Saturday, October 16, 2004

anu gets consciousness

It's official, today the Australian National University inaugurated it's own Centre for (the study of) Consciousness. One might wonder why it took so long, given that most prestigious universities had been researching consciousness for more than a decade. But ANU, which anyway is well-centred had it's own Centre for the Mind, a joint venture with the University of Sydney (directed by Alan Snyder). ANU sharing its mind with the University of Sydney? Well, you have to if you're in the business of producing champions in the rather arcane fashion of strapping magnets to their brain (read more). With its own Centre for Consciousness, largely an initiative of the Philosophy Program in the Research Schools of Social Sciences, now ANU has it's own first person perspective on things, philosophically speaking. No more cognitive processing in the dark, churning books, research papers, and scores of graduates to advance Australia fair. 'Consciousness Studies' is all about knowing the knower, knowing why you get that fuzzy feeling when you see a flower in full bloom or a glowing orange red sun setting on the outback desert. Or, if neither of the above apply to you, then it's about knowing why you have that unpleasant feeling called pain when you injure yourself (since pain is what philosophers worry about most of time). It's also about why you're suddenly filled with existential angst for no particular reason. Ultimately, it's about the best kind of scientifically informed philosophy of mind. So how about this new motto for ANU's new Centre for Consciousness: naturam primum cognoscere ipsum?

The ANU's Centre for Consciousness is headed by David Chalmers, the hard and easy man of consciousness, whose Conscious Mind, in his own words, argues that "a reductive explanation of consciousness is impossible" (alas!), and so, if we are to take consciousness seriously, we must go beyond a strict materialist framework."

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

spirit of winter

PR LEAP writes: "Take several images signed by incredibly gifted photographers, mix them with catchy stories, travel journals, add a little bit of passion and voila! You have the perfect recipe for digitally branding a country as an amazing and unique travel destination."

It's called the Spirit of Romania, a new sexy portal to a little known South-East European country.

student emeriti

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher whose confessions about the eremitic life of the independent philosopher are not quite so eremitic has this to say about those perpetual students who take years (read decades) to complete a degree:

"I had friends in graduate school who belonged to the class of those we jokingly referred to as graduate student emeriti. They were the perpetual students who were "not hung up on completion," to borrow a memorable line from William Hurt's character Nick in The Big Chill (1983). Free of the discipline of undergraduate school, they took incompletes in their courses and then spent years completing them. Some never completed them. Others finished their course work and actually wrote dissertations and won the degree -- some fifteen years after they started. They supported themselves with adjunct teaching and odd jobs, loans and parental hand-outs."
Having been a a graduate student myself for nearly six years now, I can very well relate to Bill's observation. There is something irresistibly soothing about life on Alma Mater's lap. Why would you ever want to leave that nurturing environment of knowledge for knowledge's sake for daddy's cut throat world of knowledge for profit? But don't worry Bill, with universities becoming increasingly corporatized your perrenial graduate student living lightly from adjunct teaching and odd jobs is soon going to become an endangered species, like the honest politician. It's called "industry partnership," a catchy phrase for allowing corporations to set up shop in your university department's backyard and turn academic research into venture capital.

liber mundi

Liber mundi is perhaps one of the most prevailing metaphors of the European mediaeval world. Essentially it has its origins in the New Testament myth that the World and the World are in symbiosis. It is St. John's Gospel's that first introduces the liber mundi metaphor: "In (the) beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things received being through him, and without him not one (thing) received being which has received being. ... And the Word became flesh".

I found this interesting article in Minerva (an internet journal of philosophy edited by Dr Stephen Thornton at the University of Limerick, Ireland). Here's an excerpt that pretty much sums up the "world book" metaphor:
"... the word "Word", as it is presented in John's Gospel, is the translation of the Greek word logos, meaning both "word" (verbum) and "reason" (ratio). As a result, from a Christian standpoint, the Incarnation made the world not only "readable" (since the Word "penetrated" and "inscribed" it), but also "ration-able", comprehensible (since God as ratio came the world into being). That would represent a crucial premise of the European civilization as one "obsessed" with the knowledge of the world. The world is considered "thinkable" since it essentially contains "reason" (logos), that is, the process of knowledge of the world is a process of "self-recognition" by which our reason (as a faculty of knowledge) recognizes itself in the very essence of the world (as one which came into being by the Supreme Reason)."
While the WWW is many things to many people, as a totality is it "wider" than any of those things taken apart, whether it's online text archives, museum gateways, shop fronts, or the ubiquitous home page of Joanna Blog. In fact, Steven Johnson is right when he says that "We've lived so long under the notion of the Web as a space of connected documents, it seems almost unthinkable that it could be organized any other way. But it could just as easily be assembled around a different axis: not pages but minds" (read more).

Johnson thinks that the explosive growth of blogging has given thousands of people the opportunity to enter in a kind of open ended discourse that email based online discussion forums have tried but failed. So asking "What happens when you start seeing the Web as a matrix of minds, not documents?" as Johnson does, brings up the question of whether documents are seen as public text or as personal testimony? However, the more intersting question is what happens when the Web becomes a sort of collective consciousness, a vast brain storming session that operates outside institutional protocols?

So how does this relate to the whole idea of liber mundi? The Book of the World is not simply a book of words but one of word-meanings, for it is the sentence (Lat. sententia) that according to Thomas of Celanos, makes the book something in which the totality of the world is contained (liber in quo totum continetur).

Unlike the Christian tradition where the world-word revelation closes with the gospels, in Buddhism, at least of the Mahāyāna variety, it continues long after the Buddha's parinirvāṇa. Sūtras and tantras continued to be composed and attributed to the Buddha for almost a millennium after his historical mission, and would no doubt have continued well into the modern age, had Buddhism endured in India after the 12th century C.E.

Here's my favorite example of a world book in quo totum continetur, the famous Ekākṣarīprajñāpāramitāsūtra:
"Thus I have heard at one time. The Lord was sitting on Vulture Peak with a great assembly of 1250 monks and many billions of bodhisattvas. At that time, the Lord said to the venerable Ananda, “Ananda, keep this perfection of wisdom in one letter for the benefit and happiness of sentient beings. It it thus, a.” So said the Lord and everyone - Ananda, the monks, and the great bodhisattvas - having understood and admired the perfection of wisdom, praised what the Lord had said."
What this sūtra aims perhaps to say is that the entire content of language resides in the potentiality of the first sound and letter of the alphabet. Yet Buddhism records an even more radical statement. It is said that from the night that he attained enlightenment to the night that he passed into nirvāṇa the Tathāgata did not utter a single word.

Next I'll spend some time on Derrida, who, now that he's dead, we can at long last begin to talk about him in past tense. No more metaphysics of presence, although I still agree with the metaphysicians of Tlön that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


About six year ago, more specifically in the fall of 1998, I designed and published my first website. I called it Sparśabhūmi, which refers to a well know gesture in which the Buddha is depicted touching the earth with his right hand and requesting the Earth Goddess to acknowledge his enlightenment.
It was largely (and still is) an index of links to a lot of materials that at the time I found useful in my research on Buddhist and Indian philosophy.

The internet was still young and much of that selection reflected my own marvel at what was beginning to seem like a liber mundi (liber=book, mundus=world), a true open ended book about an imaginary (read virtual) world that resembled Borges' imaginary encyclopaedia in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. In the early 90s while studying classical and mediaeval philosophy at the University of Bucharest, I had been constantly puzzled by the idea of the infinity of knowledge, that attempt "to gather all strands of learning together into an enormous TEXT, an encyclopedia or summa, that would mirror the historical and transcendental orders" (Gellrich, The idea of the book in the middle age 1985:18).

In 1998, five years after graduating in philosophy and after having spent the greater part of my twenties on a philosophical quest in India, I was embarking on a doctoral research in Buddhist philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra. India had been an overwhelming experience, one from which I needed a lifetime to recover. Between then and now, I had fallen in love, spoken before a fifteen thousand strong crowd at the World Parliament of Religions (the Calcutta not the Chicago one), entered the arcane world of Indian doxography, took a holy dip in the Ganges in Varanasi, bused the yatra to Kedarnath to see Shiva's own abode, went gompa hopping in Sikkim after discovering Tibetan Buddhism, travesed the vast and empty Nullarbor Plain
Nullarbor Plain
three times on the back of a Greyhound bus, lived on a Byron Bay beach for a year, went hunting for Sanskrit manuscripts in Cambridge, museum hoping in Paris, snap shooting around Venice, trekking in the Annapurna National Park, and almost died on a vipassana retreat in the Blue Mountains.