Sunday, May 14, 2006

Friends in Faith: Oxford's 3rd Annual Peace Walk

On June 8th, people from many backgrounds will come together to join as 'Friends in Faith, Walking for Peace', a walk in solidarity across the city of Oxford. It's focus will be especially the Middle East and hence the Abrahamic traditions are leading the initiative: starting at the Oxford Synagogue, it will progress via the University Church of St. Mary's and finish at the Central Mosque. However, it welcomes and needs anyone who is concerned for peace in that region. I joined the walk last year and found it worthwhile, because it is a positive approach to engagement with a good opportunity to meet new people. I aim to join again this year and hope many others can too.

Please refer to a poster for details.

A Research Genealogy Project? (2)

I circulated the idea of a Research Genealogy Project among a few colleagues, who have offered some comments, giving me a bit more to ponder, particularly the basic question of what is this is really for? What purpose does it serve?

My tentative response to this at the moment is that the long term goal is to understand about higher levels of knowledge, understanding and insight and how they can propagate, flourish and advance. At a more mundane level, it might offer clues into the kinds of conditions that are more likely to lead to successful research activities based on a large body of genealogy data, perhaps useful for funding bodies.

In terms of a genealogy project based on formal research qualifications, I would focus initially on the relationships rather than the objects. There are many kinds of relationships and a standard each-way link without any meaning is usually not appropriate: the existing Maths Genealogy project already has some a sense of ordering or direction in which the Professor generally is the one who imparts to the student until the student absorbs and understands.

There are other inputs that could be modelled: ranging from formal instruction to collaboration, to influence. Looking back at my own Ph.D. (Use of Formal Methods for Safety-critical Systems), apart from my supervisor, I was given guidance by a few other staff and learnt from quite a number of researchers in the field. For instance, at the start I had to learn from those who had developed the formal theoretical foundations (e.g. the theory of testing equivalences of processes), whilst others provided certain contextual background (the application domain of medical device communications). When it came to applying some new theory, I used some methodologies (that applied safety analysis techniques) that adapted or built on the work of contemporary Ph.D students. All these informed and influenced me in my own research, but in different ways.

I corresponded with some of these by email, but although it might be interesting to model correspondence between researchers (nice graph theory applications), I can't see how you can dig into these emails in practice and in any case they were just a small proportion of authors that influenced my work.

It's going to be easier if you can work with what has been freely published, which brings us back to the thesis. What if they could be marked up in such a way that you can extract meaning? So you could know in a particular thesis whose work had provided the foundations, who was doing similar work. This is a task for experts in knowledge representation, retrieval and analysis. Patterns might emerge that show coalesence among some theses, where a lot of researchers tackle a popular topic and related issues; further some theses may show a lot of interconnectivity not only within subject areas but across subject areas, which might suggest making more explicit particular areas for co-operation and joint conferences. On the other hand, some research may be shown to go off on a limb and have little to do with others. Some nice visuals will make this much easier to see!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Notes on 'Wholeness and the implicate order: Ch.1 Fragmentation and Wholeness '.

In this chapter Bohm asserts very strongly the need for a whole view in which knowledge and experience are as one. Without this perspective, thought is fragmented and hence the world. It's not a common view among Western scientists, at least not one generally espoused. I had read that Bohm was influenced by Krishnamurti and this is evident if you look at the end of the Appendix, in which he pays glowing tribute to the approach of Krishnamurti and distinguishes approaches and attitudes to measurable and immeasurable that he has encountered between West and East (especially India). The appendix might have been put at the beginning because the perspective offered seems to flow from the observations there.

Overall, I think the views offer valuable coherence and I want to learn more, but there seems to be a denial of the transcendent potential of human beings; that the absolute reality can be attained:

Actually, there are no direct and positive things that man can do to get in touch with the immeasurable, for this must be immensely beyond anything that man can grasp with his mind or accomplish with his hands or instruments.
I find this ultimately pessimistic, unnecessarily so. I guess if someone comes from a Western background it can be difficult to not equate a human being with the biological organism, but the biological organism cannot of itself transcend. In insisting on wholeness of the thinking and content, to include the biological [conditioned] self, and nothing beyond would imply being stuck. Actually, isn't this argument in itself relativistic?

My conviction is that the first journey is to explore what it is to be human and that alone - if carried out properly - will refute the above statement. Indeed the Buddha taught a different way of viewing, a subtle way, which contrasts the conditioned sphere as subject to dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence/flux), anatta (not-self), with lokuttara dhamma - reality that transcends the conditioned, as recorded in Udana VIII.3: Nibbana Sutta

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

In the appendix, there's similarly another bone of contention:

It is of course impossible to go back to a state of wholeness that may have been present before the split between East and West developed...

Personally, as someone who is half Caucasian and half Oriental, I would like to suggest this is possible, particularly if you are mixed race (East/West) and have appropriate karmic background and a supportive environment in which to develop ... as it happens, my research and professional work is in science and technology, whilst my personal interests are in religion and philosophy. :-)

And a bit further on he adds another 'of course':

Of course, we have to be cognisant of the teachings of the past, both Western and Eastern, but to imitate these teachings or to try to conform to them would have little value.
Is that so? The Buddha often used the exhortation of "Ehipassiko!" as an invitation to "Come and see!" which meant following Magga, the path leading ultimately to nibbana. I think if you were to ask a Bhikkhu (monk), they would say that the Buddha's teaching is as relevant today as it was 2500 years ago and the vinaya and suttas contain instructions that if followed can be found effective guidance for the Path.

There's a lot of attention to the divided nature of the world and critical issues, with implications for how one lives within society and not separate from it. That's evident even in monastic societies, e.g. the Buddhist Sangha and lay supporters are operating in a kind of ecosystem, supporting each other in complementary ways. However, at the same time, a bhikkhu formally renounces the world, society and all its endless comings and goings.

Something I found odd is that there's no discussion of ethics or values tied in with actions. Maybe I've missed something. But then, that aspect is not pronounced even in some Eastern traditions, with more emphasis on carrying out rituals and duty. However, it is fundamental to the Buddhist perspective - indeed, karma in the Buddhist sense is ethical, as the previous quote from the Dhammapada shows.

Nevertheless, I find it apt that he attributes great importance to how we cultivate views, how we think. I considered this issue as a prelude to some writing in the past and even took a quick look, as it happens, at the word 'rational,' but I had a narrower impression in my mind of its definition, viz as being fundamentally an activity of the brain, adding as a footnote the example of soldiers thinking/considering their battle plans. I was undoubtedly strongly influenced by lessons I received at school, which at the time of writing was not so long ago. However, Bohm conveys a deeper sense of 'measure' with a very nice discussion of how it underlies many words that have developed rather separate meanings. So I see my view was unnecessarily limited and perhaps a more accurate translation for the soldier's deliberations might be weighing up!

I considered these issues in a long series of reflections that eventually led to a book. The process of authoring that book was perhaps unusual - I would occasionally jot down on scraps of paper reflections and realisations. I had no intention at the start to write a book - I had only the will to write and reflect. Then later on there was the wish to order the notes; still later on the observation that there was sufficient to compose a book. It might appear that here was a book made up of tiny disparate fragments and thus fundamentally fragmented. But perhaps these fragments came out from the same whole and reflect that whole - unable to represent that whole in even a number of reflective writings, this was a process of unfolding over time. I wonder if merely the intention to understand was what Bohm refers to as the formative cause in this process, where the book is implicit from the intentions, or we might say that in the book there was the flow of conditions that had cause in intentions.