Objection #12: Metaphysical beliefs can have positive effects

This objection might be supported by looking at many examples of people who held metaphysical beliefs, that have apparently inspired them to greater rather than less objectivity, including spiritual dedication, altruism, striking acts of charity or reform, or intellectual labour. Obviously the role of metaphysical religious beliefs, such as belief in God, comes foremost in this. Could we really rule out a positive role for metaphysical belief in the lives of people like St. Francis, Rumi, Mahatma Gandhi or Desmond Tutu?

The basic answer I would want to offer to this is that these figures were inspired by integration in their experience, through which they learnt to effectively address conditions both external (changing the world) and internal (dealing with their own weaknesses). Such experience was attached to metaphysical beliefs, but it was not the metaphysical beliefs themselves that provided the basis for progress. Rather, such figures have made great advances despite their metaphysical beliefs, which have at times held them back.

Taken by itself, however, without closer examination of the details of individual lives, this response is unfalsifiable. How could we tell so easily which elements of their lives were the result of metaphysical belief and which of experience? The types of mental state associated with each are easily distinguishable in my own experience, with narrowing, exclusive mental states associated with metaphysical beliefs and more open ones and higher levels of awareness associated with reliance only on experience. However, it is much more difficult to judge how far the outcomes in other people's behaviour correlate with these different types of belief and mental states.

One way round this problem is simply to examine the biographies of great theists (or other metaphysical believers) with it in mind, and draw one's own conclusions. My own conclusion, time after time, on reading such biographies, is that otherwise inspiring figures are often flawed by their metaphysical commitments. In the case of St. Francis, the flaws seem to be associated with a dogmatic commitment to the value of formal poverty (rather than a balanced use of wealth), and a failure to address the contradictions this often produced. He ended up being formally poor whilst actually wielding wealth and influence through his Order. The dogmatic and authoritarian structure of the Church within which he had to work, also greatly hampered him, showing the way that objectivity on an individual level can nevertheless be hampered by dogma at a group level.

Our objectivity can be lop-sided, and sincerity, love and humility may take one a long way towards it, but are not enough by themselves when other factors militate in favour of hypocrisy, exclusion and pride that may be part of the same system in which a great theist works. Like all of us, then, theistic saints gained partial objectivity in the terms of the conditions that surrounded them.

When examining biographical (or possibly autobiographical) evidence in relation to this problem, though, it is vital to put it in the larger context of the usefulness of a theory of objectivity that is not based on metaphysics. If we attribute St. Francis's degree of objectivity to his belief in God, at a stroke we thereby abandon the possibility of resolving the problem of objectivity in ethics, and are driven back to opposed metaphysical claims and the impasse of absolutism and relativism. So, I do not want to advise making the evidence fit the theory, which would go against the whole spirit of the Middle Way, but I do want to suggest a cautious and open investigation of such issues which bears in mind the scale of the implications of a judgement one way or the other. By a single hasty judgement in favour of a metaphysical source of objectivity (when a closer examination might have brought a different judgement) in my view one throws away at a stroke the possibility of explaining the nature of objectivity and resolving the problem of relativism. If the evidence also seems inconclusive, or simply dependent on prior assumptions, I would also urge the importance of taking the hopeful path which interprets uncertainty as grounds for objectivity rather than irredeemable subjectivity.


Links to related pages

The Middle Way approach to metaphysics

The Middle Way and religion

Thesis on the psychological basis of philosophical dogmatism

Thesis on the features of eternalism

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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