Monday, February 27, 2006

Larry Arnhart Blog

Larry Arnhart has a blog here (hat tip: Timothy Sandefur posting on The Panda’s Thumb).

Several years ago I read Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature. In the book, he draws together biological evidence and philosophical argument to paint a compelling picture of how human morals are derived from our biological nature. I found this to be a very valuable book.

I have ordered but not yet read his more recent book which shares a name with the blog, Darwinian Conservatism. The extension of his ideas into implications for political philosophy was a part of the earlier book, but not its emphasis (if memory serves). It looks like this area is the focus of the new book. My preconceived thought is that I’m less likely to agree as much with his conclusions in this area, but I’ll keep an open mind and report back here after I’m done reading.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Gospel of Mary

The New Yorker had an interesting article last week on Mary Magdalene and her evolving status in Western culture and the church.

In the article, the author, Joan Acocella, says: “The crucial development in Magdalene scholarship was the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.” This 1945 find in Egypt contained a wealth of previously unknown religious and philosophical writings from early Christianity. Acocella confuses things a bit though by implying that the Gospel of Mary (which she discusses next as the “key text”) was part of the Nag Hammadi cache. It was discovered separately (first acquired by a German scholar in Cairo in 1896, but not published until after WWII).

Anyway, in addition to mentioning Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (a great book) for its analysis of the Nag Hammadi texts, Acocella discusses several books on Mary Madgalene. A work she surprisingly omits is one I read a couple of years ago on the subject and can highly recommend: Karen L. King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.

The Gospel of Mary offers an intriguing insight into an early church community. King, a scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, compares its theology to other Gnostic works (she says it doesn’t necessarily fit well in the presumed template of Gnosticism), to the canonical New Testament, and to Hellenic thought. She sketches how this work sheds light on the historical development of Christianity prior to the settling of orthodoxy. King also discusses the implied prominent role of women in emerging Christianity. While Mary herself was not the author of the gospel bearing her name (it almost surely dates to the second century), and we can’t even be sure that a woman wrote it, it likely reflects theology developed at least in part by women.

Of all the wild and crazy stuff in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, I think you can take away one grain of truth: The crucial role of Mary in the canonical gospels (as the first discoverer of the truth of the resurrection) together with the implications from the Gospel of Mary point to an early Christian milieu where Mary in particular and women in general were more prominent than the later orthodoxy would have one believe.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Disliking Qualia

I've said in the past that when discussing phenomenal conscious experience, I disliked talking about "qualia". The "hard problem" of consciousness is better appreciated by stressing the first-person nature of experience. The term qualia tends to evoke disembodied contents of experience, which the materialist has an easier time trying to explain.

Uriah Kriegel, writing yesterday on Desert Landscapes, spoke about his own dislike of qualia (in response to a comment on this post). I thought his explanation was helpful. [UPDATE: 3 March 2009. I removed the broken links to the defunct Desert Landscapes blog] Here's what he said:

The reasons I don’t like qualia talk are two.

Less important is the fact that some people use the term for properties that are definitionally non-representational and non-functional, while others use it as for properties that are definitionally those properties that make a mental state phenomenally conscious. On the latter definition, qualia may or may not be representational or functional. Much confusion ensues, when often someone might accuse someone else of qualia eliminativism and the charge remain ambiguous as between (i) the willingness to embrace representationalism or functionalism about consciousness and (ii) the willingness to claim that consciousness doesn’t exist.

More important is the fact that it connotes a conception of phenomenal character that I think is mistaken. On my view, the phenomenal character of my sky experience – the bluish way it is like for me to have the experience – has two component: qualitative character (bluishness) and subjective character (for-me-ness). The problem with qualia talk is that it connotes a conception of phenomenal character as nothing more than what I call qualitative character. My view, of course, is that this conception is flat wrong, and there’s more to phenomenal character than qualitative character. Now, I realize that this is controversial and many people would be happy to identify phenomenal and qualitative character, and leave what I call subjective character out of phenomenal character. But I think this should be treated as a substantive phenomenological claim, not something that just comes with the definition of phenomenal character. When people use the term qualia for phenomenal character, they effectively write off subjective character without argument. (They don’t necessarily have to, but that’s just what the term “qualia” connotes, simply in virtue of its phonological affinity to “qualitative.”)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

On Midi-chlorians

Attention: first geeky “Star Wars” post on this blog.

When the original Star Wars came out I was 13 years old and was duly blown away. I thought the "Force” was a pretty cool aspect of the movie, but that was as far as it went. Later on (college?), I heard some fans talk about the Force as if it were a seriously interesting philosophical idea. I disagreed and thought it was actually pretty lame on closer inspection.

Obi-Wan explained the Force thus: “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” Why is the Force only associated with living things (although it somehow binds the galaxy)? It seems like a kind of old-fashioned vitalism. There seems to be a kind of interactive dualism of Force and material world – this is basically is a traditional Cartesian template. This was reinforced when Obi-Wan’s spirit appeared after death. As an aside, I also thought the idea of the dark and light sides of the Force to be naïve and simplistic.

My kids are into Star Wars now, and as a result I’ve watched the prequel trilogy several times on DVD. And in contrast to my thoughts above I actually kind of liked the “Midi-chlorian” idea (once I made out the dialogue). Here’s Qui-Gon: “Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside within the cells of all living things and communicate with the Force.” He goes on to describe the relationship of humans and Midi-chlorians as symbiotic. Now, I think the status of Midi-chlorians as natural entities is an improvement on the mysterious spirit world of the force. I still don’t like that they are limited to living organisms – I think a system in which livings things are more clearly co-extensive in nature with the non-living world would be better. (Also, let me steer right past Anakin’s immaculate conception via Midi-chlorians). Still, I liked the fact that Midi-chlorians at least partly put the force back into the natural world. This is closer to a more interesting panexperientialist or pantheist worldview than the original dualistic worldview of the force.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sober on Design

I’d say this critique by Elliott Sober is recommended reading on the design argument. It’s a comprehensive and detailed paper, but in good blog fashion I’ll try to briefly summarize the key idea here.

The design argument says the probability of our observing an object in the world (an eye, a bacterial flagellum) is greater given the hypothesis of it being designed as compared to the hypothesis that it was produced via a mindless chance process. The problem is that the argument itself lacks any support for this. What independent evidence do we have as to the designer’s motives and abilities? The answer is none, unless we bring in assumptions about the designer from outside the argument itself.

The argument appeals to an intuition or belief some people have about what the designer is like and what kind of things the designer would be capable of and motivated to create.

Interestingly to me, Sober turns around and shows how the same analysis can critique the argument against theism from the problem of evil (and/or the suffering of the innocent). For one to assume the existence of evil is an argument against the existence of God, one is assuming God has a certain set of abilities and motivations. What is the independent basis for these attributes?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Meier's Quest, Part 3

Here are sketches of a few results reached by John P. Meier in his quest for the historical Jesus as well as a look ahead to the likely themes from the awaited fourth volume of A Marginal Jew. The first two posts in this series are here and here.

Early Years

Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives “score” poorly on the criteria for historical value. They lack multiple attestation (the two stories diverge greatly), embarrassment (they fit the evangelists’ promotional agenda), and discontinuity (they seek to establish connections with OT prophecy). While it is frustrating, we must accept that what little we learn about the historical Jesus will not include his life prior to undertaking his ministry. Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; the first thing we may reasonably be confident of knowing in his chronology is that he became attracted by John the Baptist’s movement in the Jordan Valley, prior to striking out on his own. Meier sketches some plausible scenarios for what Jesus’ family and community life was like, but these are just educated guesses based on what scholars have learned about the place and time.

Jesus and the Baptist

Jesus’ submission to baptism by John is very likely to be historical (criterion of embarrassment); recall also that John’s existence is buttressed by Josephus. Jesus’ respectful words toward John (see Matthew 11:11) likely indicate that the relationship between the two was too well known to be suppressed. It is not clear if Jesus was actually a disciple of John; there are good indications that baptism continued to be practiced as part of Jesus’ own ministry (John 3:22).

The Kingdom of God

Meier examines the message of the kingdom of God in great depth. He comes to the conclusion that there is historical value in several passages where the kingdom reflects a future eschatology and also in some of those which profess the kingdom’s presence in the temporal works of Jesus. While this seems contradictory to our modern ear, the message seems purposefully complex. Meier describes it as a “multi-faceted, multi-layered symbol” which challenged the way the people thought and lived in the present day as they prepared for their final salvation.


Meier embarks on a lengthy and serious study of each miracle story. This is an area where he sees himself reaching distinctive conclusions. Against the usual divide between a priori rejection and uncritical faithful acceptance, Meier wants to keep a critical but open mind. While understanding the limits to what we can know (lacking videotape recordings or laboratory controls!), he contends that several of the exorcisms and healing stories are very likely historical in the sense that they were believed to be miraculous by eyewitnesses at the time of their occurrence. Jesus’ popular following and his attraction of enemies can be largely traced to this miracle-working. Meier also concludes that Jesus was at least thought to have raised the dead during the time of his ministry. The passages describing so-called nature miracles, on the other hand, have little historical value.

Where’s Volume Four?

The introduction to the first volume of A Marginal Jew, published in 1991, envisioned a two-volume work. The first volume covered an introduction to methods and criteria, an examination of chronology, a look at Jesus’ family and community environment, and a review of the infancy narratives. The massive second volume from 1994 covered the relationship with the Baptist, the examination of Jesus’ central message of the kingdom of God, and the review of the miracle stories. Then, after a long wait, 2001’s third volume was a bit of a digression from the main story. In that volume, Meier expanded the circle to examine Jesus' relationships with other groups of people: his apostles and followers as well as the Pharisees and other religious and political groups.

At the end of Volume 3, Meier still had four key topics to address: Jesus’ teachings on the Law, the parables, how Jesus referred to himself, and finally, the passion -- a lot of territory to cover!

One area he evidently will avoid completely is an explicit review of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. Here is the relevant comment from the introduction to volume one: “… a treatment of the resurrection is omitted not because it is denied but simply because the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters that can be affirmed only by faith.” While the reticence is understandable, this is a bit of a dodge. In his treatment of miracles, Meier carefully distinguishes between those likely to trace back to contemporaneous reports (for instance, the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52), and those which he thinks are much more likely a complete creation of the early church (e.g. walking on water).

Anyway, here’s hoping that Meier, who mentioned some health problems in the introduction to volume 3, comes through with the conclusion to his work. It’s an outstanding achievement already.

[UPDATE 16 March 2009: Meier will publish his volume 4 in May 2009 (amazon link); it is mainly about the relationship between Jesus and the mosaic law, and so apparantly it is not intended as a concluding volume.]