The Middle Way provides a means of casting off the illusions of both positive and negative metaphysics

By "metaphysics" I mean claims about, or implying, ultimate reality. As we do not have any access to any reality beyond our perceptions, we can be sure that neither positive metaphysical claims (about things supposed to exist) or negative ones (about things supposed not to exist) can be justified. Negative metaphysical claims are just as dogmatic as positive ones. So we can never be justified in claiming, for example, either that God does or does not exist, that there is or is not freewill, or that the objects we see around us really exist or do not exist.

The Middle Way, described negatively, is simply the avoidance of these opposed pairs of dogmatic metaphysical positions, each of which are the basis of different illusions. Described positively, it is the attempt to peel away illusion and thus get relatively closer to "reality". We do not know for sure that we are getting closer to reality, but we can be justified in believing that we are moving further away from illusion, and it is this that is the basis of objectivity.

The metaphysical poles avoided by the Middle Way centre around claims about absolute ethics or its absence, so I use the term "eternalist" to refer to metaphysical positions that assume the existence of an absolute source of ethics from which we could know what is good. "Nihilism", on the other hand, refers to the opposing metaphysical positions that assume the non-existence of absolute ethics. Both eternalists and nihilists make use of other metaphysical positions, positive or negative, to support their case. For example, belief in God is one possible basis for eternalism, and God is believed to provide an absolute source for our knowledge of good and evil. Eternalists who believe in God tend to support their case by appealing to freewill (or sometimes determinism), beliefs about the beginning of the universe, and beliefs about nature, and beliefs about God's revelation in human experience or scripture. None of these metaphysical claims can be justified through experience, nor can they be justifiably denied through experience. For this reason, they can readily become the basis of thinking within a certain group which takes them for granted as the basis of their values.

There have been many attacks against positive metaphysics, and particularly against God, before now. Atheists, logical positivists, humanists and postmodernists offer different sorts of attacks on positive metaphysics. However, these all rely on negative metaphysics. Although they have started off with some insights, and addressed some conditions which were neglected by eternalists, they have coalesced around their own dogmas. These are usually based on the use of uncertainty to justify denial. However, uncertainty never justifies denial, only provisional judgements which are carefully related to experience. A practitioner of the Middle Way needs to be resolutely even-handed, and give way neither to the attractions of positive metaphysics, nor those of negative metaphysics. Very often those who have claimed to have got beyond metaphysics, or announced its death, have done nothing of the kind.

What about the status of this argument itself? An argument against metaphysics is best called "critical metaphysics". If it only functions so as to cast doubt on metaphysical claims of both kinds and thus direct them towards the Middle Way, it cannot itself be dogmatic metaphysics. But it must be judged by its function, and it has an unavoidable relationship with practice.

Genuinely following the Middle Way is very difficult. It is like walking along a sharp ridge, with the constant possibility of tumbling down on either side. It is not surprising if the Buddhist Tradition, in attempting to follow the Middle Way, has frequently fallen into eternalism instead. But the Middle Way should not be falsely associated with the whole Buddhist tradition so as to give credence to it, especially given that it is not only the Buddhist tradition itself, but Western interpretations of it, that are at stake. There are others who have followed the Middle Way, or at least come close to doing so by practising science, the arts, or even even other religions, and doing so in a way that allows maximum understanding from experience, in a spirit of openness rather than dogma.

Links to further discussion

The Middle Way and psychology

The nature of dualistic belief processes (from thesis)

The psychological basis of dualism and its philosophical expression (from thesis)

Introduction to eternalism in thesis

Introduction to nihilism in thesis

The philosophy of the Middle Way in thesis

Objection #2. Middle Way theory is as metaphysical as the views it is criticising.

Objection #4. We cannot escape metaphysics. Even scientists have to use metaphysical assumptions.

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objections and responses copyright Robert Ellis