Tag Archives: Pierre-Simon Laplace

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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Filed under Inference and choice, Knowable historical Jesus

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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Filed under Inference and choice, Knowable historical Jesus