“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”
Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?
Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases, the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.
Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”
If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table.
McGrath frowns on the very notion that someone (especially an amateur like you or me) could read works written by subject-matter experts, but then “write about them [the experts] in relation to that particular matter as if they were completely incompetent ignoramuses who cannot be trusted to draw logical, reasoned conclusions.” So you see, if you quote scholarship, but then have the audacity to come to a different conclusion, then you are wrong. You have lost the game.
Yes, you read that right. You are obliged to agree with the experts; otherwise, why the hell were you quoting them? McGrath says you’re committing a logical fallacy if you do otherwise. He writes, “I think we should call this the ‘Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy.’ Clearly both characterizations of experts in a field cannot be right simultaneously.”
He’s serious. I’m not making this stuff up. He continues:
Either they are capable of doing valid work in their discipline, in which case their acceptance of evolution, or the existence of a historical Jesus, or whatever else, cannot be chalked up to stupidity; or they are indeed incompetent, in which case they cannot serve as authorities to appeal to in order to bolster one’s own case, since they are just as likely to have botched those points as any others if they really are as gullible and illogical as is claimed.
Let’s consider the implications of McGrath’s Carnival Game Rule. You can quote scholars, but if you disagree with them, you’re committing a logical fallacy. (As an aside, I would note that McG’s mistake is asserting that the sole purpose for quoting scholars is to appeal to authority.)
Imagine the burden McGrath’s curious new rule places on people with new ideas. Suppose you have this crazy idea that stomach ulcers are caused by a microorganism. The problem is nobody else in the field believes it. You have a hunch that you can prove it, if you could just get some funding for research. So you try to write up a defense of the idea. According to common practice, you need to start out by talking about the present state of treatment and pathology with respect to stomach ulcers.
However, according to McGrath’s Carnival Game Rule, you may not quote from current scholarship, you may not cite current research, and you dare not quote current experts. Why? Because according to Dr. McGrath, those experts are “either authorities who can be cited as providing a perspective with genuine expertise that carries legitimate weight, or people whose expertise cannot be relied upon and should not be taken seriously.”
It’s Kafkaesque. “You must defend yourself, Herr K. Naturally, in order to win your case, you must bring witnesses on your behalf. However, you cannot call on the testimony of others, because they think you are guilty.”
The only way out I can see is to take the appeal to authority to its extreme and suspend McGrath’s Carnival Game Rule for anyone McGrath deems to be an expert. So perhaps an expert can cite another expert and disagree with that expert. That is, only authority can challenge authority.
“Here, sir, is your sharpened dart. Have as many tosses as you like at the balloon. And here’s your teddy bear, sir. Congratulations.”
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33 thoughts on “Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game”
I don’t care about any stupid teddy bear. I do care that a third of humanity — including an ark-load of scholars — erroneously think Jesus is still Lord, Would pointing out a living savior count against me as a disqualified “appeal to Authority”?
Neil: “McGrath frowns on the very notion that someone (especially an amateur like you or me) could read works written by subject-matter experts, but then “write about them [the experts] in relation to that particular matter as if they were completely incompetent ignoramuses who cannot be trusted to draw logical, reasoned conclusions.” So you see, if you quote scholarship, but then have the audacity to come to a different conclusion, then you are wrong. You have lost the game…
Let’s consider the implications of McGrath’s Carnival Game Rule. You can quote scholars, but if you disagree with them, you’re committing a logical fallacy.”
I’m not sure that represents an accurate reading. As your quote from McGrath aboves makes clear, it’s not **disagreeing** with scholars that is the problem. It is treating them as experts when they agree with you and as “incompetent ignoramuses” when they do not.
On the other thread, Vinny agreed with McGrath. He wrote:
“I have run across mythicists like the ones you describe, but their numbers pale in comparison to the internet apologists who happily quote those same mainstream scholars to support their historicity arguments while relentlessly bashing them whenever they depart from inerrantist orthodoxy.”
“Indeed, my criticisms apply equally well to conservative Christian apologists. They too share in this sort of activity, quoting scholars when it suits them and dismissing them when it suits them. The point is not that cranks are all always wrong about everything, but precisely that one defining feature is the selective treatment of scholarship as authoritative and worthless as suits their ends.”
‘ It is treating them as experts when they agree with you and as “incompetent ignoramuses” when they do not.’
In other words, McGrath can’t find a reason why Neil is wrong to disagree with scholars when he does, so is reduced to claiming that Neil has to agree with everything somebody says if Neil agrees with something that person says.
McGrath also seems incapable of grasping the idea that people can do good work sometimes and not so good work at other times.
I imagine McGrath is furious with people who buy Roger Federer endorsed tennis rackets but who also claim that there are times when Federer double-serves. What hyprocrites those people must be!
Oh good old predictable GDon!
First, it’s not Neil who wrote it. Check the author’s name again.
Secondly, as I asked Dr McGrath — but of course he sees fit not to reply to me — for any evidence where mythicists dismiss scholarly works because they disagree with their supposed conclusions about mythicism. The charge is a baseless fabrication. I reminded him he had been through that conversation with Earl Doherty not too long ago and iirc he conceded it really is legit, after all, to agree with some parts of what an author says but not other parts. That’s not treating authors the way Dr McGrath claims mythicists do.
Thirdly, so Vinny’s vague remark that he knows of examples is all the evidence we need? Oh dear. If you read a comment further down you will see that I disagree with Vinny and remind Dr McGrath of the point I just made here in the above paragraph. I even asked Dr McGrath for evidence to support his assertion but he has said in effect elsewhere that I’m mad if I think I can get him to do that. He’s probably correct.
Fourthly, Ah, so the You-Too fallacy undercuts it all. Good one.
My mistake — that blog post was written by Tim Widowfield rather than you. Apologies. My point still stands though: It’s not **disagreeing** with scholars that McGrath is highlighting. It is treating them as experts when they agree with you and as “incompetent ignoramuses” when they do not.
I’m not sure what the “You-Too fallacy” refers to, I’m afraid.
And it is that silly accusation that is simply nonsense. McGrath is the one who is fabricating a charge — entirely from his own imagination — that “mythicists” treat scholars as “incompetent ignoramuses” for supposedly disagreeing with them. How can there be disagreement when the scholars in question are not even addressing the question of mythicism for heaven’s sake.
I have asked the following of Dr McGrath and you seem to be his willing accomplice in enabling him to escape any accountability for his claims and to avoid answering:
To which Dr McGrath replied as follows:
I tried twice more to encourage the professor to give an answer and, patient man that I am, I finally repeated the request more fully:
At the same time I reminded him of another question he had quite often failed to answer — asking him to give us the name of the DH scholar or DH theory that he was relying upon in his DH post, since he insinuated it was not from either Wellhausen or Friedman — but wouldn’t say who it was. He does love to be mysterious!
The simple fact is that Dr McGrath was exposed as professionally incompetent by an outsider, Tim Widowfield, in the matter of the Documentary Hypothesis. His ego wounded it was all too predictable that he would retreat only to return with a renewed ferocious assault full of tweedledum and tweedledee huff and puff.
Neil: McGrath is the one who is fabricating a charge — entirely from his own imagination — that “mythicists” treat scholars as “incompetent ignoramuses” for supposedly disagreeing with them. How can there be disagreement when the scholars in question are not even addressing the question of mythicism for heaven’s sake.
McGrath was pointing out those fringe thinkers — he identified creationists, apologists and mythicists — who, on the one hand, will mine the writings of experts for quotes that seem to support their viewpoint, but on the other hand, dismiss at least one of the central conclusions drawn by those experts, and write about them in relation to that particular matter as if they were completely incompetent ignoramuses who cannot be trusted to draw logical, reasoned conclusions.
Do you think he is right when it comes to creationists and apologists?
I think what McGrath is trying to say is that there are cranks who believe that people like Ehrman, Sanders, Hurtado are good scholars but who are writing books about the Demise of Historical Critieria in Jesus studies. – http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=160802&SubjectId=901&Subject2Id=1008
But those are the very criteria that people like Ehrman and Sander use! How can cranks write books attacking the basic methods these scholars use?
There is no comparison and your attempt to lump them together is a clever sophistic word game. Creationists are arguing against the very arguments others are advancing. The biblical studies guild does not argue for a historical Jesus. It assumes a historical Jesus. It is that assumption that mythicists call into question. That has no comparison with creationists.
When I was an apologist – and a creationist for that matter – I don’t recall ever quoting other scholars. We thought of them as very learned and worldly-wise. We simply ignored them and thanked God we had another spirit.
I have never read a mythicist book that ever treated scholars as ignoramuses for any reason. It’s one thing to critique a work for faulty arguments but that’s not the same as dismissing the author as an ignoramus. McGrath is just fabricating more straw men in his crusading zeal to attack mythicists.
“The biblical studies guild does not argue for a historical Jesus. It assumes a historical Jesus. It is that assumption that mythicists call into question. That has no comparison with creationists.”
That’s what I think, too.
I don’t know if McGrath is right when it comes to creationists.
He seems to think that creationists can’t be scholars, overlooking such highly respected naturalists like Louis Agassiz, who has a Harvard Museum, named after him.
For some reason, scientists see no problems in regarding Agassiz as a great naturalist while pointing out how misguided he was when it came to creationism and Darwin’s theory.
I imagine this makes the entire University of Harvard cranks, in the eyes of McGrath,, as they named a museum after somebody they regard as totally misguided in some of his beliefs.
I imagine McGrath is even now spooning gargantuan doses of Vitamin C into himself.
After all, Linus Pauling won 2 Nobel Prizes. How could such a scholar be wrong about anything?
Anybody who thinks Pauling deserved his 2 Nobel Prizes , yet still jeers at the idea that massive doses of Vitamin C , 200 times the regular dose, will cure cancer and slow down aging must be one of those god-damned cranks McGrath warns people about.
GDon, you have missed the good doctor’s nuanced language. He is against our acting “as if [the experts] were completely incompetent ignoramuses who cannot be trusted to draw logical, reasoned conclusions.” He refuses to cite an instance in which a mythicist (or for that matter, anyone who thinks the HJ hypothesis sits on quicksand) has called a scholar an idiot or treated an expert as an incompetent ignoramus.
Therefore it must be some behavior that for him is equivalent to calling somebody an idiot. And that behavior has to be disagreeing with the conclusions of the scholars that we quote. If this is not the case, then McGrath’s image of a mythicist braying about the idiocy of everybody who disagrees with him is nothing but a straw man. For he is then objecting to behavior that exists only in his imagination.
I think your finding more and more that the best term to describe McGrath is “sneaky”. Remember, this is the guy that tells conservative christians that he is a christian, but tell academics, that he is not a supernaturalist. He is all about being sneaky. He wants to keep his job in the religion industry, and sell books.
The Bible teaches good Christians to always be prepared with an answer for every occasion. It tells the followers of Christ to be like the chameleon and attempt to present themselves as “like” others around them. To the Jew, as a Jew, etc. In modern parlance it’s called PR. We’ve had our fair share of commenters here over the years posing as genuinely open-minded rational enlightened persons on the side of sceptics and atheists, but who before long show their true colours — that they really came only to convert or witness.
Anyone who has been through the system learns to notice the subtle ways in which Dr McGrath and such slant answers to such things — and knows that what they don’t address unequivocally is often as significant as the slant given to what they do say.
Incidentally, I had been reading some of John Mckinnon Robertson’s masterpieces: Christianity and Mythology (1900); Pagan Christs – Studies in Comparative Hierology ( Watts & Co, 1903-1911); The Jesus Problem (1917).
Robertson’s books, claiming the mythical character of Jesus Christ, created a formidable commotion and provoked many answers and refutations from theologians and critics.
Even James Frazer, who had popularized the models of “dying and rising saviors” in his epoch-making “The Golden Bough” (1890) could not accept Robertson’s thesis that Jesus was just another example of those mythical heroes. He had touched on the subject in his first edition, but when his wife, Lady Frazer, abridged the 12 volumes for a one-volume edition in 1922, she removed the Christianity reference. But it remained in the full 3e edition of 1915.
Robertson describes at length his disputes and debates with those various theologian critics, and amazingly, recites the same litany of complaints about their treatment of his books and their new non-existence thesis that Neil Godfrey, nearly one hundred years later, is now raising about McGrath’s dealings with him. It would take a little while to excerpt the right passages from Robertson’s books, but they’re all in there. McGrath is nothing new, he is simply acting to type.
This type of thinking is worst than a carnival. It clearly shows that McGrath is not capable of serious thought, there are only two reasons he would say something like this.
1. He is closed minded and biased
2. He is purposely being deceptive.
I say this because there are no grounds whatsoever to make the statement that he did. For starters, he is clearly lying. I have never seen anyone, including myself, make any sort of statement that some scholar or expert was an ignoramus because we accept a different conclusion than that scholar. No, we merely declare that we do not accept their conclusions because of other factors.
I can not even believe McGrath made such an enormous blunder. His premise finds no equal in reality. Millions of people agree and disagree with the same individuals all the time. Is he trying to say that if I agree with a friend’s conclusion about something, that means I always have to agree with his conclusions, and if I don’t that makes me some sort of hypocrite? That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.
But lets start over, because McGrath was talking about the all knowing scholars and experts that we quote. Why don’t we start own with McGrath’s own hypocritical nature. With only one example I can rain on his parade, or carnival, if you wish. Any of you familiar with a Bible scholar named Dan Wallace? He is an expert on the Greek language and wrote among other things, an 800 page book on Greek grammar. However, all through this scholarly work, he promotes the idea that Jesus is God himself. Now unless I am mistaken, I do not believe McGrath thinks Jesus was God. So it appears that McGrath and Wallace have come to two different and opposing conclusions as to Jesus identity. So is McGrath allowed to disagree with Dan Wallace’s conclusion about Jesus, and at the same time respect and quote his work in Greek grammar? Or does McGrath think Wallace is an ignoramus.
McGrath would probably say something to the effect that Wallace was a conservative Christian or some other bullshit, so does that somehow play a part on a person’s scholarship or expertise? What sort of game is McGrath playing?
But watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees – Matthew 16:11
Some interesting developments on the McGrath front in response to this. Dr McGrath of course won’t respond to any requests to support his claims — he has found a convenient excuse to avoid that by declaring me insane for expecting to engage him in reasonable conversation.
GDon found “proof” mythicists do indeed do just what Dr McGrath asserted:
Dr McGrath warned everyone that I was being sly and deceptive in my argument: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/02/creationists-mythicists-and-the-schroedingers-scholar-fallacy.html#comment-443968939
I apologized immediately for any misunderstanding and hoped he would in future be able to engage in normal human discourse by giving the benefit of the doubt over possible misunderstandings in future: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/02/creationists-mythicists-and-the-schroedingers-scholar-fallacy.html#comment-443988473
GDon found more “proofs” to back up all of McGrath’s claims about mythicists: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/02/creationists-mythicists-and-the-schroedingers-scholar-fallacy.html#comment-444323246
And I finally replied with, and I may leave it at this:
I’ve been telling you for a long time now… McGrath is a apologist for interest in the supernatural. His living relies on people being interested in the supernatural. So, all his effect goes into confirming that interest in the supernatural is important in some way, and the his view on the issue are also important. That is why he talks quite a lot, but says nothing of substance. What he says is not important. All that is important is that he keeps people talking about the supernatural. Once you realize the meta understanding, all his actions become understandable.
I’m sorry to see those remarks from Acharya S regarding Bart Ehrman. I may disagree with his conclusions, but in no way would I ever question his credentials as an expert in early Christianity in general and textual criticism in particular.
If she really thinks “that he has not studied this particular subject [the historicity of Jesus] in any real depth and is therefore not an expert on it,” then to be consistent she should probably consider not using him as a source henceforth when discussing the historicity of Jesus (at least not as a “friendly witness”). On the other hand, with respect to textual criticism I would hope that Acharya agrees that he has unimpeachable credentials, and is a worthy successor to Bruce Metzger.
GDon asks, “Neil, you tell me. Has Ehrman’s reputation amongst mythicists taken a hit since he has announced he is writing a book against mythicism, even though the book hasn’t been published yet?”
If that’s the case, it shows a shallow reading of Ehrman on the part of the mythcists who have suddenly changed their minds. How one could follow Bart, read his books, watch him on “the YouTubes,” listen to his lectures, and be surprised to find out that that he believes in the historical Jesus is simply beyond me. He’s never made it a secret.
I must take issue, however, with the continued monolithic portrayal of “mythicists” by GDon, McG, et al., as if they were all a part of the same secret “confederacy of dunces.” One mythicist’s behavior is not the standard for all. McGrath lumps all mythicists together and further throws them into the larger lump of pseudoscience.
Which brings me to a question I’ve been mulling over. If being persuaded that Jesus was entirely a myth means you’ve fallen into the same pseudoscience cesspool as YEC, what does that imply about Carrier and Price? Has anyone told them that McGrath thinks they’re “pseudoscientists”? I’m sure they’ll be heartbroken.
Tim: I must take issue, however, with the continued monolithic portrayal of “mythicists” by GDon, McG, et al., as if they were all a part of the same secret “confederacy of dunces.” One mythicist’s behavior is not the standard for all.
Let’s say that I portrayed mythicists as if they were all a part of the same secret “confederacy of dunces”. So what? What happens after that? What do you actually do with that information?
It seems to me that if my arguments are bad, you should ignore them. And if my arguments are good, what does it matter how I portray mythicists?
So assuming I think that way, what happens next?
GDon: “It seems to me that if my arguments are bad, you should ignore them. And if my arguments are good, what does it matter how I portray mythicists?”
I’m not sure I understand these new rules of engagement. Are you saying we shouldn’t respond to your bad arguments?
Sure, you can respond to my bad arguments. But how I portray mythicists is neither here-nor-there. How I portray mythicists may be an explanation for my bad arguments, but the arguments, good or bad, stand by themselves. Anyway, no big deal.
What? It can’t be that someone can put forward both good and bad arguments. Dr. McGrath has made it very clear that if one argument someone puts forward is good, then they are the fount of all knowledge and can’t be questioned on any other argument. This seems crystal clear to him. One wonders what he would think of someone who made the same argument he does about scholars about the Bible … such a person might become a young-earth creationist.
The following was passed on to me (Neil) from Earl Doherty:
Earl, Might you place scholars Schubert M. Ogden, James M. Robinson and Hans Dieter Betz among scholars in the field you consider capable of reliable scholarly activity, “experts”?
We’re in a bit of a Catch-22 situation here. An “expert” is one who is generally acknowledged to be knowledgeable and experienced in his field with a good reputation among his peers as generally reliable. Does that make him infallible in all respects? McGrath would have us think so. (Good grief, even Einstein has recently been questioned about a basic tenet regarding the speed of light!)
There is no technical definition of “expert” which can identify when they are right and when they are wrong. Essentially, it’s a subjective term and reflects people’s personal evaluation of a scholar. What happens when someone (like myself) finds, through study one has confidence in, that such a perceived “expert” is thoroughly wrong on a dimension of that ‘expertise’ and has reason to believe it is because of subjective, unreliable reasons? Will that someone continue to style such a scholar an “expert”? The latter still enjoys that reputation, but can he continue to endorse the term himself, especially when scholars of a different sort demand that the public status as an expert is expected to override any disagreement one may have with him and ‘prove’ the one disagreeing to be wrong?
I have always had a high regard for James M. Robinson who is one of the clearest thinkers in the field. But one of his most famous books (Trajectories Through Early Christianity) is clearly flawed, skewed by the assumptions he subscribes to as part of his field. Does he then cease to be an “expert”? No, since that subjective term is still generally applied to him and has some justification. Will I personally choose to apply that term to him, when it comes with demanded baggage by such as McGrath? No, since I regard much of his work as fatally flawed.
Thus I see little point in arguing over the use of the term “expert,” especially in this particular discipline.
I named the three scholars because they all have questioned the reliability of the writings of the NT, the writings of Paul, the Gospels as well as later writings of the NT as sources for knowledge of the HJ. Ogden: “None of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church mistook them to be.” Betz: “- – from these texts the original sayings of Jesus can neither be reconstructed nor abstracted in their entirety. The reasons for our lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged worthy of transmission.” Robinson has amply shown his concurrence.
I’m not sure what your point is here. Virtually every critical scholar would concur with these sorts of sentiments, not just the three you mentioned.
If you are still there, after I have cleared the deck of that which many critical NT scholars and secula critics accept about the writings of the NT, I will attempt to deal with my real reason for naming these three NT scholars. On the basis of present historical methods and knowledge, all three make the claim that we indeed have a NT source totaly independent of the writings of the NT, not just something lurking behind these writings, which can historicaly be claimed to be apostolic witness to the HJ.
I tread here, in the centre of the secular critic, with some fear and trembling – like ‘in the lions den’. First, over against a widely held NT scholarly consensus, but more particularily the secular assumption that anything from the NT is most likely mythical and historicaly questionable. As Betz cautions: this text “demands of the scholar not a little care, a great deal of time, and a considerable degree of intelectual abstinence” (a great deal of rethinking of longstanding convictions). Further stating: “In reality (this source) is the New Testament text most remote from modern men and women”. Recognition of the significance of this source compares well to the difficulty physicists have had coming to accept the fact that the universe had a singular beginning. I await further comment for some expression that you are still here and open to read more.
No need for fear and trembling. Just come with an open mind and we’re happy to address any questions related to the Sermon on the Mount.
I thought Neil was somebody McGrath used to regard as well worth reading and interacting with, when Neil and McGrath were in agreement on something.
But now that McGrath disagrees with Neil, Neil has become an insane ignoramus.
Sounds like the behaviour of a crank to me.
Words of love, from James McGrath to Neil:
Thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail. There’s a lot here, and I will try to interact in detail over time in a way that does justice to your many points. . . . . Thank you for the stimulating interaction!
I think you are right about Joseph of Arimathea. . . . . If you manage to read the book, I’d be very interested to know what you think of it.
Thanks for this detailed interaction! I’ll try to offer something more substantial than “Thank you” in response at some point, but I didn’t want to wait until I had time to do that in order to express appreciation for your detailed interaction with what I’ve written!
James also regularly posted alerts in his “From Around the Blogosphere” to my posts.