Considering New Options

Middle Way Philosophy according to Robert M. Ellis and the Middle Way Society

Provisionality in middle way philosophy is the practice of making better judgements that recognise the limitations of our current view and consider alternative possibilities  

Provisionality helps us positively look beyond absolutization by having alternative options available. These options may or may not be consciously considered, but are possible channels for our desires. Having greater optionality enables adaptiveness, in the sense of helping us meet a variety of needs in changing and unpredictable conditions. These further options can also be seen as a range of weak links in our neural networks. Provisionality is compatible with decisiveness, because time-framing is one of the conditions we need to address in judgement. (Ellis, 2023, p56).

Complexity cannot be an ontological feature, but rather requires provisionality, because our perspective is part of the complexity of the system. Developing optionality helps us to address the conditions of system complexity, but we need to beware merely abstract academic acknowledgments of uncertainty without it. In practice, optionality can produce antifragility by strengthening system resilience. (Ellis, 2023, p64).

Slower and more energy-sapping processing is needed for more complex provisional judgements, when compared to faster atomised ones. Bias is maintained by fast absolutised judgements when slower ones could be used. However, sometimes speed is also required by conditions, so provisionality consists in closing down judgements when conditions allow, to consider options and improve it later when faster judgment is needed (Ellis, 2023, p68).

Synthesis can occur at the meaning level as imaginative connection, and at the belief level as new theorisation from dialectical integration of perviously opposing beliefs. Synthesis of beliefs depends on provisionality, in which new possibilities are considered, motivated by a point of frustration with conflict. Practice of the five principles is needed to prevent synthesis becoming dogmatic, but it is still required for creative thought. Analysis, by contrast depends on and reinforces previous assumptions, and has been over-emphasised as a result of over-specialisation in the modern economy and in academia (Ellis, 2023, p73).

Suppression is highly necessary to provisionality, because without the ability to temporarily direct our attention away from absolutizing distractions, we would remain stuck in them. Suppression allows awareness to continue, in contrast to repression which tries to eliminate an object of conflict. Suppression is recognised in psychology as a ‘mature defence’, which may also take the form of sublimation, altruism, anticipation or humour (Ellis, 2023, p81).

Estimating probability, even if it cannot be very precisely determined, is an important aspect of provisionality practice. It is an estimate of justification rather than of a relationship to ‘reality’, and the process of making that estimation is more important than the results, because it helps us avoid absolutizing. We need to take very small and very large probabilities seriously, and even recognising the distinction between asymptotic probability and certainty is still of general practical value. We can also probabilize value claims be considering the probability of the prescribed desires being fulfilled in an integrated form (Ellis, 2023, p86).

Weighing up is the final process of making practical judgements, when these are required, a process that can be contrasted with that of merely deducing our conclusion. The process of weighing up involves determining comparative justification through both ‘positive’ elements that do involve reasoning (comparing options with criteria and with evidence) and ‘negative’ elements that determine the range of conditions considered by contextualising beyond absolute assumptions. Deductions are often less important, because they are only about distinctions we identify with rather than practical outcomes  (Ellis, 2023, p93).

© 2024 EduSynthesis

Centre for Mindful Educational Leadership

Tim Saunders PhD


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