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.

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  • 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:

    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://lotharson.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.


  • 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/religionprof/ 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. :-)


      • 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/religionprof/ 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://lotharson.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.

  • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/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/religionprof/ 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.”

  • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

    Would not a more professional approach be to presume professionalism in one’s fellow scholars rather than presume the opposite? Carrier’s own publications about his personal biases have been there for all to see long before the interview referred to in this post. He made them very clear especially in his book “Proving History” and he repeats them in his new work “On the Historicity of Jesus”.

    Nevertheless, all historians have biases, and only sound methods will prevent those from too greatly affecting our essential results. (p. xi)

    Though I already discussed my biases and background, and the origin of this project, in the preface to Proving History, for the reader’s convenience I shall repeat that here. (p. xii)

    For them, if Jesus didn’t exist, then their entire worldview topples. The things they believe in (and need to believe in) more than anything else in the world will then be under dire threat. It would be hard to expect them ever to overcome this bias, which makes bias a greater problem for them than for me. They need Jesus to be real, but I don’t need Jesus to be a myth. (p. xii)

    Although the following applies to every piece of evidence examined in this book, and beyond, here biases are the most pernicious. If you approach the text with gut reactions of what you think Paul (or any other author) probably meant, you are not thinking in a logically sound way. Those estimates of probability are in fact measures of the strength of your bias toward one conclusion over another, and not the probability of those biases being correct. Hence those probabilities, those estimates, those gut feelings are precisely what you should discard. This is why we need Bayesian reasoning, to prevent us from simply enshrining our biases as the truth (on this point, my book Proving History is essential reading). You would have to justify those biases at the stage of determining the prior probability (Chapter 6). Otherwise, you cannot abide by them at all. (p. 512)

    Though biases can still affect these estimates, we are at least not simply using our biases as our premises but actually attempting to reason out which theory the evidence fits better, and taking both theories seriously when we do. (p. 514)

    And above all, the entire approach of Carrier’s argument is summed up with this:

    Nevertheless, the a fortiori estimates are intended to be as generous to the biases of historicity defenders as I can reasonably be, to the point of outright Devil ‘s advocacy. (p. 595)

    Now that’s Carriers’ bias!

    It would be appropriate if Professor McGrath would make clear whether or not his “entire worldview would topple” if Jesus did not exist. Does he “need” Jesus to be historical?

    • Avenger

      So Carrier offsets his bias by being overly generous to historicity in his estimates of probability. How probable does he think it is that the James whom Paul met is the brother of Jesus?

      • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

        Arguing a fortiori Carrier posits that expression in Galatians 1:19 is twice as likely on the hypothesis of historicity as it is on the hypothesis for mythicism.

        Arguing a fortiori with respect to both places Paul uses the expression “brother(s) of the Lord” he posits that the appearance of these passages is “exactly what we would expect on historicity”.

        Carrier actually addresses an interesting array of scholarly works on those passages that are all found in mainstream scholarly peer-review journals. (I am quite sure Professor McGrath will address thee when he comes to that part of his review and by no means overlook any of it.) It is in the context of these discussions that Carrier personally believes the expressions are twice as likely to appear in the context of mythicism, but he sets that belief aside to reverse the odds and argue that they favour historicity instead — for the sake of bending over as far as possible in favour of historicity.

        • Avenger

          Only twice as likely on historicity and that is being generous? Hmm, I’m not convinced that Carrier is doing enough to overcome his own bias.

          • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

            And you haven’t even read his arguments yet you know his conclusion is unjustified? You appear not to have noticed that Carrier accepts that the term is “exactly what we would expect on historicity” — that means that alone, in the absence of any other hypothesis, it stands at 100% likely.

            What Carrier is doing is actually comparing the two hypotheses. That means he is not arguing for historicity and ignoring mythicism. (That seems to upset some people.) Perhaps if he did that only then would you be convinced that he is “doing enough to overcome his bias”.

            The relative explanatory power of the two hypothesis
            in relation to each piece of evidence is the critical factor. So yes, if you want the odds to be 100% to 0% then his definition of “minimal mythicism” should not even be raised as an alternative.

            But in that case I don’t think I would be convinced you are doing enough to overcome your own bias.

            But even so — even if in relation to this piece of evidence the odds were ten to one or higher then you would still have to factor that against the remainder of the evidence as it is addressed by each hypothesis.

            Carrier does allow you (the reader — you should read the book) to enter your own figures, too, you know. Carrier regularly invites you to enter your own figures in each case so you don’t have to accept his alternatives without question. No doubt this is what McGrath has done and he will show us his alternative assessments some time.

          • Avenger

            I haven’t read the book but I have heard a bit about Carrier’s argument. Doesn’t he say that all Christians are brothers of the Lord and that James is therefore not the Lord’s brother in particular? Unless Paul explicitly says that we are all brothers of the Lord, this theory can only be speculation.

          • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

            That is a gross oversimplification of his argument.

            If you are thinking that Carrier bases his conclusion that “James is therefore not the sibling” of Jesus “because” Paul also says “all Christians are brothers of the Lord” then the answer is definitely No. That is not his argument.

            Rather, that idea does exist as “background knowledge” that is taken into account when he makes his primary argument. Carrier refers to several scholarly works on the texts in question. I will be posting about these on my own blog shortly if you are really interested.

            Such black and white, either-or, scenarios are certainly not the sort one finds in Carrier. In addition to the scholarly literature Carrier references it is also of interest to note that even Professor R. Joseph Hoffmann once argued that Galatians 1:19 did not mean James was a biological sibling of Jesus and ancient testimony itself (Origen) supports that interpretation. For what it’s worth I once applied a Bayesian test to the passage without any knowledge of the literature to which Carrier refers: Putting James the Brother of the Lord to a Bayesian test.

          • Avenger

            I will look out for your post on this. I’m not suggesting that an alternative interpretation is being used to rule out a historicist interpretation: rather, I am asking how plausible the alternative interpretation actually is. From what I have heard – which admittedly isn’t the whole story – Carrier’s interpretation seems dubious. The idea that, for Paul, all Christians are brothers of the Lord is implied rather than stated. So this is a matter of speculation. Also, the idea that we are all, including Jesus, brothers doesn’t necessarily justify Carrier’s interpretation anyway.

            Suppose I have a large number of brothers and one of them – Fred – is the head of the family. It would be very strange if I said that yesterday I met up with Fred’s brother John. Clearly, John is as much my brother as he is Fred’s, and he is no more Fred’s brother than I am.

          • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

            All your reasoning here is absolutely sound but it has very little to do with the arguments in question. You are absolutely correct that if Jesus was historical and had a brother named James then what we see in our English translations of Galatians is exactly what we would expect to see and it would confirm our historicist view.

            If we believe that this is all there is to the question of the historicity of Jesus and that there is no need to consider any other arguments or any other evidence then that settles the matter for us. We should rightly be annoyed that anyone would try to argue the matter beyond this point.

          • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey

            “From what I have heard – which admittedly isn’t the whole story – Carrier’s interpretation seems dubious.”

            I learned long ago never to make assessments of the supposed words of others from hearsay. Not even from scholarly reviews. Even scholarly reviews are useful to give me a ball-park idea of what to expect (always allowing for what I know of the biases of the reviewer) but I have long learned to always go to the source before I start expressing my own opinion.

            And in this particular instance, by the way, you are quite entitled to consider Carrier’s view dubious. Carrier himself will give your view the benefit of the doubt and work with Galatians 1:19 as evidence for historicity. Are you prepared to even allow a 0.001 chance that the mythicist alternative could be correct?

            P.S. — added some time after the above…..

            I wonder if the problem here is Carrier’s method of assigning probabilities to both hypotheses instead of recognizing just one. Yes, we can say that a verse argues for historicity — but then we want to go the next step and say that any alternative explanation is ruled out entirely as even a possibility. Carrier explains that his book OHJ is a second volume, the first being “Proving History”.

            If we don’t accept the method he uses then he asks we offer an alternative that enables us to know what happened and what didn’t in the past.

            He argues that the numbers are really expressions of what we generally mean when we talk about “certainly” and “maybe” and “probably” etc. So if I say I am absolutely certain that evolution is true or that gravity is real, in mathematical terms I mean that evolution and gravity are, say, 0.9999999999999999 certain and any alternative is 0.0000000000000001 likely. Same odds in reverse for pixies under the toadstools.

            When comparing two alternative explanations in relation to any piece of evidence you have to assign probabilities to both. The exercise is a comparative one. How much more likely is the historicist explanation than the mythicist one.

            So if you believe the mythicist explanation is very dubious then you assign it a very low probability.

            By doing this you are not compromising your beliefs. You are demonstrating that you do understand and take into account both views and are making a judgement upon each of them.

            So the fact that you are not convinced by the mythicist explanation for Galatians 1:19 is quite okay in Carrier’s argument. He lets you have that one. You can even assign your own probabilities to each hypothesis if you don’t like his.

            That’s quite okay.

            Neither historicism nor mythicism stands or falls upon a single proof-text.

          • http://vridar.org Neil Godfrey