Tag: Graham Parkes

This is a place for my thesis

I began research at NUI, Galway, in April 2010, under the supervision of Dr Thomas Duddy. After writing three initial draft chapters, presenting work on three different occasions, producing a chapter for a book on a related subject (‘Collapse or no collapse: why we need respect to survive’ in FEASTA’s Fleeing Vesuvius), in November 2011, Dr Duddy received medical information which made it impossible for him to continue in a supervisory role. From that point on, I began to consider alternative ways of proceeding and it was on that basis that, at the beginning of February 2012, I approached Professor Parkes with a request that he consider becoming my supervisor on an amended version of the project. After extensive discussion and email correspondence, Professor Parkes agreed to do so.

Given what had been undertaken to date, it made sense to consider keeping roughly to the original estimate for completion by July 2014 (extended from April 2014). Very briefly, the trajectory looks something like this:

  1. My initial outline proposed to consider how the ‘old questions’ (about how to live) might be assessed in the light of evolutionary theory. I had intended to focus on evolutionary morality and the problems posed by the ecological crisis.
  2. Dr Duddy had me read Paul Taylor’s book, Respect for Nature, and encouraged me to work on complicating a position based on his biocentric perspective. Taylor acknowledged the biological basis of human interests and agency, a commonality that led him to propose a shift in perspective from an anthropocentric to a biocentric view. I worked on this from December 2010 to December 2011.
  3. From January 2012 to June 2012, I continued to examine non-anthropocentric perspectives from which an environmental ethic might be defended, but I had, by April, also started reading Warwick Fox and other non-dualists and some short papers by Professor Parkes and other scholars. I obtained a copy of the Shōbōgenzō by Master Eihei Dōgen. Professor Parkes suggested I turn my project into a comparative study of Taylor (as a non-anthropocentrist concerned with how to live with respect for Nature) and Dōgen. In May I gave a paper in London.
  4. From June 2012 to the present, I worked to show how a non-dualistic approach is a more fruitful line of comparison, and how the development of an understanding of organisms as systems or relationships, rather than individual entities, yields a better understanding of the kinds of obligations and responses available to humans within the wider eco-system.

I envisage a thesis of seven chapters. The first two chapters are largely amended versions of previous work; I will draft fuller versions of these, and the third and fourth chapters, before January 2013. I will also work on drafting a fuller outline of the project by December 2012. This leaves me 18 months to write up the project, along with undertaking any further reading, presentation, and shorter publication requirements. If people, academics or others, have questions they want to ask me about the project, I’ll be more than happy to discuss it. That’s the idea of this blog: to put the whole thing in the public forum. Glasnost. Although, of course, this work remains both a work in progress and original thought (in as much as anything is) and I will expect my copywright to be honoured. 

Supervisory support

I worked for an organisation once that had sessions, periodically, that offered supervisory support. This was something both I and the supervisor dreaded, I’m sure (I’m sure I dreaded it) because I was subtly but manifestly not pulling the same line as the institution demanded. In other words, I had a particular idea of what might benefit the organisation, and since the organisation was service based, of what might benefit the people who used the organisation’s services (I won’t call them clients: they weren’t voluntarily availing of the service). Now, much about the organisation was good and admirable: the general ethos of concern and consideration brooked no argument. It was the subtle stuff that bothered me. Some of the subtle stuff was dealt with in the literature that each employee was required to read, stuff about how to talk to people, and how to think while interacting. But you can’t really tell people how to think, can you? It’s somewhat more intrinsic than that, isn’t it? Telling someone how to think if they don’t have what they call in Ireland a ‘gra’, or a heart, for it, is akin to the reeducation policies that operate when any extreme ideological governance takes control. I hasten to add that no violence was done to me. None at all. Except the grinding sense that I was inclined to go one way – towards less medication, less control, more holistic thinking, compost loos, organic beansprouts (I exaggerate, but you get the general gist) – while the organisation, for all their dedication to the principles of considerate care, was inclined, and indeed, felt itself forced, to go another (medication, health and safety issues involving heavy use of chemicals, sanitation, boundaries, distance).

Tomorrow I leave in preparation for the third meeting. since I transferred, with my supervisor. I’m very aware that writing this is writing in a public space, that anything and everything can be seen. That writing on the web is like writing postcards – one must imagine that anyone, benign or malevolent, has access. Therefore I will say very little about what I anticipate. Part of my preparation has been this uploading of different sections of work I’ve undertaken over the last couple of years as an attempt to organise what it is I think is worth preserving from the alteration in focus. Yet I do see parallels.

European Philosophy is a jungle to one ‘brought up’ in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. It offers no safe quarters. The temptation to resort to earlier positions of ridicule or contempt are exhausted, and one is thrust into the sunlit glade with nothing to defend one but a vague sense that all the boundaries have collapsed.

I am attempting to incorporate two bodies of work – one which is entirely new to me, the Shobogenzo, the Zen tradition of zazen – and yet, which is somewhat familiar, given that I have involved myself, informally and through the teaching of yoga, in a rough and ready study of the practice of observation as a core shift in perceptive inclusion.

The second, older (for me) tradition is that of environmental ethics. But it has been suggested that I work to excise the notion of ethics from the work entirely, using the ideas of evolutionary biology as well as the philosophical work of Hans Georg Moeller to show that taking an ethical stance involves exclusion, involves staking out an ideological territory, and one that will necessarily create opposition among those who don’t share the common ground. In many ways, I applaud this approach: I would love to believe that there is some way in which we can dissolve our ideological boundaries. Yet my more pragmatic inclination is to imagine that it is impossible to include every perspective on the burning boat that is our ecological crisis. We have to find some formula that will allow us to include only those activities that bring us a reasonable chance of response.

I’m all at sea. This is not an unfamiliar situation but it carries the same deep dread as those supervisory support meetings: I will arrive, supplicant, veiled witness, muffling myself with politesse, while the whirling gears of rational thought screech at the impossibility of encompassing the sense that I had made of things before with the demands of a new, somewhat empty, paradigm.

Wish me well.

Biodiverse Clusters and Energy Flows

This is an effort to explain how ‘naturally biodiverse clusters’ might be understood. I know I’ve just written a post on entitled ‘NBCs’ but bear with me. There’s more to say before we can get into useful discussion (all writing is information exchange, after all, isn’t it?). Firstly, consider how naturally biodiverse clusters are in constant flux, cells altering and repairing, microbes entering, interacting, air, food, liquid, passing in, through, releasing energy (and toxins), information being exchanged, dissipation of energy through heat, activity, and so on. This is much more accurate than considering ourselves as solid and regularly ordered structures. There is order, in the sense that there are describable laws of nature which give some predictability to events (though this predictability is somewhat thrown to the winds of chance by quantum mechanics) and there is organisation. We could say that this organisation is stable, in the sense that some kind of equilibrium exists, rather in the same vein as, when we are running, we are in an almost permanent state of controlled falling.

Over extended periods of time, NBCs (it’s a poor joke. Forgive me) tip from state to state. Tim Morton claims that living organisms are seeking equilbrium, and this accords with my interpretation: we are driven by thermodynamic laws to seek to return to the relative inertia of non-living existence. (This reminds me of a wonderful passage in the film, Withnail and I, when the incredible Withnail, attempting to dodge young female pedestrians, shouts, “they THROW themselves into the road!” But I digress…).

As the larger situation – the mean temperature, water quality and so on – shifts, foundational organisms – microbes and the like – that have survived so long precisely by being simple and thus adaptable, may manage to survive. Those parts of the cluster that are more complex and that cannot tolerate the shift in number or condition of their codependent microbial community are simply sloughed off. While it is unlikely that our species will become entirely extinct, the directional thrust is for the complex biodiversity that has sustained us to recede again into simplicity. If we choose to conceive of ourselves as the ultimate manipulators, then it is in our interests to consider what kind of manipulation this could be. If we must preserve a certain amount of organisation in order to preserve ourselves, we must discover what aspects of our NBCs benefit us, and what, in turn, benefit them. This is the ultimate update of the golden rule: ensure the continuance of the cluster in order for that our own continuance be sustained by it.

Since NBCs operate along variably stable parameters, some of which (absorption of carbon dioxide, generation of energy systems) benefit humans, it makes sense to protect those systems that are most fundamental to our own survival. We, as complex organisms, are in a precariously fragile position. We are latecomers to a population of living species very few of which are dependent on our survival for their own. Doing as we would be done by in relation to the rest of our NBC is a one-sided bargain, and entirely self-interested. Entirely self-interested acts are rarely describable as moral. This is not an ethic, then, but simple pragmatism.

If, as I have proposed in earlier writings, our degree of autonomy is not what we had thought, then the impact even of the biofeedback systems we generate when self-reflecting are certainly less predictable than we have led ourselves to believe to date. Even if we act to include the interests of naturally biodiverse clusters, there is no reason why humans, or indeed all living existence on the planet, might not nevertheless be shrugged off. If these acts are worth the effort we expend, then it is because we are open to the development of an attitude of respect that relies not on the outcome, but is enlightened practice.