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Who is your PhD for?

It may sound like an odd question, even presumptuous to ask who my PhD is for. I’ve always justified my choice to do one on the grounds that I love research and I found a subject I wanted to explore. (Why do people act environmentally friendly – answer, we always do.) In other words it was all about me. But if that were true, then I know from my own experience that I probably would have got bored. I have only been able to sustain interest in the most mundane of activities by looking beyond myself.

My experience is supported by a number of philosophers and scientists. Hegel’s philosophy in a nutshell is that a person can have a full existence not only if it lives for itself but also lives for another. Freud says that while pleasure comes from the release of tension, ultimately ending in the final release and death, our instinct for life goes beyond the pleasure principle. According to neuroscience research, neurons survive when connections are made to other neurons.

The question is, who else is my PhD for?

The immediate and obvious answer is that my PhD is created for my supervisers and viva examiners. After all, at the end of the day, I don’t want to have nothing to show for the time and money (especially as its not my money). So even though it is my research, I don’t think I have ever rejected any of the guidance or recommendations provided by my superviser. And I do have one eye to what the examiners will read and how I might justify what I have written, to the extent that I have cited my intended examiners’ work.

But if that’s all my PhD is for, it would probably be pulped after viva instead of being available in the library. instead, it becomes another brick in the wall of knowledge, waiting for others to build on it. So my PhD is for other researchers.

But I don’t intend that my PhD collects dust in an academic library, hoping that someone finds it. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one around, does it make a sound? Similarly, as Hegel argued, does my research exist if there is no one to at least acknowledge or recognise it. One of my favourite metaphors for doing a PhD is pregnancy and childbirth, complete with labour pains; why would I not want to show off my baby? not just at conferences and in articles, but a book,this blog and other social media channels. My PhD started life as an environmental problem. Well, I do think it may or may not suggest particular policy actions. I hope its not presumptuous of me to think that my PhD is for society.

Finally, before I started, I prayed that whatever I produced from my research would not contradict the Bible. As far as I can see, God has answered my prayer. Indeed, my research has given me a greater understanding of many of the paradoxes in christianity. Furthermore, Hegel’s philosophy is obviously influenced by christianity and one cannot deal with him without dealing with the spirituality, which is heavily interwoven in it. So in the end my PhD is for God.

What does a PhD and an Olympic medal have in common?

I have been distracted by the Olympics the last week or so and, as I watched Team GB scoop up medals, I noticed certain similarities between a PhD student and an Olympic athlete. (Of course, in its totality, doing a PhD is nothing like an Olympic sport.)

One could argue that it takes 3-4 years of intellectual training and gymnastics to produce a thesis. But it all comes down  to your performance in the viva, which I understand to be a stressful and nervewracking experience. Of course, there has to be something to defend, so the time and commitment to research and write and learning to be a researcher are one’s training for the viva. Indeed, Professor Vernon Trafford argues in his book “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate” that preparation for viva begins on day one of the PhD programme, just as training for London 2012 arguably started when Beijing 2008 ended.

Submission is therefore qualification to take part in viva, which is where the real testing begins. Our thesis is subjected to real examination and only those that are strong enough get the medal of a PhD. As in the race between Victoria Pendleton and Anna Mears or in the individual showjumping, it comes down to discussions between the examiners and we’ll get either gold (no amendments), silver (minor amendments) or bronze (major amendments). Of course, we’ll train and hone our skill through conferences, articles, teaching and so on but without the PhD, nothing else really matters.

At the end of the day, we have to have confidence in our thesis as the athletes do in their ability. our success depends on our own entourage too. Unfortunately, we can’t look to the atmosphere of the crowd in the viva, but I guess we could simulate it beforehand using social media.

There are probably other parallels I could draw. But there are two key differences: an Oympic career is usually over by the age of 40 (unless you are a showjumper) but a PhD can be done at any age and it can often mean the start of something new. Also we get to wear funny costumes (again, like a showjumper).

If you can think of any other parallels between a PhD and an Olympic medal, please comment.

My thesis in four words

In a flash of inspiration, I have reduced my thesis down to four words. One picture speaks 80,000 words?

 

The Bible – God’s Thesis

There are many different ways to read the Bible. Some people choose to read it literally, which is problematic because not every part is meant to be a chronological narrative. Others read it christologically where every bit points to Jesus. Others will look for consistent patterns throughout or even as a love letter from God. I would like to posit it, in the greatest respect, as God’s Thesis.

Firstly, the Bible can be divided into sections equivalent to that of a thesis. The first 11 chapters of Genesis, from creation to the tower of Babel, is his introduction. It is difficult to argue that it is historical. It seems more mythical. It therefore succinctly states God’s overall argument: I created man, man disobeyed me, but I will save them even though no-one deserves because I love man. This is best captured in the story of Noah, who trusted God and did something which sounds ridiculous and unreasonable – build a boat miles away from water – because the boat  became the source of salvation through God’s power. (Ok, so God was a researcher-participant.) Noah’s drunkenness and Tower of Babel emphasises man’s ongoing capacity to sin, even after being saved.

From Abraham through to the letter of Jude, including the gospels, God presents his evidence and analysis for his overall argument. of course, there are many things which point to Jesus but also many references to first 11 chapters, including Jesus. The conclusion of God’s thesis is the book of Revelation. It summarises the evidence and reveals God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Bible has also been put together like an academic thesis. God is the lead author with a large research team whom he has selected himself. Many of his team had other jobs. Not all the material written or researched has made the final cut, indeed the value of some of the writings, such as Hebrews and 2 Peter, was not seen until quite late in the day. One could say the real writing up didn’t really begin until about 300 AD and the various church councils. In a sense, his thesis has been complete for 1,500 years and since then God has focused on teaching and the conference circuit. Obviously, one cannot draw exact parallels between God and an academic, after all knowledge is created by him in the first place.

Finally, everyone calls it God’s Word or logos. In other words, the Bible describes his underlying reasoning, i.e. his argument or thesis. Of course, no post of mine would be complete without mentioning Hegel. The Bible is arguably a dialectical text; it deals with the paradox of God’s love and wrath, of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, and of God’s as divine and as human. It includes many things which seem ridiculous, not least the idea of God dying. So, God’s Word is not just a thesis but a synthesis of a thesis and antithesis. As a dialectical text, it also a conversation between God and his creation.

As a PhD student and Christian, I have sought to ensure that everything I read is within a biblical framework (or at least I hope so) but still true to the text. One could argue that research is all about understanding God (the author) through understanding the world (his creation). This ultimate purpose of research – among all the other human reasons – is reflected in the The Bible.

Responsibility to defend my thesis

The Good Samaritan by George Frederic Watts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What does it mean to be responsible?

I found out this weekend that trying to explain/defend my thesis to a lay person is far more challenging than defending it to an academic. But I strongly recommend it.

My thesis is: “The purpose of law is just to remind people of their responsibility and not specifically to change their behaviour.”

When I stated this thesis to a couple of guys from church, practitioners in engineering and software development respectively, it led to the following paraphrased questions which, for whatever reason, I have not been asked in an academic setting.

(1) Surely law is suppose to change behaviour from undesirable to desirable otherwise what’s the point?

Yes, one of the consequences of law could be a change in behaviour. But I would argue that it is a question of causality. Behavioural change is a potential consequence of a law but that is only because the law has reminded the person of their responsibility. In other words, the influence of an external force such as law triggers something inside about  what someone should do. But, just because someone is being “told” what to do, it does not automatically follow that they will do it. There can be other factors, both internal and external, that can either make it easier or more difficult or more or less preferable to behave in a certain way. So, what one does is usually the result of an internal discussion. Of course, the longevity of the law points to its success at leading to changed behaviour but that is not the same as directly causing it.”

(2) So law is about making people feel guilty?

No, the idea of generating guilt stems from a misconception of responsability. The law reminds people of their ‘response’ ‘ability’, that is their ability to respond to the needs of others, the environment, etc.  In other words, one has responsibility to others to the extent that one is able to respond. So, in the hypothetical example that was posed to me, if I am standing on the bank of a river or lake and I see someone drowning, in principle I would have a responsibility to jump in and save them. But, of course, if I cannot swim, I cannot be held responsible for that. If a phone, I could be responsible for calling the emergency services (perhaps). But if the battery is down or there is no signal or I am out of money, I cannot be held responsible for that. And so on. the point is, I am only responsible to do whatever I can do in the circumstances of the time. This is a version of the Good Samaritan law (love your neighbour as yourself).”

My particular area of specialism is environmental law, in particular household recycling. If the authorities want me to behave in a certain way – be responsible by recycling – in a specific situation, then the onus is on them to make it easier for me to do so. Yes, they need to provide an appropriate number of receptacles which are emptied at an appropriate frequency. But does the physical environment in which I live make it more difficult for me to  recycle or put the bins out? What can I do to make it easier and what can they do? Am I able to buy enough products in recycled packaging and how do I know it can be recycled? This is  an extension of the political philosophy known as libertarian paternalism. But, the state’s role is not just about influencing behaviour or nudging  whilst enabling freedom of choice, it is about empowering the individual to be a responsible or moral being.

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