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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 2a)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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2.     The psychological basis of dualism


World domination, as everyone knows, is divided between demons and angels. But the good of the world does not require the latter to gain precedence over the former (as I thought when I was young): all it needs is a certain equilibrium of power. If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth (the reign of  the angels), man collapses under the burden; if the world loses all its meaning (the reign of the demons) life is every bit as impossible. 

Milan Kundera   The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (2000)


a)      The psychological basis of belief

i)                    Against initial philosophical objections to the unconscious


Although my methods are primarily philosophical, I am attempting here to incorporate psychological hypotheses into a philosophical perspective in a way which enables fruitful philosophical argument to take place. The incorporation of such acknowledged psychological hypotheses prevents my philosophical argument from reaching categorical conclusions, but will enable it, I hope, to reach useful and practicable ones. Before embarking on the negative phase of my philosophical argument, which attempts to show the philosophical incoherence of eternalism and nihilism, I need first to show the common psychological basis of these two types of view, which are both dualistic. In doing this I hope to show that reliance on psychological hypotheses is in any case not optional, and that the largest dualistic mistake consists in making psychological assumptions which are subsequently unacknowledged, leading to philosophical incoherence.


Before launching into a psychological account of belief, the philosophical status of this account needs to be made clear. Just as there are, according to my account, two basic types of philosophy, dualist and non-dualist, there are also two types of accompanying psychology. In a broader sense (which I shall differentiate by the use of the initial capital letter), both of these philosophies, and both of these psychologies, are Dualist in the sense that they inevitably presuppose subject-object duality in their use of terms. Within this broader category of Dualism I want to distinguish dualism and non-dualism as respectively views which are conducive to the perpetuation of duality and which are conducive to its reduction. A psychology can thus be dualist or non-dualist in these terms according to its function: this depending of course not just on its verbal formulation but on its application in a given context.


The psychology I shall put forward here, then, will attempt to be non-dualist insofar as this non-dualism is specifiable within its abstract formulation. This non-dualism will include an attempt to analyse the psychology of dualism, against which it will define itself. In using psychological terminology, however, it will be unavoidably limited by Dualism.


Some philosophical objections to the use of psychological terms appear to amount to an attack on this unavoidable Dualism, although inconsistent with the equally unavoidable Dualism on which the philosophical objections themselves rely. The basis of this kind of attack is an objection to the idea of the unconscious[1] as a part of the mind. The mind, it may be claimed, can only be understood in contradistinction to the body or other bodies according to the presence, or at least the potential presence at will, of consciousness, whereas the unconscious is distinguished by the fact that it is not immediately amenable to the conscious will. The unconscious, it is claimed, is therefore not a part of the mind, and the “unconscious mind” is a contradiction in terms.


From an absolute perspective this view is quite correct: the unconscious cannot be considered part of the mind any more than of any other mind, or of the body, there being in any case no grounds on which to talk of a “mind” as distinct from any other entity, or indeed of any entity as being distinct from any other entity. Given that metaphysical assumptions already permeate any attempt to define the mind[2], it is inconsistent to dismiss the unconscious on any such metaphysical grounds. Objections to the designation of the unconscious as part of the mind, then, ignore the conventionality of the category being discussed. It may be useful to think of the “mind” as distinct from the body for some purposes, but not for others, and so likewise it is the usefulness of the notion of the unconscious mind which must justify its association with the conscious mind, its association with the body and its particularity.


Within our unavoidably Dualist perspective we can discuss the usefulness of the hypothesis of the unconscious in enabling an explanation of mental states, beliefs and behaviour[3]. It may still be claimed, however, that this hypothesis is not clearly more useful than alternative hypotheses formulated to explain similar phenomena, such as behaviourism. It may also be claimed that the unconscious is unfalsifiable.


These difficulties can only be addressed very provisionally at this stage. The usefulness of a hypothesis which includes unconscious processes, and the weakness of opposed hypotheses, will be argued throughout the book and can thus only be judged after all the arguments have been worked through. Here I only ask the reader to suspend any epistemological pre-judgements, such as those against the unconscious, which place epistemology before psychology rather than taking account of their interdependency. It will later become clear how an alternative epistemological approach can be harmonised with the assumption of implicit beliefs and desires. I shall also argue later that this approach is not wholly unfalsifiable[4], though this can only be done once a non-dualist account of falsification is established.


A further philosophical difficulty with psychological accounts involving unconscious mechanisms is causal. If it is claimed that an unconscious mechanism causes one which is consciously known, this is irreconcilable with the dominant Humean view of causation, in which for causation to be ascribed, both cause and effect must be logically discrete: if we have no direct access to the unconscious cause, however, we have no grounds to separate it from the effect.


It is the Humean assumptions behind this view of causality which are here questionable. As I shall argue in more detail in 4.c.iii, we have no reason to assume, with Hume, that criteria of belief should be settled prior to those of causality rather than interdependently with them. I shall argue that empiricism of this type is inconsistent in assuming that direct knowledge of some phenomena is possible whilst causal claims involving phenomena which are only indirectly observable are to be instantly dismissed on a priori grounds, since there is no defensible criterion on which to base this clear distinction between direct and indirect observation. Rather all possible theorisations about experience, including causal claims, are subject to an incrementality of justification through observation which is neither wholly direct nor wholly indirect.


Without these Humean assumptions we may still have grounds to doubt claims about the unconscious in particular cases, but no longer to dismiss them a priori on causal grounds. With this preliminary verdict I will thus go on to offer a theory of belief and desire which assumes the possibility of unconscious processes, which must be judged by its fruitfulness.


ii)                  Belief and desire 


I begin with a fundamental assumption: all beliefs have desire as a necessary condition. This is not an analytic claim but an experiential hypothesis which can ultimately only be supported by my argument as a whole and its experiential application. The use of “necessary” used in relation to causality and conditionality throughout will thus only refer to a hypothesised requirement rather than an a priori necessity[5].


As an idea, this hypothesis has held an acknowledged place in the Western philosophical landscape since Marx, who identified ideology as an expression of class interest as it has been created by material conditions[6]. In the Buddhist analysis, long before Marx, the “craving for belief” (dhamma-taöhŒ) is understood as one aspect of the basic desire or craving (taöhŒ) that motivates all unenlightened human existence and action[7]. This craving, according to traditional Buddhism, is an expression of the false idea of the self arising out of spiritual ignorance, but if allowed to flourish unchecked, leads to attachment to beliefs manifested in behaviour which, in turn, perpetuates the spiritual ignorance which allowed it to begin[8].


 The terms “desire” and “craving” here, then, refer to any motivational affect. The term “belief” refers not just to a consciously articulated set of propositions, but to any assumption which could be deduced as implied by thoughts, actions or emotions.


Why should we accept this view? There seems to be a strong  prima facie case for accepting it simply because no belief without an affective motivation can be imagined. It might be argued that some beliefs are involuntary in nature: when I am confronted by a new experience which I did not seek, I immediately gain a belief in the reality of that experience. For example, I am ambushed by a wild animal, but because I did not want to be ambushed by a wild animal it might be claimed that my belief that I am being torn limb from limb is not due to desire. This objection, however, does not take into account the more general desires which form the conditions necessary to the arising of this belief. When ambushed by a wild animal my defensive instincts immediately come into play: the first part of my instantaneous response consists in an emotional response to the situation consisting in a rush of adrenalin, in order to enable me to defend myself. I would not attempt to defend myself against a wild animal that I did not believe to be real: the emotional response itself includes the arising of a belief in the reality of the situation. But necessary to this response is the instinctual desire to protect myself. The general desire to protect myself does not pre-suppose any particular belief about a need to protect myself in a given situation, though it is obviously closely associated with a general belief that I should protect myself. The nature of the desire to believe, then, may be discussed in conscious, unconscious, or automatic terms, but it consists in the response of the whole human organism to its experiences. Even an instinct as basic as that of self-preservation requires us not just to be selective in our attention, but to hold certain beliefs in accordance with the experience that our attention has framed, which then form the basis of action.


In developing this account several clarifications are necessary. Firstly, I am not suggesting that desire is always a sufficient condition for belief. I am not adopting an idealist understanding of Buddhism[9] whereby all our experiences are formed by a process initially caused by desire alone. The value of the Buddhist account is that it insists, as Marx does, that we should not deceive ourselves about the subjective conditioning of our beliefs, even if these beliefs have been stimulated by experience which has a necessary causal component arising from beyond the influence of subjectivity.


Secondly, I do not mean to exclude the possibility that beliefs are also necessary conditions for desires. The model of causation I adopt here is not one-way but mutual[10], indicating an interdependence between belief and desire, not the priority of desire.


Thirdly, the implication of this view is that no purely cognitive account either of why beliefs arise or of their content will be complete. Indeed, any metaphysical distinction[11] between a ‘form’ of beliefs motivated by desire and a ‘content’ which is a purely intentional reflection of experience or reasoning must be rejected, for the straightforward reason that ‘content’ itself consists of a selection of possible experience which we have picked out as significant, being therefore apparently determined by ‘form’. This does not prevent assessment of the ‘truth’ of the propositional content of beliefs taken out of their affective context, but it must be recognised that what is being assessed here also necessarily involves the assessor’s reasons for adopting the belief, ‘truth’ amounting to justification. Even if the justification is purely logical we cannot exclude a consideration of the usefulness of logic from any account of why that belief should be adopted, and even if that usefulness is shared by all human beings it does not follow that the content of the belief is wholly independent of its causes, and hence of the desire that in part creates it.


It may be argued here that a purely mathematical or logical proposition could be assessed without any reference to its context or to the reasons why any given person believes in it. Whilst this may be true, what would then be assessed is not a belief, but a decontextualised proposition. A belief I take it must always be held by a person in an experiential context. The abstract assessment of a proposition for consistency with an abstract set of rules such as those of mathematics is of no empirical relevance unless that proposition also becomes a belief and thus affects actions – at which point the causation of the person’s belief also becomes relevant.


I also here do not accept the distinction between reasons and causes advocated by many of those who believe in metaphysical freewill. A desire itself implies a reason for action, but I do not assume that a desire must be held by a metaphysical entity such as the self which would give it immunity from causation. As I shall argue in more detail in 6.b.v, there are alternatives to either determinist or libertarian assumptions here.


Fourthly, this view should not be rejected on the grounds that it implies cognitive relativism, for, according to the argument I shall develop throughout, it does not. If we adopt an account of belief that necessarily includes psychological considerations but maintains a purely cognitive understanding of objectivity, it is clear that relativism will follow because an element of subjectivity will necessarily cause the belief and may have affected its content, excluding the possibility of any one-to-one correlation between belief content and reality. If, however, we also adopt an understanding of objectivity which takes into account the psychological component of justification by being itself ultimately psycho-philosophical, dispositional and incremental, the understanding of objectivity will be adequate to the case. If we understand objectivity, not dualistically as a one-to-one correspondence of belief and reality, but incrementally as a quality of the desire which is a necessary cause of belief, there are still available grounds for arguing the objectivity of one position over another.

iii)                Desire and the ego


Further to the assumption that all beliefs are necessarily conditioned by desire, I shall offer some further hypotheses regarding the nature of desire.


The aggregate of conscious desires which we conventionally refer to as “mine” I shall refer to as the ego. These desires cannot be thus grouped on the grounds of their continuing coherence over time, since they are not always coherent with each other over time; nor can they be grouped according to their relationship with a self, philosophically understood as an irreducible quantity, since this would be inconsistent with non-dualism (which assumes that no such ultimately irreducible entities exist). The ego can thus only be defined in the conventional terms which it itself provides, of beliefs through which the belief in a self is perpetuated. My desires may change, but I nevertheless believe them to be my desires and identify with them as such. The ego is thus the temporary coherence of a group of desires which are otherwise not necessarily coherent, in accordance with the common goal of corresponding to an intentional formulation of itself. This psycho-dynamic concept of the ego, I will argue, needs to replace that of the self as either a reducible or an irreducible metaphysical quantity.


I shall try to offer at least a brief prima facie case for these assertions based on the inadequacy of any alternative understandings of the coherence of our desires based on a philosophical account of the self. Philosophically, the existence of the self as an irreducible quantity can be either affirmed or denied. If it is affirmed, a metaphysical position based on the first-person perspective has to be defended against the reductionist view that all mental phenomena can, at least in principle, be reduced either to material processes or to impersonal psychological processes. If we deny the existence of the self as an irreducible quantity, however, we are then faced with the difficulty of accounting for the coherence of our desires from a first person perspective.


Hume[12]  provides a classic reductionist attack against the irreducible self. Hume argued that neither does any given mental event necessarily involve consciousness of the self, nor could the existence of a self be validly deduced from our experience of mental events. The first of these claims appears to be true on the grounds that it requires a third, logically distinguishable mental event to link together any two given mental events through the belief that they are mental events of the same subject. This however can be questioned from a Kantian point of view from which the personality provided by  transcendental self-consciousness provides a necessary condition for the recognition of any mental event[13]. Hume thus has no grounds to assume that comprehension of impersonal mental events is possible.


The second of Hume’s claims, that we cannot validly deduce the self from a succession of mental events, is stronger, suggesting that belief in a self is a matter of inductive reasoning which is necessarily fallible due to the fact that it does not consider possible conditions beyond its sphere of operation. Our inductive reasoning, Hume claims, considers the resemblance and causality which link mental events but falsely infers from this that all our mental events have the same, irreducible quality of personality and that causal links indicate identity between the linked mental events.


The balance between these two arguments appears to create an immovably inconclusive position in the philosophical sphere. We need to assume the synthesising self, creating an overall categorial field of understanding within which we differentiate objects[14], in order to make sense of our experience: yet at the same time we are not justified in thinking of these objects of experience as necessarily linked by an irreducible subject, since we cannot do so without committing an inductive fallacy. Another way of putting this is to say that Kant’s transcendental synthesising self appears to show the necessity of a dualistic perspective, yet this transcendental self has no experiential content[15] and thus is wholly divorced from our experience of ourselves as individuals. Yet if we adopt Hume’s reliance on particular experiences alone, we can make no sense of our belief in our own existence.


Where a purely philosophical argument here is not capable of conclusion, a psychological approach which assumes the ego as its point of departure can incorporate the acceptable points made both from the Kantian and the Humean perspectives. If it is assumed that desire is a necessary condition for our belief in the self, we can account for our experience of the continuity of the self without creating a metaphysical subject to do so, and on the other hand we can accept a categorial framework for our experience which is no longer empty because it can be understood as the means by which implicit beliefs are maintained[16]. In order to explain how this can be done it is necessary to first provide an account of the functioning of the ego.


The ego can be posited as the self-perpetuating process through which my desires are created and their fulfilment pursued. If we analyse desires to their smallest conceivable constituents (for the sake of argument rather than to suggest that these smallest constituents have a privileged level of existence), we could think of minimal, momentary desires in isolation. These minimal desires have little chance of fulfilment alone due to the requirement of effort over time, motivated by continuity of desire, in order to obtain that fulfilment, when a greater strength of desire may be needed than is provided by one of these minimal desires alone in order to provide enough energy to overcome the resistance which prevents the fulfilment of that desire. Desires thus have a stronger possibility of fulfilment[17] through association with other desires, so we can thus envisage the energy attached to a desire itself working to create such associations. Such associations can occur at two different levels, however, according to whether they are subjected to conscious assessment for consistency[18] or whether they merely consist in a looser grouping of desires which are not always coherent as a whole.


Desires associated at the lowest level then lead on through their own motivational force to further associations of desires, at increasing levels of intentional complexity, which then create what have often been called “higher-order” desires, attempting to obtain their fulfilment through longer-term planning. Of course many other conditions are required here (for example, biological and intellectual ones) in order to allow this creation of higher-order desires, though I do not intend to go into their nature here. But it is the federating force of desires rather than distinguishable cognitive or conative “higher order” functions which I take to be creative of the ego. “Ego” is a term for a co-ordinating higher-level desire enabling the fulfilment of many lower-level desires, the level of association corresponding to that which we conventionally think of as the individual. There is also, however, a looser association of desires linked indirectly to those which compose the ego, which I shall refer to, following Freudian and Jungian terminology, as the psyche.


Whenever the process of the association of desires takes place creating the ego, the unification of energies is likely to be imperfect. The association of the ego has taken place to make possible the fulfilment of individual minimal desires, yet not all the associating desires within the psyche may be focused on exactly the same fulfilment. Wherever an association of the ego takes place there is thus a residue of energies within the psyche which are not in harmony with the goals of the ego. These energies, in the terminology I shall adopt, are alienated energies. In the formation of the psyche there is only a broad harmony of the goals which sustain the individual with which that ego is associated: this broad harmony cannot be encapsulated conceptually or enshrined in a belief, but rather consists in a series of incremental links whereby entirely opposed goals may be encompassed within the same broad association. Alienated energies are part of the psyche but not under the control of the ego at any given time, as the crystallisation of belief which gives unity to the ego at that point excludes them. These alienated energies manifest themselves in our experience as contradictory desires, inconsistency and weakness of the will, and in the phenomena of the unconscious.


Neither the psyche nor the ego can be understood in static terms: rather they consist in a broader and a narrower form of association, the former beyond the range of immediate conceptual formulation, but the latter consisting in an immediate, potentially or actually self-conscious, set of desires united by a belief. The range of desires incorporated into the ego, however, may vary, drawing on the whole range of desires within the psyche but rarely on all of them, the intensity of the unified desire depending on the range of desires being drawn on.


It may be thought here that, even if the ego can be described in impersonal terms[19], the concept of the psyche is dependent on that of the self or of the individual mind. Certainly it is true that the concept of the psyche is coterminous with what is conventionally understood as the mind. However, I see this boundary as an entirely conventional one, not governed by any absolute distinction between my own mental processes and those of others. There are certainly no metaphysical grounds, as I have already mentioned, to regard the unconscious as “my” unconscious. The psyche is merely a loose confederation, within which the ego forms a constantly changing tighter federation: but the broader confederation itself  may be subject to accessions and secessions, incorporated from without or disincorporated back into the outside world. It is “defined” only by an incremental set of relationships rather than by definite rules of confederation.


I have also said nothing here about the relationship of the psyche to the physical body. I will take it that the physical body is (as far as we know) necessary to the existence of the psyche. It does not follow from this, however, that the psyche is necessarily limited by the individuation implied by the body, or that it must be defined with reference to the body or the individual brain. The impossibility of ruling out psychological reduction here implies that we can also neither accept nor reject physical reductionism a priori.


Much more could be said about desire, the ego and the psyche here, but I have said enough for the moment to provide a background for further hypotheses about the psychology of belief, which is in turn essential background for a consideration of the philosophies of eternalism and nihilism. I shall say much more about some of the issues that could be raised regarding this understanding of desire in chapters 5 and 7, but for the moment will return to the question of the ego only in relation to belief.


In the process of enabling desires to be pursued, the formation of beliefs occurs in order to provide a cognitive framework for action. In relation to immediate desires and actions, such as in my earlier example of attack by a wild beast, this cognitive framework is relatively simple, involving beliefs such as the fact that one is being attacked and that defending oneself or running away would best serve the desire for self-preservation. Such a cognitive framework may be assumed to be present in an animal[20]. The cognitive framework formed in association with the ego as a whole, though, is much more complex, and might be understood as a set of categorial assumptions in Kantian terms. Thus it might be thought that the ego does after all imply Kant’s transcendental self. However, this view assumes that the ego provides the only possible level of knowledge at which we can posit a categorial schema. This level of categorisation may be necessary to the ego, which dualistically differentiates itself as discontinuous from the remainder of the psyche, but is contingent when considered in relation to other levels of desire found in the psyche. A continuous and incremental account of desire, when recognised as interdependent with belief, implies the possibility of a continuous and incremental categorial framework. Such a framework must be Dualistic but not dualistic, implying that dualising categories are a transcendental requirement for our experience but not that our experience is limited to any particular set of dualising categories. As our ego-identifications change, so do our categories, and thus the belief that the ego, defined in terms of our desires at a given point in time, must be schematically constitutive of all possible experience is false.


The ego can thus be wholly identified neither with the Kantian transcendental self nor with the empirical self that Hume denies, for it is necessary in the sense that beliefs are necessary to provide a framework for desires to seek their fulfilment, yet not necessary in the form of any one particular set of categorial beliefs, since a range of possible beliefs could be instrumental in fulfilling the same desires, and the range of desires associated with a belief are also constantly changing. From both the transcendental and the empirical standpoints the self does exist in the impermanent, psycho-dynamic form of the ego, but not in a transcendentally or empirically fixed metaphysical form.


It might then be argued that even if the possibility of varying levels of schematisation were admitted, all of these levels would still involve a more basic necessary schematisation. If this is the case, however, we are not in a position to know what this universal schema is since we would have to have access to different non-universal schemata from our own to establish that the proposed universal schema was actually universal. As Körner argues in detail in a paper that can be taken to support this view[21], no transcendental deduction can demonstrate its own uniqueness.




iv)                The nature of dualistic belief processes


Both of the preceding two sub-sections attempt to make provisionally clear the premises of the psychological characterisation of dualism which I shall now begin. For I shall argue that the dualist argument, though it may often be put in purely philosophical terms, involves unrecognised psychological premises. The tendency not to give due recognition to premises is itself an expression of a type of belief process which can be generally, though not necessarily or sufficiently, linked with dualism as a philosophical position.


As I have explained above, I take all belief to be necessarily conditioned by desire. Whilst the degree of force attached to a desire contributing to the formation of a belief may remain constant (or vary according to other conditions), however, my hypothesis is that the relationship between belief and experience may vary according to the level of association at which that desire is operating. At the lowest levels of association, that we can take as typical of animals or very young children, beliefs are formulated only in relation to a very limited field of experience, and little or no comparison between different fields of experience even of the same individual is made. Whilst beliefs formed at any level are not necessarily conceptualised, the inability of animals and very young children to conceptualise their experience clearly makes it more difficult for them to reach broader inductive conclusions which might help to make particular experiences form part of a consistent whole.


At a more advanced level of the association of desire, however, we gain the capacity both to conceptualise and to compare different aspects of our experience. Since our desires have associated more fully we have also become more ambitious, able to seek the fulfilment of desires which require the overcoming of more resistance over longer periods. In order to engage in these more ambitious projects, we also have to broaden our attention to be aware of a broader range of conditions which might support or resist the fulfilment of our desires. A small bird, continually pausing to glance around as it eats, is only looking for a very narrow range of stimuli which might pose a danger to it, but an artist looking at the same landscape as the bird is open to a whole range of colours, shapes and textures which are all objects of his attention within the framework of a much larger purpose.


The ego thus gives rise to two distinct but equally necessary stages of the process of belief-formation which exist to mutual benefit but also in tension with each other. These can be described as the stage of theorisation and the stage of  observation: giving them in that order does not imply that theorisation is necessarily prior to observation either logically or temporally. Both these stages can occur at varying levels of consciousness and with varying degrees of complexity. Theorisations can consist in beliefs which are unconscious and entirely implicit, but the use of theorisations becomes relatively far more effective in the fulfilment of desires the more it becomes conscious and explicit.


Although we thus gain the capacity to formulate beliefs in a manner which balances these two stages, I have already mentioned that the formation of the ego usually involves the presence of a distorting influence, namely the presence of  alienated desires within the psyche which are not in harmony with the overall goals of the desires associated in the ego. These alienated desires may express themselves in the phenomena of weakness of will and inconsistency, where the beliefs adopted by the ego to provide the cognitive grounds of action for the fulfilment of its desires are temporarily supplanted by different beliefs in accordance with different desires: for example, my belief that giving up smoking for the long-term benefit of my health is more important than the temporary enjoyment of a cigarette may temporarily change into a more hedonistic belief that short-term enjoyment is more important, under the impact of a desire for a cigarette. My hypothesis, however, is that alienated desires do not only express themselves in these more obvious ways. Where a belief is already well-established by the ego and has formed the practical basis of action, it may not be so easy to suspend as in this example. If I had spent many years as an anti-smoking campaigner , I would have too much to lose by temporarily modifying my beliefs about the importance of avoiding smoking to give way to my desire for a cigarette, yet nevertheless there might be energies within me which are not in harmony with the desires that my anti-smoking beliefs express.


At the egoistic level, then, these alienated desires express themselves, according to my hypothesis, by disrupting the balance between observation and theorisation. The goals of the ego are best achieved through the balancing of observation and theorisation, allowing the maximal amount of conditions to be taken into account in any given situation which are also compatible with effective action in that situation. Observation in an open and receptive fashion allows the maximum of conditions to be taken into account, yet too much attention to observation in any given situation may prevent effective action, as action requires as a precondition not just observation but formulated beliefs in relation to which the method of gaining a particular goal can be understood. Theorisation forms a consistent basis for action in which all the relevant observations are conceptualised and generalised, making it clearer which kind of actions will be most effective at achieving the desired goals. Yet too much attention to theorisation also restricts the effectiveness of action, perhaps preventing it from succeeding at all, because beliefs have been over-hastily formulated on the basis of relatively little observation, making it likely that some of the relevant conditions will have been ignored and that they will subsequently interfere with the achievement of the goals of the action. In order to disrupt the achievement of the goals of the ego, then, alienated desires can express themselves subtly by bringing about an over-emphasis either on theorisation or on observation. In doing this they can continue to exert power even when they are excluded from the dominant cognitive framework.


Should we understand this as a sort of demonic sabotage, with the designs of the ego being thwarted from the unconscious? This is certainly a traditional religious way of understanding the process[22]. However, it may seem less far-fetched if we simply envisage a mismanaged group of workers in a factory: one group is not actively sabotaging what the other does so much as just not being sufficiently aware of it to co-operate effectively. If two groups are each manufacturing different components for the same finished product, it may then be found that the components do not fit together or work as planned. Each group is then inclined to blame the other for manufacturing the other component wrongly, but from a broader view both are to blame for not taking the other’s view of the finished product into account. An allegorical interpretation of this analogy can then liken the finished product to the belief, and the effectiveness of that product to its degree of coherence with experience, whilst one group of workers is the ego and the other the alienated desires. The process of production engaged in by one set of workers is observation, the other theorisation. From the point of view of the ego the alienated desires are evil and the only good plan (which has not been coherently followed) is that of the ego: but from the point of view of the alienated desires it might just as well be put the other way round.


The ego thus, by producing a strong temporary association of desires, necessarily also excludes alienated desires in the psyche. In moving beyond the merely egoistic level we begin to integrate those desires. Not all the resources of the psyche will be employed on the same task, and thus we can expect inefficiency in the shape of an over-application of energy to one area and an under-application to another. To speak of the ego, then, is to speak of an achievement in associating desires up to the level where theorisation is possible, but it is simultaneously to speak of a limitation whereby those desires are not fully integrated (even within the psyche, let alone beyond it), so that the process of theorisation will be imperfect in relation to observation. It is in this respect that I want to suggest the ego is still subjective (in a sense opposed to the sense of ‘objective’ I gave in the introduction), even whilst it provides the conditions for objectivity in the shape of a balancing of observation and theorisation. 


The over-emphasising of theorisation or of observation as an expression of the limitations of the ego, then, is what I shall put forward as the psychological basis of dualism. Of course any kind of process for the formation of beliefs at or near the level of the ego is Dualistic (in the provisional sense that it includes subject and distinct objects as part of its theorisation). Within this Dualism as measured from an absolute level, however, we can distinguish psychological processes which reinforce Dualism by strengthening the tendency to separate subject from object from those which support movement beyond the egoistic level of desire-association. I am suggesting that an over-emphasis either on theorisation or on observation has a tendency to reinforce Dualism, and thus be dualistic.


Of these two alternatives the first is an over-emphasis on theorisation in the process of belief-formation, meaning that an over-strong commitment to the truth of a  particular pre-conceptualisation leads to insufficient receptivity in ensuring that experience really does match theory. This means that attention is narrowed in such a way as to ignore possible experience which might challenge pre-conceptualisation. This reinforces Dualism by allowing an attachment to particular beliefs to become incorporated into the ego, thus allowing desire to assume an increasing proportion of the causal input to belief, experience less. Since this desire stems from the egoistic level of association, it is this level which comes to dominate the ensuing expressions of belief, insufficiently modified by experience.


The second of the two alternatives is an over-emphasis on observation. When over-emphasised at the expense of theorisation this rarely means “observation” as we would commonly use the term, which involves fairly strong pre-conceptions about what is to be observed and a fruitful relationship with theorisation. Instead it means passivity due to lack of commitment to any positive view, in its strongest form involving absorption in a passive form of sensual enjoyment – a purely aesthetic mentality. This passivity may be weakly defended through scepticism about beliefs, or it may just involve an acceptance of the beliefs current in one’s environment. In this case a dualistic tendency is reinforced because of an egoistic attachment to sensual experience rather than belief: but as with an over-emphasis on theorisation, desire is allowed to assume an increasing proportion of the causal input to belief. Experience which is effectively structured by provisional beliefs is still under-emphasised in proportion to desire as a causal influence.


The tendency to over-emphasise observation must be carefully distinguished from empiricism, or any other belief which emphasises the value of experience as the basis of forming beliefs. I shall argue later (in chapter 4) that empiricism in fact tends to over-emphasise certain theorisations about how experience should be interpreted. It therefore belongs more in the group of those having the former tendency than the latter: but these comments must also be read in the light of what I shall say in 2.c about the relationship between the psychology of dualism and dualistic philosophies. At the psychological level we are concerned with the observations which actually occur and their degree of objectivity, rather than with theories about how observation ought to occur, as at the philosophical level.


According to this account, then, the psychological process by which dualism perpetuates itself is twofold: it might be briefly summarised as a dogmatic tendency and a sceptical tendency. Though there is a very loose correspondence between these two tendencies and eternalism and nihilism respectively, the picture of the relationship between the two opposed psychological tendencies and the philosophical ones is much more complex than this, so I would not wish to identify them too firmly at this stage. It is more important to understand the dogmatic and sceptical tendencies as together creating a dualism which can be contrasted with the Middle Way leading in the direction of non-dualism, which can in turn be seen in a provisional psychological form here as a balance between theorisation and observation.

v)                  Some evidence from social psychology


I have as yet made no specific attempt to justify the hypotheses put forward in the above sections, apart from through the philosophical arguments about the self in section iii above. I shall later have recourse to many philosophical arguments of a similar structure to those, in which the inconclusive and contradictory nature of dualistic philosophical arguments are opposed to the possibility of progress through the non-dualistic Middle Way. However, in this subsection and the following section I shall turn to empirically-based arguments which appear to give further prima facie support to the understanding of the dualistic process of belief I have described. In this subsection I shall briefly mention its relation to experimental social psychology.


The egoistic grounds of belief may be seen as a truism of the social sciences[23], but within the dualistic framework which dominates that field of enquiry the explanation of the phenomena of empathy and altruism appear to remain a puzzle, since neither an egoistic nor a  non-egoistic theory of human nature will precisely match the available evidence[24]. Melvin J. Lerner[25], however, gives an interesting account of motivation in social interaction, not simply as based on calculations of self-interest, but as based on the defence of a cognitive model that he calls “belief in a just world”. Experimental results which appear to show that calculating egoism continually modifies our empathetic responses, he claims, can also be interpreted to show the near-universality of  this cognitive model. This “belief in a just world” primarily produces philosophical expressions which are eternalist and which I shall be examining in the next chapter, but as a psychological tendency it appears to correspond to what I have described as an over-emphasis on theorisation, particularly as applied to evaluations of the status and actions of others.


Lerner offers an account of why we understand the world through this veil of preconceived beliefs, but not solely in terms of desires at the egoistic level: rather he sees some of our immediate responses as being non-egoistic, empathetic ones, but our dependence on the “belief in a just world” as a modification of these responses to reconcile them “realistically” with the demands of the ego (allowing us, for example, to blame victims rather than helping them on the grounds that they deserve it). He also accounts for the tendency to hold the opposite view, which he calls the “No-nonsense-cut-the-crap-it’s-a-tough-world-out-there charade” as a superficial denial of the “belief in a just world” in the face of contradictory experience, which in fact protects that belief from challenge: an account which is consistent with my view of the role of a tendency to over-emphasise observation (when applied to social interaction), provided that we understand the attachment to sense-experiences as articulated in a form of belief which may swing us back towards an emphasis on theorisation for the sake of defending that attachment. Altogether Lerner appears to offer some strong support to my account of dualistic belief and to the view that whilst we are heavily dependent on egoistic strategies these do not determine the entirety of our experiences and beliefs.


My claims here, however, are not limited to the field of beliefs which relate to social interaction, but are also applicable to the field of belief in science and its justification. Thus in the next section I shall examine the problem of the justification of belief as it has appeared in the philosophy of science and argue that, just as Lerner’s approach to social psychology is consistent with my claims about the nature of belief, so the most sophisticated approaches to the philosophy of science indicate that those tendencies in forming belief that I have identified as supporting dualism are also those which are least successful in the process of scientific discovery, whilst the Middle Way approach is typical of successful science. This will also provide an understanding of the heuristic process which I also wish to apply later in the positive justification of the theory of the Middle Way. After this process, although my assertions about belief will remain a hypothesis, it should become a much strengthened one which can be used more effectively as a basis for understanding philosophical positions on the grounds of ethics.


[1] My use of the term “unconscious” here is provisional, since in the light of later discussions of the nature of ego and psyche it will become clearer than it is not consciousness but identification which defines the ego, and thus that the kind of dualist objection I am responding to here may rely on some justifiable worries about the unconscious as used as a theoretical device by Freud (see 4.h.v). Nevertheless, areas of the mind that we do not identify with are often likely to be ones we are unconscious of, so that the initial dogmatic dismissal of the latter is also likely to involve a dismissal of the former. I thus need to deal with this initial argument at an early stage in order to be able to proceed to discussion which provides a more adequate basis on which to resolve more justifiable doubts about the unconscious.  

[2] For an attempt to account for the phenomena of the mind whilst avoiding these metaphysical assumptions, see 6.b.iii

[3] I shall not attempt here to refer to the massive amount of psychoanalytic literature which attempts to show the usefulness of this hypothesis. MacIntyre (1958) gives a philosophical defence of it with some reservations.

[4] See 6.c.i & iii

[5] My justification for this usage is that “necessary” is used in the discussion of causation in two distinct ways, one of which I still wish to draw upon. The first suggests a priori necessity, the second merely a continuing distinction between contributory, necessary, and sufficient types of causality which may be based purely on inductive generalisation. Although contributory causes are never necessary in the first sense, it seems that necessary and/or sufficient causality can be asserted either on a priori or a posteriori grounds. 

[6] E.g. “Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these…” (Marx 1977 p.164)

[7] See for example Rahula (1990) p.30.

[8] See my remarks on pa­´ccasamuppŒda in 10.ii.

[9] A widely influential understanding most explicitly formulated by the YogacŒra school: see Williams (1989) ch.4. This view is often linked with assumptions about karma and rebirth which I discuss in 10.iii.

[10] See 10.ii

[11] See 6.a.iii on the kind of distinction referred to.

[12] Hume (1888)

[13] See Strawson (1966) p.93-108

[14] See Kant (1929) A182-189 for the related argument here that the assumption of substantial objects is a further necessary condition for the comprehension of our experience.

[15] Ibid. A107

[16] See 3.g and 4.h.ii

[17] The “possibility of fulfilment” here is to be understood as possibility within the sphere of belief associated with the desires under discussion. It should not be read so as to imply that the possibility, or probability, of fulfilment necessarily increases in any absolutely objective sense due to association.

[18] Such conscious assessment need not take place at a particularly high level of awareness, and the consistency may not necessarily involve self-conscious rational comparison so much as merely the ability to utilise a memory to fulfil a habitual function in fulfilment of a desire (see 5.b.i).

[19] The impersonal terms here are not used with the purpose of showing the impersonality of the mind, but only of showing that it cannot be understood in wholly personal terms. The explanation in terms of ego and psyche is neither personal nor impersonal but compatible with a metaphysical agnosticism.

[20] See 5.b.i

[21] Körner (1967)

[22] For example, in the story of the Gadarene swine (Matthew 8:28-34) or in the Buddha’s victory over Mara in gaining enlightenment (A§vagho·a 1972 §xiii).

[23] See for example Hatfield (1980), quoted by Lerner (1980) p.174

[24] See Lerner (1980) chs.10 & 11

[25] Ibid.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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