I Am Biased

In an interview that Richard Carrier gave on the show Inspiring Doubt, Carrier said that I am a great example of bias.

He is, of course, correct.

Let’s take Christianity, for instance. I grew up in a country where Christianity predominates. I grew up in a family in which I was raised in one of the many forms of Christianity. I had a life-changing experience in the context of another form of Christianity. I am currently a member involved in the life of a local church.

If that doesn’t make me biased, I don’t know what would.

I could of course point out that, as a liberal Christian, I am committed to embracing the results of mainstream science, history, and other branches of scholarship. I am agnostic about a great many things, and treat claims to the supernatural with skepticism. I could point out how often I have learned from non-Christians, and how frequently I agree with atheists even against other Christians in discussions.

But none of that would change the fact that I am biased.

What worries me is that Carrier’s accusation suggested that he thinks he isn’t biased, and that only those who disagree with him are.

If I say something favorable about Christianity, then that may well be my biases. Of course, the fact that the view of the historical Jesus I end up with as a result of historical investigation creates more problems for Christianity than a mythical Jesus would ought to be considered as well. How can conclusions that run counter to what most Christians would like to be true be the result of my alleged “Christian agenda”?

But be that as it may, the answer to this problem of bias is not for me to show how I manage to make arguments and draw conclusions that run counter to my biases. The solution is rather precisely what Carrier is trying to lure people away from in the historical investigation of Jesus: looking for a consensus, expecting the community of experts with its diversity of biases, its critical methods, and its rigorous standards of argumentation to provide the best counterbalance to the biases that we all have.

If I make a case for something as a scholar, the onus is on me to persuade my peers in the field. If I am unable to persuade them, then the odds are that I am wrong, although only time will tell.

Committing oneself to that scholarly enterprise, with its humbling implications, is really hard. It is not surprising that some prefer to try to bypass the rigors of peer review and to deny the painful implications when our ideas do not meet with acceptance in the academy.

I choose to pursue the path of scholarship, with its acknowledgment that we are all biased, and its provision of the best scholarly methods we’ve come up with to minimize the distorting impact of our biases. Because the alternative may appeal to my ego, but it seems dubious to my reasoning.

And the consensus of scholars is, I believe, with me in that judgment.

  • Jeremiah J. Preisser

    Well stated sir.

  • Guest

    I like the picture James :-)

    I think that one must realize there are strong similarities between these Evangelical Atheists and religious fundamentalists:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/the-link-between-religious-fundamentalism-and-militant-atheism/

    Yes, we’re all biased, but some of us are more equal than others in that respect.
    And Carrier definitely fall within the second category :-)

    It is amusing that he seems psychologically utterly unable to apply his skepticism to his own cherished ideas.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

    I like the picture James :-)
    I think that one must realize there are strong similarities between these Evangelical Atheists and religious fundamentalists

    Yes, we’re all biased, but some of us are more equal than others in that respect.
    And Carrier definitely fall within the second category :-)

    It is amusing that he seems psychologically utterly unable to apply his skepticism to his own cherished ideas.

    “If I make a case for something as a scholar, the onus is on me to
    persuade my peers in the field. If I am unable to persuade them, then
    the odds are that I am wrong
    , although only time will tell.”

    Here, I don’t think it is as simple as that.

    Ever since the day of the enlightenment, many philosophers of science have kept pointed out that the modernist view of science (according to which ALL the foundations scientists use for evaluating theories are always justified) is extremely naive, if not downright delusional.

    There are always unproven assumptions more or less consciously held which form a paradigm nobody is willing to call into question as long as gross discrepancies have not shown up.

    Consider the examples of ball-lightning or continental drift

    The scientific consensus had long rejected their existence and arguments on their behalf because it relied on a set of unproven assumptions making their reality very unlikely.

    So I agree with Carrier that truth is not decided by a vote of the elite, each idea ought to stand and fall by its own merit.

    Thus I don’t think it is fair or responsible to shut down mysticism by just saying: “it cannot be true because otherwise all these scholars would be convinced.” (neither am I accusing you of doing this, this is just a general remark).

    Rather, we should take the hard route of showing why it is at odds with the facts we know of.

    Cheers.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I don’t know Carrier’s back-story, but simply going through his work one can see the guy has an axe to grind against Christianity, and wants his work on mythicism to be a nail in the coffin. Usually if someone is holding enthusiastically to a view sneered at by practically all of his contemporaries (if we’re going to call Carrier a biblical/historical scholar), there is bias involved . . and it’s not like in the sciences where Carrier may have evidence that no-one else has seen.

    “Of course, the fact that the view of the historical Jesus I end up with as a result of historical investigation creates more problems for Christianity than a mythical Jesus would ought to be considered as well. How can conclusions that run counter to what most Christians would like to be true be the result of my alleged “Christian agenda”?”

    Bingo James. Militant atheists like to pretend that liberal Christians don’t exist or at best are simply like them but can’t detach from some of the faith of their youth. Actually critical thinking religious people are not as easy or fun to poke fun at (or holes in the arguments). I find Bill Maher entertaining and funny but if he brings up the “talking snake” again when referring to anyone who believes in God I’m going to reach through the screen and smack him (which I believe I can actually do because I’m a nut who believes in the divine) :).

    Also, liberal Christians often come to conclusions about Jesus that a fundamentalist believer would find much more troubling than someone simply claiming Jesus didn’t exist (which they can easily brush off as crazy-talk)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I actually once suggested (tongue in cheek, obviously) that Carrier might have come to harbor secret Christian sympathies, since his earlier arguments against Paul presupposing an empty tomb were quite plausible, back when he thought there was a historical Jesus. And so just when he started making what could potentially have been developed into a persuasive historical attack on a core Christian belief, he abandoned that and hitched his wagon to mythicism instead. It is almost as if he wanted to undermine his own earlier and better arguments so that Christianity would be spared. :-)

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/03/richard-carriers-decisive-argument-against-mythicism.html

      • Herro

        >…back when he thought there was a historical Jesus.

        But he was already a mythicist when he wrote the article in question.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Not the one that I was thinking of. I know in one of his subsequent articles he added a postscript indicating that although the article in questions presupposed a historical Jesus, he had changed his mind on that topic. Perhaps that is the one you were thinking of?

          • Herro

            Ok. I thought you were thinking of the article that you’re talking about in the link you gave.

    • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

      2Usually if someone is holding enthusiastically to a view sneered at by
      practically all of his contemporaries (if we’re going to call Carrier a
      biblical/historical scholar), there is bias involved . .”

      I don’t agree it is ALWAYS the case. Sometimes it might be due to the fact there are different unproven assumptions at play here.

      See my comment below and the historical examples I gave.

      Let us suppose that I disagree with a widely held theory in my scientific field owing to my rejecting presuppositions everybody takes for granted.

      I ask: “What grounds do we have for thinking these assumptions are true?”.

      If one answers me:

      “Since the large majority of scholars think they are true, they must surely be true”

      I’d just cry fool and demand to see empirical or theoretical arguments for them rather than an appeal to consensus.

      So, I am convinced that mysticism and creationism are false because I have evaluated the evidence and not because they are almost universally rejected.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Pieret/100000023960330 John Pieret

    Assuming, as I do, that Carrier wants something for history like science does for natural phenomenon, bias is not the problem. It is assumed that here will be individual bias in science. That’s why there is peer review before papers are published and,. more importantly, critical review of hypotheses and evidence by the scientific community afterwards. The idea is that individual biases cancel each other out.

    Newton was accused by his contemporaries of invoking “occult forces” because he proposed gravity operating at a distance without a mechanism for how that worked. We still don’t have a definitive answer for that some 300 years later, though we may be getting close. What happened was the scientific community coalesced around Newton because he had “right” answers, even it we were missing the details. Let’s not even get into Newton’s belief that angels might have to push planets around to keep the solar system stable (which Laplace found no need for).

    The important thing is not to point out Newton’s or anyone else’s biases. It is to address that person’s substantive arguments. And, if you can’t convince a consensus of your peers, stop jumping at the allegedly sour grapes and start convincing you peers.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think a good scholar admits that they and every one else is liable to harbor biases. But arguments speak for themselves, facts are not biased.

  • Anonymous Coward

    From what I know of Carrier through his web articles and the two books of his I’ve read, his view would be that every person is biased, but that there are methods for working together to overcome that bias. When Carrier says about you that you’re biased, almost certainly the thrust of the comment is that you are biased _and also_ fail to do what it takes to work on overcoming that bias. In other words, the force of his comment isn’t just that you’re biased in the way everyone is biased, but that you routinely follow your bias rather than thinking things through.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I supposed the best reply is to quote Robert Burns,

      “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
      To see oursels as others see us!
      It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
      An’ foolish notion.”


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