Thursday, February 24, 2011

There's No Such Thing as the Bible...

...and there never has been, says Timothy Beal. This is the point I tried to make in this essay, but Beal is professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University and has written a whole book about it, so if you don't believe me, check him out.

(H/T James McGrath)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Newton the Heretic

Isaac Newton spent about five years laying down the foundations of calculus as well as those of modern physics. He spent the next twenty pursuing alchemy and theology.

In his typical thorough way, Newton delved deep into the writings of early Christians. He must have read nearly everything that had been written during the first three centuries of Christianity. And he couldn't help noticing that the doctrine of the Trinity, a foundation of orthodox Christianity for over a thousand years, was only propounded and made official in the fourth century.

Europe was still suffering the aftershocks of the Protestant Reformation, and England wavered between Catholicism and Anglicanism, the supporters of each demonizing the others as heretics. But both sides accepted the doctrine of the Trinity as a necessary component of Christian faith. Just try to imagine what it would have meant, in this climate, for someone to question such a basic dogma.

As a member of Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton was required to become ordained in the church. This would have meant a public affirmation of the doctrines of the Anglican church, including Trinitarianism. An unmarried man with no family, there was no plausible reason for Newton to avoid ordination. In the late 1660's, Newton began looking for a new job. But then, in 1669, he was appointed to the Lucasian chair of mathematics. Isaac Barrow, Newton's predecessor in this position had sought, and obtained, exclusion from the ordination requirement for the Lucasian professor - an effort in which he had had the support of none other than Newton himself! Newton was thus able to retain his professorship without damage to his conscience.

Newton, secretive as always, wasn't about to trumpet his conclusions to the world. He did, however, write up for himself a paper on "Two Notable Corruptions" of scripture: two passages that, while appearing in the translations used in Europe and England, nevertheless were absent from some of the earliest manuscripts as well as from the writings of the early Christian fathers. One of these, 1 John 5:7, was the crucial passage that announced
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

...the only place in the Bible that seems unambiguously to declare the Trinity. This passage is now recognized by New Testament scholars as an interpolation - a later addition to the text - for essentially the same reasons Newton cited. Most modern translations omit the verse, or at least insert a footnote remarking that it is missing from some early sources.

Newton did show the paper to some close friends, who encouraged him to publish it. But Newton hated the controversies that had arisen over his rather tame publications on optics - there was no chance he would confront the firestorm sure to ensue if he questioned the Trinity!

A few others among his acquaintances probably knew of, and even shared, Newton's Arian views. During his lifetime his heresy was suspected. But, as he never openly declared his views - and later in life even took to supporting churches and making other nods toward conventional piety - no action was taken against him. In contrast, William Whiston, a close friend who did take the dangerous step of going public with his Arianism, was removed from his professorship in 1711.

After his death, Newton's admirers so thoroughly whitewashed his religious beliefs that it was only in the 20th century that they were once again uncovered by historians.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sean's Challenge

Sean Carroll of the incomparable Cosmic Variance blog has asked his readers to give their best guesses about the probability of some current speculations/theories in fundamental physics. I can't resist:

1.  Inflation - 75%

     This should be some number between 50% and 100%. Since I have no idea what it should be, I'm going with Sean's value because he's much smarter than I am. There are plenty of reasons to like inflation: it explains why the universe is so flat, homogeneous, and isotropic: no mean feat. But the requirements on the inflaton (the particle that provides the phase transformation that drives inflation) seem oddly narrow. Back when Guth introduced the inflationary model, it seemed that the Higgs field could play the role of the inflaton. But now we know that's not possible, so the model is not as economical as one would like.

2. Supersymmetry - 10%

    Since I did my Ph.D. thesis on supersymmetry, I'm sorry to give this such a low value. But I don't see any really compelling reason to think SUSY is out there, and, of course, there's no experimental confirmation so far.

3. String theory - 0.01%

    String theorists have had three decades to some up with some definitive predictions, and so far, nada. I don't expect this to change within my lifetime. String theory is, possibly, interesting math. But it doesn't seem to be anything more.

4. Some form of Higgs boson - 99.9%

   I'm surprised at the low values given this in Sean's poll. Something has to play the role of the Higgs in the Standard Model. I'm allowing 0.1% for the possibility that some mechanism I can't imagine would give us the Standard Model without incorporating anything (particle or condensate) that could reasonably be interpreted as playing the role of the Higgs. Modest of me, I know.

5. Large extra dimensions - 0.0001%

    They require string theory. But string theory doesn't require them. Nuff said.

6. WIMP dark matter - 80%

    As pointed out in the comments on Sean's post, this is oddly specific, given the "Some sort..." and "Any..." of the other options. Some sort of particulate dark matter I put at 99%. I mean, we've SEEN it. But what form that dark matter should take is still very much up in the air. WIMPs (for the uninitiated: weakly interacting massive particles) are the most likely possibility.

7. Any non-cosmological-constant explanation for cosmic acceleration - ??

    I don't understand the question. The evidence to date indicates that dark energy, whatever that is, behaves just like a cosmological constant. Sean seems to be asking if the value of that constant has an explanation, other than "it just is."  Or is he asking if the value doesn't behave like a cosmological constant; for example, does it change over cosmological time? If it is the former, I expect that, some day, we will have a deeper explanation for whatever the value turns out to be. If it is the latter, I have no clue.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On The Human

Thanks to Luke, I just discovered the humanist website On The Human. They have a number of very cool articles, and some interesting comments from readers. Here are two to whet your appetite:

A downer: The Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg, on why life is meaningless.

An upper: Morals without God? by Frans de Waal, on the evolution of morality.