W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

T4 Project Background

{Note: We have changed the name of the T4 Project to Lab Project. This older page still contains useful background information and context. For a more up-to-date description, please visit the Lab Project page.}

Can we use a scientific approach to investigate what goes well beyond the current domain of science? Stated that way, it may seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, the strength of science lies in its limitations. Science only asks questions that are likely to be answerable either within its current frameworks or within modest extensions thereof. There is no room now, nor will there be in the foreseeable future, for questions that consider the totality of human experience, including ethics and aesthetics, values as well as facts.

Whether science in the future may or may not have anything to say about those wider questions, is itself an open question. In any case, it seems very unlikely that science will make that much progress in our own lifetimes. Does that mean that we have to rely on other, more traditional approaches to investigate the structure of reality, when we include meaning, value, responsibility, compassion, love and wisdom, terms that science is not equipped to deal with?

Of course, we can already make interesting and detailed studies of psychological, neuro-scientific and evolutionary aspects of, say, egocentric versus altruistic behavior. However, such third-person descriptive studies are a far cry from authentic, lived, existentially-charged ways of grappling with the human condition, subjects that are better covered by the world's greatest literature. While current scientific frameworks allow for gathering information and drawing interesting evolutionary inferences, they are far from adequate in assisting us to come to grips with questions about the meaning of life, or a sense of calling, or just the question of how to face up to life's everyday challenges.

But what about the scientific approach itself? Science makes progress through a playful exploration of new ideas. Each new idea is cast in the form of a working hypothesis, neither something to believe or to disbelieve, but rather something to keep in mind as a possibility to investigate. Could we use this notion of a working hypothesis beyond its original setting, even when exploring the most radical questions about reality? Well, why not? Only one way to find out: let's try it!

And this is exactly what we have done, during the last nine months. Starting in September, in our WoK Experiment, and continuing in January, in our WoK Practice Intensive, we have attempted to formulate a most radical version of a working hypothesis, starting with the assumption that no limits are absolute, and resulting in a reformulation that all is complete. For an introduction and brief overview, see last month's Editor's Summary.

One of the problems that we have run into is this: it has been difficult to arrive at a precise conceptual formulation of the most radical version of the working hypothesis that we have tried to work with. It may well be that the greatest challenge in working with this radical working hypothesis, wh for short, is to get a real sense for what it implies. If our wh is so radical as to go beyond words and concepts, and even beyond ordinary notions of time and identity, how can we even start working with it? What would `working' with it even mean, if it tells us that there are no workers and no time to work in?

Challenging as our joint activities have been, they also have been rewarding in many ways, as documented abundantly in the WoK Experiment and Practice pages mentioned above. Therefore we have decided to make a third step, the T4 Project, as part of the WoK VR Explorations. Here the name `Explorations' has a rather direct connotation: the main novel ingredient in this new phase of WoK joint research is the use of a 3D on-line virtual reality. Our explorations will thus carry us through a virtual realm!

After extensive investigations, we chose the virtual world of Qwaq Forums, with similarities to Second Life but geared more towards collaborative research in both business and academic settings (an earlier foray in the virtual world of Videoranch resulted in a lecture series that I gave there a couple months ago).

In our Qwaq WoK Forum, we have started a collaborative research project, where a small group of participants meets on a daily basis for short periods of time. Compared to the email exchange nature of the previous two steps, WoK Experiment and Practice, this T4 Project has a more dynamic and intense character. Participants share voice and visual presence in a virtual room, where they can use white boards to write and draw on, share web browsers that hang on virtual walls, and import other 2D and 3D content.

How this new medium will be used in our VR Explorations activities is a completely open question. The atmosphere of our daily meetings so far has reminded us variously of the settings of a coffee room in an academic department, a scientific lab, and a monastery, to mention just three places where daily meetings take place between tightly-knit groups working on joint research.

June 5, 2007

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