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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 6c - Verification and falsification)

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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c)      Verification and falsification

i)                    Verification and falsification incrementalised


On the basis of the account of the incrementalisation of dualisms in the preceding section, I shall now return to a question which was put off in section a of this chapter – namely that of exactly how and to what extent non-dualism and the Middle Way can be verified or falsified. Since their lack of relationship to experience formed one of my key criticisms of the metaphysical claims of dualism, a positive account needs to be given of how non-dualism offers a positive alternative in this respect.


To begin this account, some attempt needs to be made to reconsider the meaning of the terms “verification” and “falsification” in the light of the foregoing arguments. For both terms appear, at least in their less sophisticated formulations, to be based upon metaphysical discontinuities, particularly on metaphysical realism. To verify a proposition is to show its relationship with representational reality, whilst to falsify it is to show its lack of relationship with representational reality. In either of these cases, a proposition is either verified or falsified or it is not, according to whether it has fulfilled fixed criteria which impose a discontinuity on experience. This, of course, also allows the equally metaphysical relativist response of claiming that no verification or falsification is possible[26].


This crude conception of verification or falsification has already been surpassed in the work of some modern philosophers of science such as Lakatos and Kuhn, but in the absence of a clear rationale for a non-metaphysical strategy based on pragmatism rather than representationalism their work often appears to be groping in the darkness[27]. Such a non-metaphysical strategy seems to be clearly derivable from my arguments in the last two sections: verification and falsification must be understood incrementally. As with the non-dualist solutions to other dualisms, verification and falsification need to be understood as judgements between particular cases ranged on a spectrum. In this case the spectrum ranges between what we judge to be relatively weak or unclear and relatively strong or clear experiential support. It still makes sense to talk of verification of falsification in this case, because a decisive judgement has been made about the status of a theory, but this judgement is made relative to other theories which might rival it in interpreting the same evidence. We judge one theory to be better verified or better falsified than another.


But there is no such thing as raw experiential support for a judgement: each perception is interpreted to fit a defeasibility context which exists prior to it, and may also be influenced by expectation of the correctness of the theory (as well as other conditionings). The judgement which is applied  to interpret one experience as supporting a given theory more readily than another, then, is not only a judgement of correlation between theory and experience, but a calibration of experience itself. Even the most objective observer cannot avoid interpreting experience in relation to a particular defeasibility context: which may leave a range of possible correlations with belief, but nevertheless limits these interpretations. The most objective of observers, then, does not merely interpret correlations within a particular defeasibility context (such as that of science), but is also aware of the limitations of that defeasibility context, and the ways in which experiences can be understood in different defeasibility contexts. For example, a relatively objective botanist examining a plant may only be thinking in terms of the categories of botany, but he may consider a range of theories which may provide a causal explanation for a particular botanical variation, not merely seizing upon the plants which support his favoured theory but also considering counter-evidence. An even more objective botanist, however, might also understand the significance of plants in aesthetic and/or moral terms, and be able to cast light on a botanical problem by stepping out of the whole field of botany.


Judgements of the verification or falsification of a theory, then, are incremental on the scale of integration of the person judging, both within a given defeasibility context and beyond it. This does not mean that whatever non-psychological contributory causes to the judgement there may be are irrelevant, but only that their impact must be mediated by a judgement and that there is no indication of the objectivity of such contributory causes without complete dependency on such a judgement. As argued in 6.b.v, the more integrated a person, the more they can be relied upon to take account of the full range of conditions (within their non-psychological limitations) in a judgement. This does not only apply to judgements of verification or falsification which we assess derivatively at second-hand in another individual (where we also need to consider the non-psychological conditions under which the person made the judgement), but to the primary case where we make such judgements. Whilst I may reach a provisional conclusion as to the value of my conceptualisation of an experience and of the correlation between theory and experience without reference to any estimation of my own integration, the degree of justification I should ascribe to these provisional conclusions in non-dualist terms depends on the degree of integration I possessed in reaching them.


Clearly this requires a judgement of my own integration, the accuracy of which will be limited by that very integration. Not only the accuracy of my judgements, but the accuracy of my reflexive judgements concerning the accuracy of my judgements, depends on integration in a way which again demonstrates the inseparability of moral and epistemological judgements. The epistemological circularity to be found here is unavoidable, since the only conceivable alternative to it is a linearity which begins with a positive foundation, and this foundation can easily be shown by Sceptical argument to depend upon the judgement of the individual. The virtue in this circularity, when it aids the process of discovery, can again only be described in terms of the gathering process of integration, with its accompanying awareness, flexibility of theorisation, and refinement of judgement. It is not that these features of integration are acquired prior to the process of discovery and then enable it: they develop in the context of a  process of discovery, whether of “inwardly” or “outwardly” represented objects[28].


The judgement made in a process of verification or falsification is made more complex by the fact that it never takes place in complete isolation: metaphysical assumptions as to what constitutes a complete verification or falsification, as I shall argue in the next section, are interdependent with social conventions. These social conventions form a set of background conditions in the context of which verifications and falsifications are judged to have occurred, and as a result of them these cultural conditions may change slightly. Sometimes key observations which are judged to confirm or deny the truth of theories have a quite dramatic effect which makes a large contribution to changing the whole paradigm on which science operates: Galileo’s observation of the four main moons of Jupiter is one well-known example, which, although not absolutely decisive, made a large contribution towards defeating the Aristotelian paradigm of astronomy. What led Galileo into his creativity in using the telescope for this purpose? In many respects the conditions were non-psychological: he was in the right place at the right time with the right capacities. But his response to those conditions, in creating the means to that particular verification and linking it to the Copernican astronomical theory, was a matter of his degree of integration. Merely creating or adopting a theory may not require much integration at all, and may be done on the basis of dogmatism or scepticism: but creating acceptable “proof” or “disproof” which modifies conventional acceptance of theories in a particular context requires that a subtlety of engagement with understanding of conditions be pushed a little further[29].


In sum, then, a verification or falsification from a non-dualist standpoint is a decisive judgement in which evidence is used to justify one theory over others (or in the case of falsification, to rule out a theory, leaving another or others still in the running), which modifies the conventional acceptance of theories in a particular context. This type of definition leaves it entirely open what constitutes acceptable evidence, and indeed whether verification or falsification has priority, since these factors will vary between conventional contexts. Verifications or falsifications in this sense could take place in pre-scientific, artistic, or mythic frameworks (or in the context of spiritual practices such as meditation) as well as in scientific ones, the measure of objectivity lying not in the metaphysical status of the supposed reality proved or disproved, but in the objectivity of the person doing the proving or disproving relative to his context.


It is only on the basis of such an account of verification and falsification that I can go on to explain the grounds on which the Middle Way may be claimed to be verifiable or falsifiable, and the grounds of any heuristic distinction between the status of verification and falsification.


ii)                  Verification of the Middle Way


It will be clear from the last subsection that any verification of the Middle Way, like that of any other theory, must proceed incrementally on the basis of judgements made between more and less verified theories. The Middle Way can thus not be finally verified, but only verified to a given extent by evidence which appears to confirm it when interpreted within a given defeasibility context in the light of particular expectations. The universality of the Middle Way, however, ensures that to be verified in general the Middle Way must be verified in every particular case of comparison, on the grounds of there being better evidence for it than there is for any rival theory in every defeasibility context.


As I have argued, in order to mark an advance in objectivity, such a verification must also mark a process of integration, in which a conventional context of belief is modified by the “proof” of a theory. What occurs in such a process of integration or modification is effectively an access of confidence, as the doubts which undermined the secure acceptance of a theory by the whole psyche are reduced. How much this confidence is a quality that needs to be gained only by the individual, and how much also by the surrounding group, depends entirely on the extent of that individual’s dependency on the group. As I shall argue more fully in the next section, the less her dependency on the group, the more the integration. What needs to be convinced by a given verification (by bringing belief into line with desire) consists in whatever we identify with, and the more of the psyche that is convinced, the stronger the verification and the stronger the resulting confidence. If only our current set of identifications is convinced (perhaps we imagine, or indeed experience, the people we currently identify with being convinced) but then our identifications shift rapidly (as they tend to when we are less integrated), we are plunged into doubt. Then we are confronted by experienced or imagined doubting voices and are forced into the dualism of either defying them or agreeing with them, into brittle assertion or confusion. If, on the other hand, most or even all of our identifications are convinced, we can assert that our experience has given access to the truth of that matter with both strength and flexibility. In order to do this, if we are less integrated, we may have to convince a great part of our surrounding group too: but this does not lessen the achievement of bringing about such an integration.


This means that whenever we bring about confidence in this way, through bringing about an acceptance of new truths on the basis of clearer evidence, we have in effect verified the Middle Way in that context. The Middle Way here is not the explicit content, what it is that it is claimed is being verified, but the method of seeking a greater engagement with the unknown complexity beyond existing egoistic conceptions. Whenever such an engagement is made rather than a resort to dogmatism or dogmatic scepticism and this results in an access of confidence, a causal correlation is being established between the heuristic of the Middle Way and the process of integration. The Middle Way, together with the more specific claim that is being made, are verified in the sense that they are shown to be preferable to rival theories, for each time that both method and content are successful in this way, both are boosted.


It needs to be stressed that this type of verification of the Middle Way applies in all sorts of cases, including both (what presents itself as) factual investigation and investigation of values. If we engage with unknown evidence we are simultaneously engaging with unknown values – the value both of the evidence and of the method of finding and applying it. Similarly if we think we are pursuing a theory of value (an idea of what sort of desires are capable of fulfilment), this process requires correlative facts. Suppose, for example, I remain obsessed for ten years with the value of having a perfect house, with ideal décor and furnishings, but remain frustrated and unsatisfied in  these desires because such aesthetic perfection is incompatible with the functionality of the house. But if I then realise this and begin to modify my strong stream of aesthetically oriented desires into a greater balance of appearance and function, then at last begin to take some of the delight in my house that I had envisaged, have I not verified the form of the strategy as well as the value itself? I still have a long way to go in extending this aesthetic sense beyond the confines of my house and extending it into an ethical sense, but I have set out on a path of modifying my values by engagement with those that seem opposed to them. And I have verified this Middle Way through my relative satisfaction with the outcome. My beliefs have been modified, and objective integration has proceeded.


There may appear to be a danger here that this verification in terms of form may encounter similar difficulties to those of Kant’s categorical imperative: perhaps the formalism could turn out to be empty. For how am I to know that it is the Middle Way I am verifying, if every instance of apparent advance is one in which the Middle Way is verified? The difficulties of the answer cannot be avoided by any recourse to linearity and its false certainty: I do not know that it is the Middle Way I am verifying, or whether a verification has been achieved. Rather my degree of confidence that it is indeed the Middle Way is in direct proportion to the degree of objective integration I have achieved. I could, of course, be insisting that I was following the Middle Way out of narrow attachment to the idea, in which case I would merely be being dogmatic. I could only make real progress out of that state of dogmatism by some degree of openness (an openness whose source we cannot pin down in metaphysical terms, as freewill or condition, without betraying it), through access to a change in psychological state in addition to the idea of the Middle Way. This is then the best response to the accusation of formalism here: the formalism cannot be empty because, unlike Kant’s, it is not a merely rational formalism. We may not be able to distinguish immediately when we have falsely “verified” the Middle Way in an entirely formalistic way, but the experience of integration is positively distinguishable from formalism because of its emotional effects.


Although verification of the Middle Way is possible using an incremental model, then, such verification can operate only in proportion to the degree of confidence in it that already exists. Verification requires changes in psychological state which mean that, although each relative verification that is experienced is a useful boost of confidence for an individual who has already gained some momentum of confidence, there is nothing about a given claimed verification which is likely to convince an entrenched dualist. For him, in a narrowed psychological state relative to the more confident non-dualist, there is no ground for a distinction between such a claimed verification and formalism. Talk about the Middle Way may seem so many empty words which are indistinguishable from the metaphysical claims of universality made by eternalists, the experiences appealed to a mere rationalisation for dogmatism.


Fortunately we are not left completely unable to address the rational concerns of such an entrenched dualist, since verification does not offer the only method of incrementally boosting confidence in the Middle Way. Falsification offers an alternative strategy.


iii)                Falsification of the Middle Way


A falsification of the Middle Way, if it should occur, would consist in a judgement, based on the weight of apparent evidence, that the Middle Way was inferior to other rival theories in providing the method to explain that evidence and to predict new observations which would help to confirm or deny the theory. The Middle Way could thence be ruled out, even if there were several other candidate theories left[30]. As in the case of verification, for such a falsification to be comprehensible in pragmatic terms it must consist, not in the establishment of a definite relationship with some metaphysical reality beyond perception, but in convincing a relatively large section of the psyche, which may also require the convincing of others in the social context.


The central insight of Popper and Lakatos on falsification was that, despite the continuing lack of certainty surrounding claims of falsification (as with those of verification), falsification offers a degree of engagement with objectivity lacking in verification[31]. Whilst an apparent verification may only be indicative of the applicability of the theory in very much more restricted conditions than the ones it specifies, a falsification specified in advance for the whole theory at least indicates a falsity in one of the contributory hypothetical premises which are being tested. Of course it may only indicate such a falsity in a very restricted range of conditions, but this is sufficient to falsify the range originally given for the theory, at least leading to its modification and testing in a new form. A central ground of judgement as to the worth of a theory for Popper and Lakatos is thus its falsifiability: if the conditions of falsification cannot be specified, it can be rejected as dogmatic a priori. All these arguments, because specified in terms of judgements rather than empirical verifications, are equally applicable to the pragmatist framework of truth I offer here.


Another way of formulating the dualist’s accusation of formalism in the verification of the Middle Way, then, is in terms of falsifiability. If no falsification is possible for the Middle Way, then the dualist may justifiably claim that, within his own terms of rationality (without integration or any confidence in its possibility) it is dogmatic.


Two qualifications need to be offered before attempting to state what such a falsification for the Middle Way might consist in. Firstly, the falsifiability of the Middle Way must not be confused with the defeasibility of the terms it uses. I have already conceded that non-dualism is indefeasible in the terms of dualism and vice-versa[32]: but falsification of belief takes place within the stable background of meaning offered by a defeasibility context. If the Middle Way is falsifiable, then, it can be so only within the sphere of a given defeasibility context. A falsifiability for the Middle Way, then, can provide a useful booster of confidence, a way of helping the dualist move outwards from an initial narrowness of view, but the Middle Way insofar as it requires movement beyond a defeasibility context will remain only an extrapolation of the rational terms of falsifiability within a defeasibility context.


Secondly, falsification can only be offered here, like verification, in incremental terms. Falsifiability will thus only be possible in the terms of incrementality specified in 6.c.i. However, on the basis of my argument so far in this chapter, such incrementality is the only alternative to the illusions of metaphysical dualism.


How can we specify a falsification for the Middle Way, then? In what sense can a non-dualist meet Lakatos’s challenge to specify the conditions in which he would give up his belief[33]? No universal answer to this can be given, but this does not mean that, in each individual case, a specification cannot be given. Indeed it is vital, if the non-dualist himself is to be able to recognise and avoid formalism and gain some rational purchase on dualistic mental states, that some specification can be given. Since the Middle Way consists in a method and not in a set of specific predictions about events in given conditions, it is only the absence of expected verifications than can serve it as falsifications, not any specific positive events. When judgements which one believes to be approximating to the Middle Way do not result in integration and a corresponding increase in confidence, in any field of activity, this may be seen as a falsification: but a judgement is required as to how long to wait for the expected effect so as to allow for the possibility of interfering non-psychological conditions preventing it. When directly cultivating non-dualism in the ways suggested in 5.e, for example by cultivating integration of attention, patience is required in enabling the practice to overcome various interfering conditions and have a tangible effect. One should perhaps allow months or years rather than days or weeks, but again how long one can wait depends on the psychological conditions which create restrictions on how long one is capable of waiting. Once the allotted time has passed, however, one should no longer wait around in open-ended Millenarian expectation, endlessly waiting for revelation, but rather make a clear decision to change ones theory.


This decision, however, does not necessarily amount to a falsification of the Middle Way itself, since what has been judged falsified is the conception of the Middle Way provisionally held by the individual specifying the falsification, or a theory which has been arrived at by the application of the Middle Way as a method[34]. This theorisation may well be faulty and merely need modifying: then, perhaps a new period of experimentation may be undertaken, with a further specification of falsifiability. It is only when several such periods have been undertaken (exactly how many, again, being a matter for specification) that one may be justified in reaching the judgement that non-dualism and the Middle Way are wholly to be rejected. The period of experimentation, then, must be lengthy and demanding in order to make anything like an adequate test of the causal relationship between balanced judgement and integration, but nevertheless, it is finite.


It is this finiteness which makes it possible to claim that, within the limits of a defeasibility context, the Middle Way is falsifiable. Indeed, it is only because any particular conception of the Middle Way is falsifiable that progress along it is possible. In one sense, progress along the Middle Way consists in a series of attempts to falsify it (in accordance with negative foundationalism), which incidentally meet with verifications (in accordance with coherentism). It is only really on the basis of verifications increasing ones positive confidence in the Middle Way, however, that one can shift from one defeasibility context to another. Since falsification consists in the absence of expected verifications in specified conditions, the failure of falsification inevitably means verification. What started off as merely an open investigation to establish a falsification within a defeasibility context then turns into something much bigger, in which not only beliefs but meanings and desires are integrated.


A great deal of stress needs to be laid on the importance of this falsifiability of the Middle Way, heavily qualified though it may appear to be. For without it, a complete discontinuity appears between dualist rationality and non-dualist integration. If we were to insist that the Middle Way is only verifiable or falsifiable in its full range, for example, requiring movement beyond one’s immediate defeasibility context, this requirement would impose a Kierkegaardian leap of faith on the investigating individual, with no possibility of reconciling the resulting dualistic divisions[35]. Although a strong case can be made for non-dualism a priori of the kind made in the earlier parts of this chapter, this case remains incomplete without recourse to practical experimentation. The falsifiability of the Middle Way offers a key requirement to motivate this further step from consistent theory into experience.


[26] See 2.b.ii

[27] See 2.b.iii

[28] A further sophist-type objection that can be made to this is the chicken-and-egg argument which assumes that of two interdependent and simultaneously developing qualities one must have temporal priority: but if one has temporal priority, it will then be objected that it cannot develop alone. This argument relies on a dualism which takes development to be intrinsically discontinuous. The only solution to it can be found in the assumption of the mutual causality of systems (see 10.ii).

[29] This raises many questions about the relationship between the “proving” individual and his society, particularly of what it means to modify a conventional context. These issues will be dealt with in 6.c.ii and 6.d

[30] In practice, the only rival to the Middle Way at the methodological level at which it works is dualism. A falsification of the Middle Way would thus amount to a verification of dualism and vice-versa.

[31] See 2.b.iii & 4.d.iii

[32] See 4.e.ii

[33] Referred to in 4.d.iii

[34] These two possibilities are not distinct, the “or” being conjunctive rather than disjunctive. This means that the Middle Way can be understood either as a theory we are striving to achieve, or as a methodological meta-theory by which theories about facts or values are arrived at. In either case, it is inevitable (in the terms of negative foundationalism) that we will misunderstand or misapply it, but each correction brings us closer to it and makes both verification and falsifiability more likely.

[35] See 4.h.i


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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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