Friday, October 30, 2015

Richard Carrier and The Bayes Craze

 photo Thomas-Bayes-Blog_zpsqjiewuhe.png
The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761
"The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing. The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert." --Hoffman, The New Oxonian

I've been missing the fun of message boards, those lovable wacy atheists using Bayes as a gimmick to afix the authority of science and mathematics to their subjective opinions. They can have the fun of insults on message boards, I am through with that. I must, however, through in my two cents because this is such a flagrant example of the Illusion of Technique.I allude to the concept by William Barrett in his book of the same name.[1] Technique is the basis of technological manipulation of reality, and the illusion of technique is the illusion that one is manipulating reality by manipulating the facts. The use of Bayes to replace discursive reasoning and so give the atheists and Jesus mythers a sense of victory is the gimmick of Richard Carrier in his book Proving History. I don't know who wrote th book ad but it betrays a certain arrogance:

Carrier's book add
This in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole proposes Bayes’s Theorem, which deals with probabilities under conditions of uncertainty, as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria. The author demonstrates that valid historical methods—not only in the study of Christian origins but in any historical study—can be described by, and reduced to, the logic of Bayes’s Theorem. Conversely, he argues that any method that cannot be reduced to this theorem is invalid and should be abandoned.

"Carrier applies his philosophical and historical training to maximum effect in outlining a case for the use of Bayes’s Theorem in evaluating biblical claims. Even biblical scholars, who usually are not mathematically inclined, may never look at the ‘historical Jesus’ the same way again." -Dr. Hector Avalos, Professor of religious studies, Iowa State University, and author of , The End of Biblical Studies
The idea that "any method that cannot be reduced to this theorem is invalid and should be abandoned "may be the publisher's fantasy and not Carrier's idea at all but it is not only completely wrong but also a contradiction to the few historians who support using Bayes. More on that below. I also have to call attention to the blurb. Hector Avelos, my old sparing partner.[2] and poster on Loftus's Debunking Christianity blog, is an atheist activist who once tried to argue for closing down all of Biblical Scholarship. While the publisher Prometheus books is part of the atheist propaganda machine. That is the outfit that launched Loftus's career as an atheist activist when he shamed them itno publishing his book (he told me that story and I talked to his publisher--although they might not say "shamed").

Yet even though Carrier himself did not say that his own words are even more arrogant and strident.

Carrier in pdf

By Richard Carrier, Ph.D.
Visiting Lecturer for the Center for Inquiry Institute
Richmond, CA, USA
April 2012

"Several examinations of the methodologies employed in the study of Jesus have consistently found those methods invalid or defective. Which fact has resulted in the proliferation of endless different conclusions as to the nature of the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity..." What studies? What is the problem with different views? This is nothing more than an attempt to reduce all knowledge to scientism and to give atheism the illusion of scientific authority. The so called studies he talks about are atheist Jesus myth polemics.[read about this Center for Inquiry Institute].But he gets even more strident:
Every expert who has specialized in examining these methods and published a study of them has come to this conclusion: Stanley Porter,[2] Dale Allison,[3] Hector Avalos,[4] and almost a dozen others[5]; even Gerd Theissen, who describes the common conclusion, that “there are no reliable criteria for separating authentic from inauthentic Jesus tradition,”[6] attempted to resist it, but his own effort to rehabilitate the method ultimately led him to agree with that consensus, concluding that the criteria simply don’t work, and some other method is needed to replace them, something that involves more general evaluations of plausibility, although he confesses he is not certain how to formally do that....
To me De Lorean (back to the future car guy) did a study of air bags by examining all the data from scientific tests. I know Dale Allison did not have any data to study from scientific tests examining the validity of Jesus' historicity. He says every expert has come to the same conclusion I know that's just BS because Luke Timothy Johnson wrote a book debunking the Jesus seminar and used the methods they are against. They are against those methods because they negate their assertion about Jesus existing in history. Or again:
Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, titled Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity(T & T Clark, 2012), and featuring such luminaries as Mark Goodacre and Morna Hooker, all coming to the same conclusion: the method of criteria is simply not logically viable. This leaves the field of Jesus studies with no valid method, and puts into question all consensus positions in the field, insofar as they have all been based, to one extent or another, on these logically invalid methods.
It's not as though no historians support him. There are a few, but only a handful. Neil Godfry).[3] talks about Aviezer Tucker‘s Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography(2004).[4]
That’s the subject of Aviezer Tucker‘s Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (2004). Tucker’s interest is the relationship between the writing of history (historiography) and evidence (p. 8). It is written for audiences interested in philosophy, history, biblical criticism, the classics, comparative linguistics and evolutionary biology (p. 22).
Godfry goes on:

...the application of Bayes’ Theorem merely expresses in symbolic terms the way historians evaluate the nature of evidence and test hypotheses to explain evidence for certain events and artefacts. Some fearful critics have objected to the application of Bayes because they have never understood this fact...All Bayes’ theorem does is help us clarify our thinking. Bayes theorem is simply a symbolic way of expressing how we do our best thinking when seeking explanations for evidence or evaluating hypotheses against the evidence. The more complex the factors that need to be considered in addressing a problem the easier it is for us to overlook a critical point or draw invalid comparisons. Bayes’ helps us to clarify thinking about the most complex of issues, including those in the social sciences and history
There's the rube. It's doing what historians do anyway, but Dr. Carrier tells us what they do is useless unless they use Bayes, this is rather circular. If what they do is useless (ad above) and all Bayes does is clarify what they are doing then is just helping clarify the useless.

He gives an example

"The probability of the hypothesis that George Washington was the first president of the United States, given the massive amount of documentary evidence for it and background knowledge of the causal chains that led to this evidence, is almost 1. We are almost certain that George Washington was the first president.
Contrast this:

The probability of the hypothesis that Jesus was the founder of what became the Christian Church, given the massive documentary evidence for it and background knowledge of the causal chains that led to this evidence, is . . . ?

historians. (p. 96)

The Theorem

Tucker sets out Bayes’ Theorem thus:

Pr(H|E & B) = [Pr(E|H & B) x Pr(H|B)]:Pr(E|B)

Pr — the Probability of. . .

H — the Hypothesis, or any historical proposition about past events

E — the Evidence (often this means similarities between two or more independent sources)

B — the Background knowledge of theories, methods, other hypotheses

The vertical line | should be read as “given”. So the first part of the equation expresses:

The Probability of the Hypothesis being true given the evidence and background information.

Pr(H|E & B) translated into words:

The probability of the hypothesis that George Washington was the first president of the United States, given the massive amount of documentary evidence for it and background knowledge of the causal chains that led to this evidence, is almost 1. We are almost certain that George Washington was the first president.

Contrast this:

The probability of the hypothesis that Jesus was the founder of what became the Christian Church, given the massive documentary evidence for it and background knowledge of the causal chains that led to this evidence, is . . . ?

Unfortunately we have no background knowledge of the causal chains that led to the Gospels and writings of Paul. We only have other hypotheses (e.g. oral tradition) to fill in these gaps.

Now h will have to prove that that's not enough. Atheists are always trying to hold believers to a standard to certain proof while they themselves never claim to meet such a standard. Bayes is certainly not going to give it to them.

Another example: early Christian studies example,

"If our evidence is Christian apologetic writings that claim to quote a letter from Jesus to the king of Edessa, it can be dismissed as a fabrication given all we know. If, however, we found the letter in scientifically verifiable archives of King Abgar of Edessa, it would be very surprising and lead to a serious rethink about Jesus and Christian origins."

I need this mathematical gimmick to tell me this? I have been aware of such letters and Gospels for 40 years and I've never given them credit. Those are not major sources for Jesus' historicity, we can do a lot better than that. For that matter we don't need a mathematician to notice that this same method that supposed to offer great objectivity and real historical proof is used to "prove" diametrically opposing views, Carrier says it disproves the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a man in history; William Lane Craig says it proves he rose from the dead.[5] Neither Craig nor Carrier is an idiot. They both have advanced degrees from major universities, neither of them is in the dark about how Bayes works. Why the difference? Because they makes different assumptions as befits their ideologies, their beliefs, their biases. The initial problem is that the assumptions they make are made in the absence of real data, Bayes wont work in that space.
So there are two problems here when it comes to trying to apply Bayes Theorem to history: (1) Carrier and Craig need to treat questions of what happened in the past as the same species of uncertainty as what may happen in the future and (2) historical questions are uncertain precisely because we don't have defined and certain data to feed into the equation. Bayes Theorem only works in cases where we can apply known information. So, in the example above, we know how often it rains in a year and we know when the weather forecast is and isn't correct. So by inputting this meaningful data, we can get a meaningful result out the other end of the equation....Bayes Theorem's application depends entirely on how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. With a historical question, Carrier is forced to think up probabilities for each parameter he put into the equation. This is a purely subjective process - he determines how likely or unlikely a parameter in the question is and then decides what value to give that parameter. So the result he gets at the end is purely a function of these subjective choices...[7]
. I'm not even to the good criticisms yet. Stay tuned for next time (Monday?)


1 William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique: The Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization, New York:Anchor, 1979, no page indicated.

2 Avalos is author of the book The End of Biblical Studies he is a professor of religious studies and teaches at University of Iowa. I had my own series of exchanges with him, challenged him to formal debate and he would not do it; he tried to answer me once I think he wished he had not.
see (all on Metacrock) Atheist Thought Police, Response to Avelos," Jan 17, 2008

"Critique of Hector Avelos's End of Biblical Criticism,"Feb 10, 2008

see Metacrock's blog, "Christianity, Force For Liberation," April 8, 2010,URL:
I comment on Avelos's rhubarb with Helmutt Koester in "Hector Avelos Takes on Helmutt Koster," Metacrock's Blog, July 21, 20 10.

3 Neil Godfry,"real Historians do Bayes" Virdar, blog (July, 18, 2013) URL: accessed 10, 29, 15.

4 Aviezer Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of HistoriographyCambridge, London: Cambridge University Press (2004), no page indicated.

5 Godfry quoting Tucker, Ibid., in Tucker, 97.

6 Tim O'Neill, "what is your opinion on the use of Bayes Theorem to discover the best historical explanation for data we have as outlined by Richard Carrier?" Quora, blog, (17 Aug 2014) URL:

7 Ibid.


JBsptfn said...

I saw your mention of Prometheus Books, and I was reminded by this entry that Jime did on his Subversive Thinking blog six years ago: Subversive Thinking-Prometheus Books

Jime provided a link to the Prometheus website. Apparently, they publish books about pedophilia and other vile things.

Joe Hinman said...

that reminds me I meant to link to my atheist organization stuff.