copyright Robert M. Ellis 2009

The Middle Way can be used to solve many problems of Western philosophy

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Most of the classic problems that have caused endless discussion in Western philosophy are based on metaphysical dualisms or dichotomies, which Kant also called antinomies. These include:

The method for resolving such philosophical problems is broadly similar in each case. It goes something like this:

  1. Reflect that the metaphysical constructions on either side of the dichotomy do not represent reality, but only human assumptions about it
  2. Consider what conditions are in fact referred to in the dichotomy, also remembering that some of these conditions may be found in the mind of the subject
  3. Reconceptualise those conditions along a continuum rather than as two opposing concepts
  4. Whenever the metaphysical dualism re-appears, treat it with strict and consistent agnosticism: do not deny the metaphysical claim, which will only lead you into the opposite metaphysical claim
  5. Strenuously resist all attempts by others to lump your metaphysical agnosticism into one camp or the other

In this way you may begin to conceptualise the metaphysical debate differently, as an unnecessarily polarised debate about conditions that are in fact found in experience, but not in their irreducible metaphysical form. You may then end up in a better position to address those conditions, either in theory or in practice.

The example of mind and body

I will apply this approach here to mind and body as an example. For discussions of the other dualisms see thesis 7b (linked below).

In the traditional Western philosophical problem of mind and body, there are two opposed camps of "dualists" and "monists" who claim either that the mind is separate from the body (and physical world) or that it is the same. Dualists point to what they claim to irreducible features of the mind, such as the uniqueness of personal experience or the ability of the mind to hold representations that are "about" something else. Monists, on the other hand, offer a uniform materialist, behaviourist or functionalist account of mental events.

The first step in resolving this is to reflect that neither "mind" nor "body" reflect realities. We do not need a metaphysical explanation, nor is a metaphysical explanation in any way useful to us. It is only likely to function as a focus for dogmatic identification, given that we have no way of resolving the existence of mind or of body through experience. To assert the existence of bodies is just as dogmatic as to assert that of minds, given that we have no way of ever perceiving a substance.

Instead, we could think what sorts of observable qualities are actually referred to in the terms "mind" and body". The observable features of bodies are all around us. Those referred to under the heading of "mind" are actually qualities such as situatedness, privacy, awareness and identification. Above all my mind is what I identify with and believe to be "mine". It is also where apparently only I can access thoughts, concentrated only in one location, and where to varying degrees I am aware. All of these can be understood as incremental properties that happen to have a particular concentration in one spot. Nevertheless I experience them and they have a particular importance for me. Similarly the physical world is situated everywhere around me, is apparently accessible to all, offers awareness in various particular locations (where I believe there to be other minds) and is identified with to varying degrees (I really don't care equally about every physical thing in the universe).

Mind and body can thus be seen not as two opposed quantities, but rather as a set of related continua: things are more or less aware, more or less identified with by me, more or less private to my experience, and more or less situated in one spot. Things that combine these qualities in a certain concentration are ones that I tend to call "minds". Other things that generally lack this collection of properties I tend to call "physical objects".

I do not know whether there is a "mind" or a "body", though these remain useful terms to use for particular experiences. The recognition that both of these terms lacks any metaphysical justification, however, is a helpful one for the practical process of avoiding dogmas that involve mind and body. For example, belief in materialism can be used to justify brutality, and belief in the metaphysical mind can be used to justify a lack of regard for material consequences. The fact that neither metaphysical view by itself rationally supports these kinds of immorality makes no difference to the fact that it can be used for that purpose, or can be used as part of a complex metaphysical web of ideas to provide other kinds of dogmatic justification. Metaphysical agnosticism on a particular issue thus removes a weapon from the armoury of dogma, whether or not that weapon was likely to be used in a particular case.

If you think after this that I am either a monist or a dualist, "really one of them", or "really one of us", you will have completely missed the point. The argument of mind vs body is only worth engaging in order to be defused and to find new ways to undermine metaphysics. It would not have arisen if it was not related in some ways to our experience, and thus it is valuable to take a position on it in order only to find that relationship to experience.

Links to further discussion

The state of philosophy

The avoidance of metaphysics through the Middle Way

Detailed discussion of solutions to philosophical problems in thesis (scroll down to section b)

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