Richard Carrier is interviewed by John Loftus on “Debunking Christianity”and the topic is mythicism and the place of Bayes’ Theorem. If mathematics helps clarify the thinking of many then it can only be a good thing. I personally have not seen that it is necessary, and that worthwhile thinkers routinely seek to identify and account for the assumptions, the details and identifying fallacies in their arguments. Good arguments do make explicit all the assumptions etc without the need for mathematics to draw them to our attention. That one is reading a story about an event and not directly accessing an event, the ability to examine the nature of the story itself, for example, or being able to justify clearly why an argument is “not persuasive or plausible” instead of just saying “that’s not plausible or that’s weak”, or why an event is more or less probable, and the careful weighing (with intellectual honesty) the alternative explanations, and that any chain of reasoning ultimately has to factor in its weakest link. . . .
The good and diligent historians do make these things explicit and clear. It is the muddle-headed ones, one might say, that don’t. If Bayes is going to help the latter then that’s not a bad thing. I really do think that much of the problem among theologians who identify themselves as historians have never really been “trained” in historical studies and have never been trained in logic or philosophy. Clear thinking skills — as evidenced by the regularity of circular arguments, special pleading, unexamined assumptions — seem minimal in all too many of their works that relate to “the historical Jesus”.
But as Richard implies, such clarity of thinking does not come to us naturally. It does take a lot of “training”. But I don’t agree that this sort of training need be the preserve of “experts”. Those with enough interest and effort can learn how to improve their ways of thinking and how they read works and formulate their own ideas. (And much of that training can come from wide reading of the very best in the field.)
Here are a few excerpts of the bits that particularly appealed to me:
Richard: As I go on to explain there, it really doesn’t matter to me, in the way it does to believers. I’m not invested in any theory proclaiming otherwise, and the historical Jesus, or perhaps I should say Jesuses (as there are several) proposed by mainstream scholars today pose no challenge to my worldview. If my method can be used to prove Jesus existed, I’d count that a win. Then we can finally move on to something else. I just don’t think that’s how it’s going to pan out in the end. But that’s calling the game too early. Let’s see what happens. . . .
. . .
Richard: Basically, every scholar who looks at the same evidence comes up with a completely different Jesus. As I show in the book, I’m not the only one noticing this. Many scholars in the field have been complaining about this for almost a decade now. If everyone applies the same method to the same facts and comes up with a completely different answer, there is clearly something fundamentally defective about that method. . . .
. . .
Richard: Quite simply, too many historians (and not just in Jesus studies; in every field) think they have made their case if they can come up with any plausible explanation. “Well, it could have been…” is assumed to be a sufficient rebuttal to anything. But that’s fallacious. . . .
The most obvious example of this mistake appears in fundamentalist “harmonizations” of Gospel contradictions: they think they have “rebutted” the conclusion that the Gospels are contradicting each other if they can think of “any” possible way to harmonize the accounts, developing a fanciful “just so” story that makes everything fit, by assuming a hundred things not in evidence. But that ignores the fact that that account is actually extremely improbable. That Matthew is deliberately contradicting Mark because he is arguing against Mark is vastly more probable than that Matthew and Mark are correctly describing exactly the same events. . . .
. . .
Richard: Not just sayings, by the way, but all facts, such as actions, events, and facts (like whether he was really ever a resident of Nazareth). I spent the most time on the argument from embarrassment because it is the most used, the most crucial for establishing historicity, and the most important for understanding why it is invalid. It then becomes an excellent model for seeing the deficiencies in all the other criteria, which are often much easier to see the faults of. The basic reason it doesn’t work is that it rests on assumptions that aren’t true most of the time, especially when applied to the documents we have for Jesus. . . .
When it comes to the crucifixion argument, the basic version you hear is that that was so embarrassing no Christian would claim it unless it were true. But this can be refuted with a single example: the castration of Attis was also embarrassing, yet no one would argue that therefore there must really have been an Attis who really did castrate himself. Arguably this was even more embarrassing than being crucified, as heroically suffering and dying for one’s beliefs was at least admirable on all the value systems then extant, whereas emasculating yourself was regarded as the most shameful of all fates for any man. Yet “no one would make that up” clearly isn’t a logically valid claim here. Attis did not exist, and a non-existent being can’t ever have castrated himself. So clearly someone did make that up. It’s being embarrassing did not deter them in the slightest. And in fact that is true throughout the history of religions: embarrassing myths were (and in all honesty, still are) the norm, not the exception. . . .
. . .
Richard: We do what honest historians have always done when this happens (and in my field, ancient history, it happens a lot): we conclude that we don’t know what happened. We might be able to say that some things are somewhat more likely than others, but that also several of those alternatives are not too improbable to rule out.
For example, did Alexander the Great ambush the Persians at Granicus, or charge pell-mell across the river and wage an amazing hand-to-hand melee with them in the water? The latter we have from an eyewitness. The former we have from a later informed expert. But the former is vastly more probable on prior evidence (of how battles and wars are typically waged, and how generals as successful as Alexander typically make engagement decisions, and what unit tactics we know Alexander relied on to defeat the Persian empire generally). So at best they seem equally balanced; and in fact, I am inclined to doubt the eyewitness. You could go either way. Certainly one of them is false. The evidence simply isn’t sufficient to know for sure. I think all honest historians who examined all the arguments pro and con would side against the eyewitness, but none of us would bet our lives on that conclusion. And so it goes. . . .
The full interview is here: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/interview-with-richard-carrier-about.html
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