Friday, January 27, 2006

Origin of Life Articles

This post by PZ Myers links to two articles on research into the origin of life. I didn't see any mention of an explicit role for Quantum Mechanics.

By the way, if case any of you haven't seen it yet, scienceblogs has usefully gathered together a number of good bloggers in one site.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Revisiting Design and Reason Arguments

What follows is based on a response I made to a recent anonymous comment on this old post (in which I had offered out a ridiculously abbreviated disquisition on the plausibility of God’s existence).

Since I wrote that, I have thought more about ID and the design argument, and it may be I’ve been a little too harsh. The problem is that most people associate ID with supernatural macro-level interventions into the world. For instance, they try to point to specific structures (it used to often be the eye; more recently much talk about a bacterial flagellum) and say: “look, this is too complex to have evolved, it appears to be designed -- therefore, God or some other agent must have stepped in and created it.” This type of ad hoc intervention (theologically, a variety of “special creation”) I continue to believe is highly implausible.

But I could take another view of the design argument, as follows. One might suspect that some of the phenomena exhibited by living things won’t be completely explained by classical mechanism “all the way down”. Methodological naturalism, and the compelling evidence for natural selection and common descent, can be accepted as per the consensus scientific paradigm, yet one might plausibly think there is something in the micro-fabric of the world which exhibits a spark of agency, a datum of experience, sufficient to allow life, intentionality and consciousness to later emerge. This indirect design argument is plausible, in my view, and is arguably supported by some interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Now, “Intelligent Design” is not a good label for this kind of view. But it is perhaps a more modest cousin of ID.

Of course, I would never hold up the view I sketched as an alternative to or a critique of evolutionary biology. This is the dimension of the ID movement that I oppose completely. The discussion here is at the level of metaphysics, not science.

Speaking of arguments I’ve rejected too quickly: in this post I cavalierly dismissed the “argument from reason”. In the past, I have thought the best arguments against materialism which can be derived from the phenomena of human consciousness were those based on the irreducibility of “bare” experience or intentionality. I assumed our advanced human ability to reason was a kind of cognitive logical engine grafted on through natural selection which could be explained fairly conventionally in terms of a functional or computational model. Thinking about our ability for modal reasoning, however, has led me to begin to rethink this. Since there is no place in materialism for “real” possibility, yet it is intrinsic to our reasoning, there may here be the basis for an “AfR”. This is something I want to give more thought to.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Davies on Quantum Biology

I mentioned in this recent post that I thought efforts to investigate the possible role of quantum mechanics in human consciousness might be putting the “cart before the horse”. That is, I wondered if we can learn whether QM effects were utilized in simpler biological systems. So, I’ve been casting about for information on this topic.

Paul Davies wrote an article entitled “Does quantum mechanics play a non-trivial role in life?” (2004)which seemed to be a good brief review of the topic.

While Davies has written a large number of popular books and articles on scientific and philosophical subjects which appear pretty speculative (I’ve not read him before), this article seems like a clear-eyed survey of scholarly research on this subject.

And it does have a sobering conclusion. The subject, as summarized in the article, is very long on circumstantial evidence and hints, but he characterizes the case for quantum biology as one of “not proven”. A crucial challenge is related to decoherence. Quantum information processing effects which make use of coherent entangled quantum states need to be sheltered from and co-exist with other biochemical processes which appear to operate in decohered states which can be classically analyzed.

The good news is that there seem to be many leads to be followed up by researchers (Davies lists 7 areas of possibility in addition to the general area of “origin of life”); the bad news is there wouldn’t seem to be any results yet that would force greater attention to the area among those inclined to presume the classical paradigm is good enough.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Meier's Quest, Part 2

Here are some brief notes on John Meier’s goals, sources and criteria in his work on the historical Jesus.

The goal of objectivity

Meier offers the best take when he quotes Karl Rahner’s phrase “asymptotic goal” when speaking of his effort to be objective. Meier tries hard and shows us he’s trying hard through the transparancy of his work. He lays out his methodology clearly, so we can follow along and decide if he’s consistent in applying it throughout. Also, he provides truly voluminous endnotes so we can compare his conclusions with those of other scholars.

“Prescinding” from faith

Meier is a catholic priest. So what is all this talk of objectivity about?! How could he possibly be objective? He admits his biases will reflect his working out of the catholic context. But Meier draws a strict distinction between what he knows about Jesus through research and what he knows through his faith. He will prescind from or bracket his faith for the purposes of the project. It seems to me that he achieves this goal. I speculate that this is something evangelical Protestants and even some conservative Catholics would not or could not do.

The “unpapal” conclave

Meier invokes an imaginative metaphor for his effort at objectivity: he pictures an “unpapal” conclave consisting of a Catholic, a Protestant, and Jew and an Agnostic, “locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library” forced to hammer out a consensus document on the historical Jesus.

Why a “Marginal Jew”?

Marginality is a theme which touches the subject from several angles. While the resurrected Jesus is absolutely central to Christian faith, the historical Jesus seems to have existed on the margins of his family, his society, his religion; he is a figure on the bare margins of political history, certainly.


The canonical gospels are the primary sources of evidence on the historical Jesus. There are a very small number of verses elsewhere in the NT that are useful. The non-canonical gospels and apocrypha add essentially nothing of real value, according to Meier. Some other scholars do see more value in texts like the Gospel of Thomas or, in John Dominic Crossan’s case, the Gospel of Peter, but these are minority opinions. Of the canonical gospels, some scholars place very little emphasis on John, given its thorough-going theological agenda, but Meier sees some good nuggets in John.

Outside of the NT, Meier gives a detailed treatment of the text with the best claim to attest to the existence of Jesus: this is the work of the Jewish-Roman writer of histories named Josephus. Josephus’ work includes references to Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, and John the Baptist. The texts also include a brief passage about Jesus as well one on his brother James. The problem is that the text show clear signs of later Christian tampering. So was the reference to Jesus inserted, or was a legitimate reference bulked up and embellished? Meier provides a detailed analysis (as well as his own translation) and concludes it is possible to reconstruct a core which existed prior to Christian tampering. The analysis certainly seems plausible and may be becoming the majority view among scholars, although it must be said that we will probably never have consensus.

The difficulty of the project

Before listing Meier’s criteria for judging NT material, I should stress again that we are looking at creating the best historical construct possible from limited evidence. There is no hope that we can capture what the “real” Jesus was like beyond an outline or sketch. One needs to be skeptical of anyone voicing too-detailed opinions about Jesus’ psychology and motivations in particular, as opposed to measured assessments about the relative historical value of various sayings and actions and some limited inferences about how he related to his time and place and thought of his mission and message.


1. Embarrassment
In considering this criterion as well as others, remember again the central problem of analyzing the gospels is that the writers and editors were not striving to create an historical record. Writing from a vantage point several decades removed, they edited, embellished and created material to support and advocate the early church community of which they were a part. The point of the criterion of embarrassment is that anything remaining in the gospel texts which would have been embarrassing to these church communities has a relatively strong claim to historicity. An example might be Peter's denial of Jesus in the passion narratives. With Peter a leader of the early Church, this event in his life wouldn't have helped his reputation.

2. Discontinuity

What did Jesus say or do which finds no ready parallel in OT tradition, what we know of 1st century Judaism, or in early Christianity? The unique character of sayings or actions may give them a greater claim to be historical. An example might be Jesus' rejection of voluntary fasting (Mark 2:18-22), which was a feature of religious practice before and after him.

3. Multiple Attestation

If a saying or action is found in more than one source, this lends credence to its historical nature. The sources must be independent, of course. Within the synoptics, Matthew and Luke’s repetition of Marcan material does not count.

4. Coherence

If an item has merit on some combination of the first three criteria, then the question of whether it coheres with other material judged historical can be considered a point in its favor. One specific variation of this: does the material cohere with or point toward Jesus’ eventual trial and crucifixion, which is the most historically well supported event in Jesus life based on the other criteria?

Other, lesser criteria include inclusion of traces of Aramaic in the Greek texts, and the authenticity of the Palestinian environment depicted (especially since the evangelists at times seem ignorant of the region).

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Some Post-Holiday Blog Discussions

The Consciousness and Culture blog has a series of posts on a subject near and dear to me: the problem of first-person conscious experience. Ellis tries to deflate the issue a bit in his examination. I resist this in the comments.

Parableman had a good discussion (in two parts) of the cosmological argument. It is difficult to use this argument to conclude there is a necessary first cause, without also concluding everything which exists is necessary. Jeremy tries out a strategy which goes about the argument in a different way to try to avoid this. I don't think it succeeds without additional controversial premises, but it's interesting.

In the comment thread to this post on Philosophy, et cetera, a good point emerges: when arguing about the plausibility of theism, we can't avoid being specific about the details of God's attributes and features. So much discussion seems wasted to me by assuming a false dichotomy between classical Christian theism and materialist atheism.