concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Provisionality is the term used to describe the way we need to hold beliefs in Middle Way philosophy. A provisionally held belief is held neither too rigidly nor too loosely, but strongly enough to form the basis of necessary action and gently enough to be revised in the light of new experiences. in some circumstances provisionality has to be compatible with decisiveness in order to be morally useful (if it appears to me that someone needs saving from drowning, I need to act accordingly rather than worry too much about being mistaken), but in others (e.g. drawing conclusions from a scientific experiment) may give rise to a helpful caution.

Philosophically, provisionality is inter-dependent with justification (q.v.). A belief cannot be justified unless it is provisional, nor provisional unless it is justified. A justified belief in Middle Way philosophy is both coherent and negatively foundational, which means that we have positive grounds for believing it on the grounds of its fit with our other beliefs and our experience, but we are also taking into account the possibility of being wrong. We thus cannot be justified in holding a belief unless we take into account the possibility of being wrong. Since metaphysical beliefs offer no such recognition, but must either be accepted or rejected on faith, it is impossible to hold a metaphysical belief provisionally, even if it seems to be coherent with our other beliefs.

Psychologically, provisionality consists in the relaxation of our egoistic grip on a belief, so that we recognise to some extent that there are other possible beliefs to identify with, and the beliefs currently identified with by the ego do not form the whole of reality. We will hold the belief with confidence and avoid the brittleness and defensiveness of doubt. If grounds to question the belief occur in our experience, we will then consider the strength of the evidence and modify our views if the weight of evidence requires it.

Provisionality is an incremental quality, because our integration of beliefs is likely to remain incomplete, and we cannot in practice avoid some egoistic identification with our beliefs beyond what is necessary for their confident assertion and investigation. It is also a quality that needs to be held in balance with confidence, and without an equal amount of confidence just becomes fearful under-assertion (just as confidence without balancing provisionality becomes arrogant over-assertion).

Links to related discussion

Integration and belief (from thesis: scroll down to section d)

Integration of belief (concept page)

A palace made of sand (contains responses to analytic philosophical criticisms of provisionality)


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