exodus where Moses leaves the Israelites to ascend Mount Sinai, and when he returns finds
that they started to worship a Golden Calf image in disobedience against God’s law.
Moses saw that the people were out of control and that Aaron had laid them open to the secret malice of their
enemies. He took his place at the gate of the camp and said “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come here to me”; and
the Levites all rallied to him. He said to them, “The Lord God of Israel has said: Arm yourselves, each of you, with
his sword. Go through the camp from gate to gate and back again. Each of you kill brother, friend, neighbour.”
The Levites obeyed, and about three thousand of the people died that day. Moses said, “You have been installed
as priests of the Lord today, because you have turned each against his own son and his own brother and so have
brought a blessing this day upon yourselves.”36
36 Exodus 32:25-29: Oxford Revised English Bible
I.1.g Against Revelatory Metaphysics
36
This episode has been echoed in a host of religious conflicts ever since, the defining feature of which is the
revelatory assumption of one true account of ‘God’s word’ and the falsity of all other beliefs. If evangelical
certainty no longer results in such massacres in all cases today, it can hardly be revelatory beliefs themselves
that are responsible for the development of tolerance. Rather it is the countervailing development of awareness
that other views may, after all, have something to be said for them because they are expressive of other
experiences that have engaged differently with conditions, or perhaps with the recognition that slaughter does not
address the conditions of belief as well as persuasion does.
Those that receive revelation assume a special status, which can in some cases apparently justify any action up
to and including the massacre of those without that status37. Revelation also puts the emphasis on revealed moral
instructions to be followed to the letter, which makes it easy for these moral instructions to become an end in
themselves regardless of the wider moral context. For example, the Jewish dietary regulations given in Leviticus
11 seem largely motivated by the need to distinguish the Israelites from other tribes.
In all of these kinds of cases, it is revelation that is the problem, not ‘religion’, for religion includes many other
beliefs, attitudes and practices, and amounts to a whole sphere of life, not a particular set of beliefs. Religious art,
ritual, story, community, meditation, ethics or social action does not have to be either revelatory or metaphysical,
though these aspects of religion can be focused on or motivated by metaphysics to a greater or lesser extent. It is
revelation that makes religious attitudes metaphysical, whereas in other cases religious beliefs and practices can
merely provide a context for passing on theories that can be tried through experience, whether these consist in
moral attitudes, rituals or meditation technology.
Just as positive metaphysics is dualistically opposed by negative metaphysics, revelation is dualistically opposed
by anti-revelation: that is, by the denial of the content of revelation because of the authoritative claims made for it.
A Middle Way response to revelation, then, denies the authority of the revelatory claims, but examines the content
of revelatory scriptures or other instructions in the same way as other content, neither giving it higher nor lower
status than other texts (except where greater credibility can be based on experience). Obviously this is easier to
do with some texts than others. It is hard to interpret the passage from Exodus quoted above in other than
revelatory terms, but if we focused on, for example, the content of Jesus’ moral teachings or the Buddha’s
meditational instructions aside from the claims of authority ascribed to them, these can provide a rich source of
religious technology or religious inspiration regardless of revelatory claims.
Theologians through the ages have offered various kinds of justification for revelation, some of which I will try to
address here:
1. Human sinfulness makes reliance on ‘reason’ unacceptable
2. Revelation can be wholly or partly supported through ‘reason’
3. Revelation arises from, and is justified by, the power of religious experience
4. God would not allow us to be influenced by the wrong revelation
1. Firstly, the belief that human beings are universally sinful is itself a metaphysical belief which can have no
justification in experience. No matter how great our experience of the evil or the corruptibility of individual human
beings, this would not justify us in extending an assumption of absolute sinfulness to all human beings. Any
theory of universal absolute sinfulness that was open to observation would immediately founder on every example
of human goodness. If only a degree of sinfulness is encountered, though, it would not make us utterly unjustified
in using reason. Human sinfulness, then, is not a justifiable foundation for accepting revelation.
Further unjustifiable assumptions are also made in this line of argument, even if it were accepted that we are
universally sinful. If sinfulness merely makes our use of reason fallible, this is a fallibility that needs to be
embraced rather than rejected, for the reasons outlined in 1.d. If our reason is flawed by sinfulness, in any case,
this does not necessarily mean that we should depend entirely on revelation as an alternative. Since there is no
further reason for accepting revelation beyond the authority of the source, accepting revelation because of doubt
about our own capacity to think through the issues correctly is a bit like jumping off a cliff because you can’t see
any way to climb down it.
37 This can be seen not only in the above example from Exodus, but also in the Israelite conquest of Palestine as
recorded in the book of Judges, and the well-known ‘Sword verse’ of the Qur’an (9:5), discussed further below.
I.1.g Against Revelatory Metaphysics
37
Theological arguments of this kind tend to share a conception of ‘reason’ with analytic philosophers that
unhelpfully separates the conceptual aspects of human experience from the emotional a distinction tackled in
I.1.i and III.1.a. For the moment I am using the common term ‘reason’ with scare quotes, but really do not accept
the narrow assumptions that are often attached to the concept of ‘reason’ used as a synonym for thinking justified
by human experience. In drawing conclusions from evidence or assumptions, we use our emotions as much as
our logical faculties, and such ‘reasoning’ is only ever as good as the assumptions it depends on. The acceptance
of revelation itself involves ‘reasoning’ in which one abstract representational belief is justified by another, and it is
the false dichotomy between revelation and ‘reason’ that needs addressing here rather than asserting one over
the other.
2. Given that revelation attempts to provide an absolute justification for belief, in its own terms there is neither
need nor justification for using ‘reason’ as a basis of judgement. There is no need because revelation has already
answered our questions with absolute authority, and no justification because the use of reasoning based on
experience to justify beliefs might undermine that authority. Of course, in practice religious believers through the
centuries have indeed supplemented or supported revelation using reasoning based on experience, but one
presumes because that this is due to understandable limitations in their faith in the revelation. The re-emergence
of the perspective of human experience in a religious context dominated by revelation seems unavoidable,
because the complexity of that human experience is simply not fully addressed by revelatory certainties. The
adoption of increasingly liberal perspectives within a revelatory religious context increasingly sidelines the
revelation until it becomes almost irrelevant.
One area where it might be argued that the use of reasoning based on experience is always necessary is in the
interpretation of revelation. Any verbal statement of revelation, in a scripture, a leader’s words, or elsewhere, will
either be highly generalised or written for a specific context different from the one where it is used. The terms
used will also be interpreted differently by the audience from the speaker and will contain many ambiguities. For
example, take the ‘Sword Verse’ from the Qur’an:
But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them,
beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war). But if they repent, and establish regular
prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.38
The context of this verse, as moderate Muslims point out, is one of treaties between Muhammad and the pagans
of Makkah. The preceding verses appear to give Allah’s blessing to the breaking of treaties with pagans that are
believed to have broken their obligations or become hostile to the Muslims. So, the verse could be taken to mean
that Muslims should only fight pagans who showed hostility first. It could be used to stop Muslims waging holy war
during Ramadan or against those who have surrendered to Islam. On the other hand, it still supports the use of
violence, in at least some circumstances, to force people to convert to Islam. What this means today, then,
particularly for a Muslim surrounded by unbelievers or a Muslim nation in contact with non-Muslim nations, is
highly ambiguous. Who broke a contract first, for example, is often highly disputable, as is the more basic moral
issue of whether we should praise Muslims for their restraint in limiting warfare against pagans to certain defined
conditions, or blame them for engaging in it at all.
What this tells us is that there is a basic incoherence in the very idea of propositional revelation, not that the use
of ‘reason’ can somehow preserve the absolute status of revelation despite these difficulties. Given the relativity
of linguistic communication, no absolute truths can be communicated in words, so that if we use reasoning based
on experience to interpret utterances that are supposed to be revelation, we are actually treating them merely as
advice and weighing them on their own merits. If all religious believers admitted that this was what they were
doing there would be no problem about it, but when fundamentalists and other religious conservatives use
‘reason’ to interpret revelation and then attach the supposed absolute authority of the revelation to their own
interpretation, we have major confusion and self-deception.
The alternative to a propositional revelation is a non-propositional revelation, which may occur, for example, in a
wordless mystical experience, in a vision, in an experience of nature, or through the character of a great religious
38 Qur’an 9:5 (translated Abdullah Yusuf Ali)
I.1.g Against Revelatory Metaphysics
38
leader. Some of the issues around religious experience will be considered under the next point, but generally
there are even more difficulties surrounding the idea of non-propositional revelation than around propositional
revelation. Given the requirement on religious believers to do all the interpretation from a deeply ambiguous
communication, how can non-propositional revelation be distinguished, in practice, from inspiration? It is difficult
to see how those claiming non-propositional revelation are not merely trying to attach the authority of revelation to
beliefs acquired through their own judgement and experience.
On the whole, then, revelation and reasoning based on experience are oil and water. They can supplant each
other but they cannot mix. Any appeal to revelation prevents judgements being based on experience because the
revelation, if it is as absolute as is claimed, must always override the perspective of experience. Any judgement
made on the basis of experience to supplement or interpret revelation, on the other hand, removes the revelatory
authority and substitutes a fallible human perspective.
3. Religious experience is an important dimension of human experience, and there is no justification for reductive
treatments of these experiences. They remain potent, mysterious and inspirational for those who have them (or
even, indirectly, for others). However, I want to argue that the religious tradition of trying to make revelatory
capital out of religious experiences is just as crass as the attempt to explain them away as ‘merely’ chemical
imbalances in the brain or the product of psychiatric disorders.
One basic argument against the possibility that religious experiences could communicate absolute truths is simply
the impossibility that perfection could be experienced in a context of imperfection. Whatever experiences of
rapturous emotional positivity, empathy, intuitive insight or apparent certainty religious experiences may offer,
these cannot be experiences of a perfect being or even a perfect perspective, because they are imperfect. What
has happened is that a human being has experienced an inspired and integrated state, but nevertheless still a
fallible state. To attribute godlike qualities to a fallible human experience is a type of (what in the theistic traditions
has been called) idolatry, not very different in effect from attributing godlike qualities to a carved piece of wood. In
terms of brain hemispheres, it takes the open and intuitive experiences of the right hemisphere and reduces them
to the linguistic certainties of the left hemisphere.
Sometimes traditional accounts of religious experience take the gap between perfect and imperfect into account.
For example, the Israelite elders who are said to have seen God on the top of Mount Sinai can see and
comprehend the pavement he stands on, not God himself39. Muhammad in the Cave of Hira is told to recite the
words of the Qur’an that arise in him spontaneously, so the words are not said to be expressive of his revelatory
state at all – he is merely a channel for God40. However, even if we grant that religious experience merely
provides a context for the communication of divine words, rather than the divine words being justified by the
experience, we are still left with the contradictory idea of divine words. Such words, if they were ever capable of
expressing a perfect point of view, will immediately lose that perfection when understood and interpreted.
4. A final theological strategy to defend revelation is to appeal back to God’s perspective. If we doubt whether we
have the right revelation, and point out the imperfection of our interpretation of revelation, it is argued that God
must be guiding that interpretation. Indeed, given that God is both omnipresent and good, God must be guiding
our interpretation, and would not leave us alone in error.
If you were to use this argument to support belief in the existence of God, it would obviously be circular: we
believe in God because he has revealed himself to us, and we know the revelation to be correct because God
exists. However, if you believe in God’s existence already, it would certainly be within God’s power and consistent
with his assumed personality to ensure that we understand revelation correctly.
The bigger problem with this argument, then, is the abstracted turn that it shares with analytic philosophy (see
previous chapter). This argument does not appeal to God as an experience at all, but to a conception of God that
is metaphysical and thus beyond human experience. It would be possible to believe in such a God, and that he
was guiding our revelations, even if our experience appeared to completely contradict such assertions, for
39 Exodus 24:9-11
40 Qur’an 96:1
I.1.g Against Revelatory Metaphysics
39
example if his revelation involved instructions for deliberate destruction of the earth and mass suicide, or if every
individual on earth had a different revelation which brought them into violent conflict with all the other individuals.
Finally, then, it must be re-emphasised that the decisive rejection of revelation is not anti-religious. The problem is
metaphysics, not religion, and revelation is simply metaphysics applied to religion. However, it has to be accepted
that religion provides us with many of the most striking examples of the drawbacks of metaphysics.
I.1.h Sceptical Slippage
40
h.Sceptical slippage and modern forms of negative
metaphysics
Sceptical slippage is my term for the way in which agnostic positions justified by sceptical uncertainty have a
tendency to become positions of denial. There are a number of possible reasons for this.
One is that the distinction between agnosticism and denial is a subtle one – but that at least can be remedied by
study. Agnosticism involves rejecting a positive metaphysical position just as denial does, but it equally involves
rejecting the converse position. At the same time one accepts whatever either position has to offer in relation to
experience – only rejecting the metaphysical assumptions. The information that one rejects one position conveys
little by itself unless one can also think more positively what alternative is embraced. In the case of metaphysical
agnosticism the alternative embraced to either acceptance or denial is the possibility of progress in understanding
the conditions that relate to the claims made on either side. We can only start to make that progress if we avoid
thinking merely in terms of metaphysical affirmation or denial.
Another reason for sceptical slippage is the social fact that groups find it easier to unify around concepts that are
readily understood, and to have clear points of disagreement with opposing groups. For example, psychological
research has helped to establish the tendency of the members of one group to exaggerate the homogeneity of
other groups, who are assumed to have consistently wrong beliefs rather than a variety of different beliefs with
differing degrees of correctness.41 The definite denial of the clearly identified and supposedly consistent beliefs of
opposing groups thus gains support more readily than agnosticism can. In political terms, this can be revealed in
a polarisation effect, where media bias is reinforced by public preferences for simplified alternatives and party
interest in maintaining those alternatives42.
This tendency for easily identifiable positions that maintain a group to be defended can even lead to the unholy
alliance effect: that is, for those with vested interests in maintaining a simple dualistic model of a situation to unite
in condemning what they see as the obfuscations of agnosticism. For example, politicians to the extremes of a
political spectrum may unite against the challenges posed by the centre in order to maintain the conditions for
their shared supremacy: a situation that continues in the democracies of both the US and the UK. In the UK, an
unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative Parties until recently repressed all forms of electoral reform to create
a more proportional electoral system, which would mean increased sharing of power in coalitions with the central
Liberal Democrat party. The counter-dependency of each major party on the other and on the conception that it
offered the only alternative to the other is reflected in Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “There’ll always be a
Labour Party”. The opposed two-party system, especially in its heyday in the 1970’s, was closely associated with
dichotomies of class and regional support and a perception of diametrically opposed economic policies (though
fortunately this polarisation began to weaken in the 1990’s) and these polarisations in turn were often perceived
as based on absolutely opposed values such as individualism vs. socialism, or social conservatism vs. social
progressivism. In this kind of atmosphere, it was hardly surprising if those who tried to think about the best ways
of addressing political conditions found themselves subject to strong social pressures towards one political group
or the other, and a questioning of the Conservative approach tended to lead one either to the Labour Party or to
marginalisation.
A third likely reason for sceptical slippage is semantic: if we (implicitly or explicitly) think of claims as either true or
false according to their representational relationship with an out-there reality, rather than as incrementally justified
in relation to our whole experience (in the way outlined in 1.d above), then there is little room for the Middle Way.
To understand the very possibility of metaphysical agnosticism requires us to shift our understanding of what is
being asserted in a theory, from that of a “real world”, right or wrong, to that of a more or less useful metaphorical
construction that we may be able to fruitfully relate to our basic experience to a greater or lesser degree. To be
agnostic about the claims of a metaphysical set of beliefs, we do not have to reject the whole set of
representations of the world that it has built up, only the idea that this set of representations has an absolute
41 Ostrom et al (1993)
42 See Bernhardt et al (2008) in relation to US politics
I.1.h Sceptical Slippage
41
validity. Indeed it is important not to reject the set of representations itself, just to start taking those
representations much more provisionally: as a story rather than as a truth. To treat them provisionally, as a story
or a hypothesis, is to defuse their metaphysicality, rather than creating a rival metaphysicality through complete
and absolute rejection. For example, in rejecting the metaphysical claim that Jesus was the son of God one does
not reject the stories about Jesus, or even the significance of him being the son of God in those stories: only the
abslute truth or falsity of such an assertion.
As often, the debate about God’s existence provides a particularly clear example of these issues. Hard
agnosticism about God’s existence is difficult to maintain in the face of both theistic and atheistic expectations.
Both sides tend to try to exploit the sceptical arguments that support agnosticism for their own purposes, and to
sweep agnostics either into their own camp or the opposing camp. Both theists and atheists have contributed to
sceptical slippage here by labelling agnosticism “negative atheism”43, on the assumption that anyone who doesn’t
believe in God can be lumped together with those who deny the existence of God. Atheists sometimes assume
that God’s existence is an empirical matter, and thus, on the basis of empirical standards of proof (which will be
discussed in section 2), reject God as non-existent because of the lack of empirical evidence44. This tends to
make agnostics just look like people who can’t make their mind up in a case where the evidence is clear, rather
than people who take God’s existence to involve metaphysical claims which are immune from evidence.
Alternatively, atheists may attack the a priori justifications for believing in God using sceptical arguments which
only support agnosticism45, thus acting as a spoiler for arguments for agnosticism and further confusing the
issues.
At least in the debate about God the concept of agnosticism is recognised, even if it is widely misunderstood. Try
being an agnostic in the debate about the mind-body problem, for example, or in the debate about the absolutism
and relativism in ethics, and you may as well be talking Klingon even the idea that agnosticism is a serious,
coherent option that is not just ‘sitting on the fence’, let alone the idea that it might be the key to objectivity, is
completely alien both to most philosophers and to the wider public. Their response, then, is either to reject it as on
the other side, or incorporate it into their own, despite the fact that many practical responses to these issues begin
with such agnosticism. For example, any legal resolution to the moral dispute about the permissibility of abortion
other than a total ban or free abortion on demand (such as those adopted in the UK by the 1968 Abortion Act or in
the US by Roe vs. Wade) must implicitly assume that a foetus is neither wholly a person nor wholly not a person,
for the state would otherwise either become accessory to murder or be interfering unjustifiably in women’s
property rights. Metaphysical agnosticism is the obvious practical solution, yet it often does not even appear on
philosophical horizons. Our theory has often yet to catch up with our practice.
Western thought since the enlightenment is full of figures who seemed to be breaking the mould in their time,
because they questioned metaphysical orthodoxies, but who failed to break the final orthodoxy of dualism.
Sometimes they achieved some measure of popularity, because they seemed to relate to at least some of the
suppressed experience of the people of that time. However, because their scepticism was only selective and
there were further conditions in experience that their approach prevented them from addressing, they became
new figures of a counter-orthodoxy. So it was with Descartes and Hume, with Kant, Hegel, Marx and
Schopenhauer, with Mill, the Logical Positivists and Wittgenstein, with the Pragmatists and Existentialists and
Postmodernists46. All of these figures rejected revelatory metaphysics, but many of them substituted a priori
metaphysics. Rather than coming fully to terms with uncertainty, they merely attacked the certainties of their
opponents, whilst relying on new certainties of scientific fact, of mathematics, of historical inevitability, of individual
freedom or of relativism. Even that Protean arch-ironist, the indefatigable critic of metaphysical certainties,
Nietzsche, relied upon an aesthetic elitism47. Some philosophers, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, even adopted
an anti-systematic style, but this was no indicator of a lack of metaphysical assertions in their thinking48. Irony,
also, that last refuge of the nihilist, is no indicator of philosophical progress, but merely a lack of confidence in
43 It seems to have been an atheist (at the time), Antony Flew, who first used the term: see Flew (1994).
44 E.g. Dawkins (2007)
45 Ibid
46 All of these figures are discussed in detail in Ellis (2001) chapters 3 and 4.
47 Ibid 4.g
48 Ibid 4.e. and 4.g
I.1.h Sceptical Slippage
42
putting forward even provisional assertions that supports negative assumptions about whatever one might put
forward.
There have been two main ways in which modern philosophers have clung onto metaphysical beliefs. One
tradition, beginning with Hume and inherited today by analytic philosophy (as well as academics in many other
subjects) depends on the fact-value distinction (which I will deal with in the next chapter) to give a status to
scientific knowledge that it does not give to ethics. In analytic philosophy, metaphysical assumptions are thus
made about the relativity of ethics, the ‘objective’ nature of scientific truth, and also about the absolute status of a
priori claims (dealt with in 1.f). Another, ‘continental’ tradition, going through the existentialists to the
postmodernists, often takes a relativist view of scientific beliefs as well as moral ones49.
Relativism of any kind requires the denial of a metaphysical belief in absolute and universal standards of truth – a
denial that is just as metaphysical, and in the process involves just as many contradictions, as the affirmation.
First amongst the contradictions is the relativist’s paradox that a relativist is making a universal and absolute
statement of relativity. In the process of denying universal values, other equally metaphysical values must also be
affirmed (given that we cannot be value neutral), which means that relativists end up by default affirming the
justification either of their society’s values or of the choices of individuals. For further discussion of relativism see
7.a.
Sceptical slippage is a pervasive problem for anyone seeking to put forward metaphysical agnosticism. One
battles against the difficulty people have even in understanding agnosticism as an alternative. If you have read
thus far and think that Middle Way Philosophy is ‘really’ absolutist or relativist, really in one camp or the other –
perhaps that it is just a new manifestation of relativism or secularism or naturalism then you will not have
understood it yet. I would ask you to continue to give me the benefit of the doubt for the moment and let the
cumulative advantages of the agnostic position unfold a little further.
49 See Ellis (2001) 4.a, 4.g. and 4.i for a fuller discussion.
I.1.i Against the Fact-Value Distinction
43
i. Against the fact-value distinction
The fact-value distinction is, unfortunately, widespread wherever there is serious thinking about science, ethics or
aesthetics in the Western world. It is based on the logical argument used by Hume50, that a value claim cannot be
implied by a factual claim you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. For example, according to this approach
even the claim “Everyone believes murder is wrong” would not, if true, imply “murder is wrong.”
This logical distinction is based on the assumption of different justifications for believing factual and value claims.
Factual claims are taken to be justified either through observation or through a priori reasoning, whilst value
claims are taken to be conventionally agreed within a group or society. By this means, ‘facts’ become in principle
absolute – verbal claims that have been tested for their precise correspondence to reality – whilst ‘values’ become
in principle relative because they lack this correspondence. Even many thinkers who do not accept the relativism
of Hume’s account of ethics have accepted the fact-value distinction, though they have offered different kinds of
justifications for a universal ethics, such as revelation or intuition.
The effect of the fact-value distinction has been disastrous for Western ethics, because it has consigned all
thinking to the dualism between absolutism and relativism. If one accepts Hume’s account of the matter (as many
analytic philosophers have) ethics can consist only in the analysis of what people happen to think about ethics in
your context, with there being no further way to show that this ethics has any universal validity. If, on the other
hand, you challenge Hume’s relativism but still accept the fact-value distinction, the justifications for ethics that
you can offer can only be based on the dogmatic over-extension of intuitions or a priori reasoning. Ethics has
become either the preserve of mere conventional analysis or of extravagant metaphysics.
The fact-value distinction has also been disastrous for the status of science. Although it might seem that in the
short term the distinction gives scientific claims a superior status separated from ‘subjective’ values, in the longer-
term this has undermined appreciation of the degree of objectivity offered by science, by making its claims appear
merely dogmatic when its pretensions to represent reality were punctured. Once sceptical arguments are applied
to science, and the relativity of scientific claims starts to be appreciated, the dualism created by the fact-value
distinction leads to the sudden loss of the credibility of science rather than an incremental calibration of that
credibility in accordance with the evidence, and the falseness of the distinction, being revealed, leads to scientific
‘facts’ being seen as mere relative ‘values’. Those who now believe that creationism is a scientific theory to be
treated on equal terms with evolution theory, or that homeopathy is a medical treatment to be given parity with
mainstream Western medicine, do so by assuming that science, too, is ‘just’ a value judgement. Science is now
getting (if you can excuse the pun) a dose of its own medicine, as an effect of previous support for the fact-value
distinction under the illusion that the distinction helps to maintain objectivity. To get rid of the fact-value distinction
would be in the interests of science, by enabling the public to grasp the basic point that justification is a matter of
degree.
There are some philosophers who have attempted to challenge the fact-value distinction, but these have mainly
done so using analytic methods, and by trying to find exceptions to the general rule, where it is claimed that our
intuitions tell us that a value claim is implied by a factual claim. Thus Searle, for example, claimed that factual
claims about promises implied value claims about the normativity of keeping them51, and MacIntyre argued that
the context of a ‘practice’ such as football, farming or sociology was one in which facts about certain kinds of
effective actions within that practice implied values52. However, the ways that this approach is circumscribed
make it impossible for it to challenge the absolutism vs. relativism dualism Hume created. Searle and MacIntyre
were merely identifying occasions when people assume, disputably, that certain kinds of actions are good, not
identifying any justification for believing that they are good in a more universal sense. Analysis by itself will only
ever provide you with a description of what people believe, not with grounds for prescription. The very distinction
between description and prescription is one established by the fact-value distinction, so that accepting analysis as
50 Hume (1978) p.469
51 Searle (1964)
52 MacIntyre (1985)
I.1.i Against the Fact-Value Distinction
44
the only legitimate (‘factual’) method of philosophical investigation into this problem is itself to implicitly accept the
fact-value distinction.
Instead, we need to question Hume’s assumptions and look at the problem more widely. The prime questionable
assumption made by Hume is that facts and values are justified in entirely different ways. This in turn assumes
that value claims are subject to sceptical argument in ways that facts are not. Hume’s response to scepticism
about empirical facts was naturalistic he thought that we could not defeat the sceptical argument, but that we
were simply not able to take it seriously, and should rely on observation as the most informative basis of
judgement available. I have already commented on this argument in 1.b, pointing out that Hume has falsely
assumed that the difficulties we would have in maintaining actual disbelief in our everyday perceptions should
stop us taking a sceptical argument seriously, when sceptical arguments only deny us certainty about them.
If Hume’s assumptions about scepticism are wrong, so is his assumption about naturalism. We do not have to
ignore sceptical arguments about factual claims in order to develop and use science, just to take factual claims
provisionally. Although in practice many scientists do take their claims provisionally, the interpretation of the
status of factual claims is inconsistent because of the influence of Hume’s arguments, because they can be taken
to be either absolutely or provisionally correct. Furthermore, when factual claims are compared to value claims,
sceptical arguments which apply just as much to the factual claims as to the value claims are not usually taken
into account. “The dog is hungry” is just as subject to sceptical doubt as “You ought to feed the dog.” given all the
possible mistakes we could make in interpreting the dog’s behaviour as well as issues of responsibility for animal
care.
So, if we compare the justification of factual claims to that of value claims in the light of the full range of sceptical
arguments, we find that they are not very different. The last of the ten modes of Pyrrhonism, for example, points
out the relativity of moral claims, but all the others are concerned with empirical claims. All the other sceptical
arguments considered in 1.a apply equally to factual and value claims – for example, both require further
justification giving rise to a possible infinite regression, both are subject to the error argument, and both are
subject to linguistic scepticism. There are no clear examples here of types of sceptical argument that apply to
value claims but do not apply to factual claims. Both, therefore, are equally uncertain in principle, and both equally
open to provisional assertion.
The fact-value distinction is also a result of the abstracted turn discussed in 1.e. Hume’s argument cannot be
contested in its own terms in the abstract, but it does not apply to any actual examples of people’s judgements
about facts or values. In the concrete situation, facts and values are never found in isolation. Whenever we assert
a fact, we have a motive for doing so, which implies the value of doing so. Even a claim as apparently neutral as a
mathematical claim, in the context of a mathematics classroom, comes with values attached about the value of
studying mathematics (or, for younger students, perhaps the value of conforming to society’s expectations that
every child will study basic maths). Facts do not exist in isolation from people who believe them. Whenever we
assert a value, on the other hand, there will also be implied background facts that are assumed for that value to
make sense. For example, “You should eat green leafy vegetables every day” is a value claim that assumes the
existence of green leafy vegetables and the capacity of the auditor to eat them (apart from, very likely, beliefs
about the relationship between the nutrients found in green leafy vegetables and health).
Without the abstracted turn, the fact-value distinction is irrelevant to us, and yet it is still assumed in many
arguments about ethics, particularly in the widespread perception in the West that ethics is a personal matter, a
mere matter of opinion. However, if we were to apply provisionality and incrementality to ethical claims just as
much as to factual claims, it could be appreciated that ‘personal’ opinions can be justified to a greater or lesser
extent. Philosophers bear a lot of the responsibility for not thinking harder about this topic in its concrete context,
and for the social results of their failure.
The fact-value distinction makes even less sense if we are prepared to reform our account of meaning in the way
I will be proposing in part 3. If the meaning of a claim does not just consist in a representation of the
circumstances in which it would be true (or even of the social rules surrounding the language in the claim), but
rather consists in the related experience of a physical organism, both cognitive and emotive, then there is no clear
distinction between the type of meaning of factual statements and that of value statements. One can no longer
argue, as A.J. Ayer did on the basis of his truth-conditional theory of meaning, that moral statements are strictly
I.1.i Against the Fact-Value Distinction
45
meaningless, because they do not correspond to any possible state of affairs53. Given that the meaning of a
factual statement is not purely representational in its meaningfulness to us in the first place, Ayer’s emotivism is
built on a set of unnecessary narrow assumptions.
One objection to such criticisms of the fact-value distinction attempts to distinguish between strong and weak
versions of it, claiming that these criticisms only apply to a strong version of it, perhaps a ‘fact-value dichotomy’ as
opposed to a ‘fact-value distinction’. A weaker distinction, it can be argued, can still be made on the basis of
analysis of our everyday distinctions between facts and values. Even if our claims involve a mixture of facts and
values, we still distinguish them in practice as fact or value claims. A physicist’s claim about the properties of
hydrogen would not normally be thought of as a value claim, and “We should always tell the truth” would not
normally be thought of as a factual claim.
In analytic terms this is obviously correct. We make a conventional distinction in practice between these different
kinds of claim. However, when we consider the justifications for this distinction rather than merely the convention,
there is not even a weak justification for the convention, given that in all possible concrete examples, facts and
values remain mixed. There is also a pragmatic argument for not hardening this convention into a supposed
philosophical truth, even of a weak kind. We will always recognise what is happening in practice more fully, and
thus respond to it more adequately, if we take into account the ways in which facts and values are inextricably
combined, and thus respond to both in any claim, rather than limiting the conditions we address by only
considering one. If I recognise that the physicist’s paper about hydrogen is not just about hydrogen, but also the
value of researching hydrogen, then I will respond better to the physicist if I take this point into account than
otherwise. If we are even trying to move beyond a merely descriptive ethics, there is no point in trying to defend
even a weak fact-value distinction.
Claims to have weakened the fact-value distinction or to have gone beyond it are also not fully convincing unless
we can develop an alternative to it, and show how moral objectivity is not strengthened but weakened by the
abstraction of values to separate them from facts. So, this chapter needs to be read in conjunction with the
account of objectivity found in section 4, and the account of ethics found in section 7 – indeed, in a broader
sense, in conjunction with the whole of the rest of the volumes of this book.
53 Ayer (1946) ch.6
I.1.j Metaphysical Assumptions about the Self
46
j. Metaphysical assumptions about the self
One more major area needs to be tackled to complete this survey of major metaphysical assumptions in Western
philosophy. It is an area that interlocks with all the other sets of metaphysical assumptions: the self.
Western philosophers have sought a static quantity, or at least a clearly definable continuity, in the self. For Plato
and for the Christian tradition, the self was an eternal soul, meaning that the body was contingent. For Descartes,
the self was the self-conscious thinker separated from the doubtful and changing physical world. For Kant, the
empirical self (that is, the self as we experience ourselves) could be distinguished from the self of apperception,
the centre of experience. Even for many philosophers in the analytic tradition, who no longer take seriously the
idea of an eternal soul, there is a search for continuity (whether physical or psychological) which would give a
philosophically defined shape to what I mean by ‘me’.
Alone in this tradition, it is Hume who consistently applies sceptical argument to the problem. In Hume’s account,
when I observe my inward experience, I only find various mental events (thoughts, feelings etc) which I label as
‘mine’, rather than any particular experience I can identify as ‘me’. Hume thus concludes that there is no self, only
a changing set of mental events54.
Kantians have pointed out that Hume is looking for a self as the object of experience, when the self, they argue, is
actually the subject of experience, shaping the very way we experience rather than being something we explicitly
experience. There does seem to be a centre of experience (for more on this see section 2) what Kantians call
apperception – but this apperception is just another a priori condition of our experience, together with other
conditions like space, time, and the assumptions of causality and substance. This is not what I think of myself as
being and identify with as myself. The central distinction here is that the self of apperception is not necessarily
conscious: it is just an assumed framing feature of experience. My sense of myself, however, whether directly
experienced or projected onto that experience, is self-conscious, and it is this sense of myself that is subject to
Hume’s argument, not a possibly unconscious centre of experience.
So Hume’s sceptical argument remains correct – except that, as usual, an argument that justifies agnosticism has
often slipped into one of denial. Hume’s argument justifies the recognition that we do not know whether we have a
self, and have no grounds for distinguishing a metaphysically existent self from a mere assumption. It does not
justify us in concluding that we have no self.
What this whole tradition of argument assumes, however, is that the self, if it existed, would be a static quantity
with fixed identifiable features. Even the discussion about continuity of identity is looking for sufficient overlaps in
features over time for us to be able to relate the self to a continuity. Since we do not experience ourselves as a
static quantity, and we are unlikely to be satisfied by accounts of ourselves as a continuing series of overlapping
features, this whole discussion appears to have missed the point. It has done this, again, through the abstracted
turn which looks for cognitively identifiable objects (‘facts’) as opposed to recognising the meaning of terms like
‘self’ in terms that give due recognition to the affective and dynamic.
Experience does not offer us clear justification either for being a certain self, or for denying our selfhood. What we
can assert on the basis of experience without metaphysical claims is that we have desires in relation to ourselves,
usually to exist as a certain self (or sometimes, perhaps, not to exist). There is no sceptical problem about
whether my drives and wishes are me, for it would be contradictory to say “I want some tea but I may be deluded”
in a way that it could not be to say “I believe there is some tea but I may be deluded”. Believing there is some tea
because I want it may be wishful thinking, but I can still want it even if I do not believe there is any available. I can
also be confused about what I want, but not deluded when I think I want it. I want, therefore I exist – in a sense.
Of course, this should not be taken in any cognitive metaphysical sense, but merely as a psychological point. I do
not continue to exist as the same being because I continue to want, for the “I” is not anything separate from the
changing wants. So Hume continues to be correct that we have no grounds for believing that the self exists as a
54 Hume (1978) pp 251-263
I.1.j Metaphysical Assumptions about the Self
47
fixed entity. Nevertheless, we experience a changing dynamic entity which we identify with – which I call the ego,
in distinction from the self. This is merely a stipulation, a way of navigating through a minefield of contradictory
usages in both philosophy and psychology. The ‘self’ is a term I shall be using for a metaphysical claim, whereas
the ‘ego’ represents a dynamic experience. Some distinction of this sort has to be made, even if others would
prefer to make this distinction differently or even reverse my usages of these two terms. The ego may experience
continuities – of belief, of memory, of social recognition and of purpose but these are all contingent within the
experience that I call ‘ego’..
This account of the self is also consistent with scientific evidence about the self-representations of the two brain
hemispheres. The objectified and wilful self what I have called the ego corresponds to the left hemisphere’s
functions, whilst the right hemisphere maintains a self-view over time and in relation to others55. The problem of
the self as understood by Western philosophers has consisted in the difficulty of reconciling these two
perspectives, which will each become active when the hemisphere that promotes it is dominant, so as to explain
and justify the right hemisphere view in terms of the left. This is an impossible task, because the left hemisphere
has no grasp of continuity over time56. The self I want to be can vary from moment to moment, but the sense of
the self continuing over time and relating to other wants is discontinuous with the egoistic view. Rather than
asserting that either the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere view of the self is finally correct, then, it is better
to think of the ego as existent within its momentary, willed limitations and to neither affirm or deny the right
hemisphere self, avoiding any appropriation of it by the left hemisphere. The function of the right hemisphere is to
integrate these different egos that we experience at different times, rather than either to destroy them or to give
them the illusion of complete dominance.
The recognition that we cannot justify believe in a self, but that we can justifiably think of ourselves as egos with
changing identifications, revolutionises a whole set of philosophical problems at a stroke. If we have changing
identifications and these identifications are interdependent with our beliefs, then we can have more or less
consistent and more or less adequate identifications and beliefs. The integration of our desires and beliefs
becomes available as a criterion for objectivity that is capable of explaining the variable adequacy of our
experience without appeal to metaphysics. The Middle Way becomes more than just an avoidance of
metaphysics to either side, but can increasingly be understood in positive terms as a path of integration.
If we understand ourselves as egos, the question of how value can be objective, so puzzling to so many Western
philosophers, can be resolved. We are the bearers of value, for value is no different from desire, but desires can
be more or less integrated. We do not have to destroy the ego to be moral, merely to channel it in a way that is
more consistent and realistic in its demands. Nor does moral progress have any necessary connection to being
“selfish” or “selfless”, since ego-identifications may or may not be with one’s individual body, but may be with
others, or with groups or ideas.
This central point is the basis of a number of other arguments in this book, including about objectivity (section 4),
justification (section 5) and integration (section 6). These in turn lead on to the more detailed accounts of different
aspects of integration in volumes 2, 3 and 4. All that is required in understanding these further arguments is that
you do not interpret them in the terms of the traditional metaphysical assumptions, which we should now be able
to increasingly leave behind.
55 McGilchrist (2009) p.87
56 Ibid. p.76
I.2.a Experience and its Adequacy
48
2.The Appeal to Experience
So far, then, I have been attempting to remove traditional metaphysical assumptions to clear
the way for a philosophy built on experience. But what, more positively, does this mean?
This section is largely concerned with working out a relationship between Middle Way
Philosophy and other movements that have appealed to experience, such as empiricism,
phenomenology, and science. Middle Way Philosophy is argued to be distinct from these past
movements. It also sketches out approaches to meaning, justification and integration that will
be expanded in more detail later on.
Central to this presentation is the idea that experience is not just a fixed entity: not some kind
of passive, neutral receptacle for what the world throws into it. Experience, rather, works at
varying levels of adequacy which enable us to think of degrees of objective value as an
inseparable part of experience.
This whole section is relatively abstract (perhaps ironically given that its topic is experience),
and is directed primarily at those who might assume that Middle Way Philosophy is just a
rehash of other philosophies that have previously emphasised experience, or who find my use
of ‘experience’ so far a bit vague. Those without such concerns may prefer to skip ahead to
section 3.
I.2.a Experience and its Adequacy
49
a. Experience and its adequacy
What is experience? In some ways the answer to this seems obvious. Experience is what happens to people: the
succession of mental events associated with a particular individual. In other ways this is not so obvious. In what
sense do these mental events “succeed” one another and in what sense are they “associated with a particular
individual” if they are not linked by a metaphysical self (see 1.j)? Given that my experience is unique, how can I
talk about it at all? Most importantly, how can we use experience to justify claims of any kind?
In the remainder of this chapter I will offer some preliminary answers to these questions. However, like the
arguments against metaphysics in section 1, these answers will depend on a particular account of meaning,
considered in 2.b. In the remaining chapters of section 2 I will be clarifying how this approach differs from
previous approaches that have appealed to experience.
In 1.j I accepted the Kantian distinction between the self of apperception and the empirical self. This is a crucial
distinction in explaining how our experience can be structured without a metaphysical self. The self of
apperception is simply a framework for experience that sets the limits on what we experience and determines the
format in which we experience it. Many of the limits and formats of experience appear to be universal on the
evidence available to us (though, as discussed in 1.f, we cannot conclude that they are actually universal), but
nevertheless, each self of apperception has an individual version of those limits and formats. For example, all of
us appear to perceive objects in time and space, to assume that objects are substantial and that they relate to
each other causally: however, each of us perceives a different time and space, with different substances and
causes, just as different computers may each be formatted with the same software, but each use this software to
process different data.
In an important sense, then, I experience my own individual universe. If this were not the case we would not be
subject to many of the problems of perceptual scepticism that are due to the relativity of perspective. However, if
we distinguish this universe created by the self of apperception carefully from the self as an object of experience,
there is no need to draw solipsistic conclusions. Solipsism is a negative metaphysical position, which assumes
that because we have no absolute proof that there are others in the universe we experience, therefore there are
no others. This is an example of sceptical slippage from uncertainty into denial of a kind that should now be
familiar (see 1.h). It is enough that there seem to be others, and that our apperceptional universes appear to
interact. We are also released from any requirement to identify other metaphysical selves, if we can let go of the
idea of others being selves and instead think of them as egos (in the sense discussed in 1.j). There is no ‘problem
of other minds’ if we refuse to get hung up on worries about the reality of other minds but merely investigate
experience.
There are also obviously ways in which our experience interacts with the ways in which we signify it. We do not
need to think only of experience happening first and then us describing or representing it, but also of
representations influencing the way in which we experience our universe. One simple example of this is the
selectivity of perception when we are searching for something. We have a representation in our minds of what we
are seeking, which, put together with our drive to seek that thing, causes us to concentrate only on experience
that may aid our search. If I am looking for greenfly on a rose, I am not likely to be admiring its bloom at the same
time. Various psychological experiments have indeed shown that people can ignore bizarre and unexpected
events when they are intent on something else in the field of view.57
This influence from our representations does not prove that there cannot be any experience that is independent of
our representations and the expectations that they create, only that there is an interplay. We can always be
surprised, and our representations may lead us to be more or less prepared for such surprises. If we believe that
we know the universe, for example, surprises may be much more damaging than if we manage to maintain a
degree of provisionality in our beliefs about it (see 1.c). In terms of the brain, if we stay in a state of left-
hemisphere dominance we will assume certainty about the universe we represent to ourselves, but if we allow
sufficient interaction with the right hemisphere we will be alert for threats to that universe. There seems to be
good evidence that the right hemisphere does remain alert for such threats without the conscious linguistic activity
57 See Chabris & Simons (2010)
I.2.a Experience and its Adequacy
50
of the left hemisphere being involved58: but it is still possible for a dominant left hemisphere to completely ignore
its promptings.
We can try to signify experience, then, because the signification is linked to the experience in our minds. We can
tag a set of words, a symbol, a mental picture or even an entirely abstract code, to our memory of a particular
experience. However, as previously argued (1.a) we cannot be sure of any precise relationship between the
experience and the signification, beyond the moment that we link the two. We may make mistakes ourselves
about the link due to lapses in memory, and clearly others may attach a quite different signification to a particular
set of words or symbol to what we intended. When I