Reasons and Research

Hello all.

And so the purgatorial period of exams conclude. Mine went… Well, they went. And now that they’ve went, they’ve gone, and that’s just that. It can be disquieting to ruminate too seriously over what you’ve just produced in an exam – I always imagine it as akin to the experience of hooking your brain up to some sort of monitor that gives data on the strength of your brain activity, and then being quite underwhelmed at the flatlining read-outs.

A cheery opener for you.

That said, over the course of revision I did try and implement the techniques that Magdelena instilled us with over the Leadership Weekend, and they did bear fruit. I think I probably had my most productive revision period ever at St. Andrews. I was much more focused, and was able to finish tasks in their entirety, rather than just plodding along to the exam hall just ‘knowing a bit’ about each topic. Nevertheless, right toward the end it was hard going, it always is. Sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and sometimes even the spirit gives up the ghost (excuse the pun).

I just finished the online research ethics module. Interesting stuff. It’s often useful for one to step back and survey one’s own implicit biases before one traverses any mode of inquiry whatsoever, and I guess that the module was designed to render explicit those possible biases. My only criticism is that it didn’t really pertain to my research. Philosophical research is broadly quite innocent, in a sense. Read, talk, write, repeat, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, it was good to have a look over those ethical issues.

My research commences officially next Monday, but I’ve already met up with my supervisor, and started doing some preparatory reading for it. As luck would have it, from 1st-2nd of June, the philosophy department are actually running a conference on pretty much the very topic that I’m researching. Some very well known thinkers in the field will be attending, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to meet a few of them and have a chinwag. I think I’ll take this opportunity to provide an unsolicited overview of what my research actually involves.

My research bestrides two main fields in philosophy, Practical Rationality (which asks questions like ‘under what conditions can my actions be construed as rational?’, and more broadly, ‘what is it for me to have a reason to act in a certain way?’), and Meta-Ethics, (which asks questions like ‘what is morality? Is it objective? Is it Subjective?’ and so on). In particular I’m studying the effects and repercussions that a theory in the former field, known as ‘Reasons-Internalism’, has on the latter field. Reasons-Internalism posits that you have a normative reason, (a reason that counts in favour, or against, you performing a certain action), to act in a certain way, if and only if you have a desire or goal that will be served by acting in that certain way. You have a reason to fill in your blog post, because you have a desire that will be satisfied in doing so, namely your desire to complete one of the requirements of being a Laidlaw intern. So in essence your reasons depend on what desires or aims you have. However this quite intuitive picture runs up against a problem known as The Central Problem. The Central Problem for Reasons-Internalism can be characterised as follows: if my reasons depend on my desires, then what if I have no desire to be moral? If Reasons-Internalism is true, then it would follow that I have no reason to be moral. But isn’t morality supposed to be objective? Isn’t it supposed to give reasons to agents, irrespective of what desires they might have? It is these issues that I’ll be getting into over the course of my research.

The hawkish chap in the photo Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here’s an epithet of his;  “It seems to me that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed ‘Wisdom’. And then I know exactly what is going to follow. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.

A cheery closer for you.

Ludwig Wittgenstein , schoolteacher, c. 1922  Permission, courtesy of the Joan Ripley Private Collection; Michael Nedo and the Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge; and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Ludwig Wittgenstein , schoolteacher, c. 1922
Permission, courtesy of the Joan Ripley Private Collection; Michael Nedo and the Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge; and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.



Deforestation and global cooling: Wood you believe it?

Taking part in the Laidlaw research internship has afforded me the opportunity to closer examine an urgent environment problem using a unique approach. It has long been established that deforestation reduces the ability of the land to assimilate CO2, leading to a rise in atmospheric CO2 and a subsequent increase in mean global temperature. Although some deforestation projects are aimed to be ecologically beneficial; e.g. restoration of peat bog habitats for birds in the Forsinard Flows of the Scottish Highlands, the impact of such projects on the Earth’s radiation budget and global warming is still not fully understood.

Areas that have been deforested as part of the RSPB peat bog restoration programme in the Forsinard Flows Reserve, Scottish Highlands.

Areas that have been deforested as part of the RSPB peat bog restoration programme in the Forsinard Flows Reserve, Scottish Highlands.

My research so far has involved using a variety of data sets to quantify the albedo (how reflective the Earth’s surface is) of sites, which have been deforested in the Forsinard Flows Reserve (as shown in the above image). Greater albedo values mean that the surface reflects more energy back into space – leading to a cooling effect. Albedo data has been obtained from the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument aboard the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites. Comparison of this data with carbon cycle data gives critical insight into which process is most significant in altering the climate in terms of deforestation; the carbon cycle or changes to albedo. If it is found that a significant increase in albedo accompanies deforestation, then this may impact the way in which deforestation is viewed in terms of it’s role in climate change.

I have noticed that although the project does not require leadership of other people, self-leadership is proving to be vital in ensuring that my time is used productively and effectively. I anticipate that over the following weeks my research will allow me to develop these skills which can be applied to my academic work in my final year at St Andrews.

Getting to grips with Greece (and Google!)

Dear Laidlaw interns,

Like a lot of you, I’ve been trying to make the best possible use of time between finishing my exams and beginning my Laidlaw internship. What this means is that I’ve probably spent more time in the library in the last two weeks than I had so far this entire semester! My internship begins at the start of July in Athens, so there’s lots of work to be getting stuck into before then.

The organisational side of this preparation has definitely been helped along by our first Leadership weekend. Thinking about how to allocate my time, budget and energy is already becoming a key part of the work I’m currently doing. My internship consists of travelling to lots of different sites in the Greek islands to research very early Christian churches, so at the moment I’m putting together a realistic itinerary and costing for each island. There are other practical elements to address – learning a bit more conversational Greek for example, and figuring out the best ways to travel without a car – but in these next few weeks I hope to get a head-start and be ready to go when July comes around.

On the research side, I’ve been reading in stages; from basic archaeological guides, to more specific articles, and right up to excavation reports for particular sites from the last few decades. I’ve also been teaching myself how to get the most from Google Earth as a research resource – so much so that I wonder how archaeologists ever worked before the internet and our amazingly simple access to satellite images. One thing that I’m finding simultaneously exciting and intimidating is just how little work has been done in this area before. On one hand, I feel quite nervous that I’ll find myself feeling lost without previous work to refer to; but on the other hand, it’s a thrill to think that this research is in a relatively new field of interest and could make a real impact – even if only in the smallest way!

I hope you’re all feeling just as nervous and excited as I am, and I can’t wait to hear more about your projects in the coming weeks and months,


Putting Google Earth to good use: Working out an itinerary for Kea by marking key sites to visit with yellow pins.

Putting Google Earth to good use: Working out an itinerary for Kea by marking key sites to visit with yellow pins.


Learning from the leadership weekend

The Library – where I will spend the majority of the next 10 weeks

It’s been just over a week since my last exam, and it’s just over a week till my internship begins, and I have been trying to use the time between the two productively. I completed the online workshop on research ethics, and gained a deeper appreciation of the ethical questions that research can pose. I am lucky in that my project will not involve any human subjects, but it was useful and interesting to learn the safeguards and conventions that are in place to protect the people who contribute to research, both as researchers and subjects. I plan to complete the online module in Research Methods over the next week, and prepare for the start of the internship so that I will be able to hit the ground running, and I am starting to get excited for when my internship really begins.

When, immediately after the first leadership weekend, I started to study for my exams, I found myself using some of the productivity techniques learned over the weekend to make the most of the short period before my first exam. One of the most useful things I learned was how to self-evaluate and ensure that I was using my time efficiently and productively. The leadership weekend helped me to realise that I can criticise my own actions and evaluate them to ensure that there was nothing I could reasonably do to make my revision more productive. Indeed, the simple act of analysing my revision gave a massive boost to my confidence as I really felt that I could learn everything I wanted to the level I wanted because I had made plans and had the motivation to stick to them.

One of the most valuable things I gained from the leadership weekend was an appreciation that there are many different styles of leadership, and each individual leader can tailor their approach in order to get the most out of their colleagues, and it isn’t always the one who shouts the loudest who would be the best leader in a given situation. I think this has given me a lot of self-confidence about my own leadership abilities, and I am looking forward very much to my next opportunity to practise these skills.