We have no direct access to reality, but we can get closer to it by casting off illusions.

We do not have direct access to reality, because all our experiences are formed not just by the world out there but also by our minds. This should not be taken to mean that there is nothing but the illusions of mind, but it does mean that everything we experience is shaped by the mind, and we can never get beyond that. If we believe that we have broken through to reality we are inevitably deceiving ourselves, whether revelation, reason, spiritual experience or imagination are our driving forces. Whatever kind of experience we have, to interpret it we must put our imprint on it.

Objectivity is not gained by breaking through to reality, but rather by integrating the mind that interprets the world. We cannot leap to reality and work backwards from it to work out what is true and good, but instead we can make our own minds better able to overcome whatever prevents us encountering more of reality. What prevents us from encountering reality are fixed assumptions which are not subject to revision in the light of experience, or in other words, metaphysical beliefs. There is no point in investigating our experience if we are not open enough to learn from it. To learn from it we need to both investigate our experience and simultaneously disassemble the barriers that stop us learning from that experience. This means becoming aware of our metaphysical beliefs and gradually letting go of them, whilst also being unafraid to form provisional beliefs that offer us frameworks for learning more about both ourselves and the world.

How do we know that this brings us closer to reality? There are no ultimate guarantees of course. To believe that there are is to believe in a delusory short-cut in the long work of trying to overcome our illusions. We only have experience to go on. But we all have many experiences of gaining greater objectivity, and we could hardly have got through childhood without doing so. There was a time in the past when we understood less, when our ideas were less attuned to the conditions around us, and when as a result we had more painful collisions with those conditions. Then we understood more. Perhaps we understood someone else's point of view, or suddenly recognised the narrowness of our own past motives. Then, whether or not we got attuned to any ultimate reality, we at least got a little less attuned to unreality: and in terms of our experience, that will do for progress.

Progress can also be described in psychological terms. When our habitual energies, desires and attention are divided and disintegrated, we are in a worse position to make progress because our energies are not really focused on doing so, and we do not make full use of mental resources. Conflicts in our desires are reflected in conflicts in our beliefs and in our sense of meaningfulness. Our beliefs, for example, may be coherent but exclude everything beyond that sphere of coherence; or they may be open but lack coherence. We may be unable to relate to people beyond a certain cultural sphere that we find meaningful, and thus be alienated from others whose meaning we have rejected. The more we can integrate ourselves, the more we also integrate our vision of the world, and thus overcome the dogmatic assumptions that prevent us from understanding aspects of it. 

Working on this process of integration is known in Buddhist circles as "spiritual practice", and Buddhism, despite its doctrinal limitations, offers a rich fund of spiritual practices. Many more are also found in other cultural and religious traditions, and in modern psychtherapeutic movements. They involve working not just with the intellect, but with the body and the emotions.

We do not need ultimate guarantees. We do need integrated goals, of course, but not ultimate ones. We cannot see too far ahead. Even if we turn our goal into an ultimate concept, we create more metaphysics which lies beyond our experience. This is why belief in utopias, or enlightenment, or a goal of evolution is just as deluded as belief in God. We can cast ahead a little, but the further we cast ahead, the more narrow idealisations take the place of meaningful goals shaped in terms of what we actually experience.

Links to further discussion

The nature of progress through the Middle Way

How practice supports progress

The thesis: full academic discussion

Objection #8. In the absence of an absolute criterion to measure it against, it is misleading to talk about moral objectivity, as there is no way of distinguishing it from subjectivity.

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