Mythicist Math

Mythicist Math July 9, 2018

Richard Carrier has taken to calling me a doofus and launching a variety of other insults in my direction. And so presumably I’ve highlighted an important problem with his stance, since otherwise there would be no need for a lengthy screed that deals in insults rather than substance, as is par for the course with Carrier, and which (as is also typical for Carrier) misrepresents what I wrote from the very outset.

You’ll notice, if you read his post, that he immediately depicts the situation as though I had said that probability in the realm of history is non-mathematical, or had suggested that there is something inherently problematic with Bayesian reasoning. Those who read my blog post, of course, will know that what I criticized was what Carrier does with Bayes’ Theorem and the mathematics of historical probability. If someone were to use Bayesian logic without plugging in the specious claims and problematic interpretations that Carrier offers time and time again, they might well draw conclusions that are reasonable.

The irony, of course, is that (as again is so typical) Carrier resorts to claiming that I must not have read his books, while seeming not to have read my brief blog post that he is supposedly responding to, at least not carefully or with any level of serious interest in hearing what I was saying and responding to it substantively.

Anyone who wishes to determine whether I’ve read Carrier’s books can read the reviews, articles, and blog posts I’ve written and compare them to Carrier’s books’ contents in detail. I trust that they will find that the problems that I identify are genuinely there!

Carrier’s blog post offers precisely the kind of argument I criticized in my recent blog post as well as in others before that: the idea that it is somehow relevant to historical assessment what the odds are that a random name drawn out of a hat of all names will denote someone purely mythological or purely historical (as though those were the only two options). But even within Carrier’s own Bayesian approach, his conclusions are still unpersuasive. He says towards the end of his post that if I would only put Jesus in the correct reference class, it would all become clear. His proposed reference class is that of mythical figures as defined by the Rank-Ranglan scale, which is dubious for numerous reasons laid out in one of my several review articles about Carrier’s book On The Historicity of Jesus. I am confident that if Carrier were to use a more obvious and appropriate reference class, such as that of Jewish messianic and prophetic figures from around the time of Jesus, the calculations would turn out differently. If he were to recognize that the Gospels cannot simply be dealt with en masse but must be evaluated in terms of their specific contents, then he might also get something resembling a valid result.

But the point remains: if we have an authentic letter from someone who met an individual’s brother, and we judge that individual’s historicity probable on that basis, the addition of spurious information does not diminish the likelihood that the letter-writer met the brother of that individual and thus was in a position to know whether they were historical or not. If everything else they learned about that individual was pure fabrication, it would diminish the historical accuracy of their portrait of him, but it would not diminish the likelihood of the individual’s historicity.

I’m not going to repeat the points I have made before about the problems with detail after detail in Carrier’s argument (such as when he treats the common name Joshua/Jesus as though it were a too-convenient name for a savior god – begging the question by casting Jesus as a god and not a human being as Davidic anointed ones were expected to be). Let ms simply conclude by quoting what Carrier says on p.337 of his book that I supposedly have not read: “Obviously, if Jesus Christ had a brother, then Jesus Christ existed.”


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