Thursday, December 22, 2005

John P. Meier's Quest for Jesus

This is a new topic for this blog, prompted by my recent re-reading of the three volumes of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.

[UPDATE 16 March 2009: Please note that volume 4 will be published in May 2009 (amazon link). It focuses primarily on the relationship between Jesus and Mosaic Law.]
Sometime in the late 80’s I was browsing in my local library and a book caught my eye: The Quest of the Historical Jesus, by Albert Schweitzer. Both the subject and the author sparked interest. I knew of Schweitzer through his reputation as a great humanitarian doctor in Africa, it turns out he was also a philosopher, theologian and New Testament scholar. And what more fascinating subject could one imagine than the study of what we might discover about the “historical Jesus” (as opposed to the Jesus of religious faith)?

A quick digression: I remembered once as a teenager reading the gospels on my own (possibly for the first time) and being absolutely blown away by noticing the passages in Matthew and Mark referring to Jesus’ brothers. Four are named in Mark 6:3: James, Joses, Judas and Simon; I happen to have four brothers, so did Jesus! How was it that in all those years of (catholic) church and CCD classes, I never heard anything about this?! The status of James as a leader of the early church in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19) makes it yet more surprising that it took so long for me to learn about this. (I later learned that there is a long history in the catholic church of construing the Greek word translated as brother as meaning cousin, but there is little basis for this. Also, I should mention that the passages also refer to Jesus’ sisters – but they are not enumerated or named).

Anyway, while the historical Jesus was a topic I had thought about, I had never before read anything about it. In his book, Schweitzer summarized and critiqued what is now called the “First Quest” (or the “Old Quest’) for the historical Jesus which took place among mainly German scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book, published in 1906, serves as a reference point for the state of scholarship on the subject at the beginning of the 20th century.

Some key themes in modern scholarship already appear in Schweitzer. Foremost is the challenge posed by the paucity of evidence. There are very few useful references outside the canonical gospels. The gospels themselves were written several decades after Jesus’ time. They are formed from composite sources with extensive creative redaction by the final authors – authors who were driven not by a desire to record history but by the priorities of their struggling early church communities. As Schweitzer showed when presenting the work of a great diversity of scholars in his review, the greatest danger is that of merely finding the Jesus of one’s desires or imagination within the skeleton of clues embedded in the gospels. A theme of the book was the conflict between the “rationalists”, who tended to discover a Jesus congenial to the standards of the enlightenment, and theologians who fought a rearguard action to find a Jesus consistent with their faith. Still, there was progress made in some of this early work. For example, a conclusion still regarded as well-founded by most (never all!) scholars is the two-source theory of the Synoptics. This refers to the priority of Mark as the earliest gospel, which was used in turn as a source for Matthew and Luke, and also to Matthew and Luke’s shared use of a written collection of sayings, called the ‘Q’ document. (A brief history of historical Jesus scholarship is here).

The late 80’s and 90’s turned out to be a very active period in the field (the “Third Quest”). The work has benefited from much greater sophistication in source and form criticism and from concurrent advances in the study of the social, political and religious environment of the time and place. But the spectrum of conclusions drawn by scholars is (unfortunately) still very wide.

A great amount of media attention was generated by the Jesus Seminar in this period. The Seminar, founded by Robert Funk in 1985, was composed of a group of 30 or more scholars who met to consider the historicity of the gospels. This effort stirred up much controversy, for 3 reasons that I could see. First, the group approached the task with revisionism in mind. One of the seven pillars guiding the effort mentioned in the introduction to their first work, The Five Gospels, was that the texts were deemed ahistorical until enough evidence showed otherwise; another stated that supernatural material was inherently not historical. Second, they adopted a voting method (using colored beads) which when implemented tended to give greater weight to skepticism (only 18% of the words of Jesus received the highest “red” treatment for historicity). Finally, Funk made public relations a fundamental part of the seminar’s agenda, and this naturally stirred up critics much more than if the debate remained contained in academia. I sometimes thought when reading The Five Gospels that the actual description of the proceedings on the various passages implied a more nuanced and reasonable study than the headlines (and final color coding) implied. The premium placed on generating headlines extended to the title of the book itself: the Seminar elevated the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (found at Nag Hammadi) to a place alongside the canonical gospels. Yet when you looked at the Seminar’s conclusions with regard to Thomas, there was very little in it that they deemed historical which didn’t already have a canonical parallel. Still, the seminar’s overall approach gave critics ammunition for the charge that their methods led to biased outcomes.

This highly publicized conclusion that only a small part of the gospels was historical and the resulting consignment of so many of Jesus’ memorable words and acts to theological and mythological invention by the early church met with vehement opposition. The unfortunate consequence is that it seemed an extreme dichotomy was set before the public: a rational historical look at Jesus leads to radical rejection of most of what was distinctive about the Jesus of the Christian faith; therefore the response of Christians should be to reject the legitimacy of the concept of such a historical project. One prominent critic whose book I read was this one by Luke Timothy Johnson. The book offers some criticism of the research and methodologies of the Seminar and other writers, but it ultimately came down to an argument that the historical project is misguided and the only “real” Jesus is the Christ of faith. Other conservative Christian scholars have engaged in more rigorous defense of the historicity of the gospels with the goal of providing apologetic material to their Christian readers (One example would be William Lane Craig).

But apologetics are of little use to an open-minded reader who wants the best and most objective study of the subject possible. While the Jesus Seminar’s approach may have been biased, apologetics by definition prejudge the matter.

Of the books I’ve read so far, I believe John Meier’s work comes closest to this admittedly impossible goal of objectivity. I will follow up with a another post where I’ll discuss some of the reasons for my opinion and give brief examples of his method and results. For now, here is a link to an article he wrote in 1999 about the third quest which gives a flavor for his approach.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The ID Decision in Dover

I'm pleased with the outcome of the Dover case on Intelligent Design (the decision is here, and a blog post with links about the case is here). I want to emphasize one part of this. What I strongly object to is the effort to place ID in public school science classrooms ("full stop"). I have no objection to full and open debate about the merits of ID in terms of philosophy of science, metaphysics, or, of course, theology. While the judge was extremely harsh regarding the religious motives of the board and the claims that ID was a scientific alternative to evolutionary theory, I think it is important to emphasize this part of the decision's conclusion:

"With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Stapp and Quantum Agents

For several decades now, physicist Henry Stapp has been publishing books and papers which develop an explanation of human consciousness grounded in quantum mechanics (an online list of Stapp’s papers from recent years is here). I just read this new article, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. This particular article includes a review of his general approach in layman-accessible terms, and then highlights his proposed linkage of the efficacy of conscious will to the quantum zeno effect. This is interesting stuff, and I would highly recommend that students of consciousness read Stapp. For now, I have a brief comment (which is off the main topic of the paper) on a set of long standing questions I have about Stapp’s work: if quantum effects are needed to explain the workings of the human brain, aren’t they also needed to explain other macroscopic phenomena? Is it only in the human brain where a classical approximation fails to provide a full explanation? In terms of causation, are human beings the only quantum agents?

In other words, I feel like we’re missing some steps in our description of reality. Humans, after all, evolved from lower forms of life. Life itself was bootstrapped out of the inorganic world. While human consciousness is unique in so many ways, it seems most plausible that humans leverage capabilities inherent in other natural systems, rather than utilize utterly unique mechanisms.

Stapp seems surely right when he says that certain brain processes are grounded in the quantum realm (he cites the size of ionic channels between synapses as being on a scale where quantum effects must exist). But couldn’t this be true of cellular processes outside the brain, too? How about in single-celled animals? If quantum interactions (=measurements) are the raw material of the macroscopic world (as I speculated in my recent post), shouldn’t this be in evidence in realms other than the human brain?

Here’s a comment from Stapp on this (made somewhat as an aside):

"But if one considers the Von Neumann theory to be an ontological description of what is really going on, then one must of course relax the anthropocentric bias, and allow agents of many ilks. Yet the theory entails that it would be virtually impossible to determine, empirically, whether a large system that is strongly interacting with its environment is acting as an agent or not. This means that the theory, regarded as an ontological theory, has huge uncertainties.
However, our interest here is the nature of human agents. Hence the near impossibility determining the possible existence of other kinds of agents, will mean that our lack of information about the existence of those other possible kinds of agents will have little or no impact on our understanding of ourselves."

This seems too quick of a dismissal of the ubiquity of quantum agents. For what it’s worth, here’s my alternative view of how things could work. Macroscopic systems in nature can be described in terms of systems which coordinate quantum micro-agents. The raw material of first person experience and intentionality comes from small quantum interactions, which are then leveraged through special functional networks in human brains to give rise to the familiar large scale features of consciousness. This account would be consistent with the fact that consciousness is tied intimately to the specific structures of the brain while also addressing why the deepest mysteries of consciousness (why there is first person experience and intentionality at all) are impervious to description in classical terms.

The research agenda to get at these issues would include trying to figure out whether single-celled animals might utilize quantum effects and whether quantum physics plays any role in an account of the origin of life.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Local vs. Global Possibility and the Link to Causality

Below is a post inspired by reading this paper by Georgetown’s Alexander Pruss (thanks to Tychic for the pointer to this). It has a number of interesting ideas relating to modality and causality.

Early on in this paper, Pruss makes the point that our every-day modal claims are mainly about “local” or adjacent possibilities. For example, “were I to drop this glass, it would fall”. Importantly, our intuition is to view these claims as being about possibilities local to us in this concrete world, not located in another possible world.

He then discusses the philosophical tradition of analyzing of modal statements in terms of possible worlds -- we might call this a “global” treatment of modality. Pruss concurs with the consensus on this subject that there are compelling analytic reasons to approach modality in this way. He also discusses the idea of truthmakers for modal claims, which leads to a discussion of realist accounts of possible worlds.

He spends part of the paper critiquing two main versions of “possible worlds” modal realism; the concrete version of Lewis, and the abstract versions of Plantinga and Robert M. Adams (with emphasis on Adams). One of his two main critiques of Lewis is the charge that inductive inferences about the future are invalid in this scheme (the second is an argument about ethical paradoxes). We could be in a world where gravity fails tomorrow! This point is familiar from discussions of Hume’s treatment of causation. Lewis’ overall scheme of counterfactual analysis of causation plus modal realism is self-described by him as Humean in spirit, so presumably he wouldn’t have been bothered by this criticism.

Pruss mentions a prominent criticism of abstract possible worlds, which is that what distinguishes one possible maximal state of affairs as our concrete world is unexplained – it is a primitive of the theory.

His next criticism is the important one for where he’s going in this paper: He criticizes the abstract system for the fact that all of these possible worlds already exist, prior to any seeming need for them to explain a local possibility in our concrete world. The simultaneous existence of all these abstract possibilities is a problem for Pruss, because it conflicts with the Aristotelian maxim that “actuality is prior to possibility”. And if the maxim is valid and possibility is grounded in actuality, then it means that the actuality “has some powers, capacities or dispositions capable of producing that possibility, which of course once produced would no longer be a mere possibility.”

This again ties the discussion of modality back to a discussion of causality. Abstract entities are usually viewed as categorically unable to enter into causal relations. Aristotle’s system of causation is a real causal production system which follows from the causal capabilities and dispositions of actual entities in the (concrete) world.

If what Pruss says is right and this Aristotelian view can produce possibilities, could this be the basis for a full alternative treatment of modality which obviates the need for a scheme like Lewis’ or Adams? The idea is that “a non-actual state of affairs is possible if there actually was a substance capable of initiating a causal chain…that could lead to the state of affairs we claim is possible”.

Pruss himself sees two obstacles for this approach. First, while it works for local possibilities, it’s not clear you can get global possibilities (whole possible worlds) out of it. The second problem is the initial grounding of the contingent concrete things to begin with: how did this party get started?

Finishing the paper with a theistic turn, Pruss proposes that a possible solution to these two problems would involve a necessary first cause. A possible world which is not actual would be linked to the actual by following the chain of causation backward until we found a starting point which could serve as a branching point for both worlds. This would be the first cause.

So, starting with an analysis of what makes modal claims true, we’ve taken a roundabout route to the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Whew! (In a second paper here, Pruss has offers further arguments about the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the Cosmological Argument and related topics).

There is lots of thought-provoking stuff here. The point I want to emphasize again is the linkage between solving the problems of modality and causality. David Lewis’ system for handling both topics seems rigorous and consistent, but violates our intuition that real causation and possibility are active in our concrete world. It’s unclear that abstract possible worlds can be linked to causality given the normal view of abstract objects as causally inert, so this is a weakness of this approach. Using one view of real causation, the Aristotelian one, Pruss can get to a treatment of modality, but it requires a big commitment to a necessary first cause to make it work. I'm not sure about that move, but it seems right to me that the path to a solution does does depend on working out a system of real causality.