About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A random walk through scripture

One of the things that is hidden by the choice of Bible read is the arbitrary nature of the books selected as divinely inspired. If you look at the various Bibles (compare Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox choices, to say nothing of "heretical" selections such as those of Marcion), one will find a bewildering array of scriptures variously translated, amended, and discarded.

How did the various lists of canonical books emerge? People gather lists of acceptable scriptures based on their preconceived notions of what must be true. I suppose it is due to a human need for authorities that agree with what is already believed. Take Luther's choice: if some books of the canon disagree with his version of the truth, then  the solution is to amend the list of canonical books. This example, of course, is not limited to Luther. Early in the history of the church, Jude quoted the book of Enoch, presumably considered inspired, but this book was later dropped from the list, probably because of some inconvenient passages. 

Even Jude's book was considered as uninspired by some early christians. At our vantage, the records have been smoothed out, because the particular form of the church that triumphed was the one sponsored by Constantine.  But during the time of the early church, there were various kinds of Christianities: the Gnostics, Docetists, Ebionites, Arians etc that because of the roll of the dice, were unable to establish themselves as the common version of christianity. Presumably, they would also have their own list of canonical books. 

The claim that the New Testament canon was well agreed upon by early Christians is doubtful. From the Oxford Bible commentary, I also learned that the New Testament canon was also an issue during early times. Some books, such as the shepherd of Hermas, were included, while others that now form part of the canon. Hebrews, Revelation, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter and Jude were considered by some Christian groups to be of doubtful authenticity. 

Given the uncertainty in the canon, I've always wondered at people who claim that Sola Scriptura is the only way to approach the scriptures. How do we know that the scriptures chosen can be trusted? What reason have we for believing in them? We definitely cannot use them as scientific authorities because there is no evidence of various things that scripture claims to be true. For example, the account of the deluge is not backed by scientific investigation. One simple counter-argument to the deluge is the sheer variety of species-- they cannot all fit into Noah's ark. 

People who believe in Sola Scriptura, especially the literalist inerrant kind, need to go through strange contortions to make the best of science fit their assumption that scripture must be interpreted literally. An example is the orbit of the Earth around the sun. If the Earth orbits the sun, then the account of Joshua (Joshua 10:12-13) cannot be true; a sudden stop of the Earth's rotation should wreak havoc of great magnitude not just on Joshua's enemies but on the Israelites themselves. (Not to mention the rest of the landscape) Simple Newtonian physics tell us what sort of catastrophe stopping the rotation of the Earth can be. But does this convince the Literalist? Faced with a scientific argument, the literalist would rather deny the science than lose the literalist interpretation. I, on the other hand, will always choose the science first. 

Among the entertainments that I indulge in this year, I've been downloading and reading various apocryphal books. I'm also currently working my slow way through the bible by reading various translations side by side. The pace is extremely slow, since the various commentaries point to various detours, and so I'm not through with the two creation accounts in Genesis. References to the Nephilim, before the days of Noah, naturally led me to a book that's in the canon of some Orthodox churches: the Books of Enoch.I plan to read it later today (and maybe tomorrow). 

Talks and the need to prepare

I gave an impromptu talk on black holes two days ago for the campus astronomical society, and because I was given notice only the evening before the talk, I could not prepare as well as I ought to. I had only two hours to prepare for a 1 hour-long talk, and I spent most of the time selecting images. So there was no sensible way to start and end the talk; I did organize it around the questions that appear on the first page of Taylor and Wheeler's book, Exploring Black Holes.

Looking back at it, there are a lot of things that I could have reshaped. My plan was to talk about what an observer will see and feel as he falls into the black hole. These ideas are well understood by the professional relativist (or should be) and I'm afraid I wasn't as excited as I once was when I first understood the topic. This topic may actually be better served by animation and a storyline. I'll rethink the talk and then write it down before I give one like it again.

Enthusiasm-- and a way to get it through to your audience-- is pretty important when giving the talk. I'm afraid I lack a lot of  it compared to a few years ago. A few years ago, it was all new; now, though, long familiarity with the same ideas has reduced the story to something humdrum. I think I should teach the subject of black holes in a classroom setting to give myself some feedback, and maybe regain my enthusiasm. the April-May school break should give me a chance to get it all back, and maybe find something to work on.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Original King James Bible

I recently became aware that there is a group of fundamentalist Christians who believe that the King James Version is the only divinely inspired translation. I read about such a view in wikipedia, but did not take it seriously because I thought, no, that can't happen here in my university.

The occasion arose because I was presenting evidence of two incompatible creation accounts in Genesis, and showed him a Catholic translation. My friend, of course, being a Protestant, would not even read the catholic translation, and so I suggested examining a protestant translation. Of course, it had to be the New International Version. What was funny about it was that the NIV had the 2nd creation account worded differently. Probably because the translation committee was familiar with the two accounts reading, and so made what I think is a dishonest translation (if not dishonest, then let us charitably call it self-deceptive).

After reading the NIV version, I commented on how strange the wording was, and said that the King James Version had it worded differently. Apparently, my friend viewed the KJV as the more authoritative translation, and so I got into talking about how the KJV is no better than other translations, since I doubted that any translation can be divinely inspired.

I learned later that the King James Version I had was a later version-- it was modernized by Benjamin Blayney in 1769, and it was his modernization that is sold in today's bookstores as the King James Version. A scan of the 1611 King James version, with its archaic spelling, marginal notes, and its inclusion of the Apocrypha (or what Catholics call the deutero-canonical books can be found here.) Wikipedia has an excellent entry and its version of the King James Bible can be found here. It is useful to read the translator's preface-- it provides an excellent antidote to those tempted to believe in "the King James Version Only".

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Teaching real and imaginary students

I'm currently enrolled in a quantum field theory course, and the textbook that we're using is Mandl and Shaw. I wouldn't be ranting except for one thing-- none of us (is my teacher included?) seem to know what the hell is going on. 

The main problem is prerequisite knowledge: I suspect that none of us have it. Although most of us have taken the postgraduate quantum mechanics course, we only covered non-relativistic quantum mechanics, and did not touch multi-particle systems. So there is a huge gap between what we know and what is expected. I would have thought, for example, that our lecturer would discuss the relevant background  (I would have!) but was sadly mistaken. 

Mandl and Shaw focuses on quantum electrodynamics, and a study of the Dirac equation is definitely needed. I would have appreciated a discussion of the transformation properties of spinors as well as a thoroughgoing work-through of  the properties of gamma matrices. But we skipped that even though it was painfully obvious that our lecturer's thesis advisees had none of the expected background. 

I'm not happy with graduate education (and undergraduate education as well) in my country; there is little reward for good teaching, and so we get what we deserve. Some of the faculty behave as though they were teaching imaginary students-- there is little or no taking into account of the actual raw material. I don't know if this can be changed-- tenure decisions here have more to do with publishing papers in ISI indexed journals (preferably high impact-factor) than with other components of scholarship, such as teaching.

I did accomplish something worthwhile today. I met with one of our undergrads and helped her with the method of steepest descent. Arfken's text contains a sketchy discussion of the method, so I had her work through the steepest descent approximation for the Hankel function of the second kind. 

It's always a pleasure to see students struggle and then reach the needed understanding. In our case, the stumbling block was why choose the specific saddle point -i. So I had her examine the real part of the exponent and track the sign. I then made her show that the contributions to the contour integral go to zero for large values of the  parameter s only when the contour passes through regions where the real part is negative.  We could not use the other saddle point because deforming the contour to make it pass through the  other saddle point i leads to parts of the contour going through regions of positive real part. 

I'll spend the rest of the night being a gammist. Our homework is to calculate the cross-section of Bhabha scattering to first order, assuming the colliding particles are unpolarized. This means trace theorems and gamma matrices. I do have other books and can use them to supply some of the details (Itzykson and zuber's QFT text might come in handy) but feel that it's drudge work. Time to roll up my sleeves. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lost in Translation

I spent the weekend reading about the history of the Bible and its translations. The specific books I used were Thuesen, In Discordance With the Scriptures and Berlinerblau, The Secular Bible. I, of course, had a copy of the Jerusalem Bible at hand so that I can immediately read the cited texts.

I learned, for example, that today's biblical scholars believe that scripture as we know it had multiple authors,. A famous case is genesis, where people have identified at least four or more schools who were responsible for Genesis as we know it. The evidence given is based on an analysis of the text (textual criticism) as well as the sobering realization that as time went by, there have been additions and subtractions during the development of the manuscripts used as the basis of translators.

That idea will probably irk a traditionalist who believes that Moses actually sat down to write the Torah. But the evidence is there: we have at least two conflicting creation stories: Genesis 1-2:4 provides one account, while Genesis 2:5-25 provides another account. In the first account, all animals were created before humans, while in the second account, the animals were created after humans. It doesn't make sense to claim that there is a single author here because a single author would notice the discrepancy between the two accounts, or would at least append a disclaimer.

I got interested in the translation battles, and read Thuesen's book to get a better knowledge of why the translations caused such dissension in the protestant churches. The big reason of course, is the belief in Sola Scriptura (in scripture alone). A heckler, such as myself, would then follow-up with "What scripture?". As I've noticed before, translation is not value-free. There are many instances where the Hebrew (or Greek) is unclear, and the translator usually makes a choice on how to render it. I have a copy of the King James Bible at home, and I noticed that it contains no acknowledgement of alternative readings (the only thing in it was a concordance), while later translations provide footnotes, at least, to know where the translator is uncertain.

Another problem of the translator is what manuscript or manuscripts to base the translation on. In the western church (non-orthodox) Catholic or protestant, the basis used is the Masoretic text, a medieval copy (between 7th and 10th century C.E.). The Dead Sea scrolls are a recent find, and are used for comparison in today's translations. Another basis that might be used (and is used by the Orthodox) is the Septuagint, a Greek translation that goes back to around 200 B.C.E.. Incidentally, the oldest complete copies of the old testament in any language is the Septuagint. The difficulty for the protestant is that they would like to use a Jewish canon for the old testament while the Apostles most likely read the Septuagint.

For example, take Matthew 1:23, where a quotation is made from Isaiah 7:14. If you look at translations of Isaiah based on the Masoretic text, you will find "... A young woman (or maiden) (almah) is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel". The Septuagint, on the other hand replaced "young woman" with "A Virgin", and it is this version that is quoted in Matthew. This kind of issue, incidentally, is what led to a bit of Bible burning in the U. S.; some fundamentalists could not take a faithful translation based on the Masoretic text.

I could go on and on with various examples, but would probably write about them at some other time.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bible reading

I bought myself a new bible: a translation known as the Jerusalem Bible. Like many of the bibles I own, it's a catholic translation, mainly because I want a copy that contains the deuterocanonicals (or what the protestants refer to as the apocrypha). If I could have found an Eastern Orthodox translation, then it would be much better because there are additional books in the Orthodox canon not found in the Catholic or Protestant sets.

I've read the various scriptures on and off through the years, but have not read through the whole Catholic canon because I did not have the heart to go through the law and the prophets. Once I gained the courage to reject religious belief, the impetus to read the scriptures disappeared. Still, it amused me to collect various translations and see how they differed from each other. For example, I've seen translations by Jehovah's witnesses, and noticed for example that their translation of the Gospel according to John 1:1-2 is quite different from the protestant and catholic translations. Unfortunately, I do not know any Greek, the only way I can see how theological bias can alter translations is by reading different translations.

Many people who claim they believe in the Bible but do not realize that what we consider to be "the Bible" is something that's not universally agreed upon. For example, the Catholic Church disagrees with the Protestant churches on the list of canonical books-- the Catholic Church has more books than the protestant list, probably because Martin Luther rejected the extra books as apocryphal; in turn, the Orthodox list (based on the Septuagint) has more books than the Catholic list. See the table in Wikipedia for a comparison.

One of the many reasons I have for agnosticism is this ambiguity in what is claimed to be divinely inspired; there seems no reason, beyond quoting authorities, for believing in any scripture. I'm much more likely to believe in the human capacity for self-deception than in the likelihood of divine intervention.

Having said that, I plan to do a more thorough reading of the Bible. I want to understand what other people believe, and to be better able to defend myself when people ask me why I do not believe in scripture. Aside from self-defense, I also would like to become more familiar with scripture because of how deeply biblical references permeate popular culture. So many literary works become unintelligible if one does not have some knowledge of the Bible. ( I suspect that, to be intelligible, a reader of Muslim literary works probably needs to read the Qu'ran  as well; reading it, however, is surely a project for another day.)

I have read the gospels (more than once), Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Daniel, The Song of Songs, Revelation, and skimmed some passages from other books, but I've never done a systematic reading. I may as well start now.