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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 5d - Integration and belief)

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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d)      Integration and belief


i)                    Belief, desire, meaning and stream-entry


I now move, then, to the third of the three interdependent levels at which psychological integration can take place: that of belief. My main task will consist in relating the material in Part 1, where the nature and implications of dualist beliefs were the focus, with the model of integration outlined in the two preceding sections.


A belief consists in any explicit or implicit representation of the universe or self which is taken to be true: though in order to distinguish between implicit beliefs and mere patterns of behaviour it is necessary to specify theoretically that implicit beliefs must be capable of explicit expression, even though no clear rational criteria are available for distinguishing such a theoretical capability in any particular case. Cats and computers may well be capable of implicit beliefs (or they may just exhibit patterns of behaviour which fool us into thinking that they have), but to argue whether or not they have some clear criterion for it such as “intentionality” or “semantic capability” must be merely speculative.  If a belief consists in a representation it is obviously dependent on a representational defeasibility context, making beliefs the exclusive preserve of those who use representational language, and even if it is not always clear who that includes, it is clear that it includes most adult human beings. If you exhibit some explicit beliefs, and you also act on the assumption that some other, unexpressed, states of affairs are true, then it would normally be true to say that you implicitly believe in the truth of those states of affairs and are capable of making those beliefs explicit.


Not all beings with egos thus have beliefs, but I shall suggest that beliefs are required for integration. So if it turns out that I am wrong in estimating a particular person (or being) to be capable of making their beliefs explicit, then they are not capable of integration. Beliefs are required for integration because, as I explained in 2.a.iv, they enable coherent theorisations about the universe to be made, which can then be compared with experience, starting us on the heuristic process. The heuristic process is essential for integration because it is the means by which we increasingly gain both coherent and foundationally correct (i.e. based on the sceptical limitation of all views) assumptions on which to base our actions. Both coherence and negative foundational correctness may enable desires to be integrated as the incoherence and falsity of egoistic defences are exposed through the incoherence and falsity of their correlative beliefs.


I have already suggested that desire and meaning are interdependent, in that progress in the integration of one cannot be made without simultaneous progress with the other. I have also suggested that integration of belief does not necessarily follow from integration of meaning. In 2.c.ii I also suggested that belief and desire are not necessarily related except in the distinction between dualism and non-dualism, because this distinction consists in the formation of an implicit view about the relative truth of beliefs and desires (i.e. of philosophy and psychology): fully non-dualist beliefs are thus linked to non-dualist desires and vice-versa, because a non-dualist belief is a belief about the limitation of beliefs in representing the truth, and hence the superiority of a non-representational experience of the integration of desires over any possible representational belief.


This “non-representational experience” is nothing other than the psychological component to provisionality of belief, vainly sought by the Classical Sceptics who instead tended to resort to conventional beliefs[22]. Since this psychological component cannot be rationally defined, it cannot be a formulable state of belief, but rather it needs to accompany states of belief which satisfy the rational demands of Scepticism. It consists, I suggest, in the integration of desire and meaning: and non-dualist beliefs cannot be systematically held without this integration being present to an extent sufficient to support those beliefs.


The systematic implicit and explicit holding of non-dualist beliefs, providing the entirety of the cognitive basis on which we interpret our experience, corresponds to a recognisable point on the path to total integration known in traditional Buddhism as “stream-entry” or “The arising of insight”[23]. At this point, our beliefs are fully integrated, but our desires and meaning not yet so, although they must also have reached a fairly advanced state of integration. This means that we actually  cease to identify with or even implicitly maintain correct representational beliefs: all beliefs become pragmatically motivated and are thus subordinated to the attainment of fully integrated desires and meanings. We no longer have fixed views of our own nature and of the universe, attempting to mould one to the other, but adopt the beliefs appropriate to the goal of integration in our particular situated state.


Our beliefs thus become integrated at a point earlier than our desires and meaning, because their cognitive nature makes them capable of a kind of completeness prior to that of desires and meaning. Whilst the possibility of the absolute integration of desire and meaning remains in doubt, that of belief remains clearly possible at the point where it becomes self-limiting. Beyond this point I cannot attain beliefs which are any more accurate or any closer to truth.


Such a view obviously depends on a pragmatic rather than a representational view of truth, since on a representational view (or at least one that takes Scepticism seriously) the most we can hope for is an imperfect isomorphism between representation and reality: it seems that we could carry on touching up the picture indefinitely as we find out more. On a fully pragmatist view of truth, however, we reach a point where our beliefs are maximally adapted to make the most appropriate representational assumptions in a given context to support our dispositional rather than representational objectivity. This maximally appropriate adaptation consists in the absence of any positive or negative beliefs about representational isomorphism, leaving the ego without its dualising defences (which separate experience into accepted and rejected objects on the grounds of their supposed intrinsic qualities).


Of the three levels at which integration can be considered, then, that of belief is perhaps the most important, because it is essential for progress in integration up to the level of stream-entry. Through the integration of belief we can deprive the ego of its prime weapons - dualistic and representational beliefs – and thus when this has occurred it apparently becomes only a matter of time before desire and meaning becomes fully integrated (though we do not know how much time). It is as though, after a war so long and bloody that no-one can remember how long it has been going on, the political leaders have at last got together and made peace. They send messages through the armies to cease hostilities, and the supplies of weapons and munitions cease: but not all the soldiers hear this or obey it straight away, and many of them are so used to endless fighting that they cannot really understand the idea of peace. A lot of them carry on fighting nevertheless, and it is only gradually that the war comes to an end. Even decades afterwards, perhaps isolated soldiers can be found who think the war is still going on. Here of course, the soldiers represent the desires, which only gradually give up their fruitless conflict and become integrated, whilst the integrated beliefs are represented by the command structure which they only gradually come to obey[24].


The conditions by which desire and meaning remain more or less integrated thus maintain some independence from the similar conditions affecting belief. This is because belief, relying only on representational forms of meaning, can cast ahead and create the conditions for integrative action by re-interpreting the environment which stimulates those actions. There are limitations to how far belief can cast ahead because it must occur in a context of meaning: when it tries to extend beyond a currently accepted defeasibility context it tends to run into paradoxes, which at best only serve to make us aware of the need to extend our defeasibility context. However, as I have already suggested, within any given defeasibility context there is room for disagreement of beliefs, even if there are some beliefs (which are, at least implicitly, beliefs about what is meaningful) which must be shared in any given defeasibility context.


In conditions where belief remains dualist, beliefs can merely contradict each other within a given defeasibility context. But if belief  becomes non-dualist it can create the conditions to break through to a new defeasibility context by questioning the beliefs about meaning which define the limitations of the previous one. Once such a breakthrough has been made, though, a further integration of beliefs may be required to make them all consistent with the implications of the new sphere of accepted meaning. Meaning thus advances through the pivotal action of belief, whilst belief advances through the pivotal action of meaning. An asymmetry of integration may thus exist between them at any time, leading up to the final asymmetry at the point of stream-entry, where belief has gained full integration by completely dissolving the beliefs on which the duality between meanings and desires is sustained.


Whilst all this may help to clarify the key conceptual relationships between belief, desire and meaning, I have actually said little as yet about the integration of belief as an incremental process in parallel to the integrations of desire and meaning. Its incremental nature is far more important to my case than whether, for example, stream-entry occurs or not. It appears entirely consistent with my hypothesis that it does, but this may be of no more than theoretical significance. Just as it is possible that no-one has ever gained complete integration of desires (or enlightenment), so it is also possible that no-one has ever gained complete integration of belief (or stream-entry), but the representational truth of either of these possibilities is irrelevant to the pragmatic truth of non-dualism. The remainder of this section will thus be devoted to an examination of the conditions surrounding the incremental integration of belief.



ii)                  Doubt


As in the cases of desire and meaning, the integration of belief is best approached by an appreciation of the conditions creating a lack of integration of belief. The term I use to denote the lack of integration of belief is borrowed directly from the Buddhist tradition: doubt, translating the Pali term vicikicchŒ. As such, it is the intellectual correlate of frustration. Just as frustration consists in the lack of complete satisfaction due to the subjugation of alternative desires and the definition of goals by the ego, so doubt consists in the lack of complete confidence in our beliefs due to the ego’s subjugation of alternative beliefs. Doubt in this sense does not merely consist in our moments of conscious uncertainty or “ordinary doubt” as to the status of our beliefs within a particular defeasibility context: such doubt can be resolved by the appeal to conventionally-acceptable evidence within that defeasibility context (in Wittgenstein’s terms, this is certainty within a language-game). Rather it is more akin to “sceptical doubt”, although it is by no means limited to those who discuss the Sceptical questions of philosophy. It consists in an ever-present shadow which limits our confidence: the possibility of being wrong in a sense which would undermine the fragile view of ourselves and the representational world-view with which we identify. 


Doubt in this sense does not necessarily produce doubting feelings or doubting behaviour: rather the hint of uncertainty can produce a dogmatism which trenchantly fails to come to terms with it. Dualistic responses to doubt thus tend to consist either in its acceptance (scepticism) or its denial (dogmatism): the former stressing the evidence for a plurality of interpretations of experience, and the latter the unity of experience. In either case, however, the presence of  doubt has prevented the development of confidence[25]. Confidence, in the particular sense I shall give it (again, derived from a traditional Buddhist sense) consists in the integration of belief, providing a balanced type of provisional assertion to which the representational truth or falsity of what is asserted becomes increasingly irrelevant. In a state of confidence I am concerned with the integrated assertion of all the ends of my psyche through a heuristic process, which includes the provisional recognition of both truth and falsity within the framework of the same overall intention. In a state of doubt, however, I am concerned only with whether my beliefs, more narrowly understood, are true or not: the possibility of a threat to their truth produces a constant source of anxiety in the background.


Such anxiety is another instance of the defensiveness of the ego. When under its influence, I am unable to recognise the voices of desires beyond the ego, which offer dissension from the dominant positive or negative belief (which is either that my dogmatic view is correct despite the respects in which experience could be understood differently, or that all views are equally wrong and thus that the positive indications offered by experience are false). The ego-limitations promoted by the lack of integration of belief thus result in a narrowing of focus in the interpretation of experience. “Doubt”, then, consists in the state of instability and defensiveness created by this narrowing.


As such it is a constant hindrance in our application to any task we have decided upon. Rather than having a full acceptance of the belief-assumptions on which the task is based for the duration of that task, we have a partial and insecure acceptance which leads to the arising of disruptive thoughts. For example, suppose that in pursuing a certain educational course which I have opted for, I have to do a piece of writing. But I cannot settle my mind on it because of various doubts: whether I have the ability to do the work, whether the teaching on the course is good enough and therefore whether I have the right materials to do the task, whether the task itself is well-composed, whether the course is of any value, whether the qualification it leads to will be of any subsequent use. All of these may have been very appropriate questions to ask before embarking on the course, or perhaps they may even be worth discussing with the tutors during the course if my initial expectations have been left badly unfulfilled: at these points I might focus on weighing up the evidence of my experience in relation to these questions. But in fact, when trying to engage in doing the writing, these questions are taking the form of distracting doubts which merely prevent me from doing the task which I have chosen to do, because they interfere with my provisional acceptance of the conditions in which it is done.


This type of mental state is not likely to be much changed by a strong dogmatic commitment to a universal value which the more specific task is supposed to serve. Suppose for example that the educational course takes place in a seminary and is in theology. Perhaps I am taking it because of my feeling of vocation to be a priest. But nevertheless, I have a good deal of scope for doubting the relationship between the eternalist value and the more particular belief-assumptions which frame the specific task. The eternalist value, even if I refuse to entertain any doubts about it, may still throw more specific and practical value assumptions into a contrasting sphere of doubt relative to it. Is the course actually fulfilling the will of God? Does that slightly challenging, thoughtful theology lecturer have a dangerous leaning towards atheism? Does God really want me to be doing this?


Doubt is thus not reduced by dogmatic assertion, but rather increased, even if it does not take the form of an immediate challenge to core convictions. It manifests itself in an inability to accept provisionality because of the presence of disruptive desires beyond the ego. When caught up in doubt, I neither take the doubting questions seriously and work out their implications systematically, nor am able to avoid the questions. If I do take doubt seriously, however, I am to some extent also recognising frustration and fragmentation of meaning, as I recognise that my egoistic belief is not operating so as to fulfil my desires. Such recognition is difficult, but vital to any step forward into confidence or the integration of beliefs.


iii)                Confidence


As will be seen from my account of doubt, “confidence” as a contrasting state does not merely consist in the unintegrated dogmatic belief which we might sometimes mistake for it. Rather, it is the incremental attainment of the integration of belief. The greater this integration, the more effectively we are able to engage in a genuine heuristic process, because we are not merely confident in the immediate beliefs which justify our actions, but in the whole context of investigation as one which maximises objectivity from our specific standpoint in time and space. This integrated confidence has a large affective as well as cognitive component, because as it develops it removes the emotional baggage of doubt and allows more effective concentration on the development of integrated beliefs.


Far from being in conflict with provisionality of belief, confidence is thus released by that provisionality and in turn supports it. For I am able to be confident only to the extent that I am actually released from dualistic anxieties about the representational status of my beliefs: whether this representational status is scientific, moral or merely social. As I am released from representational anxieties, my values become less dispersed and focus increasingly on pragmatic integrational goals. This does not mean that I have necessarily abandoned representational models altogether as yet: but to the extent that I have attained confidence I will have set some intermediate representational goal which integrates my beliefs (probably together with desires and meanings) which I will pursue without further recourse to representational anxieties. For example, if I decide to try out a  meditation practice[26] for a certain time, in pursuit of a limited goal (such as the alleviation of stress that is interfering with my scientific work), I am only likely to be successful in this goal if I can confidently dismiss scientistic doubts about the meaning or verifiability of the language used in explanations of meditative experience. Without the use of some such language, I will be greatly impeded in learning how to meditate effectively. This does not mean that such scientistic doubts cannot be discussed and allayed (as I have attempted to do in chapter 4), but that this process must take place in the context of a systematic psycho-philosophical investigation, rather than the unsystematic context of an activity which requires a strictly pragmatic focus of concentration.


If a certain release from our dualistic anxieties is required even to set ourselves intermediate representational goals, it may appear that there is a deterministic discontinuity in our ability to pursue integration of belief. If I am simply mired in doubt, what can I do about it? But this type of analysis of the situation itself reveals an unnecessary narrowness in which determinism is merely being used as an instrument of egoistic defensiveness. “I” may feel that I lack the confidence to even begin to move beyond my current lack of integration, but at the same time other types of belief will be present in the psyche which this self-perpetuating circle of doubt closes off. I only need to apply a different conceptual model to this dualist one to begin to feel differently about the situation as well as see it differently. This is the respect in which belief can spring ahead of desire and meaning (or meaning, with associated desire, spring ahead of belief), with an imaginative exploration of differing scenarios enabling different possibilities of belief and/or meaning to be examined. This provisionality in imaginative exploration itself offers a development in confidence, to be further cultivated through the more definite acceptance of a provisional basis for integrative action.


This confidence is entirely continuous with wisdom, where wisdom consists in the systematic adoption of non-dualism at the point of stream-entry described earlier in this section. Neither consists in any specific representational knowledge, and both unite cognitive and affective factors, the main difference being that at the point of wisdom intermediate representational goals have been dispensed with: the focus of confidence now becomes the whole of the psyche and its integrated representations.


In traditional Buddhism confidence is often described (as saddha) in terms of a representational faith in the Buddha and doctrines of Buddhism, although the justification of such faith is itself explained  in terms of the confirmation offered by experience[27]: whilst such an explanation shows a recognition of the need for intermediate representational objects of confidence before non-dualism is fully adopted, it perhaps conveys a rather inflexible impression of the nature of those objects. For intermediate representational objects of belief, being justified only by their function in supporting the development of systematic non-dualistic belief, could conceivably take any form. For example, they could take the form of scientific theories on whose truth we rely in predicting the natural processes of our environment or enabling the construction of technological devices which we utilise: these remain subsidiary, but necessarily in the background when we engage in integrative actions. They could consist in beliefs about the trustworthiness of a person, or about economic processes, all of which, to a situated person, are unavoidable corollaries of many actions: although these beliefs are not specifically non-dualist, it is necessary to encompass them confidently (which also implies provisionally) to pursue non-dualism.[28]


Although, as I have argued in many instances in Part 1, it is possible to hold non-dualist beliefs superficially, unsystematically and hence dualistically, it is not possible to hold specifically dualist beliefs with confidence due to their dogmatic or sceptical basis. As explained in the last subsection, the effect of these doctrines is to perpetuate doubt. Insofar as doubt interrupts any sustained task, we need its opposite, confidence, to engage in such tasks effectively. In this respect all my remarks about the integration of belief in relation to non-dualism apply, mutatis mutandis, to any task within a sphere of coherence, even one framed by dualism. But as soon as we start shifting the boundaries of consideration outwards, allowing for the whole context of the task, it starts to become more evident that dualistic belief is limiting the effectiveness of the task through narrow definition of its goal and alienation of some of the resources of the psyche that could be devoted to it. It is then clear that doubt has not been removed by such beliefs nor confidence developed.


The implications of this lead us back to the epistemological concerns which will be more fully clarified in the next chapter. We gain only the limited and superficial “confidence” of dogmatism from coherence alone – the sort of “confidence” offered by scientism. Likewise foundationalism alone, offering an apparently solid ground of value, offers “confidence”. But the brittleness of these affective states is in proportion to the limitation of their heuristic value. Both coherence and foundationalism are needed for the full development of confidence and thus for effective investigation.


[22] See 4.b.i

[23] In the traditional accounts stream-entry is defined as the breaking of the first three fetters (samyojana): a substantialist view of the self (sakkayaditthi), sceptical doubt (vicikiccha) and dependence on external observances (silabbataparamasa) (see Majjhima Nikaya i. 141-2 & i. 432). All of these could be seen as dispositions to either negative or positive metaphysical beliefs, with the first being particularly characteristic of eternalism, the second of nihilism, and the third dependent upon the first. These three fetters are also interdependent (for example, all depend on doubt, as explained in the next subsection). The remaining seven fetters which are said to lie between stream-entry and enlightenment can be interpreted as indicating remaining interdependent features of unintegrated desire and meaning.

[24] This metaphor, like any other, has its limitations: the particular danger to be avoided here is the adoption of the idea of belief as will. The soldiers do not obey the command not because of recalcitrant wills, but because of lack of understanding of the full implications of what they believe.

[25] A translation of the Pali saddha, sometimes misleadingly rendered as “faith”.

[26] See 5.e for more details of the relationship between meditation practices and integration.

[27] E.g. in Sangharakshita (1977 p.112), who defines saddha first as a hesitant stirring of the emotions, placing the heart “on the Unconditioned”, but then “as it grows stronger, and as its object comes more clearly into focus, it develops into saddha proper, that is to say into faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha….Taken in this more definite sense  saddha  may be defined as the heartfelt acknowledgement of the fact that the historical personality Gautama is the Buddha or Enlightened One, grounded, firstly on the intuitive response that arises out of the depth of our heart by reason of the affinity existing between His actual and our potential Buddhahood, and secondly on the sensible evidence and rational proofs of His Enlightenment afforded us by the records of His life and Teachings.”

[28] Issues are raised in this paragraph about the use of moral traditions and the trustworthiness of individuals which will be pursued  in chapter 8.


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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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