Category Archives: Inference and choice

A lay critic’s bill of rights

WW II PosterProfessor James McGrath recently blogged about how academic consensus ought to influence the beliefs of lay people (link). Somebody had recommended to him a book about Moses authored by the non-academic history writer Dorothy Milne Murdock (also known as Acharya S). McGrath declined the recommendation, in part because:

Scholars across secular and religious institutions of learning are fallible human beings held accountable to one another. Their consensus, when they reach one, is more reliable than lone fallible human beings who deliberately avoid being held accountable to that community of experts.

Murdock mostly did “deliberately avoid being held accountable to that community of scholars.” I’d rather not defend her work.

Still, McGrath’s brush paints broad strokes. Every lay critic of the academy avoids accountability to the academy, that’s what a lay person is.

An outsider, even a lone outsider, enjoys warranted prerogatives to criticize the academy’s offerings. Perchance the academy might be even more reliable should lay people insist that scholars respect those prerogatives. Meanwhile, lay people surely ought to respect them among themselves.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 3

NYT Office scene

The guild knows the beat it covers.

This post concludes the series on the frosty reception of Dr. Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus among biblical studies academics, “the guild.” The series is not a book review of On the Historicity, but rather a sketch of a different Bayesian-style investigation parallel to Carrier’s.

Previous posts (link and link) have refined Carrier’s hypothesis specifications, considered alternatives to his permissible but unappealing choice of an initial belief state, and checked his claim to have weighted evidence systematically to disfavor his own preferred hypothesis. This post looks at some reservations about Carrier’s interpretations of ancient texts. Finally, a brief conventional Bayesian sensitivity analysis of his results sheds some light on the potential to open up the guild to new foundational ideas.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 2

Chaplin in Modern Times

Bayes isn’t as mechanical as some seem to think.

How confident should a reasonable person be that Jesus was a real man who actually lived? Academic biblical scholars, “the guild,” display little doubt. Dr. Richard Carrier urges a skeptical view in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus.

The first post in this series (link) specified two alternative hypotheses about Christian origins taken from Carrier’s work. The next step in a Bayesian-style analysis is to compare the plausibility of the contending hypotheses based on general background information, before examining how more specific evidence about Jesus’ historical or mythical status might change the relative plausibilities.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 1

Workers lunch on girder

The guild sticks together and never looks down

Was Jesus a real person who actually lived, or is he instead an ancient fictional or mythological character?

Dr. Richard Carrier votes fictional or mythological. Carrier earned a Ph.D in ancient history from Columbia in 2008. Since 2014, his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt has enjoyed popular success. However, the book was published by a university press (Sheffield Phoenix) specializing in biblical studies. The book was addressed to academics in that field, “the guild” as they style themselves.

Over the years, the Uncertaintist has covered some of the tense interaction between Dr. Carrier and members of the guild (link). We now await his follow-up volume, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, due out in September. As is obvious from the flippant title, the new book won’t be addressed to the academy. That’s not because the scholarly battle has been won: all but a few guild researchers still premise their work on a Jesus who really lived.

Is that because five or six years is too soon to expect to see widespread change in dominant attitudes? Maybe, but Carrier acknowledges that much of his main thesis resembles that of Earl Doherty, whose writings have been available since the 1990’s (link).

What most clearly distinguished On the Historicity from other “mythical Jesus” works was to frame its argument using Bayesian methods, introduced by Laplace in 1814. Carrier assessed specific probability numbers and ratios to express the weight of evidence and how confidently his conclusions should be held. That idea hasn’t swept the guild by storm, either.

In this short series, the Uncertaintist will look at the historicity question within the framework of a typical “Bayesian” analysis, but with less focus on specific numbers. The findings of the series can be summarized by reference to the subtitles of the two Carrier books mentioned. That we might have reason to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus can probably be supported. To convince many others that any particular version of a mythical Jesus hypothesis is what the earliest Christians really believed about Christ probably remains out of reach for now.

This series is not a review of On the Historicity. Bushels of those are already on the web. Here, the book’s premises and outlook will be a point of departure for continuing work, now that Dr Carrier himself seems to have left us for, well, outer space.

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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Historians and probability

Dice players

Dice players (detail, Georges de La Tour, 17th C.)

Bayesian probability theory is a formal method of reasoning about evidence. Its probabilities are typically subjective and personal measures. They represent either a real person’s felt confidence, or a hypothetical person’s theoretically justified confidence. Please do not be put off by the word subjective. Justified confidence is the foundation of prudent belief, action and behavior.

Richard Carrier is a serious independent scholar and internet celebrity who earned his doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University. He uses Bayesian methods to study history, especially the question of whether Jesus was a real historical person. Carrier professes serene assurance about the objectivity and validity of his Bayesian approach to history (link),

I don’t think I’ll convince everyone, but the only people who won’t be convinced are people who are irrationally, dogmatically opposed to what I’m arguing.

This post discusses how well Bayesian methods can resolve historical controversies, in the sense of achieving consensus founded on objective analysis of evidence. Within a community of Bayesians, objectivity and near-unanimity aren’t completely out of reach, but they tend to be elusive except when most people would be convinced whether or not they appeal to Bayes.

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