Monday, July 24, 2006

Musing on QFT Ontology

Spurred by the SEP entry on Quantum Field Theory by Meinard Kuhlmann, I spent some time attempting to draft a blog post about the philosophically problematic ontology of quantum particles and fields (see especially section 5 of the article). I decided I needed to read more on the topic before going further, however (I'd be grateful for recommendations for further reading). In reflecting on Quantum Mechanics itself, I’ve argued the merits of a dual ontology, where interaction/measurement events comprise the concrete macro-world, and the wave function provides a description of a system's natural propensities -- still “real” in an important sense, but not concrete.

But I don’t know enough at this point to flesh this out to a discussion of QFT yet. So, in addition to recommending the SEP article above, I’ll compensate by linking to this blog post at Sigpfe, which puzzles about the meaning of “particles” primarily in the context of the Unruh effect (HT: Reality Conditions). I agree that the notion of a particle makes no sense in anything like the classical meaning although there are indeed “particle” detection events.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Books Unblogged: Biblical Theme

I’ve read a few good books in recent times and have been meaning to mention them on the blog. Here are 3 of them.

Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, received extra attention due to the inclusion in the book of the story of his personal religious journey. Ehrman was an evangelical Christian as a young person but lost his faith during his progression toward becoming a leading New Testament scholar. But the main part of the book is a very well-written introduction (for laypeople) to NT textual criticism, and it is on this basis that I recommend it for those interested in the topic. His account of the detective work involved in tracking the evolution of various manuscripts and teasing out probable copying errors and deliberate scribal alterations is fascinating stuff.

Recently, the early Christian text The Gospel of Judas received a lot of attention in the media. Some of the excitement about the discovery of this text was probably misplaced since there is nothing at all the (likely) mid-second century text tells us about the historical Jesus or Judas. On the other hand, it is rightly welcomed as another valuable window into the variety of early Christian communities, and it is certainly intriguing that one such community identified with Judas and created a revisionist account wherein he is the one disciple to know Jesus’ true nature. I missed the television special but enjoyed reading the book linked above, which includes a translation and 4 essays. In the first essay, Rodolphe Kasser describes the perilous journey of the manuscript from discovery to publication. In the second essay Bart Ehrman gives a very basic overview of the Gospel in the context of the conventional wisdom regarding the relationship of the Gnostic gospels to the proto-orthodox church. While I like Ehrman (see above), I thought this was a fairly weak essay which ignored other interpretations: for more texture on the implications of Judas and the other Gnostic texts on our view of early Christianity, see this NY Review of Books article. In the third essay, Gregor Wurst briefly relates the gospel to the anti-heretical writings of Irenaeus (who wrote about the existence of a Gospel of Judas), and in the final essay Marvin Meyer helpfully explains the strange and complicated cosmology in the Gospel by relating it to parallels in other texts.

The next book, Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, I really only recommend for those who have found Bloom’s previous work rewarding. The book is his rumination on the “characters” of Jesus and Yahweh from a literary, cultural and religious perspective. The main reason for my caveat is that this book seemed sloppily tossed off in stream of consciousness mode. This made it a somewhat exasperating read for me even though I find Bloom to be an insightful thinker. For those that don’t know, Bloom is a prominent and prolific literary critic with a fairly unique yet also traditional (aesthetic) perspective. His initial renown was for his book The Anxiety of Influence, which outlined his approach to criticism. I particularly enjoyed his take on The Western Canon in a subsequent book. He has expanded his attention to wider cultural and religious criticism in other books, and indeed it rings true that he would have long been ruminating on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as the ultimate example of the “Anxiety” (fyi, Bloom is writing from a culturally but not particularly religious Jewish point of view). I was interested to find from this book that Bloom finds the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark in particular to be a compellingly “uncanny” character to rival the Yahweh of the “J” thread of what Christians call the “Old Testament”.