Monday, February 25, 2008

The Gospel of Judas, Take Two

I had previously blogged (here) about the Gospel of Judas, a circa second century product of a Sethian gnostic Christian community. The very interesting story of the tenuous survival and laborious reconstruction of the crumbling ancient codex containing the Judas text -- along with a first translation and interpretation -- was the subject of a book and television special sponsored by National Geographic. The National Geographic team of scholars (led by Marvin Meyer) presented the sensational finding that Judas was the hero of the text: the only apostle who really understood Jesus’ divinity, and whose betrayal of Jesus -- necessary to fulfill God’s plan – made him favored above all the apostles.

Following the publishing of the Coptic transcription, other scholars have had a crack at translation and interpretation and some differing and contrary opinions are emerging. A very different take has been offered by April DeConick in her recent book, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.

DeConick, a biblical studies scholar who also has an active and interesting blog, believes that the National Geographic team made several translation errors which led to an overall erroneous interpretation of the message of the gospel (please note that no scholar believes this text has any historical value regarding the actual events of Jesus’ life; rather the interest is in what the text tells us about the beliefs of one of the many early Christian communities opposed to the “apostolic” or proto-orthodox church in the centuries before the time of Constantine). According to DeConick, while Judas does have greater understanding than the other apostles (who are completely misguided), he is nonetheless a doomed and (literally) demonic figure. So while the text is still very much in opposition to apostolic Christianity (indeed she views it as a parody of sorts), the figure of Judas is still to be seen as a bad guy, not the good guy put forth by the National Geographic team.

It is very interesting to see how a handful of translation choices could lead to such greatly contrasting interpretations of the text (although the fact that the text is missing significant passages contributes to the difficulty of all of these efforts). The most important of these choices relates to the translation of the Greek-imported word “daimon” (referring to Judas) as “spirit” by the National Geographic team, and “demon” by DeConick. According to DeConick, the word had evolved from classical times from the general idea of a spiritual entity to the specifically evil connotation by the time of “Judas”. For online discussions of all this, see DeConick’s New York Times op-ed, Marvin Meyer’s response, her Judas blogging and these online reviews of her book. I found DeConick’s arguments persuasive, but as a non-expert I look forward to reading further discussion of this by other commentators.

The book itself has additional merit for those lay readers who are interested in the subject. DeConick includes a very clear discussion of the various “gnostic” communities in play in early Christianity. She is very good specifically on the Sethian movement, to which the author of the Gospel of Judas belongs. Her exposition of the complex Sethian cosmology was very good – I had previously found this to be pretty confusing. The book also includes her complete translation, which provides the reader the context for the interpretative debate.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fetal Pain Article in New York Times

There was an interesting article on fetal pain in the New York Times magazine. I’m not an expert, but I thought it gave a pretty good overview of current scientific/medical viewpoints based on things I had previously read (a previous lengthier post on this topic is here).

My opinion is that given the trend in research findings here (and in related areas like awareness in brain-damaged patients and animals) it is increasingly untenable to keep to a view that only fully developed healthy human nervous systems “count” when assessing whether meaningful first-person experience exists. The pain experience felt by a 20-week old fetus that lacks a developed cerebral cortex will almost certainly differ from ours, perhaps to the point that it shouldn’t be called “pain” at all. But to assume that the stress responses observed are not accompanied by some meaningful correlated experience seems highly dubious. Given the limit on our ability to know “what it’s like” in the absence of a first-person report, it makes sense to err on the side of caution.

UPDATE (25 Feb.2008): please see also the post on this at Conscious Entities.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Dualism of Perspectives, not Properties

[UPDATE 16 March 2009: the link to the Strawson paper below is unfortunately broken -- Strawson has a new home page, but it no longer has the link; the JCS special issue is also available on amazon.]

I recommend Justin’s recent post on his Panexperientialism blog. In it he looks at Fiona Macpherson’s reply to Galen Strawson’s 2006 Journal of Consciousness Studies target article on the mind-body problem: "Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism". Justin critiques section 3 of Macpherson’s article where she compares her summary of Strawson’s view -- which she characterizes as a micro-level variety of property dualism – to a possible alternative view where the experiential properties are the familiar "macro" human experiences. Justin concludes that the “micro” version is the superior view. I agree.

I want to say a few words prompted by the previous section of Macpherson’s paper. This is where she examined Strawson in relation to traditional categories of philosophical views and placed him the property-dualist “box” in the first place.

In addition to the Strawson’s original article and 17 responses including Macpherson’s, the JCS compilation in turn included an extended further reply by Strawson (unfortunately no free online version). My earlier post discussing this is here (more posts on Strawson here). While Macpherson (reasonably) uses excerpts from Strawson’s target article to argue that he is a substance monist (of sorts) and a property dualist, I think it’s important to note that he showed in his reply that he was intent on moving beyond these labels in his quest to understand how concrete reality can be all of one basic character, yet still support both irreducible experiential and non-experiential truths.

Here is my paraphrase of some of his key points (with which I concur).

If we were to resolve the tension between our preference for monism and reality’s apparent split into experiential and non-experiential aspects by giving up our commitment to one or the other aspect, we would be forced to give up the non-experiential. This is because experience is what we know best -- prior to our knowledge of other truths.

If all phenomena are experiential, and there is a pluralism of phenomena, then each phenomenon has both an “inside” and an “outside”. The dualism we seem forced to acknowledge is not an ontological dualism, but a dualism of perspectives. What we think of as non-experiential facts are third-person facts, but they are nonetheless experiential to participating systems. These third-person facts are in fact the causal relations and/or constitutive relations between and among experiential events.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Superfluid Universe

Several advocates of an “emergence” approach to fundamental physics come from the world of condensed matter physics (an old blog post which briefly discussed Robert B. Laughlin’s views is here).

Grigory Volovik is a prominent (and award-winning) theorist who has been working on applying the knowledge gained in his research on superfluids to the case of explaining how gravity and the matter fields of current theory may themselves be emergent features of a deeper reality – a sort of “super” quantum vacuum. {UPDATED 2 February 2008 -- minor edits}

Until recently I had only read a little about superfluids or condensed matter physics. Superfluids have surprising collective behaviors (like zero viscosity) which can be topologically stable despite micro-physical imperfections. Although their characteristics are exhibited at a macroscopic scale, the tools of quantum field theory are needed to explain them. As he explains in this older article (from 1999), Volovik thinks one particular variety of superfluid even displays characteristics which make it a good model for the entire universe: this is the one created by supercooling the He-3 helium isotope. In reaching this conclusion, he explains that the condensed matter system used must be fermionic. We need both fermionic and bosonic fields and in the He-3 superfluid the atoms behave as fermions, and quantum bose fields appear as low-energy collective modes. (Interestingly, in He-4 superfluid, the atoms behave as bosons – who knew? – and I guess there is no analogous way to recover fermions as some collective mode). Now, a He-3 superfluid is not the only fermionic system (or Fermi system) known, and Volovik explains how the topologies differ between the alternatives (he looks at systems which feature a “Fermi surface” as opposed to the “Fermi point” of He-3). He concludes the He-3 superfluid’s topology has the symmetries which create analogous features with the quantum fields of particle physics and also of gravity. It is hard for me to follow the details, but it looks like an impressive match, although Volovik concedes in the article that he hasn’t shown that analogies exist for quite the whole particle zoo of the standard model.

Now, in this recent paper, “Emergent Physics: Fermi point scenario”, one can see that Volovik’s confidence that his work shows the right path to fundamental physics has grown. In the paper, he begins by discussing the cosmological constant problem and the particle mass hierarchy problem, as a prelude to explaining why they are more natural expectations of his model.

First he explains that in a Fermi point vacuum all of physical laws (except for quantum mechanics itself) can be seen as effective laws which naturally emerge at low energy. He discusses again how the symmetries of the Fermi point system give one the fields of particle physics and gravity. He then shows how vacuum energies get nullified in a way that leads to consistency with a low cosmological constant. When it comes to the hierarchy problem, the Fermi point system has elements which come from macroscopic (topologically robust) emergent features and ones which come from micro-structure. The observed masses (or zero masses) of various particles are shown to be consistent (in approximate order of magnitude) with the model. (Again, I have trouble following the specific arguments here, so please see the paper.)

In a concluding section, Volovik explains the contrast between his approach, which treats gravity as an effective emergent theory, and other approaches to quantum gravity which treat general relativity as something fundamental and then try (so far unsuccessfully) to unify it with the standard model.

(Note also that Volovik has a full-length book on this topic, which I have not read, called: The Universe in a Helium Droplet)

This is the first time I’ve grappled with Volovik’s approach and any thoughts I have are extremely tentative. I would say at this point that his model adds to a growing argument that emergent approaches to fundamental physics are promising. On the other hand, it still seems to be more of an analogy rather than a candidate for a fundamental theory. The reason I say this is that the toolkit for analyzing the Fermi point system (and other condensed matter systems) is quantum field theory. The approach, then, seems to have a circular aspect to it: one is trying to explain gravity (among other things) using a theory which has a formalism which embeds a background (flat, special relativistic) space-time. If there could be a way to get the same kind of outcome starting only with (a network of?) elementary quantum mechanical systems, that might be a better candidate for a fundamental theory.