Texts as Symptoms

Texts as Symptoms October 9, 2014

Jonathan Bernier has made a nice analogy between illnesses and historical events – more specifically between tumors and the crucifixion. His point is that doctors, like historians, deal indirectly with underlying causes, at least in the first instance. Eventually a team of surgeons may make incisions and see for themselves what lies at the heart of someone’s symptoms. But at the start, what a doctor has to go on are symptoms, and they must deduce what the most likely cause of those symptoms are. Depending on what the symptoms are, they may or may not even recommend an operation to look for something deeper.

In much the same way, texts are symptoms. The academic reader using certain kinds of approaches will ask what the texts are symptoms of. All texts have human creativity as a cause, and so the mere fact that they are dealing with literature (despite what some people like Thomas Brodie have said) do not tell you anything about what other underlying causes there may be, perhaps including pressures in the time of the author, memories or stories stemming from historical events, and so on.

Much like doctors, and much like those reconstructing the history of life on this planet, historians offer their professional opinion. There is little that one can say to persuade someone who insists that a different diagnosis is preferable – that the pain is due to unspecified “toxins” in the environment that have been absorbed, that the sequence of organisms in the fossil record reflect separate creations by God, that the stories about Jesus being crucified exist because someone felt like inventing a crucified messiah.

Sometimes there is no way to prove who is right to someone who chooses to dogmatically believe otherwise, and sometimes the only proof comes when someone has died as a result of failing to take seriously what their doctors have said. But sometimes doctors are wrong, and there are those who will happily use that as an excuse to ignore medical advice, even though it can be shown that expert diagnoses are more often right than wrong.

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  • There is one simple Bayesian argument which can be made for mysticism.

    Dr. Richard Carrier is an extraordinarily intelligent man who is right
    almost every time he writes on anything. He is (according to his own
    words) “no less a scholar than Hume and Aristotle”.
    Therefore he’s most likely right on mythicism as well.

    • MattB

      His own words…. red flag for sensationalist.

    • arcseconds

      On seeing more context to that quote, I now believe he was only asserting that he has as much right to call himself a philosopher (not a scholar) as Hume or Aristotle, not that he was as good a philosopher as them.

      • Doubtful. It seems more likely he really thought something like that before realizing it was a bit exaggerated.

        This is consistent with PLENTY of others assertions from him where he really stated that his contribution to a book definitely solved a very complex philosophical problem (such as the existence of an objective morality) and was a “tour de force”.

        Other examples are all the times he called people “insane” for disagreeing with him:

        Now I recognize that now and then he can be humble, as long as his cherished ideas are not being challenged.

        I don’t think he’s truly beyond any hope of salvation for what pertains to his haughtiness and pride.

        He could become more modest if he really wanted to.

        • arcseconds

          No, not doubtful, it’s the most plausible interpretation of why he said what he did, in the context of where he said it.

          The post where this quote occurs is ‘On the Deceptions of David Wood’, in the section ‘Am I a Philosopher?’. The point of the section is to rebuff David Wood’s suggestion that he isn’t a philosopher. Here is the quote with a bit more context:

          In “Is Richard a Philosopher?” Wood yet again misrepresents what I say about the nature of philosophy and what it means to be a philosopher, and his lies will be wholly exposed by anyone who actually reads my chapter on this subject (pp. 23-26). At the very least, Wood cannot argue against the fact that I am as much a philosopher as Aristotle or Hume. My knowledge, education, and qualifications are comparable to theirs in every relevant respect.[30] If he expects more than that before allowing someone to proclaim conclusions on philosophical subjects, then Wood himself must bow out of the arena and concede that he, too, cannot assert any philosophical conclusions. If I am not qualified to judge a worldview true, he cannot be qualified to judge a worldview true either. That would certainly end the debate, wouldn’t it?

          What’s at stake here is whether or not Carrier’s readers should accept Carrier commenting on philosophical issues at all.

          Note that he thinks it should be obvious to Wood that he is ‘as much a philosopher as Aristotle or Hume’, and that he thinks this is a minimal fact that Wood should accept. The idea that it’s a low bar is reinforced by the ‘if he expects more’.

          Carrier’s not so out of touch with reality that he’d expect his enemies to recognise his genius as obvious.

          If we read ‘as much a philosopher’ as meaning ‘equally good or better than’, then expecting more would mean only allowing better philosophers than Aristotle or Hume to comment on philosophical matters. That seems an absurdly high bar, and if Carrier was attributing this to Wood even in a counter-factual sense, I’d expect him to make much more of this.

          Also, at the end his conclusion is that Wood expecting more just rules out Wood, too. Again, it seems that Carrier is thinking the bar is not especially high. If Wood wants more than ‘as much a philosopher’, he might insist on a Ph.d. in philosophy and an academic position, which none of Aristotle, Hume, Carrier, or Wood meet.

          I don’t even think we have to be especially charitable to Carrier here. “as much a philosopher” can mean “meets the criteria for being”, just as McGrath could assert he’s just as much an American as Abraham Lincoln. In isolation, and in view of Carrier’s arrogance, I agree that the “just as good as” reading is very tempting, and indeed, I thought this myself until the context was pointed out to me, but in context, it’s not very plausible.

          It just makes no sense for him to blandly assert that he’s a philosophical genius without further comment in a passage where he’s otherwise just trying to establish minimal credentials.

          I’m not arguing that Carrier is humble, or nice, or even particularly deserving of charity. However, we should continue to insist on high standards of interpretation even with people we don’t like and whom we think deals with others poorly.

          Addenum: oh, yes, I meant to also say: it’s poor and misleading phrasing on Carrier’s behalf, and one could, I suppose, speculate that his arrogance might have had something to do with the exact choice of phrasing here. Perhaps he subconsciously enjoyed the idea of being on the same platform as Aristotle and Hume. But that doesn’t alter the above considerations.

    • Kainan

      Of course, lying about what Carrier said makes for a poor argument. But whatever, have your fun.

      • I apologize to have born false witness against your Prophet.

        But I thought we always have to take such writings at face value.

  • Paul E.

    I thought this thread was going to be about text messaging. Imagine my disappointment…

    • arcseconds

      I thought for a split second the title was ‘Texas as Symptoms’, which could have been interesting…

      • Paul E.

        I thought for a split second your post said “Taxes as Symptoms.” Not as interesting as Texas…

  • David Chumney

    Brodie’s final diagnosis (mythicism) may be terribly wrong, but his description of an obvious symptom (many stories about Jesus probably are based more on O.T. texts than they are on actual events) is not. Even Raymond Brown (Birth of the Messiah) acknowledges that both Matthew and Luke use “midrashic techniques” in composing (fabricating) the infancy narratives. Much the same thing can be seen in the passion narrative where Mark uses various passages from the Psalms and Prophets to create details in his description of the crucifixion–what Crossan calls “prophecy historicized.” Perhaps the best discussion of this practice is found in Frank Kermode’s essay, “What Precisely Are the Facts?” in his book The Genesis of Secrecy.